'This is rather special—the best record I have ever reviewed' (Gramophone)
'The singers cannot be applauded too highly for performances marked by an extraordinary insight into how this music should be tackled' (The Good CD Guide)
Other recommended albums
And on that day, as I have been assured, the King of England, a lance in his hand, rode down the whole length of our army, and none of our men did come forth to challenge him.
This is how Richard the Lion Heart taunted the Saracens at Jaffa in the month of August, 1192. Our witness is Bohadin, an Islamic chronicler who had every reason to speak ill of Richard or to pass silently over his many acts of bravery. Nonetheless, Bohadin can do neither of these things. Eight centuries later, his words reveal that the legend of Richard the Lion Heart rests upon a firm basis of truth. Arrogant, selfish and cold he may have been, but there is no doubt that Richard was one of the most courageous and indefatigable kings that England has ever known.
Early in the month of November, 1187, Richard heard the news that was to change his life. He was at Tours when he learned how the forces of Islam had achieved a great victory at the Horns of Hattin some fourteen miles north-east of Nazareth. The details were terrible to hear, for the relic of the Holy Cross had been snatched from Christian hands. Furthermore, the gains of the First Crusade now lay in ruins; the Latin King of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, had been captured by a sultan whose very name was a challenge to a French tongue: Salahadinus—the indomitable Saladin. The news had come in the evening; by the next morning Richard had ‘taken the cross’ from Archbishop Bartholomew and vowed to embark on what was to become the Third Crusade. A year and a half passed by as the host was made ready, and then, on 6 July 1189, Richard’s tempestuous father, Henry II, died at Chinon. Richard crossed the channel to England, paused at Winchester, and then proceeded to London where, on 3 September, he was crowned as Richard I in Westminster Abbey. Before he set foot in the land ‘where the King of Glory had trod’, Richard became a king himself.
During Richard’s lifetime the principal forms of secular court music were the conductus and the chanson. A conductus was an accentual Latin poem set to music for one, two, three or even four voices. The number of parts in a conductus governs not only its sound but also its style in performance, for the addition of voices usually increases the drive and aggressiveness of the work. When there is only one voice, as in Anglia, planctus itera, the singer is free to give the piece a spacious, even a rhapsodic character, especially when the setting is a melismatic one as is the case here. The style of Anglia, planctus itera, a lament for the death of Richard’s brother Geoffrey, Count of Brittany (d1186), shows that melismas (where many notes are provided for one syllable) were felt to raise the tone of a monophonic composition, helping to produce a High Style appropriate to an elegy with a royal subject. In this instance the composer increases the prominence of the melismas by allowing some words to pass in succession with only one note per syllable. A striking example is provided by ‘Mors in te sevit aspere’ in the first verse.
When there are two parts in a conductus, however, which must of course be synchronized, the music enters the realm of musica mensurabilis and therefore works in a different way. A strict rhythmic discipline and stylistic restraint are necessary to project the highly regulated and often somewhat austere nature of pieces such as Sol sub nube latuit, In occasu sideris and Pange melos lacrimosum. A performance of these works requires not only the scrupulous measurement of time described by medieval music theorists (mensura), but also the prudent and noble restraint celebrated by contemporary poets in French (mesure). A quality of high seriousness is essential to at least the two-part conducti of English origin like those mentioned above, and it would be misleading to describe these pieces (or any other pieces on this record) as ‘declamatory’ if that word implies a dramatic and demonstrative response to the meaning of the text. For twelfth-century musicians the relationship between words and music was an essentially temperate one, and the finished work had a lapidary quality, cool to the touch.
With a three-part conductus like Novus miles sequitur the situation changes once again. Since the three parts share many of their melodic and rhythmic figures the texture has a repetitive quality, even an exhilarating monotony, demanding a tempo that seems almost pressed in its determination to move the piece forward. The three-voice conducti Hac in anni ianua and Purgator criminum also show how a three-part texture creates a powerful forward movement. In a four-part work like Mundus vergens, the friction between the parts becomes intense.
Throughout the period covered by this record (c1170– c1200), the conductus was the principal form of ceremonial music. The texts of conducti were invariably in Latin, and the form therefore possessed a distinctly learned ethos. It was one that contemporaries associated with the High-Style poetic imagery of lamentation (falling stars, the sun in eclipse) and of celebration (the Golden Age, the springtime of peace, and so on).
In the last decades of the twelfth century a subtle art of love song developed in north-east France. It is now customary to refer to the composers of these songs as the trouvères, although the term trouvère meant a poet of any kind in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The summit of the trouvères’ art, the chanson, was a love song in as many as five stanzas, whose text was usually a reflection upon the fortunes of loving. Among the distinguished trouvères of Richard’s day were Gace Brulé‚ (who had associations with Richard’s brother Geoffrey, Count of Brittany), Chastelain de Couci, and the trouvère whose name had already entered the Richard legend by the thirteenth century, Blondel.
The chanson and the conductus were related in various ways. Indeed they sometimes shared the same material. The melody of Blondel’s chanson L’amours dont sui espris forms the lowest voice of the conductus Purgator criminum, and the music of Blondel’s Ma joie me semont forms one of the parts of the conductus Ver pacis apperit. The challenge facing the composer of a polyphonic conductus was to devise two, three or even four melodies which possessed the shapeliness of free-standing songs but which produced an exhilarating result when sung simultaneously. The overlap between the chanson repertoire and the conductus indicates the importance of the melodic element in the contemporary judgement of conductus style. As if to emphasize the melodic aspect of their art, the composers of two-part conducti often begin their settings with the musical form A–B–A–B which is found in the first four lines of so many trouvère songs (including all the examples recorded here). It was part of the contrapuntal art of the conductus, however, to use this A–B–A–B pattern in just one of the parts; the second part, freely composed, was then able to vary the counterpoint. In Sol sub nube latuit, for example, the music of the first four poetic lines, as they are sung by one voice, has the form A–B–A–B, but the other voice is free, relating to the first A–B of its fellow in a suave and consonant way but deliberately establishing a series of stressed fourths and dissonances over the second B. In the first verse of the poem this can be heard on the words ‘Summi patris filius’.
The chansons recorded here reveal something of the subtlety of the trouvères’ art of melody. The songs by Blondel, especially L’amours dont sui espris, have a light and airy quality arising from Blondel’s decision to use poetic lines of only six syllables each. Since one musical phrase in a trouvère song (as in a conductus) is almost always equivalent to one complete poetic line, Blondel’s poetic brevity gives his melodies a delightful clarity. (In some pieces, however, the equation between the poetic line and the musical phrase is subverted, and to exhilarating effect; this happens in the third verse of Etas auri reditur, where the complex enjambement of the poetry shapes the musical phrases in an unusual way.) In contrast to Blondel’s two songs, Gace Brulé’s A la douçour de la bele seson, represents the grand manner of the trouvères. This time the lines form grandiloquent decasyllables and the melody is much larger than in Blondel’s songs; in performance, it takes longer for the listener to bring the melody into focus and to locate its points of tension and release. This process of discovery is an important part of the aesthetic experience that a trouvère song provides.
These chansons and conducti would have been sung in a variety of courtly contexts. The term ‘courtly’ can be interpreted widely, for it embraces any place where the superior members of a household, be it lay or ecclesiastical, were gathered together. The entourage of a bishop with its staff of notaries and other clergy, swelled by clerical visitors going about the business of the diocese, and perhaps a few lay persons of consequence, seems a likely audience for much of this music, and in this case the ‘court’ could be anything from an official episcopal residence to a small town house or hostelry commandeered by the bishop’s household on its travels.
Christopher Page © 1989