Nov 252014

The Dawn of Romance – Songs and music of the early troubadours of Provence.

EMI CSD 3785 (1978)

What is the oldest music in your record collection? For many it would probably be some Baroque: Bach, or Telemann. But this is only early- to mid-eighteenth century. How about Palestrina? Better, however this is still only 16th century.

OK – some Gregorian chant maybe? Now were getting there – 9th to 10th century. Well the music I want to discuss is not quite as old as this. What I want to discuss are the songs and music of the troubadours of the late 12th and early 13th century, as arranged on this record by Martin Best.

This is music of the Provence region of France; also known as Languedoc [1]. Troubadours [2] were wandering minstrels of the time and sang songs of courtly love often accompanied by a lute, psaltery, rebec or shawm. Sometimes their singing was accompanied by recorders, regal, harp or nakers and hammer dulcimer. All of these medieval instruments are used at various times on this recording.

There were thought to be approximately 500 troubadours during the period 1086 – 1250, setting to music about 1,000 poetic forms which, in turn, formed the basis of later European poetry.

A central subject the troubadours brought into being was a philosophy of love. Martin Best explains this well in the sleeve notes:

This was the main impulse behind the songs, and it combined with skill in versification to be called ‘gai saber’, joyful art or skill. This came under the loose heading of ‘Cortezia’. This was more than ‘courtesy’ or good manners, and more than noble birth – though both are implicit in term. It implied virtues, which could be acquired as well as inherited: ‘valor’ or worthiness, ‘honour’ or honourableness, an absence of deviousness, ‘prez’, a nobility of character and bearing. But the highest and most essential quality to be displayed was ‘Joi’, ‘Joy’, and the way to that took the form of a quest, a search for love itself, brought on by sexual chaos, folly or a cultivated technique of distancing oneself from an unnamed object of desire.”

This idea of love had to co-exist with the Church, which it did more or less uneasily, until the Albigensian Crusade, launched around 1207 – 9, lumped it together with the various heretical groups centred round Albi and destroyed the Provencal society which supported it. The coexistence was uneasy because the mediaeval church regarded any pleasure in sex as adultery, a mortal sin. The troubadours got around this partly by embracing adultery itself and partly by inventing love as a valid reason for passionate expression, adulterous, restrained or mystical. Provence was a land whose feudal order was not only looser than elsewhere, but was also in touch with Arabic Spain, Byzantium, North Africa and Palestine. It was rich, possessed of strong linguistic identity so that a rise in economic fortunes coupled with a burgeoning tradition of dialectic discussion made the basic sexual challenge to church authority fairly straightforward. The Church wrung its hands but it needed the excuse of the Albi heretics to extinguish the troubadours. Before it did so, the exploration of the possibilities of love had ensured them a too firm foundation for them ever to die.”

The songs of the troubadours took several forms, or categories under the general heading of ‘vers’: ‘canso’, a love song of several stanzas; ‘tenso’, a sung dialogue; ‘Sirvantes’, a political or war-song; ‘prec’, a prayer; ‘planh’ a lament and ‘balada’, a dance-song.

“The adulterous and/or erotic nature of many ‘cansos’ (a love song consisting of several stanzas) may have been contrived, or it may have been a reflection of real behaviour: the same applies to the restrained nature of expression found in pure love (‘fin amours’). While the troubadour was deeply concerned with the techniques outlined above, the heart of the discovery was – and remains – that by love-experience the human spirit is tempered and elevated: its tensions and demands lead to new heights of awareness, and the ultimate reward of the quest, undertaken with ‘cortenza’ is unity, integration, Joy.”

There are 17 tracks on this LP. Most of the tracks feature the voice of Martin Best who also plays the lute and psaltery (a stringed instrument of the zither family). Other contributing performers are:

Altos (from The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir) – Catherine Denley, Cherith Millburn-Fryer and Jean Temperley,

Rebec (a bowed stringed instrument of the Renaissance era. In its most common form, it has a narrow boat-shaped body and 1-5 strings. Played on the arm or under the chin, the technique and tuning may have influenced the development of the violin.) – Alistair McLachian,

(Image: Wikipedia)

Shawm (a medieval and Renaissance musical instrument of the woodwind family) – Alan Lumsden,

(Image: Wikipedia)

Recorders, Portative Organ and Regal (the latter being a keyboard instrument manually pumped by bellows and having a raucous, nasal sound) – Jeremy Barlow,

Mediaeval Harp – David Watkins

Nakers, Chime Bells, Tabor and Hammer Dulcimer (nakers being a drum, of Arabic origin, and the forebear of the European timpani, and the tabor being a small drum having one calf-skin head) – David Corkhill.

The insert sleeve notes provide, where appropriate, the original lyrics (with translation), as well as the instruments played on the respective tracks.

Despite the somewhat serious introduction to the art of the troubadours, this is a lovely recording – being at times: enthusiastic, soulful, wistful and joyous. Enjoy!

I don’t really like to rate recordings, but seeing that it is one of my favourites I have to score it as follows –

Musical content: 10/10

Recording: 10/10.

Equipment used:

EMT 930st turntable with EMT 929 arm and EMT TSD-15 (sfl) cartridge with EMT 155 equalisation amplifier, or Thorens TD124/II turntable with either Denon 103 or Ortofon SPU cartridge in an SME 3012 arm.

Modified Linn LINNK phonostage used with the Denon and Ortofon cartridges.

Mark Levinson ML-28 preamplifier

Mark Levinson ML-2 Class A monoblock power amplifiers, closely coupled to Quad ESL 57 speakers.

Interconnects: balanced line XLR terminated cables between the preamp and the power amplifiers.

Barry Hunt 

[1] Languedoc < Langue d’oc, because “oc” meaning “Yes”, was different from the northern “oeil”, later “oui”.



© Text Copyright and all photos 2014 Barry Hunt, except where noted and the Copyright there belongs with the named party. 

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission, failure to do so may result in legal proceedings.

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