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Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE (1201-1253)
Le Chansonnier du roi: Amour Courtois et chevalerie au XIIIe siècle
The King’s Songbook: Courtly love and chivalry in the Thirteenth Century
Music from Paris, MS BnF, fr. 844
Alla Francesca/Brigitte Lesne
rec. 18-21 October 2011, Eglise évangélique allemande, Paris.
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as downloaded from press access
AEON AECD1221 [64:28] 

There are some labels which go the extra distance to bring us unfamiliar repertoire, and Aeon is one of them. Reviewing another out-of-the-way recording recently, dramatically entitled Swithun! Demons and Miracles from Winchester around 1000 (Arcana A491 – review), which includes material from the Winchester Troper, I mentioned an Aeon recording containing more music from that collection, connected with the revival of learning in pre-conquest England (Music for a King, AECD1436 – DL News 2014/5). I had some reservations about the more recent works which were added to that Aeon collection, but this recording of music by Thibaut de Champagne is unalloyed thirteenth century.

Though lauded by Dante as one of the greatest of the trouvères, the Northern French poet-musicians, the equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, Thibaut has not been well served on record. Though he appears as a walk-on in some other recordings, such as a Christophorus collection of crusade music, where his music rubs shoulders with Guiot de Dijon and others (CHR77183, rec. 1996), this seems to be the only album almost completely dedicated to him. His music here is interspersed with anonymous C13 dances and motets, with one track by Hue de la Ferté.

Though Thibaut (Theobald) became King of Navarre, the title Le chansonnier du Roi comes from its incorporation into the French royal library in 1668. The music is varied: not just courtly love, but praise of the Virgin Mary and crusade songs – Thibaut led the rather inglorious Barons’ Crusade.

We seem to have missed both this Aeon recording and the Christophorus, so I’m pleased that downloading gives me the opportunity to make up for the nine-year gap since it was released. As I wrote in reviewing the Swithun! recording, music from that period is in many ways more immediately appealing than much that came later, and that applies to this music from the thirteenth century too. Since most of the material deals with courtly love (also referred to as fin’amor), it’s probably more appealing to the modern listener.

The very first song gets right to the heart of courtly love: the lady is ‘the best in the world’, or, if not the best the singer is ‘hers and hers alone, and at her mercy’, he is ‘entirely in [her] sway’. Of course, it was all something of a game, famously described by Andreas Capellanus at the court of Thibaut’s ancestor Marie de Champagne, but it was a game that gave rise to some of the greatest literature and music of the late Middle Ages, from the Roman de la Rose to Chaucer.

One of the recordings which David Munrow made with his Early Music Consort of London, The Art of Courtly Love, started the ball rolling in musical terms, as CS Lewis’s seminal book, The Romance of the Rose, had done for the study of courtly love literature. Lewis’s book, though superseded in some respects, remains available, but the Munrow recording, once to be had on an inexpensive 2-CD set – always to hand near my work station – is now available only as an expensive download and comes without the booklet. The receipt still in the booklet of my copy is for £5.99, so it’s quite a mark-up to charge around £30 (Erato 2435612845).

That collection takes us to the rather later music of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so, even at its unreasonable price, it’s a very recommendable adjunct to the Thibaud de Champagne, as are several of the recordings which Gothic Voices made with Christopher Page for Hyperion. Of these, The Castle of Fair Welcome would be a good place to start: the title is taken from the courtly love figure of bon acceuil, the performances of this fifteenth century music are well up to the high standard of the whole series – and it’s currently available to download direct from Hyperion, with booklet containing texts and translations for just £5.99 (CDH55274).

By that later period, the whole courtly love business had become more codified, less realistic, but Thibaut’s songs are often very down to earth. In J’aloie l’autrier, a variant on the ‘I went out the other day’ theme, the singer tries to seduce a young girl of fifteen till he is chased off by some shepherds. The text says si / N’eüst quinze anz et demi, she was not yet fifteen and a half, which is slightly misrepresented by the English ‘more truly / Fifteen and a half’. The booklet is otherwise very helpful, but I wish that translators sometimes took care to be more accurate.

