Sweet is the song - Doux est le chant
Recording site and date: Church of St. Martin of Tours, East Woodhay, Berks, UK [05/1995]
The songs of the troubadors and their northern French counterparts the trouveres are among the most recorded works in all of medieval music. Yet little is known for certain about how these songs were performed: what, if any, rhythm to apply, for example, and how or even whether to accompany the singer with instruments. Each performer makes different decisions, based on contemporary pictorial evidence, instinct, and simple preference. Most performances of this repertory use at least one or two instruments-in part, it must be said, out of worry about holding listeners' attention. So it took courage for soprano Catherine Bott-and the label L'Oiseau-Lyre-to make an entire CD of these songs performed by a single unaccompanied voice. You may worry that this austere approach won't wear well over 66 minutes, but once you settle into it, it works wonderfully. With her voice alone, Bott captures the spirit of elegant songs like the Comtessa de Dia's "A chantar m'er" ("I must sing") and playful ditties like Etienne de Meaux's "Trop est mes maris jalos" ("My husband is too jealous"); she's particularly good at subtly varying the successive verses of a song while keeping the repeated melody and rhyme/meter scheme clear. Thanks to her performance, this disc is worth experiencing as both music and literature.
-Matthew Westphal (www.amazon.com)
Sweet Is The Song...
'Dox est li cans, biax est li dis' - Sweet is the song, beautiful the words. But how should we listen to a troubadour song? In hundreds of cases we have to turn to the words-with-music to find the best, or only, versions of the words. The troubadours and trouveres and their like are almost unique in this. (One would not look out Schubert's songs to find the best texts of Heine). Both the poems and the melodies were thought of as being separately valid and complete in themselves. A troubadour melody like that of Can vei la lauzeta (#6) by Bernart de Ventadorn can be found with other words; and many troubadour and trouvere poems have alternative tunes. In general the person whose name is attached to the song is thought to have composed both. Jaufre Rudel, 'prince of Blaye', 'made many songs with good tunes but bad words'. (Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may (#3), incidentally, shows the second comment to be completely untrue). In addition to words and melody a third component has over the years generally seemed necessary, especially in concert performances - instrumental accompaniment. Recent scholarship has shown that hard facts supporting this are extraordinarily scarce, except in the case of dance-related song. This is one reason why instruments are not included on this recording. There is however, a further reason of equal validity: an aesthetic one. The melodies of the high-style chansons are often extremely subtle in their shifting modality, conjunct progressions and variable tonal centres. To 'harmonise' them, with drones, parallel melodies or in any other way is to disguise them, to translate them into another and often simpler language. The distortion of plainchant with organ accompaniment is now mainly a historical curiosity. The two cases are similar.
The metaphor of marriage is the most trite and abused in the whole history of words-and-music. But in the present case it is totally apt: the listener's task, and particular pleasure, is to attend to both - as it were to a married couple conversing - without favouring either. An early medieval theorist, Guido d'Arezzo, has a striking description of this dual attention. We are to be 'doubly charmed by a double melody' [duplici modulatione dupliciter delecteri]. The 'harmony of language' [symphonia grammaticae] is to be balanced with the 'harmony' of a single line of melody.
The 'harmony', or 'verbal music', of the poem Can vei la lauzeta, as of every chanson in the high style, consists essentially in pattern. There is the pattern of repeated verses, in this case seven, plus an envoi (a half-verse); the pattern of the verse (stanza) itself; the pattern of numbered syllables, precisely sixty-four per verse; and the pattern of rhyme, here very strict, since Bernart only allows himself four rhyme-sounds for sixty lines and scarcely repeats a word. And throughout there are other, even more delicate 'harmonies' of assonance and alliteration, with the subtly varied rhythms of speech and pause: 'Ai, las! tan cuidava saber / d'amor, e tan petit en sai'.
As for the melody itself, popular all over Europe, it has almost all the characteristics of the type, but freshly recreated. It produces an effect of extraordinary restraint and repose; the admired courtly quality of mesure is its inner strength. The secret of this - an open and shared secret - lies in several factors. The movement, in a modal scale, is by small steps from note to note, not by leap. Amidst intervals mostly of a semitone, tone or minor third, the single drop of a fifth creates quite an emotional stir. Rhythmically, single notes are interspersed with short ornaments of rarely more than four notes. The effective range is within an octave. The singularly homogeneous impression is reinforced, by a web of small motifs.
Perhaps the most remarkable and unmodern omission from Guido's comment is that he says nothing about the meaning of the text set; it does not seem to concern him that the 'harmony of language' might also have a message to deliver. His emphasis is typical of the age: 'the poet has an over-riding concern with beauty. He is a maker of beautiful objects' (K. Foster, P. Boyde). But of course this is not the whole story. In a treatise on rhetoric, for example, the author would have discussed verbal sense and sound at least as instruments of communication.
