Review Summary: Part IV -- Refined, yet unrequited
The tides of history preserve information in frustrating, if perennially explainable ways; traditions of those with access to power are preserved, while those with no such access are either lost or preserved in mere snippets. It follows, then, that when considering the stranglehold of influence the Catholic Church had over the West in the Middle Ages, naturally the spiritual music of the era has been much better preserved than any of the secular, "common-practice" music that existed. And make no mistake: secular music existed to a sizeable degree during this time, and a good chunk of it was likely polyphonic and featured a wide swath of different instruments. Apart from the archaeological record showcasing the evolution of these various instruments over time, however, we have little way of tracking developments in this vast chunk of the Western musical world.
The first secular music to receive substantial preservation was that of the troubadours, a group of lyrical poets who gained prominence in the region of Aquitaine during the early 12th century thanks to the efforts of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071 - 1127). A prolific poet in his own right, William's ability to weave a musical narrative became the stuff of legend in medieval France, earning him the nickname "William the Troubadour". The troubadour tradition emphasized the idea of fin’ amors
(“refined love”), a sharp change in the style of love songs at that time -- previous depictions of love held the lover and the loved one as equals, but in this style, the lover idealizes the (often unattainable) loved one, worshipping the ground they walk on. It adds a sense of desperation and pleading to the words. If it wasn’t already, fin’ amors
quickly became the defining characteristic of the troubadour tradition, and the Duke of Aquitaine’s endorsement of the style helped it gain favor throughout local aristocracies, who began investing substantial amounts of money into the practitioners of the art.
The latter half of the 12th century saw a rapid expansion of the troubadour tradition, from Aquitaine eastward into parts of Italy and southward into parts of Spain. This expansion is considered indicative of the “classical period” of troubadour performance, and from this time comes arguably the most famous troubadour of all: Bernart de Ventadorn (c. 1130 - c. 1200). A peasant’s son born in what is now Corrèze, Bernart learned the art of performance at an early age and, as so many of his contemporaries did, marketed his skills to wealthy patrons. In Bernart’s case, his patron was Eleanor of Aquitaine, the granddaughter of William the Troubadour and a staunch advocate for the arts in her own right. Indeed, some believe that Eleanor and Bernart may have had a romantic relationship, for he entered her service around the time of her first divorce and left it shortly after her second marriage, and certain contemporary sources believe she was the inspiration for much of his output. Regardless, Bernart followed Eleanor to England around 1154, the first of the troubadours to spread his art over there.
Bernart’s oeuvre is by far the largest of the troubadours to have survived; 45 lyrics of his survive, 18 of them possessing music. The most famous of Bernart’s works is Can vei la lauzeta mover
(“When I see the lark”), which has become arguably the definitive troubadour song because of its haunting melody and its lyrical content, using the metaphor of a lark’s flight in such a striking way that Dante Alighieri borrowed the metaphor in his Paradiso
just 100 years later.
“When I see the lark
Spread its wings for joy and fly towards the sun,
Forget itself, and fall
In the bliss that rushes to its heart
Alas! How I then envy
All creatures that I see happy.
I am amazed that my heart
Does not melt away there and then with longing.
” -- Bernart de Ventadorn, trans. Todd Tarantino
“Like a young lark which, as it soars through space,
First sings, and then is silent, satisfied
With the last sweetness which contended her;
Such seemed to me the image of the seal
Of that Eternal Pleasure, by whose will.
Each thing becometh what it is.
” -- Dante, trans. Courtney Langdon
The wistfulness of the first stanza transforms into despair for the remainder of the song; this is a song about heartbreak, the words of someone who has been rejected and cannot comprehend anything but the love he has shown this nameless woman. “I despair of all women/Never again shall I trust them
”, the protagonist states, and since his lady does not love him, he chooses to go into self-exile -- a haunting ending given that Bernart’s last years were spent in a convent, probably alone and probably unable to further practice the art that had sustained him for so long. More than a lot of other music written during this time, the emotions of this piece feel incredibly modern -- timeless, one might say.
“You will not see my sorrow,
Since I am going, wretched not knowing where.
I renounce and deny my songs
And flee from joy and from love.
Martin Best Mediaeval Ensemble (1982): https://open.spotify.com/track/1VQYzJ2YQagnROuKUj5Ej1?si=f8c33535c0ce43b1