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Few song repertories have been as brilliant or have enjoyed as much success as the songs of the troubadours and the trouveres. Several thousand songs have come down to us, monophonic songs for solo voice, created across the 12th and 13th centuries. The designations "troubadour" and "trouvere" (from trobar or trouver meaning "to find," the former in the southern French dialect langue d'oc, the latter in the northern French langue d'oil) express with marvelous accuracy the work of these poet/composers: they were "finders" or "discoverers" of new ways to express human emotions through song. The northern French trouveres flourished somewhat later than the troubadours; initially they adopted thematic material from their southern confreres. But they were no mere imitators: trouvere songs offer us riches we are only now beginning to explore.
The theme most associated with these repertories is love, sometimes called "courtly love" but more accurately described by the medieval expression fin' amor, perfect or refined love. At the heart of this concept is the idea that a poet/lover through service to a lady (itself modeled on "feudal" service) becomes gradually refined: the art of love is thus an emotion, an ethical standard, a code of conduct. But it would be a mistake to think that fin' amor itself was a unified concept or that this was the only theme developed by trouveres. The theme is equivocal; love is often expressed, with intentional ambiguity, in terms of a strongly sexualized eroticism. And in contrast to fin' amor, we find such themes as the innocence of young attraction or the story of attempted seduction of a lady by a knight. Not only love songs, but also political satire thrived, then as now, to devastating effect. Diversity of theme and genre, rather than uniformity, is a hallmark of trouvere art.
The manuscripts in which the songs have been preserved offer us texts and, where there are melodies, notes on a staff indicating pitch but not duration. Instruments are absent, although iconographical and other evidence suggests their use. Such ambiguities raise thorny problems of performance: how can the songs be interpreted rhythmically? What instruments, if any, should be used and in what manner? In the current state of our evidence, each modern performance is a new and individual reading of a medieval artifact. Paul Hillier and Andrew Lawrence-King offer us readings centered on the voice to preserve the magic intertwining of words and melody that is the fundamental feature of the songs. The rhythmic interpretations they have made seek to project the accents and meanings of the texts, so that poetically more intricate songs such as the grand chant are freely elaborated, while movement through reverdie and pastourelle is generated by a flexible rhythmic pulse. The choice of instrument and use made of it helps support this central focus on the text. The instrumental role is not exactly that of conventional accompaniment, but emerges from a performer's perspective that is intimate with the poetry's meanings and structure. Consequently, what is played is closely woven into the fabric of the songs both to gloss the texts and to confer a greater resonance upon the voice itself.
The program is framed by two anonymous songs both light-hearted in tone: Volez vous que je vous chant and Quant voi la flor nouvele. The first of these is a particularly delightful reverdie, a genre native to northern France. The reverdie celebrates the arrival of springtime and the renewal of love. The second, Quant voi la flor nouvele, is a pastourelle. This genre, though of troubadour origin, was particularly favored by the trouveres. It presents the seduction of a lady, usually a shepherdess, by a knight who does not hesitate to use force where persuasion fails. The pastourelle is intended to entertain, but it can also contain an implicit criticism of the knightly class and even of "courtly love."
Placed against these songs are the grands chants courtois by Gace Brule (flourished c. 1180-1210): Les oxeles de mon paix and A la doucor de la bele seson. The grand chant courtois originated with the troubadours; it celebrates fin' amor in all its infinite variety. Gace Brule was one of its foremost practitioners. He probably sojourned at the court of Marie de Champagne; he likely knew Geoffrey Plantagenet, referred to in the first song, who was Count of Brittany, son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and half brother of Marie de Champagne. Both songs show fine nuances of sentiment, bringing into play the pain of inaccessible love and constancy of desire couched in artistically elegant and refined verses.
The next layer toward the center of the program includes two songs by Moniot d'Arras (fl. c. 1213-39) and Colin Muset (fl. second half of the 13th century), the first from the prestigious poetic and musical center of Arras, the second from Lorraine. Both exhibit the indeterminacy of genre characteristic of some trouvere songs, no longer courtly, reaching out for new forms of expression. Ce fu en mai mixes themes from the pastourelle and the chanson de rencontre. A meeting occurs, but there is no thought of seduction. En mal, quant li rossignolez bears resemblance to a reverdie in its springtime setting, to a kind of nonsense song called fatrasie in the sometimes illogical sequence of stanzas, and to a pastourelle by the suggested meeting with the damsel. The instrument mentioned in the song-the flageolet-and the bird songs are subtly suggested by the portative organ.
At the center of the program are three songs by Thibaut de Champagne (1201-53), one of the greatest trouveres. He was the grandson of Marie de Champagne and a direct descendant of the first known troubadour, William IX. Like his illustrious ancestor, he was a feudal overlord and took part in the Crusades (1239-40). Ausi conme unicorne sui has as its guiding image the unicorn, metaphor for the poet fatally attracted by a lady whose cruelty causes his death; it draws for its development on allegories probably inspired by the Romance of the Rose. Chancon ferai, que talenz m'en est pris develops the themes of the grand chant courtois, differing from the grand chant, however, by the use of refrains. The song has variable refrains, sometimes called "refrain citations" because they are taken-"quoted"-from other songs to create a subtle intertextual network. Only the first refrain is given with music in the manuscript; two others may be drawn from contemporaneous sources; but to sing the song one must improvise the rest of the refrain music. In this performance, intertextual links have been created within the program itself by taking melodic material for refrains from other songs here recorded (such as Volez vous que je vous chant), so that the spirit of the refrain citation is preserved. A framing instrumental prelude, as well as the interludes, draws from the full sonorities of the harp (echoing the reference to Tristan in the text) a rich commentary, interweaving refrains and the melody of the song. At the very center of the program Deus est ensi conme li pellicanz, the only piece performed without instruments, engages in a powerful critique of the Church. It is a serventois, a political song, over which presides the image of the pelican, setting the theme of evil and salvation. This song may be an attack on Pope Gregory IX at the time of prolongation of the sixth crusade (1236-39). The term "papelart" refers to religious hypocrites who lead into a hell from which only the Virgin can save mankind.
The journey through this recording recalls at every turn the power and subtlety of an art distant from us in time but still able to touch the emotions of the present.
- Margaret Switten