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8.572784 - Tristan's Harp (The) (Arthurian Medieval Music) (Capilla Antigua de Chinchilla, Ferrero)
English  Spanish 

Tristan’s Harp
Arthurian Medieval Music


“I know well how to play the harp and rote and how to sing in key” — Folie Tristan (Oxford version)

Ever since they first began to spread across Europe in the Middle Ages, the tales of King Arthur and his knights have inspired creativity in all spheres of artistic expression, music being no exception. At the same time as the literary works of Chrétien de Troyes or Geoffrey of Monmouth were appearing, bards and troubadours too were drawing on the tales for lyrical inspiration. By the thirteenth century, the songs of troubadours, trouvères and Minnesänger had brought the stories of Arthur, Merlin, Percival, Tristan and Iseult et al. (not to mention the Holy Grail) to audiences far and wide. This album takes a journey through the twelfth-, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Arthurian musical traditions of Germany, Spain, France and England. The chivalric feats, enchanted forests and love potions of the chronicles suited the courtly love aesthetic to perfection. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that music, adventure and love should go hand in hand, or that Tristan should be a skilled harpist who teaches Iseult to play. Music becomes an indispensable element in the development of the Arthurian legend.

The so-called “Matter of Britain” also reached the Iberian Peninsula, travelling along the “Camino de Santiago” to inspire poetry in the Galician-Portuguese language. Tristan’s Harp opens with one of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of the Virgin Mary) which were produced during the reign of Alfonso X, some of them written by the king himself, and which as a whole constitute the most significant song collection of medieval Spain. Cantiga No 35, O que a Santa Maria (He who to the Virgin Mary) [1], like most of the poems, tells the story of a Marian miracle, but also mentions King Arthur, as does No 419, Des quando Deus sa Madre (Since God his Mother) [12]. Merlin, meanwhile, appears in No 108, Dereit’ é de ss’ end’ achar (It is right therefore) [14], in which he argues with a Jewish sage about the doctrine of Incarnation.

Thibaut de Champagne, also known as Theobald I of Navarre and Theobald the Chansonnier, was born in Troyes in 1201 and died in Pamplona in 1253. He was a prolific writer and created works in a variety of genres, including the political song or serventois featured here, Deus est ensi comme li pellicans (God is like the pelican) [4]. This is thought to reflect the dispute that lasted from 1236 to 1239 between the Church, in the shape of its head, Pope Gregory IX, and the German emperor Frederick II, over where those preparing to fight in the Sixth Crusade should be sent (Palestine or Constantinople). It includes an allusion to the wisdom of Merlin, and grows in intensity as Thibaut accuses the Church of abusing its position.

Redit aetas aurea (The age of gold returns) [5] is an anonymous English two-part conductus in the style of the Notre Dame School. It belongs to the Old St Andrews Music Book (W1) and was normally performed as a processional piece. Written for the coronation of Richard the Lionheart, it was also used for those of some of his successors.

Richard himself wrote the song Ja nuls homs pres (No man imprisoned) [6] while he was being held prisoner in Dürnstein as part of his eventful journey home from the Third Crusade in 1192. Captured near Vienna by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, he was then handed over to the German emperor, Henry VI. Richard wrote this song in both the langue d’oc and langue d’oïl—the more frequently performed and better-known version is the latter, in the language of northern France (medieval French), and we have therefore chosen to perform it in the langue d’oc, or Occitan, on this album. The lyrics of this, perhaps one of the most beautiful songs of the entire medieval period, tell of his unhappiness at having to wait for his ransom to be paid.

Pange melos lacrimosum (Compose a sorrowful song) [7] is another anonymous two-part conductus of the Notre Dame School. It appears to refer to the death in 1190 of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa when he was on his way to fight alongside Richard in Palestine. Barbarossa, like Arthur, was to become the subject of numerous myths and legends.

A common musical form in the Middle Ages was that of the contrafactum, in which a text was adapted to a piece of music that suited its metre, so that musicians simply needed to learn new words for tunes they knew well. We include here a text by Heinrich von Veldeke, Tristrant muste sonder danc (Tristran was involuntarily faithful) [2], set to the music of an anonymous fourteenth-century Italian piece entitled Lamento di Tristano.

A further mention of Tristan is to be found in Can vei la lauzeta (When I see the lark) [11], one of the best-known songs of the troubadour repertory. Its author, Provençal poet and composer Bernart de Ventadorn, served at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Richard the Lionheart’s mother) in England, then returned to Aquitaine—firstly to the court of Narbonne and then to that of Raymond V of Toulouse. On the latter’s death in 1194, Bernart became a monk at the Abbey of Dalon, where he later died.

Trouvère Le Châtelain de Coucy compares himself to Tristan grieving for his lost love in his song La douce voiz du louseignol sauvage (The sweet voice of the wild nightingale) [9]. A highly tragic tale grew up around Le Châtelain de Coucy, inspiring a number of books on the subject: legend had it that after his death, the poet’s heart was fed to his lover, the Dame de Fayel, by her jealous husband…

The Stantipes (or Estampies) I, II and III [3] [10] [13] are anonymous thirteenth-century English dances, to which we decided to add a subtitle befitting this album’s Arthurian slant. In common with other estampies, such as the well-known piece entitled Tre fontane (Three fountains), they can also be seen as abstract instrumental works. Our chosen subtitle, “Dances of the forest of no return”, is a nod to a reference in the Vulgate Cycle to the knights and ladies compelled to dance for ever in the “Forest Perdue”.

José Ferrero
English version: Susannah Howe

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