Two Medieval Discs

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Program: #16-12   Air Date: Mar 14, 2016

A new interpretation of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, and a new monograph and disc looking at the influential work of Jehan de Lescurel.

I. Songe .I. Songe: Jehan de Lescurel (Ensemble Syntagma/Alexandre & Emilia Danielvski). Facsimile/Crestomathe FME-1401.

Lescurel: Songé .i. songe - Chansons & Dit enté, Gracieux temps (+ Book)

From First an apology. I received this book and CD several months ago, noted that there didn’t seem then to be an outlet on disc or as a download in the UK or US, and decided to put it in a safe place until I could add a purchase link. The inevitable result was that I forgot all about it until I received an email from Syntagma gently reminding me – and even then I forgot that I had it at first. Even as an undergraduate my memory was highly selective: 50+ years on it certainly hasn’t got any better. Having apologised to Syntagma, I also owe an apology to the select group of readers – perhaps not so select – to whom this music will appeal.

There has been a good deal of recent discussion on the MusicWeb International Message Board about what readers expect us to write about. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is looking for the same thing but there seems to be agreement that readers like to be given some idea of what unfamiliar music sounds like, not always the easiest thing to do when we can’t point you to samples.

I’ve already said that it will be a select group to whom this recording will appeal but the general listener will find much to enjoy, too. To give some points of reference which may be meaningful: Jehan’s music is not as charismatic and ethereal as that of Hildegard of Bingen or as immediately appealing as the late-medieval dances which ‘Thoinet Arbeau’ collected as Orchésographie, nor does it stand as clearly in the line of development of polyphony as the music of Machaut. Those are all negatives, so I’ll try to modify them with some positive descriptions of individual pieces below.

Jehan or Jeannot de Lescurel or l’Escurel is something of a mystery person: even the very detailed notes by Emilia Danilevski in the book which accompanies the CD cast little light on his dates other than to challenge the old idea that our composer was the young cleric of the same name who was hanged in 1304. The only firm date is that of the manuscript (Paris BN 146) dated 1316 or 1317.

John Milsom in the usually reliable Oxford Companion to Music repeats the old assertion that Lescurel was hanged for debauchery. We tend too readily to think of medieval creative artists as dissolute, like Villon – and even he may not have been as bad as he was painted, for example by Rabelais. The ‘I’ of Villon’s Testament and Ballade des Pendus may well best be interpreted as a persona rather than the truth1; there’s no reason to believe that he was expecting a personal outcome in the Ballade:

Si freres vous clamons, pas n’en devez / Avoir desdain, quoi que fusmes occis / Par justice. [If we [hanged men] call you brothers, do not take offence even though we were justly put to death.]

More importantly the Oxford Companion describes the handful of works attributable to Lescurel as ‘show[ing] him to be, with Adam de la Halle, one of the most important precursors of Machaut.’

Both the CD and the booklet are of great value for anyone interested in the development of medieval music and poetry. Neither de la Halle nor Lescurel is over-represented in the catalogue, but the former has two complete recordings to his name, both of Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion (Tonus Peregrinus on Naxos and Ensemble Perceval, on Arion). The new recording from Ensemble Syntagma at last brings Lescurel level – a second recording to add to the earlier CD of ballades, virelais and rondeaux entitled Fontaine de Grace (Ensemble Gilles Binchois, Virgin, now part of a budget-price 2-CD set: 3499732).

Inevitably there are a few overlaps between the two recordings:

- Comment que, pour l’eloignance
- Amours, que vous ai meffait
- Bonne amour me rent
- De gracieuse dame amer
- Belle, com loiaus amans

These are all short pieces totalling a fraction of each album, and the principal raison d’être of the Syntagma recording is the inclusion of the complete Dit: Gracïeus Temps est. It’s quite a long work, a setting of 28 stanzas or strophes, around half an hour, and it’s included here in three segments. A Dit, literally a saying or tale, ostensibly tells a story but there is usually more to it than that: the best-known of the genre, Machaut’s Le Voir Dit, Dit du Lion and Dit de la Fontaine Amoureuse, combine elements of Courtly Love with satirical comment on society.

Jehan’s Dit, too, speaks the language of Courtly Love: it’s a dream vision in which the dreamer falls asleep in a locus amœnus, a beautiful spot in Springtime where he dreams of meeting with some handsome young couples and of going off to the woods, each with the lady of his heart, only to wake and find her gone. He searches everywhere until he finds the lady but is rebuffed by her twice; the second time she adds that she is happily married. The dream vision provides the overall title of this recording: Songé .i. Songe – ‘[Je] songeai un songe: I dreamed a dream’.

