Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Troubadour and the Nun

“The Troubadour and the Nun”, a disc on the Etcetera label, recorded by Ensemble Sprezzatura, takes a serious and profound look at the feminine mystery from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Members of the ensemble are Evelyn Tubb-soprano, Michael Fields-medieval harp, Renaissance lute, theorbo and David Hatcher-vielle, recorder, viola da gamba. Songs presented cover many aspects of courtly love and the idealized lady, from songs of the medieval troubadours to those of Renaissance composers. In addition to the joys and suffering of secular love as an ideal or as reality, the disc includes songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary as the embodiment of perfect virtue.

Giraut de Bornelh (c.1138-c.1200), born to a lower class family, was a poet and songwriter at the court of Alfonso II of Aragon and was referred to as the “master of troubadours” by his contemporaries. It is possible he went on the Third Crusade but it is known for sure that he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In “Reis Glorios” an erotic “dawn song” in the Occitan language (also known as Provencal), Evelyn Tubb takes the listener into the timelessness of night, to thoughts and dilemmas. Her singing is sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes accompanied by harp; lute and vielle play interludes.
‘Dear friend, calling you, song lifts my words,
Sleep no more, for I hear the song of birds
that go to seek the day through the trees,
And I fear that you, the Jealous One will seize.
And soon it will be dawn.’

Born in Limousin, Bernart de Ventadorn (1140-c.1180) was another prominent troubadour, the son of a servant. He is credited with 45 songs in various manuscripts, of which 20 have music. His most famous piece is “Can vei la lauzeta mover” (When I see the lark beating its wings). On the disc, the vielle sets the scene and the harp accompanies. The lark, a bird frequently symbolizing the woman, has broken the singer’s heart as she shows him no favor. Tubb breathes despair into each phrase of this tragedy of unrequited courtly love. The poignant anonymous “Bryd one brere” (Bird on a briar), a duet of voice and recorder, also uses the bird symbol.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a German abbess, author, counselor, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, visionary and composer. Tubb performs three of her songs on this disc, all three, needless to say, are songs of devotion to the Virgin Mary. Tubb sings “Ave Generosa”, (Hail, Most Noble Lady) and “O Clarissima Mater” (O shining light, Mother of healing) unaccompanied, weaving the melodic line of each phrase with mastery, articulacy, color, shape and endless interest. “O viridissima virga” (Hail to you, o most green and fertile branch!”), is a song comparing the Virgin Mary’s qualities to Nature. The harp accompaniment is understated, adding the occasional melodic comment and the artists bring out the fresh lushness of the text.
‘And so the Heavens give dew to the grass,
And all the earth rejoices
Because its womb brings forth corn,
And the birds of the air build their nests upon it..’
In a similar spiritual vein is the anonymous “Edi be thu, heven-queene” (Blessed be thou, Queen of heaven), a strophic, lyrical song in Early English in which Tubb, weaving her melodic line into those of recorder and harp, uses the light, pearly color of her voice to present the knight’s admiration of the purity and perfection of the Virgin Mary.

An anonymous 14th century “Lamento di Tristano” is delightfully presented by David Hatcher on vielle. Tobias Hume (1569-1645) a soldier and composer, had a great love of the viol, claiming it could provide polyphony, expression and variation. Hatcher gives Hume’s piece “Death” a pensive, rich and poignant reading, bringing out its melancholic and conversational quality.

The Comtessa de Dia (early 13th century), probably called Beatritz, is the most prolific of the trobairitz – a name given to female troubadours, all of whom were from the nobility. Her works reflect traditional modes of courtly love, but from a woman’s perspective. It seems Beatritz was married to Lord William of Peitieus, but was in love with the troubadour Raimbau d’Aurenga, for whom she wrote many songs. “A chanter m’er” (Now I must sing of that which I would rather not) is the only melody of hers which survives. Hatcher sets the scene with a vielle solo; the song itself is accompanied by harp, with harp and vielle interludes between sections. Beatritz is bitter at being ignored by the man she loves; Tubb adopts a hurt, critical tone, with a touch of tenderness here and there, advising the man she loves that “excess of pride has been the downfall of many”. Is the trobairitz, therefore, more practical in love than the troubadour?

We move to Renaissance England, with two of John Dowland’s (1563-1626) lute songs. “Sweet, stay a while” (after a poem by John Donne) is a parallel to the troubadour “Alba”, or “dawn song”, whereas “I saw my lady weep” reflects the “Canso” style, representing unrequited courtly love. Michael Fields plays a more comprehensive, notated accompaniment on the lute, together with some beautiful ornamentation. In “Sweet, stay a while” Tubb, with her delicate sense of timing and silvery piani, creates that fragile moment between night and day. “The light you see comes from your eyes. The day breaks not…” Soon all will “die” and “perish”. Words, such as “joys”, “desire”, “blissful” and “die” are individually shaped and presented. “I saw my lady weep” is thoughtful and sad but philosophical: “Passion wise, tears a delightful thing.” Tubb’s interpretation brings out the most subtle nuances of texts and deeper meaning. From Dowland’s lute music, Fields performs Dowland’s gentle “Melancholy Galliard” with delicacy… a slow galliard for a melancholy composer.

Nicholas Lanier II (1588-1666) was a composer, singer, lutenist and painter. In “Like Hermit Poor”, soprano voice and bass viol (played in the “lyra” manner) converse and sketch in the bleak details of love as melancholy and despair.

Tubb sings “The Given Heart”, William King’s (1676-1728) song composed to Abraham Cowley’s poem from “The Mistress” (1656), to the accompaniment of a theorbo. The poet is not addressing the lady, rather seeking advice from others with a similar fate to his - a broken heart. His own solution, using military terminology, is extreme: to “blow up all within/ Like a grenade shot from a magazine. Then shall Love keep the ashes and torn parts.” A song of hopelessness, Tubb’s performance is both vehement and tragic, each word given a role in the context, to the very last “fire!” which is given a lingeringly dissonant and painful ornament.

Robert Johnson (1583-1633) a lutenist, composed music for entertainment and theatre at the courts of James I, Prince Henry and Charles I. He wrote catches and drinking songs and also collaborated with poets and playwrights, including Shakespeare. He used Ben Jonson’s poem “Have You Seen but a White Lily Grow?” for the final song on this superb disc. The lady is compared to many of Nature’s beauties. Tubb reinforces the concept of the woman with an almost visible, dazzling, pristine brightness of tone and energy.

This disc is especially interesting and Michael Fields’ notes, as well as all the texts printed, give the listener the information necessary to understand its content. The recording itself is effective and of a high quality. Evelyn Tubb is an artist of depth and rare versatility. Michael Fields and David Hatcher’s solos and accompaniments are nuanced and beautifully phrased, they blend and enhance and meet the challenge of each style with good taste.

“The Troubadour and the Nun”, (ET’CETERA KTC 1361)
Sacred and Secular Reflections on the Feminine Mystery from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
Evelyn Tubb-soprano
Michael Fields-medieval harp, Renaissance lute, theorbo
David Hatcher-vielle, recorder, viola da gamba


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