About this Recording
8.572265 - Vocal Ensemble Music - SEIZED BY SWEET DESIRE - Singing Nuns and Ladies, From the Cathedral to the Bed Chamber (Musica Ficta, Holten)

Seized by Sweet Desire
The Music of Notre-Dame


Musical life in nunneries of the Middle Ages was generally rich. The fact that women were subsequently precluded from participation in public music-making is misleading, since we know that the teaching and performance of music in convents was, from an early date, carried on at a very high level, as in the best monasteries. Often the nuns cultivated their own unique repertoire, while keeping up with newer developments in Europe.

The development of polyphonic music in the period from 800 to 1170 was quite slow and took different forms throughout Europe. Special circumstances (or pure coincidence?) resulted in quite revolutionary developments in music associated with Notre-Dame in Paris. Perhaps these almost explosive developments had something to do with flourishing student life, or perhaps with the extreme concentration of learned scholars and musicians.

This development around 1200 in Paris resulted in the so-called Notre-Dame style, where for the first time in Europe three- and four-part notated music was heard. A giant step in music was taken here within a very short span of time. This new style also features an incredible and surprising rhythmic vitality only comparable to the rhythmic complexities of extreme twentieth-century music. The churches of Paris were competing to produce the most lavish musical adornments of the divine service at major feasts. The few singers who could master this difficult virtuoso style, called organistae (i.e. performers of organum), were quick to exploit the situation, and their wages rose considerably. So already around 1200 we have the first examples of highly paid singers, a feature that became characteristic of Europe in the following eight hundred years, with singers commanding fees that it would be difficult for instrumentalists to equal.

A unique source, Anonymous 4, writes about this tradition some decades later (c. 1280):

“[This liber] was in use up to the time of the great Perotinus, who made a redaction of it [‘abbreviavit eundem’] and made many better clausulas, that is, puncta, he being the best discantor, and better [at discant] than Leoninus was. …This Magister Perotinus made the best quadrupla, such as Viderunt and Sederunt, with an abundance of striking musical embellishments [colores armonicae artis]; likewise, the noblest tripla, such as Alleluia, Posui adiutorium and [Alleluia], Nativitas etc. He also made three-voice conductus, such as Salvatoris hodie, and two-voice conductus, such as Dum sigillum summi Patris, and also, among many others, monophonic conductus, such as Beata viscera etc. The book, that is, the books of Magister Perotinus, were in use in the choir of the Paris cathedral of the Blessed Virgin up to the time of Magister Robertus de Sabilone, and from his time up to the present day.”

During the thirteenth century these great organum compositions, and the names of the leading composers Léonin and Pérotin, spread all over Europe and became very popular and much performed. The most “catchy” episodes from the major works went with the singers out into the streets or at parties, where these Organistae could make still more money with the same music. Now these episodes were provided with new texts of a much more worldly nature and thus a new musical form was born, the Motet, often with love-lyrics, nature descriptions and the like, and sometimes with different texts in different voices.

We perform this unique repertoire with all its sacred and secular variants, but from an unusual angle. Research tells us that this music was thriving among nuns also (maybe not the most bawdy) and in my view the Notre-Dame style is especially well suited to female voices. Up to now this repertoire has usually always been performed by men, witness various recordings—but performing it with female voices shows new and valuable elements in this music—greater transparency and clearer harmony among them.

Women Trouvères

The tradition of noble, courtly song that flourished in France around 1100 and spread considerably over the next two hundred years, is generally loosely attributed to the troubadours. In fact this word refers only to the southern French type, sung in langue d’oc. There is also a northern French type. Here the singers are called trouvères, and the songs are sung in langue d’oil, the northern dialect of French. We know of several hundred of these song writers, but until recently we have believed male musicologists’ denial of the fact that there might have existed female trouvères. In 2001 a study was published in which four American female scholars argued very convincingly for the existence of female authors of texts and in fact also female composers. (See below)

Many of the texts feature female protagonists, and view the world from a decidedly female perspective, hardly credibly to have been written by men. In the sources it is possible to trace as many as eight of these “trouveresses”: Blanche de Castille, la Dame de Gosnai, la Dame de la Chausie, la Duchesse de Lorraine, Lorete, Dame Margot, Maroie de Diergnau and finally Sainte des Prez. At that time, as was also the case in the nineteenth century, it was part of the proper upbringing of girls from good families that they should be educated in singing and in playing instruments. The period where women were kept out of common musical life is later, mostly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Musically the women trouvère songs are naturally similar to those of their male colleagues, but often in the texts there are revealing glimpses of the restricted lives of young women, either forced unwillingly into arranged marriages to old men, or confined in nunneries for different reasons that should be hidden from the public eye. These songs, in any case, do not display any serious disinclination for the outspoken or even bawdy.

Many of the songs are monophonic, but there are several with two or three voices, and a single four-part song. Some are just notated as chant, that is with no given rhythm, which must therefore be conjectural. Yet with some knowledge of the style, a plausible result can be reached.

Bo Holten



Magnus Liber Organi de Nôtre-Dame de Paris, Volume 1, Édition de l’Oiseau-Lyre, Monaco 1993

Songs of the Women Trouvères. Edited, translated and introduced by Eglal Doss-Quinby, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, Elisabeth Aubrey. Yale University Press 2001

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