There are several of the tropes of Courtly Love or fin amour here – the Springtime setting of the opening of Le Roman de la Rose and the lady’s disdain of her would-be lover – but the lady is not finally won into an adulterous affair as Guinevere is by Lancelot in the best-known example of the genre. Even Lunete in Chrétien’s Le Chevalier au Lion gives in (twice) to Yvain, though he has killed her husband, albeit in self-defence.

If anything Jehan’s Dit is ultimately a condemnation of fin amour: Courtois sunt au commencement, / Puis plains de faus apensement / Pur telle gent qui fauce et ment / L’en dit que j’aim faucement [They are all courteous at first, then full of evil intentions. Because of these people who are false and lie it is said that my love is false] 2

Instead of the walled Garden of Love depicted in Le Roman de la Rose, where the dreamer’s coupling with the Rose, the object of his love, is depicted allegorically – after almost 22,000 lines the dreamer plucks the rose and immediately wakes – Jehan’s dream is a bit more X-rated: the encounter takes place in the country, as in a pastourelle or the later poetry of Ronsard, and they go off to the woods together.

Apart from an attempt to provide ‘atmosphere’ with the sounds of the beautiful setting and, on track 12, the breaking of the relationship, I couldn’t wish for a better performance. The main story is told in a kind of medieval Spechstimme over a light instrumental background – an object lesson in the pronunciation of French c.1300 – with refrains sung by male and female vocalists. I’ve said that nothing here is quite as hauntingly beautiful as the music of Hildegard, but if you like, say, the best-selling Gothic Voices recording of her music (A Feather on the Breath of God, CDA66039), I think you will enjoy this, too. If the clarity of Emma Kirkby’s voice on that recording appeals, it’s well matched by the singing here.

Three of the shorter items are recorded in instrumental form: the first of these, Amour voulés-vous acordez, has been recorded in vocal form by Alla Francesca on an album of music by de la Halle, Lescurel, Machaut and Dufay associated with the dream-vision poem Le Roman de la Rose (Naïve/Opus 111 OP30303, sample/stream/download only from or Qobuz). Effectively, as performed by Syntagma in elaborated instrumental form, it emerges as a different work, more reminiscent of the trouvères who preceded than of those who followed: it’s a hauntingly beautiful piece yet there’s an attractive tinge of wistfulness and melancholy, too, also to be found in many of the other chansons and well evoked here. The second piece, Comment que, pour eloignance, portrays the recurrent courtly theme of the lover’s sorrow that he is so far away from his beloved and his anxiety about whether he still loves him.

Similar themes pervade most of these chansons, some performed by male voices, some by female and some as duets. All the singers make the music attractive without trying too hard to ‘sell’ it to a modern audience. Most listeners will find that the inclusion of very light instrumental accompaniment also helps. Some specialists insist on performing vocal music of this period without instrumentation but I doubt if even purists would complain about what is on offer here: the Binchois Ensemble recording was praised for moderation, yet even there bagpipes and a shawm are employed. Even the chief exponent of non-instrumental singing, Christopher Page, allowed modest accompaniment on some of the wonderful recordings which his Gothic Voices made for Hyperion 3, all now even more tempting at budget price – here.

I’m not even going to try to compare Syntagma with the Binchois Ensemble: both are very good indeed. The new recording is invaluable for specialists, as are the other works on the older recording which are not duplicated here, so both are well worth obtaining. Ensemble Syntagma, not to be confused with Syntagma Musicum and Syntagma Amici, have received accolades on MusicWeb International before (Challenge Classics CC72190: Recording of the Month – review; Challenge Classics CC72195 – review – review) and the new release is no exception. Syntagma means something well-ordered or arranged in Greek and they are certainly that, but much more. I plan to review those two Challenge Classics recordings and their other back catalogue for various labels in a forthcoming edition of Download News.

The CD represents only half the value of this release. Very generously Syntagma have made a large portion – 40 pages, about a quarter – of the lavishly presented book, available to turn the pages online and judge for yourself – here.

The general reader may get a little lost in the book: it would be best to find out some of the basics about Courtly Love and particularly Le Roman de la Rose first – see note 2 below – but you don’t need to take it in all at one, with plenty to come back to another time. Even though it’s one of ‘my’ periods of English and French poetry, I got lost in the details at times in Emilia Danilevksi’s scholarly presentation, itself worth the price of the release and worthy of a doctoral dissertation. Unfortunately she is unable to shed light on the oft-repeated phrase about the distance from Paris to Pavie (Pavia) or the comparison between the two, which occurs in Jehan’s Dit, Le Roman de la Rose and elsewhere. The Middle English translator of Roman de la Rose – possibly Chaucer, since the phrase occurs in the A section which many scholars attribute to him – could think of no English equivalent, so translated literally.

