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Christine de PIZAN (PISAN) (1365-c.1430)
Chansons et Ballades - Contrafacta using the poetry of Christine de Pizan
Jeux ā vendre [3.07]
Ma dame secours - Amoureux oeil - Je vois jouer - Dieux est s’ainsi me dure [2.58]
Mon bel ami, je voy trop bien [4.28]
A Dieu, mon ami, vous command [2.26]
Mon chevalier, mon gracieux servant [4.32]
Amours, escoute ma complainte [2.51]
Ovide dit qu’il est un messagier [3.07]
Dieux! on se plaint trop durement [5.12]
Mon ami, ne pleurez plus [3.05]
Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc [9.05]
L’amant et la dame - Or suis je vers vous venu [4.02]
Seulette suy et seulete vueil estre [5.09]
Giles BINCHOIS (c.1400-1460)

Dueil engoisseus [7.08]
VocaMe (Sigrid Hausen; Sarah M. Newman; Petra Noskaiová; Gerlinde Sämann); Michael Popp (instrumentalist)
rec. location not specified, July 2015
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300699BC [57.36]

On the desk in front of me is a Penguin Classics edition of Christine de Pizan’s ‘The Treasure of the City of Ladies’. It was purchased when this first translation came out in 1985. In her introduction Sarah Lawson writes "She was a skilled poet and a courageous fighter for justice … an outstanding ‘femme de lettres’ and the first professional woman writer in Europe."

Her prose work is now quite well known and despite the fact that many have seen her as an early fighter for women’s causes she was no ‘bluestocking’; more of a lyric poet. In 1886 her poetry was reprinted in French but to find translations in English is exceedingly difficult. So reading the texts for this CD will come as quite a surprise if you only know the rather po-faced prose.

There are, it's true, some political poems, but in the majority she writes about women, women in love, women’s extra-marital affairs, sex in general, widowhood, hopeless husbands – just the sort of thing which the secular court, which she so castigates in her prose, loved. She was successful and popular in her day but her fame has not really manifested itself much until our own times. She was though, no composer, so why does she head up the title of this CD and its review?

There are thirteen tracks here. The group VocaMe which consists of four women and Michael Popp who plays various things such as vielle, harp and bells have taken already composed songs by the great medieval composers and various troubadours and replaced the texts with Christine’s poems acting as 'contrafacta'. This was a common enough technique in the middle ages. As an example track 9 takes Dufay’s beautiful ‘Ma belle dame souveraine’, which is normally sung slowly and expressively and turned it into Dieux! on se plaint trop durement. It's about a young wife whose husband allows her to do anything she wants - even have affairs - so long as she is happy. Consequently it is performed with a fast and humorous gait. Interestingly in chapter 25 of her book (part 1) Christine writes how young women should behave who want to plunge into a foolish love affair.

A work that does not get this treatment, is Dueil engoisseus (‘Anguished grief’) by Binchois. The poem was written by Christine on the death of her husband and it’s the only surviving poem that has music composed for it at the time. This is often heard in a purely vocal performance but it's very pleasing here to have it performed by solo voice and harp. It still surprises me that this text, about despair and melancholy, is set in what we call a major key but I can’t tell you which of the singers is the soloist. This is my one annoyance with the otherwise superb presentation of this disc. The soloists are never named and the original composer and source are not identified.

This is one of the most lavish CD booklets (sixty-four pages) I have ever encountered. There are beautiful reproductions of manuscript pictures from Christine’s ‘Treasure of the City of Ladies’. They include a lovely one of her teaching or reading to her son. Sadly, most are labelled in either French or German so get your schoolboy/girl exercise books the ready. The texts however are given in the original French, in German and in English. The essay by Michael Popp offers us a concise and detailed biography of Christine and an explanation of the group’s approach to the texts and music. It's all accommodated within a firm card frame. With only the occasional use of an instrument like the unusual monochord, VocaMe conform to the view taken by Christopher Page in which he suggests that, especially for indoor music-making, a limited use of instrumental resources is appropriate for most music before 1500. The group take liberties by adding or changing harmonies periodically.

In part three of her book Christine devotes a section to the pain of widowhood and how widows need to be treated and how they should behave. The text of Mon chevalier, mon gracieux servant is the bitter lament of a widow about her solitude. I’m fairly certain that the musical source used is Machaut but all we read at the back of the CD is ‘We received musical inspiration from works by Guillaume de Machaut, Dufay, Gilles Binchois, Bernart de Ventadorn and others.” On the same subject, but even more poignant, is the last track Seulette suy ‘A little woman, alone, left behind by her sweet love’. Christine herself was a widow for some considerable time. Again I think a Machaut monody has been employed.

For Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc the group freely compile, for this long poem, a setting of their own made up of what seem to be ‘Machautian’ fragments. It works well and holds your attention. It is a political poem praising Joan of Arc and warning the English that she will defeat them. It was written in Paris where Christine was sheltering and is dated 31 July 1429. One is reminded that Christine had written other politically-motivated books such as ‘The Book of Peace’ and ‘The Book of Policy’.

It’s a pity that the sound is rather over-produced or perhaps too closely recorded. It lacks a sense of natural acoustic and any CD that credits the hair and makeup lady slightly puts me off. That said, the more I ‘got into’ this CD the more fascinated and impressed I became by its innovative concept, imagination and execution. Worth exploring.

Gary Higginson



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