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The Dante Troubadours
The Martin Best Ensemble
rec. 1982, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5002 [49:13]

You will know that Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote the famous three books of the Commedia – Divine Comedy – in which the author, the soul, travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, meeting friends and enemies. Among them were Troubadours from an earlier generation, like Arnaut Daniel, whose poetry Dante greatly admired. His La vita nuova is largely a book about the art of poetry, although wonderfully couched as a quest for the illusive Beatrice. The turning point in the story comes not when Beatrice dies but when the poet realises that her beauty and virtue are an end in themselves. It is this that Dante learned from the Troubadours.

Less well known is Dante’s essay De vulgari eloquentia, in which he singles out for special mention composer/poets whose work appears on this CD. Some flourished a hundred or so years before the great poet’s time, and wrote in a different language. (It was langue d’oc – also known as occitan – a medieval Romance dialect spoken in the south of what now is France. Incidentally, the Trouvères of northern France wrote in langues d’oïl, another family of dialects.)

You may not think that composers from most periods of history would not get involved with politics and be too intimate with royalty but that was not necessarily the case in the 12th and 13th centuries. Take for example Bertran de Born, much admired by Dante, whose forty songs survive. He was a sworn enemy of King Henry II but very (very) friendly with his daughter Matilda. Bertran joined a rebellion which the king’s sons raised against their father, when he should have, as minor nobility, shown allegiance to the official Plantagenet cause. Unsurprisingly, much of his work concerns military ventures but he also wrote about secret female admirers. In Chasutz sui de mal en pena (track 4) he writes “For I’m in thrall / By a meeting of the eyes / To a gay and lovely Lena”. “Lena” was a senhal, a rhetorical figure which here substitutes a different name for “Matilda’”.

In his notes on each of the songs, Martin Best goes into much fascinating detail about the composers and the complex deeper meanings found in the original texts. The text, sadly, are not offered to us in the booklet so we have to content ourselves with the sometimes rather curious translations. I am sure they are mostly accurate but they lack the subtleties of the originals. To add further to the Italian theme, also included are Italian Dances of Dante’s time like the famous Lamento di Tristan and a Trotto and Salterello. There is also an Italian Lauda, a sacred song you might associate with St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) who may well have known some of this troubadour poetry.

Best is aided and abetted by the three members of his ensemble playing instruments like rebec, guitarra Morisco and a wide variety of percussion (in the dances) and a dulcimer. Best in some songs accompanies himself or sings unaccompanied. He captures the contrasting moods vividly, for example in the rather wild Kalenda Maya by Vaqueiras and the gentle, delicious melody of Daniel’s Chanson d-lh mot son pal e prim.

The short playing time of the disc can be accounted for by the fact that it originally would have come out first on LP, and is one of the very first discs in the series.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Robert Hugill

ANON (14th Cent) Lamento di Tristan [2:23]
Guiraut de BORNELH (fl.1165-1211) Leu chansoneta [2:18]
Bertran de BORN (c1140-1196) Ges de disnar[2:03]
Guiraut de BORNELH Si-us quer conselh [6:14]
Bertran de BORN Chasutz sui [2:48]
Arnaut DANIEL (fl.1180-1210) Lo ferm voler [0:24]
Arnaut DANIEL Chanson do-lh mot [3:17]
Bernart de VENTADORN (d.1194) Canvei la lauzeta [3:40]
ANON (14th Cent) Trotto [1:48]
Piere VIDAL (c.1180-1205) Pois tornaz [4:25]
Raimbaut de VAQUEIRAS (fl.c1180-1298) Kalenda Maya [2:26]
ANON (14th Cent) Salterello [1:46]
Gaucelm FAICHIT (c.1170-1205) Non Alegra [5:09]
Aimeric de BELENOI (fl. c1217-1242) Nuls om en ren [1:24]
Bertran de BORN Ai, Lemozi [4:28]
ANON (13th-14th Cent) Lauda Novella [1:12]
Folquet de MARSELHA (fl. 1180-1230) Ben an mort [2:28]
ANON (14th Cent) Istampitta [1:00]

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