Friday, 19 August 2011

À la recherche du ton perdu

Music from the Crusades, Various
If a real medieval audience could hear this magical and sometimes spine-tinglingly beautiful collection of medieval ballads, I suspect they’d burst into roars of disbelieving laughter. It might sound like the real thing to us, but nobody really knows what the real thing sounded like and this album must be getting something badly wrong. But it can’t be getting everything wrong and I think the spirit of the Middle Ages is here, or several spirits: some songs are wistful and yearning, some boisterous and playful, some pious and icily perfect. As was the medieval way, the artists and musicians did their work gratiâ Dei, for God’s sake, not their own, and most of the songs are attributed to a simple “Anonymous”, though one, “Ja nus hons pris” (“No Man Who’s Gaoled”), is attributed to a certain imprisoned “Richard Coeur-de-lion”. The best performances are by a tenor called James Bowman, who has a voice that would have made him famous across Europe back then; nowadays, when “early music” has to compete with thousands of other forms of music, it’s a treasure known only to a discerning few, rather like the languages – Latin and medieval French – in which the songs are performed.
You have to know both the Vulgate and medieval history to appreciate titles like “Sede, Syon, in Pulvere”, but “Palästinalied”, or “Palestine-Song”, the only title in German, shows that the Middle Ages have never really gone away. Wars in the Middle East and the threat of militant Islam have been with us before, and though part of the joy of this album is the way it allows you to escape the modern world, there are some things you can’t escape and a dose of real medieval life would cure many modern discontents and dissatisfactions. Still, as the human race enters its final days, some of us continue to look back and regret what we’re going to lose and what we’ve already lost, and it’s a pleasing irony that a compact disc, product of the scientific hangman, can contain so much of both.

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