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Music for the Lion-Hearted King - Music to mark the 800th anniversary of the Coronation of King Richard I of England in Westminster Abbey, 3 September 1189
Mundus vergens (1190s?) [2:02]
Novus miles sequitur (1173) [2:18]
GAGE BRULÉ (fl.1180-1200)
A la douçour de la bele seson
(c.1186) [4:52]
Sol sub nube latuit (c.1170) [3:31]
Hac in anni ianua [3:58]
Anglia, planctus itera (1186)[5:38]
Etas auri reditur (1189) [3:48]
Vetus abit littera [2:42]
In occasu sideris (1189) [6:08]
BLONDEL DE NESLE (fl. 1180-1200)
L’amours dont sui espris [4:07]
Purgator criminum [3:53]
CHASTELAIN DE COUCI (fl. 1180-1200)
Li nouviauz tanz
(1190) [5:12]
Pange melos lacrimosum (1190) [4:16]
BLONDEL DE NESLE
Ma joie me semont (c.1179) [1:58]
Ver pacis apperit (1179) [1:51]
Latex silice [2:52]
Gothic Voices (Margaret Philpot (alto); Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Leigh Nixon ( tenor))
rec. Church of the Hospital of St Cross, Winchester, England, 14-16 November 1988. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German.
Texts in Latin or Old French, with English translations.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55292 [60:13] 

 


I am running out of ways of saying that I am running out of superlatives for these Gothic Voices reissues on the Hyperion Helios label. Very highly recommendable as they were at full price, receiving a great deal of praise from several scholarly journals, as well as in the music magazines, they are much more so at their new bargain price. One reviewer went so far as to say that this was probably the best record he had ever reviewed. I have listened with pleasure to the original version of this CD regularly. 

First issued in 1989, to mark the 400th anniversary of the coronation of Richard I, it remains just as valuable today. If you want to cut to the chase, I strongly recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in medieval music to go out and buy this CD. 

Whilst you’re about it, you could do a great deal worse than to invest in the other Gothic Voices reissues which I’ve recently recommended: The Garden of Zephirus (CDH55289), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (CDH55273), The Spirits of England and France (CDH55281) and The Castle of Fair Welcome (CDH55274). At around £5-£6 each in the UK, the whole lot wouldn’t break the bank. For around £20 more, you could add the 3-CD Award Winners collection: A Feather on the Breath of God, The Service of Venus and Mars and A Song for Francesca on CDS44251/3. One of the Gothic Voices’ recordings, deleted and yet to be reissued, Lancaster and Valois, is on offer on the web as I write at $215! I understand that it will be reissued in the near future.

The present CD is more closely focused than most of the series, in that it is largely composed of conductus and chansons dating from the period c.1170-1200. The Concise Grove defines conductus as a medieval song with a serious, usually sacred text in Latin verse. The sacred and the political are often linked, as the first two items on the CD illustrate. The first, mundus vergens, is on the familiar theme of change and decay: “The world is declining into ruin ...” The note in the booklet links it tentatively to the wars between Richard I and the French King Philip Augustus in the 1190s and the chaos which these caused: “France perishes before its time”. Such dynastic conflict is not an aspect of the ‘Lion Heart’ that fits our modern image of him as the good king whose brother tried to usurp his throne while he was on crusade but was foiled by Robin Hood. 

The notes link the second piece, Novus miles sequitur (“A new soldier follows ...”) to the events of April 1173 when the barons tried to replace Richard’s father, Henry II, with the young Prince Henry. The rebels invoked the spirit of the newly-canonised Thomas à Becket: “Thomas agni sanguine / lavat stole gemine / purpuram rubentem” – “Thomas washes the purple (finery) of his double stole red in the blood of the lamb.” 

Anglia, planctus itera laments the death either of Henry II in 1189 or the earlier death of Richard’s brother Geoffrey in 1186.

Only one piece, Etas auri reditur, specifically celebrates the Richard’s coronation. The legend of the Golden Age there referred to dates back at least to Ovid and Vergil – a period when humans lived content. Its return must have been celebrated in just about every generation since, but it was a particularly potent theme in the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance until Ronsard scuppered it in his Elegy to the Royal Treasurer, in which he praises the frugality of the Golden Age, curses whoever first thought of mining for precious metals, then asks the treasurer to let him have some of this obnoxious metal so that he may treat it with the contempt which it deserves: “je le prye/De passer par tes mains, pour s’en venir loger/Chés moi, qui le tiendra comme un oste estranger/Sans trop le caresser.” 

