Toronto Chamber Choir Blog

October 8, 2021
Author: Mairi Cowan

Inspiring the music that inspires us

The Olivetan Gradual,
Lombardy, c. 1430-1439,
Yale University Library Beinecke
MS 1184, f. 9v.

Music inspires in many ways. It prompts us to remember days long past and guides us towards better times to come. It carries us along an emotional register from the pressing weight of sorrow to the floating light of joy. It leads us deep within ourselves to reach hidden chambers of the heart, then lifts us away beyond our bodies and unites us to a vaster world. When listening to music, some people experience feelings of awe and a sense of belonging. Others value the space in their busy lives that music allows for quiet reflection. I often say (and only partly in jest) that singing early music balances my humours: when I sing, the music restores in me an inner state of well-being and calm. Singing also invites and instills a wonder at the beauty that humans have made. As performers and audiences know from experience, and as study after study after study confirms, music is an inspiring force in our lives.

Allegory of Music,
Livre des échecs amoureux moralisés,
France, 1496-98,

Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Français 143, f. 65v.


Most of this is probably obvious to anyone who performs or listens to music. There is a further way to think about “inspiring” that seems especially fitting for our choir. By listening for earlier meanings of words, we can tune our minds to earlier times. When most of the music that we sing was created, the idea of “inspiring” was more active than now, and “inspiration” could move in a different direction from what we might today presume. We can learn from these earlier meanings a lesson that it’s not only the music that inspires us; it’s we who inspire the music.

English received the word “inspire” from the Old French “espirer.” That word has roots in the Latin “inspirare,” to blow upon or breathe into, and it is related to the Latin “spiritus,” breathing or breath as an animating principle. To “inspire,” therefore, was to breathe a vital force into a person or place or thing. When people spoke about inspiration, they could mean it physically, as in the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth / Inspired hath in euery holt and heeth / The tendre croppes.” Or they could speak of inspiring figuratively, as did Philip Sidney in An Apologie for Poetrie when he said that the poet “calleth the sweete Muses to inspire into him a good inuention.” In either case, to inspire meant to influence by breathing. The breath — the “spirit” within “inspire” — worked as a creative force.

Every singer knows that breathing is fundamental to good singing technique. Breathing provides the stream of air that sets vocal folds vibrating. Without the breathing, without the breath, there can be no song. As choral musicians, we use our breath to send forth music into the world. We also inspire the music into being through the longer process towards performance. To understand music from centuries ago, we must do a lot of interpretive work. Musical performances were ephemeral before the advent of recorded sound: once a musical performance stopped, the music simply ceased. Since the music itself can no longer be heard, we must recreate it from the sources we find. We do have access to evidence. Musical notation, treatises on singing, learned discussions of theory, and visual depictions all provide some clues. But these are just traces, not the music itself, and many decisions need to be made for a historically informed performance. In determining where to put a trill, and how to choose a tempo, in deciding dynamics and temperament, not to mention colour and tone, professional performers of early music are excellent practical historians.

I have learned a lot from observing them work. They balance a careful attention to evidence with an artistic sensibility for what will sound good. They move beyond a too strict adherence to technical detail, and enliven music from the past for an audience today. As a history professor, I spend a lot of time helping students interpret historical sources. I become the student in this choir. The singing of music from the people I’ve studied gives me a better sense of the world that they knew. In learning their songs, I more fully understand how they thought, what they enjoyed, who they were. Then concerts allow me to share the history I study in an especially evocative form.

For all the ways early music has inspired me, it feels good to inspire it in return.


Main image: Gaudenzio Ferrari, Santuario della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli, 16th century, Saronno, Lombardy, Italy 



Mairi is a soprano in the Toronto Chamber Choir. She is a historian of the medieval and early modern world, with appointments at the Department of Historical Studies, the Centre for Medieval Studies, and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.




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