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Villon to Rabelais: music of the streets, theatre, and Court

CD Review

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All these elements characterize our much louder pop musics today: though in relative terms the blare of some antique bagpipes can compete in sonorous startlement. When voices join the instruments, singing mainly anonymous words, we're offered clues as to what the songs and dances are 'about'. Can it be fortuitous that the first song, 'Je suis d'Alemagne', is a ditty piped by a refugee (if not one from Albania), whose monodic-modal chant eats its own tail, going on in an endurance very different from that of eternally present dance? The second song, 'Marchez le dureau', seems to celebrate dance as a technique for survival, more or less equating it with the sexual act. 'Soubz les branches' also cracks sexual jokes about 'amorous dew', but has elegant music owing something to court as well as street. In the merry month of May - even more welcome in those Times of Yore than it is today - a young man may defy curmudgeonly old age in the shape of a girl's father, topping her in foolhardy if blessed inconsequentiality. Interestingly, this sophisticated number has an identified composer, Antoine de Fevin: who also wrote 'Il fait bon aimer l'oyselet', which evokes on triple-lilting voice and tootling recorder a nightingale who is effervescently (and diatonically) merry until the young man pointlessly shoots the blithe songster with his pointed arrow. This confused and confusing medley of light and dark evades both cynicism and sentimentality; the girl reprimands him, but in the same merry music, for life must GO ON, notwithstanding death, though far from oblivious of it.

The tough realism of this attitude is pertinent to us, even if the 'premier matin du monde' atmosphere is not. The song placed next, 'Bon vin', being a drinking song for voice with unisonal male refrains, tunes with us in regarding life as at best a Lottery which we dream of winning as we fritter away the night, and life itself, in blissful oblivion. This tipsy abnegation is followed by circular dances with drones, going nowhere; and they are in turn succeeded by the longest and most 'serious' song, explicitly called 'En douleur e tristesse', which is the ultimate, or perhaps basic, human condition. The tune is severely modal, monotonous as well as mournful, as the young man, from the depth of his sorrow, hopelessly envisages a dream-girl 'non pareille'. Whatever its immediate provenance, this song belongs to the tradition of the medieval troubador's Wailing Lover, whose unattainable Beloved 'stands for' generalized, unfulfilled human aspiration; in a twink the Eternal Beloved may be metamorphosed into the miraculously virgin Mother of a God also unattainable. Something like this theme, common in pop music of the early 20th century, is now rare indeed. A lovely example of a traditional Wailing Lover song is found on this disc in 'En amour n'a sinon bien', wherein faithful service to the eternal beloved turns into a hymn to the Madonna, who is unlikely to be confused with the iconic Madonna of the late 20th century. But it's typical that this spirituality rarefied song closely coexists with one called 'La Belle se siet', which describes a Fairy Princess in her Tower, a dream-girl confronted by a brutally naturalistic father who informs her that her adored lover is about to be hanged, and good riddance too. Yet balance is preserved in that, linked with the latently savage elegance of this song, appear several joke-songs incorporating sexual puns; and the finest songs are usually those in which light and dark strands are inextricable.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, April 25th 1999

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