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8.572800 - Percival's Lament - Medieval Music and the Holy Grail (Capilla Antigua de Chinchilla, Ferrero)
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Percival’s Lament
Medieval Music and the Holy Grail


“Munsalvaesche…opposite the church there stands a high mountain.” – Wolfram von Eschenbach

The Holy Grail, and the idea of some kind of spiritual quest, has been a key motif in Western history for many centuries now, one which has left its mark on all aspects of our culture, including music. Many believe the Grail to have been the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathea then collected the blood of the dying Christ. It was then thought to have been brought to Europe—to this day some believe the chalice housed in Valencia Cathedral to be the true Grail. Some see the quest as a search for one’s inner self, others as a journey to find “lost wisdom”, such is the Grail’s symbolic value.

Its first literary mention comes in the trouvère Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal Perceval (c. 1182). One of Chrétien’s patrons was Philip of Flanders who, between 1177 and 1178 had travelled to the Holy Land to help his ailing cousin Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (known as Baldwin the Leper), who offered him the regency of Palestine, on condition that he launch an attack on Egypt. Philip refused, and made his way home after a devastating defeat at Antioch. In his take on the Arthurian legend, Chrétien created a similarly close family relationship between Percival and the wounded Fisher King. His work, unlike the slightly later version of the tale told by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzival, first decade of the thirteenth century), shows the influence of Celtic traditions, specifically that of the cauldron of plenty—a symbol of fertility—echoed in Chrétien’s description of the Grail as a shallow serving dish (rather than a cup).

Wolfram, by contrast, saw the Grail as a precious stone, rather than any kind of vessel, and talked of it as having fallen from the crown of Lucifer on his expulsion from Heaven. This may reflect the wideheld belief in the powers, healing and otherwise, of gemstones, as expressed in the writings of the mystic Hildegard of Bingen, among others. Wolfram, who must have known Chrétien’s (unfinished) Perceval, created a new vision of the Grail in his Parzival. He tells us therein that a certain (probably fictional) Provençal poet named Kyot discovered in Toledo an Arabic manuscript, signed by an astrologer called Flegatanis. Wolfram was fascinated by the Orient, and incorporated various “eastern” details into his narrative: the hero’s half-brother (not mentioned in Chrétien’s version), for example, is the son of a Moorish queen.

He names the Grail castle as Monsalvaesche (which might mean “wild mountain” or “mountain of salvation”…)—some have taken this to be a reference to the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña in Huesca, in northeastern Spain, which for many years was home to the Valencia chalice (originally supposed to have been sent to Huesca from Rome by St Laurence). It is certainly true that the monastery’s proximity to the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route helped the legend of the Grail spread throughout Europe. Similarly, just as knightly orders guarded the Camino, so Wolfram has a knightly brotherhood protect the Grail.

Lamento de Perceval arose from our interest in music dating from the same period as the medieval Grail literature and in finding the common threads between them. These fascinating works are rarely performed or recorded, so the aim of this album is to bring the works of Chrétien, Wolfram and others to a wider audience.

There are instrumental links to our theme too—one of the wind instruments we play is based on a pipe to be found in a stone carving discovered at Glastonbury Abbey (said to be the site of both a Christian community founded by Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb of King Arthur). Our tambourin à cordes, or “string drum”, meanwhile, is a replica of a thirteenth-century instrument at Jaca Cathedral (not far from the San Juan de la Peña monastery), and brings rhythm and precision to the music we perform, especially the dances.

The song Was sol ein keyser (What good is an emperor without legitimacy?) [5] is based on a melody by Wolfram that was very well known in medieval times—Wolframs goldener Ton (Wolfram’s golden melody) [2]—which we also perform in an instrumental version and in which eastern influences are discernible. The Orient appears again in the text Do man dem edelen sîn getzelt (When the Landgrave of Thuringia’s tent) [13], with reference to the wondrous merchandise that could be acquired there, including “strange beasts”…

Wolfram, Tannhäuser and Walther von der Vogelweide were all linked to the court of Thuringia, whose ruler, the Landgrave, is mentioned in Do man dem edelen sîn getzelt. Tannhäuser’s Staeter dienest, der ist guot (It is good to render unfaltering service) [1] refers overtly to Percival/Parsifal and the Grail quest. We have included three songs by Walther, perhaps the best-known Minnesänger of medieval Germany. He would almost certainly have known Parzifal, given that he and Wolfram moved in the same courtly circles. Under der linden (Under the linden tree) [8], here performed as an instrumental piece, is a young woman’s pastoral tale of a tryst beneath a tree with her lover. Palästinalied (Song of Palestine) [10] is a crusade song whose text deals with both the beauty of the Holy Land and the miracle of Christ’s sacrifice, while Ich saz ûf eime steine (I sat on a stone) [14] is a philosophical song about the false nature of worldliness and the incompatibility of wealth and prestige with God’s favour, in the absence of peace and justice.

The text of Fowles in the frith [6] is ambiguously metaphorical—it talks about the birds in the wood and fish in the water, but may also have an underlying religious meaning related to Christ’s Passion.

No album about the Holy Grail would be complete without something by Chrétien de Troyes. His D’amors, qui m’a tolu a moi (With love, who has stolen me from myself) [3] is all about courtly love, the aesthetic that dominated the medieval love lyric. In it, the writer compares himself favourably to Tristan, saying that he loves his lady of his own free will, not because he is under the effects of a magic potion. Our title work, Percival’s Lament [7], is an instrumental version of this same song and conjures up the hero’s trudging steps as he nears the end of his lifelong pilgrimage in search of the Grail.

Rigaut de Berbezilh is one of the best-known troubadours of the medieval world. His wonderful love song Atressi com Persavaus el temps que vivia (Just as Percival, in his day) [4] (of which an instrumental version is given here) tells of Percival’s failure to ask about the lance and the Grail when he first sees them (at the Fisher King’s castle) and compares his fatal reluctance to speak with the narrator’s own inability to tell his lady of his love, so stupefied is he by her beauty.

Our final composer is the above-mentioned Hildegard of Bingen: we perform two of her beautiful works with a simple instrumental accompaniment: Laus Trinitati [11] and Karitas habundat (Divine love abounds) [9].

José Ferrero
English version: Naxos

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