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{+} Minstrels to Madrigals

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While the Church took care of the theory of music and developed various styles of composition, the people had their own music.

The Latin language, to which all church music had been written, and which was used for all prose and poetry for hundreds of years, gave way at last to the tongues of individual countries. From the south of France (Provence) came that form of French known as the Romance language; from Germany came the Gothic style of German; and the English language was eventually crystallized in the works of Chaucer.

Side by side with these languages grew a secular music. It was created by the professional musicians of the different countries. These were often of high rank and were received as honored guests in the houses of the nobility. They travelled in lordly style, the chief among them having lesser musicians and servants in attendance.

In France

In France, there were the troubadours from Provence and the trouveres from the north. They were attended by jongleurs, the players of instruments who accompanied their songs. The accomplishments of these musicians had to be very varied.

In a book of Advice to Jongleurs, written in 1210, it was stated that a jongleur should be able to play the pipe and tabor, the citole, the symphony, the mandore, the manichord, the seventeen stringed lute, the harp, the gigue, and the ten stringed psaltery.

The troubadours themselves had to be accomplished poets and makers of melody. They travelled from court to court, singing praises not only of brave deeds of chivalry but more especially of the beauty of the ladies of the court.

They entertained the company with stories told to music, and they improvised short songs to suit the mood of the moment. The musicians at any time had to be ready to provide music for dancing. One of the most famous trouveres was Adam de la Hale.

From its earliest days, French poetry has been very clear and definite in form. French musicians took care to make their music fit the words closely; as a result, their tunes took character from the poetry and were written in neat little phrases finished with cadences.

Moreover, songs and dances often went together in France. Plays in which the characters both sang and danced soon became very popular. Among the first of these, and the one from which we will take an example, was a pastoral play by Adam de la Hale called Robin et Marion (Robin and Marion) which was played in 1285.

Listen to ‘Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion’ by Adam de la Hale

In Germany

In Germany, there were the guilds of musicians called meistersingers (master singers). Hans Sachs (1494) was the most famous of all these musicians. The theme used by Richard Wagner in his 19th-century opera “Die Meistersinger” is taken from a song of the master singers; in fact, Sachs is one of the chief characters of the opera. Wagner is said to have known their music very well.

Later in Germany, about the thirteenth century, came the minnesingers, of whom the most famous was Walther von der Vogelweide. The lives and music of both mastersingers and minnesingers were much like those of the troubadours.

They seem, however, to have kept a greater independence and their music showed the simple lyric quality of all true German song. Neither did they scorn to sing of the simple things of peasant life.

Listen to the song “Herzeliebes frouwelîn” by Walther von Der Vogelweide

Listen to a minute of this German minnesinger song performed in period dress. He sings of his love for a lady that is not returned.

In England

England from quite an early date had minstrels. Their most popular instrument was some form of harp. Probably this came first from the Celtic harp used by the bards of Wales. The original Welsh harp was called the crwth. Some knowledge of music and minstrelsy was thought necessary to every well-educated person.

The medieval world of instruments and music was quite different from ours. Watch a short video to see how some of the instruments were used; many will look and sound vaguely familiar.

Listen to this Medieval minstrel play on a variety of instruments

King Alfred was noted as a minstrel. A story was told of how, when the country was invaded by the Danes, he penetrated the Danish camp by posing as a minstrel. In this way he was able to learn the Danish secrets of attack. When he established the university at Oxford, music was one of the subjects set for study.

King Richard the Lion-hearted was famous as a troubadour. He spent more of his life abroad than in his own country. Blondel was his minstrel, and on one occasion was supposed to have rescued him from prison by means of a song.

Richard answers Blondel from his cell

One famous minstrel song of England was the “Song of Agincourt” (or “Agincourt Carol”) in praise of Henry V. Henry, however, was a man of action rather than an artist and he discouraged this method of celebrating his deeds.

Listen to “The Agincourt Carol”

Folk Music

The folk music of every country shows something of the character and qualities of its people as well as the general state of culture. When culture becomes highly organized, folk music dies out and art (cultivated) music takes its place.

This happened in England and other western European countries. The folk tunes of France were happy and neat, with easily sung phrases; those of England seemed typical of the freshness of the English countryside and had a pleasing lyric quality. The songs of Germany contained a beauty of melody that portrayed the love of song inherent in the German people. Russian songs were very simple in form, with a strongly marked rhythm.

Here is a very famous French folksong called L’homme arme (translated ‘The man at arms’). It was taken as the basis (the ‘cantus firmus’ or fixed song) of a great many masses written by Belgian composers of the fifteenth century.

Notice that the tune itself has very strong rhythm and a clear form. What composers did was to take this tune instead of the plainsong of the mass, then set one voice to sing the sacred words while the others sang to the free-flowing melodies.

Listen to ‘L’homme arme’ by Ensemble Madrigal

The Madrigal

Its as the influence of poetry that called musicians to the fact that rhythm is the true basis of their art. However attractive the sound of many voices singing many melodies may be, they must conform to some common standard of rhythm in order to produce an effect of unity.

In the madrigals, the counterpoints became simpler. In the best of them, the length of the musical phrase was regulated by the length and accents of the poetic lines. Often a single note was used to each syllable as in the old songs. Or, if more were used for the sake of expression, they were grouped together into a clear phrase instead of wandering vaguely and holding on a single syllable until the words and sense became unrecognizable.

Orlandus Lassus

In the work of Orlandus Lassus (1520-94), the greatest of the Franco-Flemish madrigal school, the music became divided into phrases by distinct and beautiful cadences. This has the same effect in music as good punctuation has in literature. If the stops are left out or badly distributed in a book, even the wisest words become nonsense for there is nothing to show where one idea ends and another begins.

Similarly, the division of musical sentences is shown by the use of certain chords which make an ending and separate one idea from another. These are called cadences.

Both in his madrigals and in his church works, Lassus used the same means for giving order and clearness to his ideas. In his church music, he was not so bound by the rhythm of words as he was in his settings of secular poetry.

In his Penitential Psalms, Lassus had great and deep feelings to express. He naturally thought more of melodic beauty as well making the voices join in rich and varied harmony. Even in these, however, the rhythmic form is not disregarded as it was in the church music written before the rise of the Madrigal.

Orlandus Lassus directing a choir

This opening of a graceful little French song by Lassus shows how closely he could make his music follow the meter of words. Notice the cadences at the ends of the lines. Also, note the fact that although the counterpoint is very simple, each voice moves quite freely at the French words ‘et prend’ (pronounced ‘eh prawn’) without destroying the rhythm of the verse.

Listen to ‘Ce faux amour’ (The False Love) by Orlandus Lassus

Ce faux amour d’arc et de flèches s’arme,
et prend son feu pour me livrer l’assaut,
il me contraint crier alarme, alarme
sus à l’assaut,
résister il lui faut,
las, il me brûle, o que son feu est chaud,
au feu, au feu, secourez-moi ma dame,
misericorde, autre je ne réclame
vous me pouvez rendre victorieux,
et remporter ce grand honneur sans blame,
d’avoir vaincu celui qui vainc les dieux.
This false love of bow and arrows arms itself,
and takes fire to storm me,
he makes me cry alarm, alarm
on the assault,
he must resist,
weary, it burns me, where its fire is hot,
to the fire, to the fire, help me my lady,
mercy, other I do not claim
you can make me victorious,
and win this great honor without blame,
to have conquered the one who conquers the gods.