And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 18. juni 2011

The French Connection

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.
- Douce Dame Jolie, Guillaume Machaut

He is the Lord of Misrule.
He is the Master of the Leaping Figures,
the motley factions.
- Tenebrae, Geoffrey Hill

As a student in York all my courses were held at the Centre for Medieval Studies, which is situated in the Kings Manor, an annex to York University comprising Archaeology, Eighteenth century studies and Medieval studies. Among the extra-curricular activities open for students and staff here is the drama group Lords of Misrule, performing various plays three times a year. Several of my friends at Constantine House and in my modules were partaking this term, and from fairly early on I was looking forward to see the result.

Lord of Misrule is a late Medieval title given to an official responsible for the Christmas festivities, including the arrangement and direction of processions, feasts and plays. During his reign, which could last up to three months, the Lord of Misrule presided over a mock-court and was saluted, comically, by the participants. A Lord of Misrule could be found not only at court or the households of noblemen, but also at Inns of Court and colleges at the Cambridge and Oxford universities. The historical antecedents of the Lord of Misrule were probably the "kings" or "bishops" in charge at the Feast of Fools, a Medieval New Year celebration in monasteries and churches, and the boy bishop elected at the Feast of the Holy Innocents December 28. This connection is more visible in the Scottish equivalent whose title was, to my great delight, the Abbott of Unreason.

The name of the drama group is therefore a very fitting and poetic name, and this term we were promised a double feature of French plays called The French Connection. The bill consisted of Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion and the Farce of Master Pierre Patelin, both anonymous. The stage was the quire of St. Mary's Bishophill, a beautiful church with an Anglo-Saxon tower, and the show took place every evening from 10th to 12th of March. St. Mary's also has an Anglo-Saxon cross carving in stone which I forgot to take a picture of, to my lasting frustration.

St. Mary's Bishophill

Although the plays were both excellently performed and very humourous - particularly so the latter, which was more akin to the modern drama with its more clearly structured plot - neither are my focus in this blogpost. I would love to do a proper review of the actors' theatrical prowess, but since I, for very good reasons, didn't use the flash on my camera I have very few pictures worth displaying, and they shall remain merely as my own private keepsakes from a wonderful evening.

The Church's a stage.

Instead of the plays this blogpost will deal with some of the music played during intermission, performed by the extremely talented duet Virelai. The name comes from a form of song and lyric poetry practiced in France in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the duo is comprised of two of my flatmates from Constantine House. I was very excited about this as I had from time to time overheard fragments of their repertoire in passing through the common room, but I was far from prepared for what ensued. The first song was a beautiful, sad little piece called Dame, Vo Regars, composed by Jehannot de l'Escurel (fl. c. 1300), but although it was very pretty it did not make such an impression as the last song: Guillaume Machaut's (c. 1300-1377) virelai Douce Dame Jolie. The music was performed using Medieval instruments - in the latter case rebec and soprano recorder - and this, along with the venue, greatly enhanced the atmosphere. 
Virelai to the left, the always talented Erika Graham and Amanda Hauer. To the right: the very skilled director of the Farce of Master Pierre Patelin, Niraj Davé.

Douce Dame Jolie started off slowly with the hesitant notes of the rebec, accompanied shortly by the equally hesitant recorder. Then there was a brief little pause, and then it all exploded in an energetic instrumental followed by the verse, sung beautifully with lilting energy. I was astounded when I heard it, for it is a very wonderfully wrought tune that lodges in the brain and remains there, perennially returning from oblivion. When I got back to Constantine House I immediately looked it up on youtube and spotify, and I have listened to it time and again ever since. Although there are several beautiful recordings of the song, the one I remember most fondly was Virelai's rendition in St. Mary's Bishophill. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that it was the first time I heard it, but equally important was the performance itself, which was - to a much greater extent than any recording I've heard since - a perfect combination of vocal and instrumental excellence.

Virelai performing Dame, Vo Regars. I was too mesmerised to take pictures during Douce Dame Jolie.

For those of you who may not know the song in question, here is Gothic Voices' rendition of Douce Dame Jolie, the best version I've been able to locate on youtube. Sadly it is solely a vocal rendition, and although it is beautiful, it lacks the energy of Virelai. For an instrumental I strongly recommend the recording by Ensemble Alba Musica Kyo, available on spotify.

Douce Dame Jolie performed by Gothic Voices.

The original text runs as follows:

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement
Qu'adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.
Helas! et je mendie
D'esperance et d'aïe;
Dont ma joie est fenie,
Se pité ne vous en prent.
Douce dame jolie...
Mais vo douce maistrie
Mon cuer si durement
Qu'elle le contralie
Et lie
En amour tellement
Qu'il n'a de riens envie
Fors d'estre en vo baillie;
Et se ne li ottrie
Vos cuers nul aligement.

Douce dame jolie...
Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement
Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,
A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu'il m'oublie,
Que temprement m'ocie,
Car trop langui longuement.

Translated into English the song, according to wikipedia, runs something like this:
Sweet, lovely lady
for god's sake do not think
that any has sovereignty
over my heart, but you alone.
For always, without treachery
Have I you, and humbly
All the days of my life
Without base thoughts.
Alas, I am left begging
For hope and relief;
For my joy is at its end
Without your compassion.
Sweet, lovely lady....
But your sweet mastery
My heart so harshly,
Tormenting it
And binding
In unbearable love,
[My heart] desires nothing
but to be in your power.
And still, your own heart
renders it no relief.
Sweet, lovely lady....
And since my malady
Will not
Be annulled
Without you, Sweet Enemy,
Who takes
Delight of my torment
With clasped hands I beseech
Your heart, that forgets me,
That it mercifully kill me
For too long have I languished.

Nature offering Machaut three of her children, Sense, Rhetoric and Music. Miniature from a Parisian manuscript from c. 1350.

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