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"Mia yrmana fremosa - Medieval woman's songs of love and pain"


rec: March 5 - 7 & May 9, 2009, Berlin, St. Albertus Magnus Kirche
Challenge Classics - CC72385 (© 2010) (71'19")

anon: Bele Aelis par matin se leva, motet [4]; Bele Yolanz, chanson de toile [3]; De vergonna nos guardar [1]; Endurez, endurez les dous mas d'amer, motet [4]; God de bat eyn zelelin [7,6]; Ich was ein chint sô wôlgetan [2]; Ick draghe an mynes herten grunt [7,5]; Procurans odium, conductus [2]; Tres hermanicas eran, ballad; Trois serors sor rive mer, motet [4]; Gaby BULTMANN: Estampie Endurez, endurez les dous mas d'amer; Martín CODAX (fl c1230): Cantigas de amigo; Richart DE FOURNIVAL (1201-1260): Onques n'amai tant que jou fui aimee, motet & chanson de femme; Etienne DE MEAUX (13th C): Trop est mes maris jalos, chanson de malmariée; Neidhart VON REUENTHAL (c1180-c1237): Blôzen wir den anger ligen sâhen

Sources: [1] Cantigas de Santa Maria, c1280-83; [2] Carmina burana, c1230; [3] Chansonnier de St.-Germain-des-Prés, 13th C; [4] Codex Montpellier; [5] Liederbuch der Anna von Köln, c1500 [music]; [6] Rostocker Liederbuch, late 15th C [music]; [7] Wienhäuser Liederbuch, c1470 [text]

Gaby Bultmann, voice, vielle, psaltery, recorder, stringed tabor, bells, frame drumm, riqq; Leila Schoeneich, voice, recorders, stringed tabor, frame drum; Amanda Simmons, voice, romanesque harp, tambourine, castanets, scallop shells

"Mulier taceat in ecclesia" - that was the general principle in the Christian church of the Middle Ages. But they were not only silent in church, they seem also to have been silent outside. In many chansons of the Middle Ages women are speaking, but it is very likely their words came from the pen of a man. There is strong evidence, though, that the troubadours and trouvères had their female counterparts. We mostly don't know their names, and therefore one may assume that some pieces which have come down to us anonymously were written by women. One would expect that this programme of "medieval woman's songs of love and pain" would include some items which can be attributed to women. But according to Amanda Simmons in her liner-notes that is not the case. It's true that all of them are written from a female perspective, but the words are put into the mouth of a woman by a man. She adds that these songs - because they have been written by men - "could perhaps be thought to reflect the male desire and fantasy about women and their reflection of the female stereotype during the Middle Ages (...)".

The programme is divided into various sections. The first is called "By the sea" - in these songs the sea and the waves play an important role. The main part of this section is the cycle of seven songs by Martín Codax, Cantigas de amigo.
A frequent subject of medieval woman's songs are dialogues between a mother and her daughter. The second section is devoted to this theme, and here we hear a specimen of so-called chansons de toile, in which women are depicted doing hand- and needlework like spinning and sewing.
The third section is devoted to the chanson de malmariée, an important genre in medieval French lyric. It refers to "a woman's song about the unhappily married young woman (...) who complains about her old, jealous, and lurking husband, while longing for her young and handsome lover (...)".
The fourth section is called "Laments", and here we hear a piece about a woman complaining about the loss of her love and a lament of a woman who has been raped.
The last section is about "Celestial love", where music is performed in which religious women express "the mystical and exalted love for the 'heavenly groom'". The pieces in this section are reflecting the spirit of the devotio moderna, a movement of spiritual reform in Northern Germany and the Netherlands.
The programme is framed by a 'prologue' and an 'epilogue' in which the anonymous motet Endurez, endurez les dous mas d'amer is performed. This piece - or rather fragments of it - also opens every single section. Its title, "Endure, endure the sweet pains of love", is used as a motto for the programme on this disc.

The pieces are taken from various sources, like the Carmina Burana, the Codex Montpellier and the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Most of them are anonymous, and only in some cases a composer is known, like Martín Codax, Neidhart von Reuenthal, Etienne de Meaux and Richart de Fournival. In some cases the lyrics have come without music, and here melodies are taken from other sources. The sixth song from the Cantigas de amigo has also survived without music. Here the ensemble uses a melody which was written by Thomas Binkley.

There are many insecurities about the way this kind of repertoire was performed. Many pieces are monodic, and the question is whether they should be performed that way or rather arranged into polyphonic pieces. That is what Triphonia has done.
Another issue is the use of instruments. Should the music of troubadours and trouvères be performed with voice(s) only or with instruments? If the latter is the case: which and how many? Triphonia uses quite a number of various instruments which are deployed in various combinations.
And then there is the question how the voice should be used. Should attempts be made to express the texts, or should they be sung in a more neutral, or rather 'instrumental' way?

In all these matters I am rather unhappy with the decisions the members of Triphonia have taken. The instruments are too frequently used, and often in combinations which have little historical plausibility, for instance a string and a wind instrument. What is even worse is the frequent use of percussion which becomes rather stereotypical after a while. I can't see any reason for that. It is also a mystery to me why instruments from outside Europe have been used.
All pieces are performed with more than one voice. Sometimes that may make sense, but in those songs where only one woman is speaking, like Martín Codax's Cantigas de amigo, it seems rather odd. The same goes for the songs in the section devoted to 'Celestial love'. The style of singing is also rather questionable. The artists clearly think they should express the text, and therefore they colour their voices in various ways, according to the text or the character as they see them. Some songs are even treated as a kind of cabaret songs. I can't see any historical foundation for this.

On the internet I found a review in which the author characterised this disc as 'pseudo-medieval'. I tend to agree, but whereas he assessed that rather positively I take the opposite view. These performances are probably meant to bring the world of medieval music closer to a modern audience. For me it works just the opposite way. I also strongly doubt whether this music is becoming more accessible if it is seen through contemporary glasses.

The booklet includes all lyrics, with English and German translations, as well as a list of the instruments used and the literary and musical sources. Ironically the booklet is much better than the performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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