Authenticity and Interpretation

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (The University of Texas at Austin) //

Humans are often fascinated by the origins of their traditions. If only we could travel back in time, we might reach an “authentic” instance of a tradition, before it was “corrupted” by outside influences. Fans of American “roots music,” for instance, praise it as an authentic example of music “the folk” sang before the influence of the marketplace, even though the “roots” tradition is itself an invention of that marketplace. An idealized past—when things were pure and uncomplicated—is a fiction of the present, but it’s a powerful fiction that can stimulate our creative imagination.

One intriguing early tradition is the music of the Troubadours (or Trobadors, as they would have referred to themselves in their native Occitan), arguably the first Western European singer-songwriters. More than two thousand secular songs survive from this tradition, which flourished in southern France between 1150 and 1250. At about the same time (c. 800 – c. 1200), central Europeans were developing a way to notate music after centuries of relying on oral transmission. While this system of notation evolved as a method for distant religious communities to standardize prayers sung throughout European Christian lands, some of the music of the Trobadors was accompanied by notation as well—the first European secular repertory to be recorded this way, and thus the oldest non-religious music we can still perform today.

A map of the lands where the Trobadors flourished. “France 1154-en” by Reigen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 But what does the notation indicate, and how should we interpret it? These issues have long been debated in the scholarly community, and musicians who believe that contemporary audiences can still enjoy the songs of the Trobadors have drawn from both research and their own creative sensibilities to provide solutions to the “puzzle” of the Trobador repertory. In doing so they have often made appeals to authenticity—but as we’ll see and hear, there are several different kinds of evidence on which an authentic reconstruction might rely, and depending on the kind of evidence one chooses, the results might vary significantly.

The notation that the Trobadors used may have conveyed a wealth of information to the musicians who were familiar with its vocabulary, but modern eyes cannot determine what rhythms or vocal quality they suggest, nor what tempo, nor any instruments designed to fill out the soundscape. We can only read the pitch level of the notes in a single, monophonic line.

“A chantar” by Beatritz de Dia is an example of such music, but it is exceptional for one important reason: it is the only song written by a woman-trobador (trobairitz in Occitan) that survives with notation. The lyrics—depicting a female narrator who’s angry at her male lover—can strike modern readers as quite contemporary. Disappointed in his ingratitude, the narrator asks him to respect her love and dedication. The words reflect a strong female subject position, unique for a time when women were considered necessarily subservient to  men.

“A chantar,” from a manuscript song collection dating ca. 1270 (close to a century after the song was first written and performed). 

In addition to notation, there is other evidence on which modern performers can draw when interpreting “A chantar.” Images (paintings, tapestries, illustrations in books of poetry) and narrative accounts portray how instruments were played during Trobador performances. Those images and the reconstructions of the instruments they depict act as resources for recreating authentic performances of the song.

This performance of “A chantar” by Montserrat Figueras and Hesperion XXI, featuring several reproductions of string instruments used in medieval France and Spain, is taken from  that traces a musical narrative of the “Cathar Tragedy.”

Montserrat Figueras and her ensemble, Hesperion XXI, assume that the notation of “A chantar” does not indicate a regular rhythm or meter; instead, the lengths of notes and syllables are treated as flexible, according to the singer’s sense of the shape of the poetic text. As the song begins, a string instrument plays a drone that underpins the vocal melody and emphasizes the two principal notes on which musical phrases end. When the melody starts again with the second stanza of the poem, the string instrument plays along with the singer in heterophony—a texture that involves multiple musicians singing and playing a single melody together but not absolutely synchronized, each musician taking some freedom with the details. Between the second and third stanzas, the stringed instrument takes over the melody and the drone; the last two stanzas similarly alternate between drone and heterophonic accompaniment. Although heterophony is uncommon in present-day Euro-American musical styles, it is prevalent in current Eastern-Mediterranean traditions, as are drones. By using these two techniques in their performance, Figueras and Hesperion XXI reveal they believe that Trobador musicians would have employed an Eastern-Mediterranean approach.

Less widely known than her sister, Pilar Figueras has also recorded a version of “A chantar” with the Clemencic Consort, another ensemble that specializes in Renaissance and earlier repertories. Like the recording of Montserrat and Hesperion XXI, Pilar’s initially features string instruments that provide both drone and heterophonic accompaniment, but the ensemble then elaborates on the melody using other kinds of instruments reproduced from the medieval era. An early flute, for example, inserts a short improvisation between two of the stanzas.

The video recording is useful for a modern audience because it provides a running translation of the song. You can hear the early flute’s improvisation starting at 1’56”.

Though not as professionally polished, another version featuring Nia Rhein similarly assumes a lack of regular meter and uses replica medieval instruments in mostly heterophonic texture, interspersed with drones and improvisations. Through the text embedded in her video, Rhein makes explicit her perspective on the potential connection between Beatriz’s female agency and a contemporary woman performer’s feminist goals, offering an “authentic” message of equality that can both reflect and transcend a particular historical moment.

From a graduate school recital, this performance is shorter, less elaborate, and less dependent on melody-instrument improvisation or explicit Pan-Mediterranean stylistic references.

Several other versions of this song are available on YouTube and Spotify, most of which are very similar to the three discussed here in terms of texture and instrumentation. Within those parameters, however, we can hear a variety of vocal techniques, different ways to balance voice and instrumental participation, and even different moods, from the pensive to the fiery. Each performance conveys what that ensemble considers the expressive authenticity of the text for a contemporary audience, set within the framework of what little performance-practice resources that have survived. These notions of authenticity are ultimately driven by the individual musicians’ sense of what is genuine and important, rather than what is a truly verifiable reconstruction of the past. If we wish to imagine that Beatriz de Dia had a creative message that is still relevant to a 21st century listener, what other options do we have?

For Discussion

  1. Of the three examples above, which one do you find more expressively effective?  What is it about the instrumental and vocal elaborations on the simple melody that makes that performance more expressive for you? Is there a different performance on YouTube or Spotify that you find more expressive, and if so, what musical elements make that other performance more expressive for you?
  2. Find on YouTube or Spotify a performance of “A chantar” by a singer named Azam Ali.  What can you find out about this singer? How do her “authentic contemporary Middle Eastern style” performing choices compare to the “Eastern-Mediterranean reconstruction style” approaches by the Figueras sisters and others?
  3. Find on YouTube or Spotify a performance of “A chantar” by a performer named “Angels of Venice.” How does this performance compare? What do you like or dislike about it in comparison to the other performances, and why? What is authentic or inauthentic about this performance?

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