The poem of Can vei la lauzeta is individual and exceptionally moving. The images of the self-forgetful lark swooping down with joy in its heart, and of the self-lost Narcissus at the fountain lead through to the wry invocation of faithful Tristan at the end - 'you will have no more from me'. In between are lines of limpid simplicity and longing: 'Alas! I thought I knew so much about love, yet I know so little'. The vital singularities of this poem seem to convey the impression of an individual experience. Or is this an illusion? The imagined situation is essentially similar to that of [/i]Desconfortez, plains d'ire et de pesance[/i] (#4) and hundreds of other grandes chansons. What Bernart has done is to raise the cliches of courtly versifying to the level of poetic experience.
As listeners we are left with a final question. How are we to-experience the song as a whole: not only the 'double charm' of the 'double melody' but the lover's subtle changes of mood conveyed by the poem? Firstly, does the melody in itself express the meaning - that is to say, does it serve as a sort of metaphor in sound for the verbal detail? This cannot be so. The song, like all the others, is strophic; the melody remains constant, whilst meaning and emotion shift from verse to verse, from line to line. Secondly, does the, melody mirror the sound of the words, as it would do to a marked degree in many later styles? This also is not the case, and for the same reason.
Perhaps the answers are to be found by considering the performer's dilemma. The listener can afford the luxury of indecision; but the singer can hardly sing the poem as if it meant nothing. The degree and kind of 'personality' to be adopted is, needless to say, never commented upon by medieval writers; the fictional role remains a matter for speculation and experiment. Virtually every song in this tradition is uttered in the first person. The inescapable 'I' of the poem is generally lover, poet and singer in one; it is 'his' song and he sometimes specifies a destination for it in the envoi. But this is not sufficient to individualise the speaking-singing voice. 'These are songs about love, rather than love songs in any Romantic sense' (J.H. Marshall). The style of the chanson d'amour should not be distorted in order to dramatise the individuality of personal experience but allowed to reflect the shared values of a refined (and self-prociaimedly elitist) courtly ideal, fins amors. It must not then, be too intimate. But neither should it be too public. There is a place for gaiety, sadness, despair and self-mockery; but declamation and ostentation are generally inappropriate.
The songs of Catherine Bott's programme fall into two principal categories. The first and indisputably major category in every sense is the chanson in the high style, la grande chanson courtoise, as exemplified above by Bernart de Ventadorn's Can vei la lauzeta. Nearest to it in general style is Lanquan lijorn (#3), the most famous statement of the amor de lonh theme; the word lonh appears twice in every verse as a rhyme, accompanied by 'melodic rhyme'. In Desconfortez, plains d'ire et de pesance (#4) by the trouvere Gace Brule, all the commonplaces of the northern French chanson can be found, from the 'sweet pain' of love to the mesdisanz, the scandalmongers. But the light, melismatic melody has freshness and charm. Another courtly chanson, a canso from the South with an attractive text, A chantar m'er, de so qu'ieu non volria (#, owes some of its present-day popularity to the fact that it is the only chanson written by a woman - the Comtessa de Dia - which survives with its melody. The attractive poem, references to personal beauty aside, contains nothing to distinguish it from the male variety, and one scribe appears to have mistaken it as such. Not all troubadour/trouvere songs in the high style are about fins amors. Gaucelm Faidit's planctus (#12) mourning the death in 1199 of Richard the Lionheart,.a king unsurpassed even by Charlemagne or Arthur, is a public lament relating to a great tradition of Latin laments. Another common type of Latin goliardic song castigates the wickedness of religious hypocrites; Thibaut de Champagne, rois de Navarre, takes up the theme in his religious chanson Deus est ausi comme li pellicans (#9).
The borderline between la grande chanson and slighter types is not always easy to draw. Guiraut de Bornelh contributes two songs: S 'ie·us quer conselh, bell'ami' Alamanda (#11) is a light Provencal debate-song in which 'Giraut' asks his friend Alamanda for advice in love; Reis glorios (#1), on the other hand, with its striking, quasi-liturgical opening, seems almost to belie the intimate drama of the traditional dawn-song. It is an alba with a difference that is reflected in the strong Dorian melody. The chanson by Audefroi le Batard relentlessly delivers all the 'grand' cliches promised by the opening line, Fine amours en esperance (#5), but the short lines and attractive melody turn them to sprightliness. Trop est mes maris J'alos (#2) is much more of a piece. It is one of many 'courtly-popular' songs supposedly sung by unhappy young married women hoping to cuckold their despicable, jealous, old husbands. The melody has a catchy repetitiveness and marked metrical swing. Finally, another chanson in the mouth of a woman, a chanson de toile (weaving song). Bele Yolanz en ses chambres seoit (#7) is a typical and delightful aristocratic playing with a popular motif: the lady sits in her chamber and awaits the return of her absent love. She is not disappointed.
- John Stevens