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The Courts of Love: Music from the Time of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Gui D‘USSEL (c.1170-1225) Se be-m partez, mala dompna, de vos; Raimbaut De VAQUIERAS (c.1150-1207) Kalenda maia ni fueills de faia; ANON (c.1190) l’on dit q’amors est dolce chose ; Bernart De VENTADORN (1125-1195) ‘Era-m cosselhatz’; Conortz, era sai ben; Can voi lauzeta move; CADNET (early 13th Century) S’anc fuy belha ni prezada; Giraut de BORNELH (fl.1185- 1200) S’ie-us quer conselh, bell ami- Alamanda; Gace BRULE (c.1160-c.1213) Quant je voie la noif remise; Quant voie le tens bel et cler; Quant flours et glais; Quant voi renverdir
Sinfonye/Stevie Wishart
Recorded in August 1989, venue not given.
HYPERION CDH 55186 [63.19]

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The court of Eleanor of Aquitaine estranged and yet apparently beautiful wife of King Henry II of England, flourished at its headquarters in Poitiers from about 1180 until her death in 1204. She lies to this day however next to her husband in Fontrevard Abbey. It was an artistic melting pot, and you can read about it in Alison Weir’s superb book on Eleanor (Jonathan Cape, 1999). There the concept was developed of ‘amour courtois’. This was really an excuse which offered an opportunity for the finest artists of the day to try out and to develop ideas of all kinds in a relaxed and cultured environment.

One particular outcome was a book ‘The Art of Courtly Love’ by Andreas Capellanus (published by Columbia University). This takes the form of an extensive colloquy between ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’. Of the many subjects which are discussed the one which takes up most of their conversation is, "Which takes priority: the lover or the married partner?" One answer is ‘when a new marriage alliance is made it does not properly replace an earlier love-liaison unless the woman chances to cease devoting herself to love entirely". This phrase is quoted by Stevie Wishart in her interesting but brief notes in the CD booklet.

One such colloquy has survived with music: Giraut de Borelh’s ‘S’ie-us quer conselh’. This is performed by Mary Kieke to the accompaniment of the harp and lute. She cleverly manages to characterize the conversation between man and woman by altering the colour of her voice.

The use of harp and lute and in other songs the fiddle was, in 1990 a quite different approach leading the ‘Gramophone’ to describe the disc as ‘Refreshingly unusual". But the seeds of performances like these can be found in Christopher Page’s groundbreaking book ‘Voices and Instruments in the Middle Ages’ (Dent 1987). There he comments that when colloquies were performed (pages 27-28) the minstrel would draw the audience in by singing at first, without accompaniment. To quote Page, "when the minstrel reached the most sensitive point in the management of the audience, his next and final stage was to offer to sing accompanied". This plan is followed by Wishart. Stanza 1 is unaccompanied, the plot is, as it were, laid out. Then the harp enters, improvising and above this the singer "presents the argument". The lady has "withdrawn what she has granted me before" and he asks how can he win her over as she has returned to the arms of her husband.

These songs, by Bornelh and de Ventadorn are from the so-called ‘High style’ without Refrains, in which the beloved is never named; they are in no strict metre. They are rhapsodic in form and execution and accompanied by the highest ranked of all string instruments. the harp.

Other songs are accompanied by Stevie Wishart on the fiddle, again in the same improvisatory style. Indeed the disc begins with the sound of the fiddle, which may well have been the most common instrument of the middle ages. Page confirms (page 23) that "there is confirmation of a link between the fiddle and the genres of descort and dansa". One such ‘dansa’ is the famous ‘Kalenda Maya’ by Raimbaut de Vaquieras which starts as a complaint to the audience that "Neither May Day nor beech leaves ….. Can please me, worthy and joyous lady until I receive a swift massage from your fair self, which brings me love." We hear all six stanzas of the song and then it is performed immediately after as an ‘estampida’ by fiddle and drum, prompted by the final lines "There Sir Engels, I have finished the estampida". The whole song was in fact little more than an excuse to dance!

Of course it is perfectly acceptable to play troubadour songs entirely instrumentally - even the non-dance type. The last four tracks play, as a continuum, related songs by Gace Brule one of the leading lights of the court. These are played on fiddle and a kind of drum called a bendir sounding like the bongos in some respects but related to the more common nakers.

I have to admit that when I first heard Sinfonye on an 1980s Hyperion disc entitled ‘Bella Donna’ (CDH 55207) I was not especially impressed. I became more intrigued and fascinated as time went by with a disc like ‘The sweet look and the loving manner’ (CDA 66625). I now find that these and ‘Gabriel’s Greeting’ (CDA 55151) have passed the test of time and I come back to them feeling fresh and captivated. Mary Kieke on this CD often uses a rather harsh, nasal tone which takes as its starting point the Eastern or possibly south-eastern Mediterranean folk singers you can hear to this day in Turkey or S.E. Spain. Kieke also has other colours to her voice. If you play track 8, the only surviving song by one Cadnet ‘S’ance fuy belha’, you can hear her use it either for characterization, as mentioned above or for expressivity. Throughout she is ably and sensitively accompanied by Wishart on the fiddle, Paula Chateauneuf, as ever elegantly expressive on the lute and the rest of the group.

I know that this is probably my problem, and you might criticize me for sexism, but I do find it odd when a female troubadour (actually called ‘troubaritz’) sings lines like Ventadorn’s Advise me now my Lords/you who have wisdom and sense a lady has granted me her love ..." etc. Ah well ....

All texts are given and are well translated some with further introductions given originally by the composer by way of ‘arguments’ and explanations. Although the voice may at times sound a little harsh to the uninitiated the disc is worth hearing/ Listening to it carefully will offer much pleasure and fascination.

To quote ‘The Art of Courtly Love’: "It is a glorious thing to take part in the services of Love". This disc paints a colourful and potent picture of life in the late 12th century court of Queen Eleanor.

Gary Higginson

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