musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Medieval songs from Germany

[I] "Die Weisheit des Alters - 'Ars moriendi' im Minnesang" (The wisdom of age in minnesang)
ensemble für frühe musik augsburg
rec: March 29 - 30, ?2020. Augsburg, Maria Ward Saal
Christophorus - CHR 77442 (© 2020) (61'15")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

ALBRECHT VON JOHANNSDORF (c1165-c1210): Mich mac der tod von ir minnen wol scheiden; anon: Alleluja; Caldy valdy; Dulce solum; Ecce letantur omnia; 2 Estampies; Passamezzo; Sion plaude; HEINRICH VON MEISSEN ('FRAUENLOB') (13th C): Myn vroud ist gar czugangen; HILDEGARD OF BINGEN (1098-1179): Patriarchen; Colin MUSET (13th C): Volez oir; NEINDHART VON REUENTHAL (c1180-c1240): Mann hort nicht mehr süessen schal; Si clagen das der winder; Willekommen sumerwetter; Winter deine mail; OSWALD VON WOLKENSTEIN (1378-1445): Ich sich und hör; Zwar alte schuld bringt neues laid

Rainer Herpichböhm, Heinz Schwamm, chant, fiddle, lute

[II] "Carmina Predulcia - Music from the Schedel Songbook (15th century)"
Ensemble Almara
Dir: Elisabeth Pawelke
rec: 2019, Regensburg, Quintenquanten Studio
Naxos - 8.551440 (© 2020) (36'47")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Ach scheyden bitter ist dein art; Aus far ich hin; In hoffenung thu ich leben; In suser wonne guthe; Le serviteur infortuné; O lib wie süß dein anfanck ist; Guillaume DUFAY (c1400-1474): Malheureux cuer; Se la face ay palle; Conrad PAUMANN (c1410-1473); Wiplich figur

Elisabeth pawelke, soprano, harp; Birgit Muggenthaler-Schmack, recorder, bagpipes; Sabine Kreutzberger, fiddle, viol; Christoph Eglhuber, lute, salterio; Sascha Gotowtschikow, percussion; Christian Jungwirth, reciter

Secular music is mostly devoted to love, either happy or unhappy. However, even happy love comes to an end sometime: when old age arrives and death is near. The first disc under review here is devoted to songs of the Middle Ages, in which poets reflect on their lives, when they have grown old, and what may happen when they die. The title is taken from two books "dating from about 1415 and 1450 which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to "die well" according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. It was written within the historical context of the effects of the macabre horrors of the Black Death 60 years earlier and consequent social upheavals of the 15th century. The earliest versions were most likely composed in southern Germany. It was very popular, translated into most West European languages, and was the first in a western literary tradition of guides to death and dying. About 50,000 copies were printed in the incunabula period before 1501 and further editions were printed after 1501". (Wikipedia).

The fact that the first versions may have been written in southern Germany makes it especially appropriate to use this title, as most of the programme consists of texts in German. The effects of old age as mentioned in these songs show some similarities with the way the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes describes the state of man in his latest days: "the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves; (...) the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of grinding is low, (...) when they shall be afraid of that which is high, (...) and desire shall fail". This passage concludes with the refrain: "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity". This is expressed in the poets looking back at their lives and their loves.

The poets describe not only the tribulations of old age ("my limbs are all weakened by tremors"), but also reflect on what they have done with their life. They realise that they will be judged in afterlife, and do repentence: "My sins now plague me deeply and I regret having commited them". They decide to change their behaviour in order to prepare for the inevitable death: "I now wish to please God with fasting, prayer, going to church and atoning for my sins on bended knee". Heinrich von Meissen, also known as Frauenlob, cries for help: "Death, what would you do with me? Help poor Frauenlob, whom Death will soon be approaching, lament in sorrow". He ends with the words "These are the words of Frauenlob before his end. Amen."

Not every piece is that closely associated with the subject of this disc. Neidhart von Reuenthal's Willekomen sumerweter süeze is about a young girl who looks forward to dancing during summer; "may the winter stay away for a long time". His song Mann hort nicht mehr süessen schal is about a man who longs for the love of a woman. Without it, his life is like winter; the latter season is also used by poets as an allegory for old age.

The songs in the programme are all monophonic, but performed here with instrumental accompaniment. It seems an established fact that in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, singers used to accompamy themselves on a plucked or strung instrument. That justifies this approach; the performers have to improvise the accompaniments. The Christophorus disc does not tell what roles the two performers play in the different items: whether they accompany themselves or each other. The way the songs are sung is often strongly declamatory, which allows for a graphic expression of the text. Neidhart von Reuenthal's Si clagen das der winder is a perfect example.

These two artists deliver very lively performances and as a result the texts are eloquently communicated. It is just a shame that the lyrics are not available in English translations. Even so, lovers of medieval music should not miss this fine disc.

The second disc focuses on a remarkable and important manuscript, known as the Schedel Songbook. It is called after its first owner, who also brought the pieces together. Hartmann Schedel was a typical uomo universale: he was from Nuremberg, and studied medicine and liberal arts in Leipzig and Padua, worked for some time in Nördlingen and Amberg, and then returned to Nuremberg, where he would stay the rest of his life. He devoted himself to all fields of knowledge, such as theology, astronomy, philosophy and law. He seems to have had no special interest in music. "It seems that he wrote down the songs of his compendium primarily out of documentary interest and that with a lasting success as two thirds of the lyrics have been surviving for posterity until today [only in this source]", Timo Nüßlein states in the booklet.

The manuscript, now preserved in the Bavarian State Library, includes almost 130 items: French chansons, Latin motets and 75 pieces in German, most of them not known from other sources. Most of them are anonymous and monophonic. The texts are all about love. The French items are well known, such as Dufay's Se la face ay pale. That explains why only the incipits are given. Two of them have be included to illustrate the fact that this manuscript seems to have been intended as a collection of French chansons in the first place.

One may regret this decision, especially as the disc's playing time is unusually short (basically, less than 37 minutes is unacceptable, even for a budget disc). However, to be honest, what seems a serious blot on this production is a kind of blessing in disguise. This collection is undoubtedly highly interesting, but is not served very well by the Ensemble Almara, I'm afraid, To start with, Elisabeth Pawelke has a nice voice, but her singing is rather bland and undifferentiated. It is more of the same the whole time. It would have been nice if some other singer(s) had been involved. Second, as I already wrote that monophic music was mostly performed with instrumental accompaniment, there is no objection to an involvement of instruments. But what we have here goes too far. Too often percussion is used, and in particular in the interludes between the stanzas of a song, too many instruments participate. One feels to be taken back to the days when medieval and early renaissance music was 'orchestrated'. I am pretty sure that this is not the way this kind of songs were performed at the time.

This interesting collection deserves a thorough exploration and a recording that does justice to the character of the songs included in it and the performing habits of the time.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

ensemble für frühe musik augsburg

CD Reviews