The word “troubadour” gets tossed around in the modern world to mean a performer, often a singer/songwriter who travels a lot. That’s not wrong, but when the word was invented in the Middle Ages, it had a much more specific meaning. In early-music studies, troubadours are often grouped with two other species of medieval poet composers, the trouvères and the minnesingers. A handful of recent recordings give us a glance at these compelling traditions.
The troubadours and trouvères were historically consecutive and based in different regions of France. In fact, the 12th-century troubadours were so far south that much of their territory is now called northern Spain. A century later, the trouvères flourished in northern France. The minnesingers were in Germany throughout that whole period. (And their art came back again after a few centuries: Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg deals with the Renaissance revival of the medieval minnesingers’ style.)
Troubadours wrote poetry in a dialect known as langue d’oc, a fact that eventually led that region of France, Italy, and Spain to be called Occitania. The trouvères, a century later in northern France, used the language called langue d’oil. This dialect would develop into modern French, whereas langue d’oc was closer to modern Spanish.
It wasn’t always the troubadours themselves who sang their own poetry, or even composed the music for it. They hired jongleurs for that, from which we get our word “juggler.” We have very little music surviving for the troubadour songs; that element seems to have been more of an oral tradition, whereas the poetry itself was valued in writing.
Bernart de Ventadorn (1135-1194) was a famous troubadour during the Middle Ages and one of the few who left behind poetry and music with his name on it. A recent recording celebrates some of his work, Chantador de joi d’amour: Six Songs by the Troubadour. Released on the label Quintessence BVBA, the record features the singer Paloma Gutiérrez del Arroyo, accompanied by Manuel Vilas on medieval harp.
Gutiérrez del Arroyo has about ten years’ experience in medieval music, singing and playing psaltery (similar to a zither). Her mezzo-range voice has the frontal placement and vibrato-free clarity considered essential for this repertoire. On this recording she leaves the instrumental backing harmonies to Vilas’ imagination. None of the surviving troubadour manuscripts give any clues as to what the accompaniment might have been. The songs’ melodies weren’t even written with exact rhythm in the notation, so there’s always a lot of guesswork required.
The duo approaches Bernart’s “Be m’an perdut en lay ves Ventadorn” with a relaxed, malleable rhythm, as if the singer is reciting a poem on sustained pitches.
The rhythmic contrast between harp and voice is interesting on the song “Can vei la lauzeta mover de joi sas alas.” While Gutiérrez del Arroyo lets the natural meter and accent of the poem shape her declamation, Vilas maintains a steady jig-like 6/8 time signature in counterpoint, apparently layering an entirely separate tune against the vocal melody line.
This repertoire is rarely recorded these days. A handful of groups attempted it in the 1980s and ’90s, the heyday of the early-music recording industry (although the increasing viability of self-publishing records is likely to have a good effect on esoteric genres like this). If you’re interested in a different take on the style, I recommend the old recordings by baritone and musicologist Paul Hillier with lutenist Stephen Stubbs. Here that pair is joined by portative organist Erin Headley on hurdy-gurdy in 1989:
Among many masters with whom Gutiérrez del Arroyo studied medieval performance practice is the French singer, conductor, and scholar Brigitte Lesne. Best known for founding the all-female medieval vocal group Discantus, Lesne also started the ensemble Alla Francesca, which has recently turned its attention to the trouvères.
Variations amoureuses: French Love Songs from the 13th Century is the group’s first release for Paraty Records, and its 19th recording overall. It includes 26 songs by a variety of composers, only about half of them anonymous. Unlike the troubadour tradition, the trouvères typically created both text and melody and were more intent on preserving their work on the page. Therefore, much more survives and has accurate attributions to composers.
One interesting aspect of this collection of “love songs” is how Lesne sets sacred and secular works side by side. Indeed, during the High Middle Ages, the practice of singing almost romantic songs to the Virgin Mary grew out of the rich tradition of courtly love songs aimed at ordinary, mortal women.
“Haute chose a en amor” was composed by Gillebert de Berneville, a prominent trouvère in the mid-13th century. Manuscripts of this later repertoire do include a lot of musical notation, much of it with rhythmic symbols on the pitches. Alla Francesca adds inconspicuous, drone-like accompaniment, allowing the soprano and tenor voices to shine sweetly.
Medieval fiddles, their phrase-endings deftly ornamented, offer a more active line to accompany the solo vocal on “S’amour dont sui espris.” The unstructured rhythm coalesces into triple meter at the 2:00 mark as a drum, bells, and other voices join in. The arranging of medieval music is an underappreciated art – few listeners understand how little information we really have about each piece – and Lesne has long been a master at it.
Meanwhile, over in Germany, the Minnesingers were writing their own secular poetry and songs. Minne meant “love” in medieval German, although they wrote about other things too. The venerable Ensemble für frühe Musik Augsburg, an early-music group that has been around since 1977, recently made an album on Christophoros Records called Die Weisheit des Alters: Ars moriendi im Minnesang. During the Middle Ages, there was kind of an obsession with how to die well, or in Latin, ars moriendi (the art of dying). Beyond writing about love, the minnesingers took this on as a favorite philosophical topic.
“Winter deine mail” is by Neidhart von Reuental, who died in about 1236. More minnesinger melodies are attributed to him than to anyone else. The ensemble’s arrangement is emotive and thoughtful. The singer embraces the theatrical nature of the minnesingers’ performance tradition, nearly speaking some of the words to give them dramatic weight. It’s a captivating style that seems natural, not forced.
To avoid ending on a grim thought, here’s an Estampie, a dance type popular in the Middle Ages. The Augsburg ensemble includes it on their album as a lusty-rhythmed palette-cleanser, welcome in the midst of all that Teutonic darkness and pondering of death.
Header image of Bernart de Ventadorn courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.