It really is nit-picking to mention that Papeleradie, one of the allegorical figures depicted in Roman de la Rose, means religious hypocrisy, a medieval Tartuffe, rather than veneration of the Pope as stated (pp.31, 150).4 Likewise, Shakespeare’s As You Like It is set in the Forest of Arden, which lies just outside his native Stratford, a ‘forest’ in the same sense as the New Forest (Latin foresta, an outdoor place) rather than the Ardennes. The point about the flexibility of supposed settings is, however, quite valid and the note may in any case have been added by the translator, as it isn’t in the French original. (p.131).

The translation is generally both accurate and idiomatic, though occasionally the translator seems not fully to grasp the original and resorts to literal translation. The Latin writer of the commentary on Scipio’s dream Somnium Scipionis, is known in English as Macrobius not Macrobe (p.120).

These are all very minor points, made more to show that I have been paying attention than for any other reason. They should in no way be taken as serious reservations in recommending this book and CD. It really is a de-luxe presentation and though it can be obtained in the UK only at a somewhat higher price than I understand Syntagma have set, it definitely is worth the money.

Only the likely limited appeal of this enterprise prevented me from making this a Recording of the Month.

Amours, voulés-vous accordez (instrumental) [4:58]
Comment que, pour l’eloignance [2:53]
Bien se pëust apercevoir [4:44]
Dame gracïeuse et belle (instrumental) [4:45]
Amours, que vous ai meffait [5:38]
Bonne amour me rent [1:51]
De gracieuse dame amer [5:36]
Dit Gracïeus temps 1-8 [10:38]
Diex, quand la verrai (instrumental) [2:24]
Dit Gracïeus temps 9-21 [11:39]
Belle, com loiaus amans [4:09]
Dit Gracïeus temps 22-28 [7:35]
Belle et noble [3:37]

II. The Way of the Pilgrim (Toronto Consort/David Fallis). Marquis CD MAR 81465.

In medieval times travelling was often precarious, but full of adventure and excitement. From travellers en route to a sacred shrine, to wandering scholars, the Toronto Consort bring you pilgrim songs, crusaders’ laments and ecstatic dances.

The Toronto Consort is internationally recognized for its excellence in the performance of medieval, renaissance and early baroque music. They are led by Artistic Director David Fallis. Singers are joined by players on lute, recorder, guitar, flute, early keyboards and percussion.

Pilgrims and Crusaders I

Alfonso el Sabio (attr.), Cantigas de Santa Maria

  • Cantiga 166: Como poden per sas culpas os omes seer contreitos

Thibaut de Champagne

  • Seigneurs, sachiez

Alfonso el Sabio (attr.), Cantigas de Santa Maria

  • Cantiga 189: Ben pode Santa María guarir de toda poçon

Anon., 13th c.

  • Chevalier, mult estes guariz

Alfonso el Sabio (attr.), Cantigas de Santa Maria

  • Cantiga 167: Quen quer que na Virgen fia e a roga de femença

Wandering Scholars - the Carmina Burana

Anon., 13th c., Carmina burana

  • Clauso chronos
  • Virent prata
  • Bonum est confidere
  • Bache bene venies

The Last of the Minnesänger

Oswald von Wolkenstein

  • Es fuegt sich

Pilgrims and Crusaders II

Huon de Saint-Quentin

  • Jerusalem se plaint

Walther von der Vogelweide

  • Nu alerst

Thibaut de Champagne

  • Dame einsi est

Chardon de Croisilles

  • Li despartir

Anon., 14th c. El Llibre Vermell


III. Cantigas de Santa Maria Outhere Phi CDLPH 017.

Barbora Kabátková (soprano, gothic harp and psaltery); Margit Ùbellacker (dulcis melos); Martin Novák (percussion); Hana Blaziková (soprano, gothic harp, romanesque harp, Group Director)
rec. Church of our Lady beneath the Chain at then end of the Bridge.

Virgen Madre groriosa [4.50]
Des oge quer’eu trobar [5.43]
Quen as sas figuras da Virgen partir [4.37]
Por nos de dulta livrar (instrumental) [2.58]
Entre Av’e Eva [2.43]
Santa Maria leva [5.13]
Quem boa dona querrá [2.18]
Gran piadad’ e mercee e nobreza [4.34]
Rosa das Rosas, fro das frores (instrumental) [1.14]
Santa Marai amar [6.06]
O fondo do mar tan chao [5.06]
Pera toller gran perfia (instrumental) [2.20]
U alguen a Jerucristo [5.02]
Non pod’ame pela Virgen (instrumental) [1.59]
Quen serve Santa Marai [2.57]
Sen calar [4.49]
Que por al non devess’ame (instrumental ) [2.25]
Rosa das rosas fror das frores [4.28]
Como poden par sa culpas [2.57]