In occasu sideris probably predates Etas auri, in that it seems to refer to events earlier in 1189, following the death of Richard’s father, Henry II; it looks forward to the coronation of a new ‘heir of Hector ... promised to you as king’. Sol sub nube latuit may well belong to the same period, though the notes postulate an earlier date. Pange melos lacrimosum probably refers to events of the following year, when the Emperor Barbarossa perished on his way to join Richard in the Holy Land. 

Some of the pieces refer to the Christmas and New Year period. Sol sub nube latuit celebrates the ‘marriage’ of God and man in Christ. Hac in anni ianua welcomes the New Year, Vetus abit littera celebrates the replacement of the Old Law by the New at Christmas and Purgator criminum is a diatribe against the Jews, “a foolish people / harder than iron” for their refusal to acknowledge the birth of the Messiah at Christmas. Even in this ostensibly religious, though deeply prejudiced, conductus, the political element is not far away: Richard’s crusade unleashed a torrent of economically motivated hatred against the Jews. Repugnant as this is to the modern listener, we simply have to accept such anti-semitism as a historical fact, present even in Chaucer. Latex silice links events in the life of Moses with parallels in the life of Christ, a kind of biblical exegesis very common in the Middle Ages, not least in the miracle plays of York, Wakefield, Chester and elsewhere: as the water flowed from the rock which Moses struck, so Christ’s blood flows in torrents to redeem mankind. 

Interspersed with these anonymous examples of conductus are four examples of vernacular chansons from the same period, two by Blondel de Nesle and one each by Gace Brulé and Chastelain de Coucy. Blondel was, of course, the trouvère or minstrel who is supposed to have discovered Richard as he was being held for ransom on his return from crusade. His identity is not known for certain, but he and the other two named trouvères flourished in the period 1180-1200. 

In A la douçour the lover rejoices that he alone remains faithful to love, since no man is truly a lover who ever thinks of abandoning it. L’amours dont sui espris combines references to the classical love stories of Dido and Æneas, Paris and Helen and Pyramus and Thisbe with the fin amors of Tristan and Iseult. Li nouviau tanz celebrates the month of May, but even the delights of the season cannot console the singer for the contempt of his beloved, who is killing him for no other fault than that of loving her. Ma joie me semont asserts that those who love in a refined way (that of fin amors, or courtly love), give generously and speak in courtly fashion will never go wrong. 

In these four chansons we have all the essentials of the cult of courtly love. I make no attempt here to enter into the vexed debate of how ‘real’ courtly love was. Odd as it seems to have Margaret Philpot sing two of these laments of (male) lovers, it works surprisingly well. 

The performances are at least every bit as good as those on the other CDs in the series. If anything, their performance of the late-12th-century style seems to demand even more superlatives: purity of tone, clarity of diction and sheer musicality of performance. Of course, no performance can ever overcome the fact that there is an inevitable degree of sameness about these pieces, but the same is true of other periods much closer to our own time. By ringing the changes between single-voice and multi-part pieces, Christopher Page has done his best to maintain a degree of variety. The chansons are all for a solo singer, as is Anglia, planctus itera. Five other pieces of conductus are for two voices, two for three voices and three for four voices. Purgator criminum begins for one voice but three others enter later. 

The recording is in every way equal to the task, bringing out to the full the qualities of the performance without intruding in any way.

Hyperion make it possible to listen to extracts from every track of this CD on their website. Track 5, Hac in anni ianua, might be a good track to try, since this piece sometimes features on recordings of medieval Christmas music, but there isn’t a dud on the whole CD. Rather than waste time listening to brief extracts, though, why not place your order immediately? My only reservation would be that the twelfth century may not be the best place to begin to get to know medieval music, in which case one of Gothic Voices’ recordings of later medieval music might make a better recommendation – The Garden of Zephirus (early 15th-century, CDH55289) or The Castle of Fair Welcome (later 15th-century, CDH55274).

The notes, by Christopher Page, are very detailed; as usual, they perhaps assume too high a degree of knowledge of medieval music in the reader. Even I found them hard-going at times, and I am something of a medieval and renaissance specialist. 

Like all the reissues in this series, the new booklet is in no way inferior to the full-price original. The striking front cover, a contemporary depiction of Herod and the Wise Men, will surely help to attract the casual buyer. Perhaps Hyperion chose it to remind us that the real Richard the Lion Heart was as ambiguous a figure as Herod.

Brian Wilson

 

 


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