March 23, 2012

Troubadour influences

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 4

Rosa de las Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria”. Música Antigua/Eduardo Paniagua. Pneuma (link)

Troubadours fleeing Provence in the aftermath of the Albigensian crusade would have found welcome at the court of King Alfonso X of Castile and Léon in northwestern Iberia. Alfonso, known as El Sabio or ‘the Wise’, gathered together Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars and artists during his reign from 1252 to 1284. He introduced various social and legal reforms and encouraged the work of astronomers and astrologers, but his great contribution to music was his commissioning – and possible co-authoring – of a vast collection of songs called the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Compiled over three decades and now surviving in four manuscripts, the Cantigas comprises some 420 poems pertaining to the Virgin Mary; the songs are grouped in tens, nine of each group being narratives describing miracles attributed to Mary (one song recounts how Alfonso himself was healed), with the tenth being a hymn of praise. The poems are in Galician-Portuguese, the forerunner of modern Portuguese, and the music is related to popular songs of the day as well as troubadour and trouvère melodies. The Cantigas manuscripts come with numerous miniatures depicting musicians playing more than 40 different kinds of instruments, a boon to modern academics and performers seeking inspiration for how the music might have been performed. Given the presence of Arabs and Moors at Alfonso’s court, not to mention some Moorish instruments shown in the miniatures, musicologists have been tempted to speculate on an Arabic influence on the music.

Laude sulla vita di Gesu”. Concentus Lucensis; I Cantori del Miserere/Stefano Albarello. Tactus (link)

Italy in the 13th century saw the development of a monophonic vernacular religious song called the laudaspirituale (plural laude spirituali), which again shows similarities to the troubadour and trouvère style. Lay fraternities called laudesi gathered to sing such songs, which might be sung in a liturgical context or accompanying processions, but the laude spirituali became associated particularly with the Franciscans, whose order had been founded in the early years of the century; St Francis of Assisi called for his followers to be “God’s minstrels” and sing praise to the Lord. From about 1260, a wave of religious fervour swept through northern Italy and elsewhere as people responded to difficult times with a desire for penitence. Laude were sung by the most ardent of these, the flagellanti, who would walk the streets naked while lashing themselves with whips. Fortunately Concentus Lucensis’s album sounds like the performers were well-behaved; in this recording, unison voices are combined with soloists in a sequence of laude that creates a dramatic narrative of the life of Christ.

Minnesang: Die Grosse Anthologie”. Various artists. Christophorus (link)

In the German-speaking lands, the equivalent of a troubadour was a Minnesinger, the word Minne being translatable as “courtly love”. At first, Minnesang was closely related to its French counterpart: the trouvère Guyot de Provins was part of the retinue of Beatrice of Burgundy, who married the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1156, and the early Minnesinger made use of his melodies. By the 13th century, however, the Minnesinger were composing their own music to suit the German language. There were three basic genres of Minnesang: the Minnelied,which was the courtly love song equivalent to the troubadours’ canso; the Leich, which was a through-composed narrative form; and the Spruch, which addressed political, social, religious, and philosophical topics and appears to be related to an indigenous German form. In the early days of the Minnesinger, it was the case that nobles sang Minnelied while travelling musicians of lower standing sang Spruch, but both genres were mastered by Walther von der Vogelweide (c.1170 – c.1230), regarded as one of the greatest of the Minnesinger. As happened with the trouvères, the art of the Minnesinger became popularized over the course of the 13th century and (at least for some of its practitioners) moved away from the courtly tradition. Neidhart von Reuenthal (c. 1190 – at least 1236) wrote dance songs in a more vernacular style that made use of irony, parody, and coarse humour. The Minnesinger were followed in the 14th century by the Meistersinger, burghers rather than noblemen, who founded guilds and held song contests much as the late trouvères did. This German art persisted for much longer than its French equivalent: the last of the Minnesingers was the colourful and well-travelled diplomat Oswald von Wolkenstein, who died in 1445, and the Meistersingers were at their peak in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Note: “Minnesang: Die Grosse Anthologie” combines two discs that are also available separately – “Minnesang: The Golden Age” and “Minnesang: The Mature Period”; the former has a wider variety of composers.

Carmina Burana”. Clemencic Consort. Oehms (link)

 Thanks to a 20th-century composition by German composer Carl Orff, the Carmina Burana has become the best-known of all sources of medieval music. This collection – which was discovered in the monastery of Benediktbeuren in Bavaria in 1803 and whose title translates simply as Songs of Beuren – comprises over 200 poems, mostly in Latin and about a quarter of them accompanied by some form of musical notation. The poems were written by goliards, wandering scholars and clergymen who were highly critical of the church and its corruption and parodied its institutions. The texts in the Carmina Burana have been categorized into three main groups: moral and satirical poems, poems dealing with love and sex, and bawdy verses celebrating drinking, feasting, and gambling. Although the collection was produced in Bavaria or in nearby parts of present-day Austria or northern Italy, the songs come from many parts of western Europe, and melodies have been traced to sources such as the Notre Dame school and the St Martial manuscripts of Aquitaine. Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana of 1936 used 24 poems from the original collection, but all of the music was Orff’s own. And in fact one of the pieces from the original that has become popular among today’s medieval ensembles, “Ich was ein chint so wolgetan” (“I was such a good child”), is performed in a modern setting by René Clemencic; thus, old music becomes new again.

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant   (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony   (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères (8tracks mix)

Filed under A History of Classical Music, Classical