The distant Haven

Lanquan li jorn sunt lonc en may
Mes bels dous chant d’auzelhs de lonh (…)
Remembra.m d'un' amor de lonh :
During May, when the days are long,
I delight in the song of the birds from afar (...),
I remember a love far away...
-- Jaufré Rudel

Faraway lands, full of mystery and of varying degrees of seduction, so hard to reach in reality during an age of intensely difficult and dangerous transportation, never ceased to intrigue the medieval imagination. It seemed only normal that the distant place should also be the haven of romantic love, and that (s)he who was the paragon of all virtue – physical, moral, and spiritual – should dwell at a great distance. Such, at any rate, is the paradigm of love in the songs of the troubadours of Provence and the trouvères of northern France. In the European Middle Ages, sung poetry is the messenger, the point of union between separated lovers. The beloved is, generally, imagined as far away, in a distant land. The breeze from afar wafts his or her perfume, and the poet/singer imagines courteous, loving discourse with the beloved who dwells in a distant haven. The pilgrim, thus inspired, sets forth on a quest to find the beloved, praying God for a safe arrival at the remote destination; his mission may be temporal, involving the love of a woman, but there is a strong spiritual aspect as well.

We can sense in these texts and melodies deep resonance with our own attitudes and values, shaped as they have been by centuries of troubadour-esque imagery. The troubadour can never be entirely sure that he possesses the love of the other, and physical distance is only one of the aspects of separation/separateness. The beloved is represented as possessing every possible beauty and virtue ( Rassa tan creis ). The poet is proud of her choice of lover, for he is the most valorous of all ( A chantar m’er de so que non volria ), and she reminds him of their once-passionate bond with vehemence. The night that falls on the lover's heart is physical as well as metaphorical ( Lon tens a qu’il ne vit chele ), and the lover's suffering leads him to the brink of madness ( Tan ai mon cor ple de joya ).

If distant lands were the imaginary place of romantic dreams, they were also the locus of real, and terrible conflict. Between 1095, when Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade, and the fall of Saint Jean d'Acre in 1291, several violent holy wars ravaged the Orient and the Holy Land. Too numerous, alas, are the parallels between those bloody generations and our own time.

The Crusades provided a raison d'être for generations of young men, landless nobility in search of a self-validating quest. And, not unsurprisingly, the arts of poetry and music were also placed at the service of war and conquest. Thibault de Champagne, count of Champagne and king of Navarra, turns his métier of trouvère to the task of recruiting young men to the Cause, urging the young knights to gain salvation by recapturing the cross of Christ, fallen into enemy hands ( Seigneurs sachiés ). The poet-musicians of the day also reflected, in a less ideological mode, the genuine human suffering engendered by decades of conflict. The anonymous prayer in the form of a lai, Eyns ne soy ke pleynte fu , depicts the fear and isolation of a prisoner,who places his fate in the hands of a merciful Virgin Mary. Most wrenchingly ( Chanterai por mon courage ), and far from the consolations of religion, the song of a young woman whose lover or husband has left her for a crusade speaks of separation in the most concrete and telling manner. The girl sings of her bitter solitude in her lonely bed, at night. How many women and men have suffered, and will yet suffer, in such a terrible way?

The Abbey of Saint Gilles, in the Gard, was an important center for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, intersecting as it did two of the most important pilgrimage roads, those of Compostella and Rome. Was there a real Saint Gilles of history? Nothing is less certain... but the story of his life has wide currency in the Middle Ages, and we even find Gilles mentioned in the Chanson de Roland. His legend, meant to instruct and inspire the faithful, especially the less learned, is made, like many hagiographies, of initiations, quests, renouncements, miracles, Christ-like suffering, and apotheosis.

The foundation for our own story of Gilles is a written narrative by Gilbert de Berneville, a beautiful text, meant to be recited or intoned aloud, but one without surviving music. Our task has been to enrich Gilbert's words with musical accompaniments and commentaries, drawn from other, appropriate medieval sources. In so doing we do not pretend to re-create a preexisting medieval ideal – such a feat is clearly impossible – but rather, with the tools of research joined to artistic imagination, to evoke something of the context of medieval storytelling, re-experienced in our own day. For Jean de Grouchy, writing circa 1300, the chanson de geste or the life of a saint was meant to “console after work is done, and, by hearing of the trials and tribulations of another, to better endure one's own.” Such is our contemporary intent as well.

Besides written texts and notated melodies, we call on the instrumentalist’s art to help achieve our goal of rich and satisfying performance. Little is known for certain about the accompaniment of medieval monody, but we do know that the harp and fiddle (vielle) were the preferred partners in these repertoires of courtly song and narration .As she follows the traces of medieval minstrelsy, the skilled practitioner of an instrument creates, little by little, her own world, inspired by medieval dance music, the sung melodies, and the sound of their languages, as well as what we know of medieval musical education: memorization, improvisation, and the cultivation of rhetorical skill. All these crafts of language and learning, singing and playing, are placed at the service of our present old-new creation, and of the ever-renewed pilgrim’s quest for a distant haven and a place of peace.