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

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'L'Amours m'ont fait' is a particularly beautiful troubador-style song equating love with death, and possibly sex with war, since it is followed - after a medley of bagpipe dances, sometimes with dissonances clashing painfully with the drone - by an anti-war song deploring pillage and rape, from the point of view of the victims. Fifteenth and sixteenth century folk faced such horrors more cheerily than we can, knowing that they had no alleviation except for a wry sense of humour fusing wistfulness with whimsicality. A charming example is a number about a 'gay shepherdess' whose prime ewe, purloined by a wicked wolf, is rescued by her boy-friend who expresses pique when she, ungratefully but comically, refuses him what he considers his just reward. Her excuse - that 'she doesn't have time right now' - sounds very 'cool'. One gets the feeling, from these songs, that 'the people', as distinct from courtiers and clerics, adopted a pragmatic attitude to the perils that beset them. This is evident in a song about a frisky 15-year-old 'godinecte' courted by a young man (perhaps pointedly interpreted by two tenors), which is populist in tune but quite elaborate in ornamentation. Another number, with enchanting recorder interludes, is a love-song for male and female voices in alternation, smiling through tears in crying 'Helas mon coeur'. A very insouciant number about Money ('Faulte d'argent') manages to sound genuinely happy while ingenuously admitting that he'll lose the girl as he's penniless, and ending with a coda-confession that the girl he imagines sleeping in his arms is probably illusory.

'They' seem to have had a certain humorous resilience compared with 'us', who, in our brutalism and cynicism, get angry and rough. Their dance-songs are fresher, dewier, and indeed sexier, than ours, though we make so much more noise. If we think that the anonimity of this music is in sharp contrast with the iconic cult of Personality in today's pop stars, we should remember that the ephemerality of stardom is itself a kind of industrialized anonimity. In some ways they lived more perilously than we do, though at least they knew what the perils were, having lived with them 'since Time was'. It's peculiarly moving to have their world brought, in these empathetic performances, magically from a distant past to our grittier and grimier doorsteps; and it's the more touching that the American Newberry Consort, as the resident Early Music ensemble of the Newberry Library, should be associated with a museum: an institution usually considered to be a repository of the past, rather than an illuminator of the present and the future.

The 'material' of these songs and dances comes from the magnificent collections of musical, historical, and literary works from the 13th to the 17th century, housed by the museum; but it is reanimated by a mere four players - Tom Zajc, David Douglas, Drew Minter and Mary Springfield (the director) - who handle a diverse 'parley of instruments' exceeding even Rabelais's prescriptions, with momentarily total conviction, whatever later research may reveal. Three of these performers also function as countertenor, tenor, and baritone soloists, equally impressive in sundry varieties of early French and in musical idioms both high and low. They catch just the right precarious equilibrium between uncertainty, expectancy, and wide-eyed, open-eared wonder. It would help if our dire reality could embrace a mere tittle of the unafraid grace, wit, and vivacity this group exhibits as they nervily canter through their four-to-five-hundred-year-old Now: whilst we grind on, in more than one sense, for grim life or death, for better or for worse.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, April 26th 1999

harmonia mundi  907226

The Newberry Consort

Villon to Rabelais: 16th Century music of the streets, theatres and court.

Duration: 71m


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