There’s gritty political realism, too, to be found here. The one work by Hue de la Ferté is an open criticism of Thibaut – not, he claims, the true Lord of Champagne, born after the death of his father – true, but no reason to doubt his legitimacy – suspected of being the lover of the Queen Regent, not the true King of Navarre … Even the love song Nus Hom ne puet ami reconforter contains a reference to Thibaud’s siding with several other barons against the King of France.

From the beloved queen of the courtly lover’s heart to Mary as Queen of Heaven is but a small leap: both are often referred to as douc (sweet, tender, honoured), so it’s often unclear to which beloved, earthly or heavenly, the words are directed. At a later period Queen Elizabeth I would seek to cast herself in both roles, with poets and musicians presenting themselves as hopelessly in love with the unattainable Virgin Queen.  Thibaut's Dou tres douz non a la Virge Marie employs similar mental gymnastics in describing every letter of the name of Mary (M = ame, soul, etc.)

There’s more variety in the music here than is immediately apparent to the modern ear, and the performances themselves are varied, with a range of instruments and three different singers, while some of the words are delivered in a kind of medieval Sprechstimme. Dame, Merci, une rien vos demant is a debate poem between the male voice representing Thibaud, specifically named in the text, and his lady.

The Christophorus recording is more varied still. Only one of the pieces is by Thibaud, the crusade song Seignor, saichies qui or ne s’en ira, which is either a little understated on Aeon or overdone and over-fast from a larger choir on Christophorus. My own preference is without doubt for the Aeon, but I also enjoyed hearing the slightly over-the-top Christophorus, with its wider range, including a piece from the Carmina Burana (the original, not the Orff) and the Minnesänger Wolfram von Eschenbach – a setting of music from his Tristan – and Walther von der Vogelweide, his Palästinalied. There’s another worthwhile recording of the music of this period and later on a 3-CD Naxos set entitled Time of the Templars review review review.

The Naxos and the Christophorus would be very worthwhile additions to your collection, as would any of the recordings of Gothic Voices for Hyperion – and more recently for Linn – but I’d go for the Aeon recording first. Of several worthwhile recordings of the music of this period, this is one of the best.

As I was closing this review, I discovered another Aeon recording that I had missed – the complete motets of Guillaume de Machaut, a 2-CD reissue of a Zig-Zag Territoires original from 2004. At the risk of encouraging you to max out your credit card and bank balance, my first impression that this, the most complete set of these motets, sacred and secular, is the one to have. At least, the CDs are not quite top price; the download version is relatively inexpensive and comes with the booklet (Ensemble Musica Nova: AECD1108). I’d better stop there before tempting you any further.

Brian Wilson

Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE

Chançon Ferai, que Talenz m’en est pris – Chanson d’amour [5:52]
Onques n’amai – Motet [1:25]
Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE
De Fine Amor vient Seance et Biautez – Chanson d’amour [6:28]
Qui Loiaument sert s’amie – Motet [1:42]
Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE
J’aloie l’autrier errant – Pastourelle [5:15]
Nus Hom ne puet ami reconforter – Chanson d’amour [7:01]
Septime Estampie Real – Danse [3:12]
Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE
Dame, Merci, une rien vos demant – Débat [4:49]
Hue de La FERTÉ (fl.1220-1235)
En Talent ai que je die – Chanson historique[ 2:58]
Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE
Pour conforter ma pesance faz un son – Chanson d’amour [2:21]
L’autrier par la Matinee – Pastourelle [3:24]
Dou tres douz Non a la Virge Marie – Chanson pieuse [5:35]
Au Tans Plein de Felonie – Chanson de croisade [3:16]
Danse Real – Danse instrumentale [2:21]
Thibaut de CHAMPAGNE
Seignor, saichies qui or ne s’en ira – Chanson de croisade [4:33]
Quinte Estampie Real – Danse [3:47]

Alla Francesca/Brigitte Lesne:
Vivabiancaluna Biffi (vielle and medieval bow)
Pierre Bourhis (vocal and speech)
Michaël Grébil (luth, cittern, percussion)
Brigitte Lesne (vocal, harp-psaltery (‘rote’), medieval harp, percussion)
Emmanuel Vistorky (vocal)

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