Medieval Mayhem – Hilarious Parodies of German Courtly Love Songs Recorded for Naxos

From 6–9 April 2010 in the Heilig-Kreuz Kirche, Binningen, Ensemble Leones: Els Janssens-Vanmunster (vocals), Baptiste Romain (vielle, bagpipes), Marc Lewon (lute, vielle, voice & director) recorded 6 Neidhart-Songs from the fragmentary Frankfurt-Source (c1300)—arguably the earliest source transmitting minnesang melodies—with additional music: 1 song by Walther von der Vogelweide and 1 song by Der tugendhafte Schreiber, 5 instrumental pieces (all music dating from the 13th century) for release on Naxos 8.572449. Marc Lewon provides some background to this fascinating album of Medieval music.

Baptiste Romain playing the vielle (Ensemble Leones)

Baptiste Romain playing the vielle (Ensemble Leones)

Introduction: Neidhart and His “Anti-Minnesang”
Neidhart was one of the most popular and cherished Minnesingers of the late Middle Ages, even though (or more likely because) his songs mainly consisted of spoofing classical Minnesang topics rather than serving them. While his contemporary colleagues, the troubadours and Minnesingers, propagated the ideals of courtly love, Neidhart turned the established order on its head. He transferred the settings of his poems from courtly realms into an apparently rustic milieu, his central characters not comprising nobles, but peasants—or so it would seem. Superficially he entertained his audience in an unexpected way, while in his songs village-simpletons try to succeed in the tricky realms of courtly love and, of course, fail. Furthermore, he provided sex and crime through erotic or obscene incidents, as well as churlish brawls or even outright violent fights between protagonists. Hidden underneath these layers, in the background, however, Neidhart offered severe criticism of the privileged classes of Medieval society. The antagonists of his songs, the rural simpletons, he names “dörper”, which can be translated as peasants or “village dwellers”, but can also mean “villain”. However, with closer inspection they are not what they seem to be at first sight. With his songs Neidhart meant to actually address the “in-crowd” at court, the actual audience of his songs – courtiers, who overdress, behave pretentiously, and act against the virtues of moderation that should govern the noble classes. Many a listener may have choked on their own laughter when thinking about the texts.

Els Janssens-Vanmunster (Ensemble Leones)

Els Janssens-Vanmunster (Ensemble Leones)

The Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment and Why it is Worthy of Recording
The Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment, dated c1300, is the earliest transmission of Neidhart melodies and arguably the earliest source for music of German Minnesang in general. The source comprises eight partly damaged pages of an originally larger manuscript, the fragment containing remains of six Neidhart-songs of which five are transmitted with melodies more or less intact. Due to its poor state and its rather small compass this fragment was never counted among the major sources for Neidhart’s oeuvre. However, it is probably mainly some bad press surrounding the manuscript’s scribe that has led to its neglect among scholars and performers alike. Only later was the value of this musical source acknowledged, but never has it been recorded or performed as a whole even though the melodies prove to be of great beauty and high musical quality.

Marc Lewon singing to the vielle (Ensemble Leones)

Marc Lewon singing to the vielle (Ensemble Leones)

Preparing the Recording
The fragmentary nature of the source puts major obstacles in the way of a performance from the original. Some of the songs survive almost complete in the manuscript. Most of them however, show larger lacunas in both/either text and music. Thus, before actually working on the music and performance a playable edition had to be produced from the surviving material. Careful analysis and comparison with concordances was used to fill in most of those gaps in a meaningful way in order to establish a complete version of music and text. The remaining gaps were filled in by composing and improvising the missing bits in the style of 13th century monophonic music and adapting them to the character of the melodies in the Frankfurt Fragment.

Only then could we start with the actual practical work: first by working on the texts, their meanings, their correct pronunciation, and declamation, and then turning to the music, in order to understand the modal structures of the melodies and how the rhetorics of text and melody work together to create the song. Since medieval musical sources contain no information on how instruments were applied this part of the practical reconstruction took a lot of time to grow. We worked with instruments that are known to have been used in the performance of monophonic song—mainly the vielle and the gittern. By developing modal patterns and drones around the monophonic lines we found an instrumental “language” that we employed to accompany the songs as well as create instrumental pieces for the programme. Bit by bit we conceived a musical picture of the pieces which we could put together to form a whole program around this early Minnesang source.

sample page from the Frankfurt Fragement

sample page from the Frankfurt Fragement

Recording Neidhart
It was a very satisfying task to record music that had never been recorded and in the case of some of the songs actually never been performed before—or at least not since the Middle Ages. While working on the pieces either individually or as an ensemble we unveiled layer after layer of overlapping musical and rhetorical structures and thus discovered the underlying mechanics that make these songs very special pieces of art. By working as a very small ensemble we ensured that we stayed as close to actual medieval performance practice as possible, since monophonic song was usually performed soloistically or accompanied by one or two instrumentalists at the most. Thus we could divide functions very clearly with our singer, Els Janssens-Vanmunster, performing either soloistically or accompanied by either vielle or gittern, our vielle player, Baptiste Romain, conceiving the instrumental pieces and finding accompaniments for the singers, and me, Marc Lewon, accompanying my own sung performance as well as playing in the instrumental pieces.

Very close attention was paid to the song texts and since functions between the musicians were clearly divided we could listen to each other while recording, thus ensuring that pronunciation and diction was appropriate to the music and the style of the pieces. Our recording technician, Felix Stricker, proved to be very patient with our perfectionism in getting all the aspects of this special repertory right and helped us find a good balance between the rhetoric of the text and the beauty of the music.

Neidhart in Codex Manesse

Neidhart in Codex Manesse

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