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Songs of Chivalry
Martin Best Medieval Ensemble
rec. c.1993, Wyastone Estate
NIMBUS NI5006 [50.49]

Troubadours were poets and often musicians who flourished mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. We normally think of artists as being sensitive, peace-loving men and women who would be unwilling to fight in a pitched battle - and possibly incapable of doing so, only for some of those troubadours, especially if they were members of the ruling or aristocratic class, this would not necessarily be the case.

Take, for example, Thibaut IV Count of Champagne and Brie. We know for sure his birthday and we know exactly when he died, in Pamplona, northern Spain. He led his men into, and survived, the Third Crusade to Palestine. There are between sixty-five and seventy ‘cansos’ by him, almost all with music and there are no fewer than thirty-two manuscripts contain songs and texts by Thibaut. After his death, his works were praised for several generations. Perhaps the Troubadour Raimon Vidal (d.1252) explained it when he wrote, “inventing and singing are the driving force behind all valour`’.

The Age of Chivalry is a general term for a period from c.1170-1250 and is summed up in Jaufre Rudel’s Non sap chanter: “Let no man wonder at my state/If I love her who’ll ne’er see me”. The code involved military training, certainly, but also social and moral values, with the adoration of both the Virgin Mary and of a much-loved woman inextricably interlinked.

It must be remembered that these songs survive in the various manuscripts only as melodies: black dots on six fading lines. No rhythm is indicated and we don’t really know how many - if any - instruments were used in their performance, so modern performers can move around in this space with complete freedom. Some overdo it – naming no names - but Martin Best has studied and researched the period in great depth and this, added to his acute musicality and sensitivity, has led to several discs, which I will be reviewing over the next weeks. This, one of the first, dates back to 1983.

Perhaps Martin Best knew of Christopher Page’s ideas and forthcoming book ‘Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages’ (Dent 1987), in which Page often propounds that string instruments were favoured for these educated and sophisticated poet-musicians to sing with or to recite over. Best offers both types of performance. Thus, The Song of nothing by Guilhelm IX and A Chantar m’er, a rare example of a song by a Trobairitz, Beatriz de Dia, have the poems spoken over the accompaniment of a rebec and dulcimer. The dances of course could have a greater variety of instruments. As well as the vocal works, this disc happily mixes instrumental dances, arrangements of songs for instruments, so I would add that when I hear Best’s performances, I feel close to the original composers and singers in a way that few others have managed to do.

Best’s ensemble uses in in the nineteen tracks here a pleasingly colourful set of instruments, the sort that Crusaders may have brought back from their travels, including a Lute, Psaltery, Dulcimer, Percussion and a rather mysterious instrument named as a Bodran which is a skin drum played with a firm stick. Oddly, however, this seems to be of Irish origin.

The booklet contains a helpful essay by Martin Best and a brief explanation of each song and dance, discussing its deeper poetic meaning and structure, but it is disappointing that the original texts are not given - this was put right on later discs. The booklet lacks a decent proof reader, however.

Gary Higginson

1. ANON (13th Cent) Estampie [1.22]
2. GUILHELM IX (1071-1127) The Song of Nothing [2.02]
3. Coda [0.53]
4. Huon D’OISY (late 12th Cent) En l’anque chevalier [1.50]
5. Thibaut DE NAVARRE (1201-1253) Tan tai amors [3.34]
6. Thibaut de NAVARRE Costume est bien [0.53]
7. MARCABRU (c.1110-1150) Pax in Nomine Domini [3.35]
8. Blondel DE NESLE (late 12th Cent) L’amour dont sui espris [8.02]
9. ANON (13th Cent) Danse Royale [1.35]
10. Moniot D’ARRAS (fl. c.1230-1250) Ce fut en moi [2.41]
11. Vernart de VENTADORN (d.1194) La dousa vota [3.13]
12. ANON (13th Cent) Chanson de toile [1.49]
13. ANON (late 12th Cent) Chevaliers, mully estes guartiz [3.08]
14. Jaufre RUDEL (fl.mid 12th Cent) Non sap chanter [4.58]
15. Beatriz de Dia (b.c.1140) A chanter m’er [2.46]
16. ANON (13th Cent) Li joliz temps d’estay [1.38]
17. Raimbaut d’AURENGA (fl.c1144-1173) Pois tais sabers [4.46]
18. Peire CARDENAL (d.1275) Now I can delight in love [0.33]
19. Traditional E’i mare e’l pare [1.30]

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