From Little is known of the secular music of the Spanish peninsula prior to the thirteenth century. By far the most considerable legacy of Spanish songs of the Middle Ages is the great collection compiled under the guidance of King Alfonso X ‘el Sabio’ (the wise) who was king of Castile and León (1252-1284). This is known as the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’. The texts are in Galician-Portuguese. There are 419 pieces in all and the songs can be found in three manuscripts with a fourth, which has words only. These songs tell of miracles that occurred due to various acts of devotion to the Virgin but every tenth piece is a song of praise. It’s entirely possible that King Alfonso wrote the words of some and indeed some of the music. His troubadour Guiraut Riquier (d.1292) might also have been a collaborator.

As an example of the sort of storyline I will quote from Gran piadad’ e mercee e nobreza in which “Holy Mary healed the woman who was physically wounded by her husband because he could not have her” due to a promise she had made to the Virgin to keep her virginity.

Not only are these songs intriguing in their own right but the manuscript itself is lavishly ornamented with pictures often of musicians playing the popular instruments of the day giving us some idea what was played at that time. This has led many performers to the belief that they should all be included in a recording of this repertoire.

Over a decade ago I was in the Catalan region of southern France and attended a concert at the extraordinarily beautiful and restored abbey church of St. Michel-de-Cuxa given by a group directed by Eduardo Paniagua entitled ‘The Life of the Virgin’. They later recorded twenty of these pieces on a double CD (Sony S2K 62284). Paniagua’s stage, I recall was beset with five singers and at least ten instrumentalists. Over the course of the evening everything imaginable was played including many oriental instruments and a wide variety of percussion. So, I thought, this is how it should be done. The voices imitated a sort of Middle Eastern quality, which seemed right for the environs and what I then thought was the Moorish inspiration of the melodies.

Then I discovered a CD recorded by Jordi Savall and his group ‘La Capella Real de Catalunya’ and Hesperion XX (Astrée E8508), which was more reserved, with more singers but with a smaller, more carefully chosen orchestration for the songs. Also, unlike Paniagua, Savall was willing to miss out verses the repetition of which can become tedious and the omission of which offers a chance for the director to add even more wildly vivid instrumental colourings. Since then these pieces have normally been done in such a way.

What must be remembered is that all that survives is the melodic line. Unusually this manuscript was notated in such a way that rhythmic values are also indicated which is so very helpful in the performance of these pieces and of other thirteenth century repertoire. The form of the songs tend towards the virelai which has a refrain repeated after every verse and a differing melody for the verse. The most famous, and recorded here is Rosa das rosas transcribed, as were all of the songs, many years ago by Higini Anglès. The simple beauty of these tunes can so easily get lost in all of the ‘orchestration’, which haunts the versions mentioned.

Now this new recording throws a different light on the music. I am utterly taken with the simplicity of approach by this small group and the effortless beauty of the voices. I have never enjoyed this music more. We can now see these melodies as a mix of Andalusian-Moorish inspired, Troubadour and Trouvère melodies and the stricter modality of church music. So the approach adopted by sopranos Blaziková and Kabátková is perfectly in keeping.

The voices of Blaziková and Kabátková are beautifully matched. Sometimes they sing in a gorgeously blended unison and then peel off to divide a song between them, often line-by-line or verse-by-verse as in the longest track Santa Maria amar. In U alguen a Jesucristo one adds a lower line in a sort of free organum in the middle verse and in Sen calor (which just has two accompanimental chords) in real organum for the last verse. Their usual accompaniment is harp and psaltery and they do not make unusual vocal noises to capture what some might say are the untamed singers of a pre-conceived medievalism. In the case of Entre Av’e Eva the performance is unaccompanied. Sometimes, as in Pera tiller gran perfia it is instrumental only and that means harps, psaltery and percussion. Sometimes the instrumentalists break up the otherwise purely vocal verses particularly where stanzas have been omitted - simple but effective. Incidentally you will notice an instrument called ‘dulce melos’ which plays on seven tracks including one its own Para toller gran perfia. This is usually thought to be as a sort of keyboard but the photo of the group in the booklet seems to show a hammer dulcimer.

I have no hesitation in commending this natural and airily recorded CD whole-heartedly. All texts are supplied in the original and in English with a useful essay by Manuel Pedro Ferreira and the whole presented in neat cardboard casing. So consequently it is my Recording of the Month.

Composer Info

Jehan de Lescurel

CD Info

FME-1401, CD MAR 81465, CDLPH 017.