The trouvères were the equivalent in northern France of the Provençal troubadours. This was a phenomenon which had arisen in the south and was already in decline by the time the likes of Gace Brulé (1159-1230), Moniot d'Arras (fl 1213-1239) and Thibaut de Champagne (1201-1253) – and the other half dozen or so makers represented on this excellent and highly enjoyable CD – were working. They sang (and most likely only wrote down later, if at all) in the northern dialects of Picardie, Champenois and Walloon. They also introduced new themes and forms… the serventois (the oïl (northern) equivalent of the sirventès, or "occasional" moral and political exposition), jeu-parti (dialog), serenade, the pastourelle and the Crusade song.
"Douce amie" from the ever-enterprising Ricercar label, is a collection of a dozen or so trouvères pieces, half and half, instrumental and vocal (where the texts are reproduced in the liner notes in oïl with verse translations in modern French and prose paraphrases, only – in English, German and Dutch). Of course we cannot be sure which instruments would have been used how, if any. Christophe Deslignes explains in the CD's booklet how Millenarium arrived at the decisions they did for scoring and arrangements. If, for example, it's known that a song was originally danced to, such as Au renouvel du tens, then the arrangement is different from that for a more somber lament, like Rose des rosaces.
Of course the music was improvised in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and so it is on the CD. In fact there is the almost obligatory contemporary improvisation (on a work after after Lambert Ferri) as an item (tr.5) in its own right; it has a greater sense of brooding and gloom than some of the other pieces. In fact variety, a nice spectrum from the melancholic to the sanguine, is a hallmark of this collection. These pieces don't have the sparkle and thrust of the songs of the troubadours. That's not a negative: there's majesty, reflection and conviction – particularly in the compelling singing of Carole Matras; her engagement in Touz esforciez, for instance, is remarkable.
The stated aim of the CD is to give a flavor of the period and the genre… Christophe Deslignes writes "It seems to us that a mixture of pieces gives the best impression of the spirit of the instrumentalists of the Middle Ages who never wished to transcribe their compositions, thus perpetuating an oral tradition and improvising on themes gleaned from here and there during their travels." Some of the trouvères' pieces were quite long: Douce Dame is nearly ten and a half minutes long, and Dame, ensinc est barely a minute less than that. Regardless of length and style, the impact is always strong and the impression one is left with after concentrating on the music and intensity of such lines as:
Par deu l'amors de vos m'esprent
Qui m'ocira se vos ne m'en aidiez
is actually not one but multiple concerns, emotions and ways of responding to them which are very modern.
So these are enduring and moving pieces, which in some ways lie at the heart of European lyrical and love poetry. They – and those of the troubadours – were certainly there at the beginning. Millenarium manages to bring out the sense of camaraderie that existed between these players, the common purpose and pride. Perhaps they do this by conferring on the music a confidence and momentum that has the eerie effect of making the listener want to participate in some way. The trouvères were, above all, interested in the human. So when Millenarium communicates the commonality of experience expressed by these early poets, singers, performers, dancers and writers (not to mention lovers, politicians and travelers) as eloquently as the group does here, the result is likely to be convincing. It ought to be. And on this disc it is. The music truly comes alive.
Much of the music necessarily has a poignancy about it: the tone, the phrasing and the instruments of course. But such pieces as Au renouvel du tens and the celebrated Ce fut en mai, short though they are, build beyond the mere creation of atmosphere to evoke a sound and word world that draws you in and works with its own logic… a logic of hesitation and tentativeness (in Dame, ensinc est, for instance); a certain abandon (Li nouviauz tanz) or dolefulness contrasted with happier times (Pour coi me bait). In the playing of Millenarium not a note is missed that gives the fullest expression to these feelings – yet without maudlin or self-pity. Those are pitfalls essential to avoid in this repertoire. And this CD is glowing with evidence that Millenarium knows how to avoid them. The analogy is perhaps that of persistently reading the long medieval romances and lays with engagement and growing involvement. So it is with these performances: much more than, and quite different from, the random presentation of a series of pieces to be shown off. The singers and players (perhaps the flutes sound a touch too breathy, wayward in places) make this world their own and use a gentle range of artistries to bring it right into our ears and before our eyes.
The sound is appropriately warm and close, the presentation of accompanying notes adequate (details of one of the players are missing in the book, but present on the sleeve) and the value for money good. Reissued from 2002 this year, it's a disc that any lover of early French music and aficionado of the trouvères repertoire will not want to be without.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey