Mark Twain once wrote, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” Fortunately, not everyone in history shared that view, or music history would be a lot less interesting. This hour on Harmonia we’ll ferret out lies – and liars – in early music. From fibs to falsification, cover-ups to conspiracies, welcome to the Liar’s Club, plus the music of Oswald von Wolkenstein in a featured release by Ensemble Leones.
Let’s start with some vocal and instrumental music from The Dawn of Joy, a CD featuring vielle player and multi-instrumentalist Shira Kammen and the late medieval music expert Margriet Tindemans. We’ll hear “Per Allegregga,” a 14th-century song by Francesco Landini, paired with the instrumental dance “Istanpita Allegregca.”
Is honesty the best policy? Your parents may have told you so, but lies are as old as human history, and not all of them are villainous. We’ll sample many flavors of falsehood this hour as we embark on a musical tour of prevarication, deception, and deceit.
Nothing breeds falsehood quite like adultery, and the alba, a subgenre of the poetry of the Medieval troubadours, dealt specifically with the deception necessary for illicit love to flourish.
Alba means “dawn” in the Provencal language, and secular albas were often exhortations to flee before dawn, or risk getting caught! Some albas even spoke of a watchman who, at least most of the time, covered for the adulterous lovers.
Only two albas survived with notated music. We’ll take a listen to one of them; here’s “Reis Glorios,” attributed to the 12th-century composer Guiraut de Bornelh.
While de Bornelh’s lovers aren’t named, some scholars think they might be the legendary adulterers Tristan and Isolde. There are many variations of their story, from 12th-century accounts all the way up through the opera by Richard Wagner. But none of the stories end well.
The Lamento di Tristano, an instrumental work from a 14th-century Italian manuscript, gives musical voice to Tristan’s inevitable pain. In the manuscript, the “Lamento” is paired with “La Rotta,” a quick postscript of a dance. Let’s hear vielle player Shira Kammen playing both pieces.
What’s in a name?
Not all lies are nefarious. Research suggests most people lie at least once or twice a day, about as often as they brush their teeth. And most of those lies are white lies, designed to keep your great aunts happy and civilization running.
Sometimes lies can even do some good. Take the case of Fanny Mendelssohn, a talented composer, pianist, and conductor who also happened to be a woman. Women in 19th-century Germany did many things, but publishing their musical compositions wasn’t one of them. Fanny wrote upwards of 500 pieces, but only a few were ever published—some of those under the byline of her brother, the well-known composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Let’s hear music by the lesser known sibling. Here’s Fanny Mendelssohn’s Zauberkreis, or Circle of Magic, performed by the mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal with keyboardist Vivian Montgomery.
What would opera be without lies? Many a musical drama hinges on untruths, and disguise, in particular, seems to be catnip for librettists.
The plot of George Frideric Handel’s opera Alcina is full of dissembling: The heroine, Bradamante, disguises herself as her brother in order to rescue Ruggiero, her fiancé, from the enchantments of the sorceress Alcina.
Alcina herself is a master of disguise—her island abode may be a barren desert, but through magic she makes it resemble a lush paradise. Ruggerio sings the aria “Verdi prati” after his illusions fall away and the ugly truth is laid bare.
Let’s hear Ruggiero’s song of disillusion sung by Susan Graham in a recording from Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie.
That was Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie offering a piece from George Friderich Handel’s Alcina sung by Susan Graham in the role of Ruggiero. In this opera, Bradamante disguised herself as her brother, but she’s certainly not opera’s only cross-dresser…
A darker example of gender bending comes from the libretto for the final opera of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. L’Incoronazione di Poppea tells the story of the adulterous love between Nero and Poppea and takes place in a palace full of scheming.
In one such scheme, the nobleman Ottone dresses in women’s clothes in order to kill Poppea in her garden. He fails in his murder attempt, and Poppea lives to sing “Pur ti Miro,” one of the 17th century’s most famous love duets.
Let’s hear “Pur ti miro” from a production of the opera by Rene Jacobs and Concerto Vocale.
Apples in Eden
Humans have been writing about lies ever since writing – and lying – existed. In Genesis, the opening book of the Hebrew Bible, the snake in the Garden of Eden lies to Eve about what will happen if she eats the apple. She tastes the fruit—and the rest, as they say, is history.
The snake’s lie, Eve’s decision, and Adam’s subsequent fall have been depicted in centuries’ worth of art and music, and in our next segment, we’ll hear three pieces based on a Lutheran hymn tune Durch Adam’s Fall ist gans verderbt by Lazarus Spengler. Spengler’s text doesn’t beat around the bush, as you can hear in its English translation of the hymn’s first verse:
All mankind fell in Adam’s fall,
One common sin infects them all;
From sire to son the bane descends,
And over all the curse impends.
Johann Sebastian Bach used Spengler’s hymn tune several times, and its eighth stanza is the chorale for BWV 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee von Himmel fallt, or “As the rain and snow fall from heaven.”
Let’s hear that chorale, followed by an aria from the same cantata, Mein Seelenschatz is Gottes.
Bach wasn’t the only composer attracted to Adam’s fall. Let’s hear one more treatment of that tune, this time in the hands of Dietrich Buxtehude, a composer Bach greatly admired. Ulrik Spang-Hanssen is the organist.
Though he may not be a household name, the poet, knight, and medieval composer Oswald von Wolkenstein left behind a rich body of work. Among other genres, Wolkenstein composed tagelieder, the German equivalent of the Provençal “alba,” – songs that dealt with illicit lovers scurrying for cover at the break of day.
In a CD released on the Christophorus label in 2014, Ensemble Leones, a German early music ensemble, offers works by Wolkenstein—songs that are pious, bawdy, and everything in between.
The CD is entitled The Cosmopolitan, and we’ll hear two tracks. First up, “Ach, senliches leiden,” arranged for vocal ensemble. After that, we’ll hear an instrumental arrangement of “Wes mich mein bul ie hat erfreut.” Finally, we’ll conclude with music from Marc Lewon’s instrumental arrangement of Wolkenstein’s song “Ich Klag.”
Break and theme music
:30, The Dawn of Joy, Magnatune 2012, Shira Kammen/Margriet Tindesman, Tr. 1 Cavalcando Con Un Giovane Accorto (excerpt of 1:45)
:60, The Dawn of Joy, Magnatune 2012, Shira Kammen/Margriet Tindesman, Tr. 9 Salterello Di Virtu (excerpt of 3:43)
:30, The Cosmopolitan: Songs by Oswald von Wolkenstein, Ensemble Leones, Christophorus 2014, Tr. 16 Wol auff, wir wellen slauffen – Bog dep’ mi was dustu da (arr. M. Lewon for chamber ensemble) (excerpt of 7:16)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Anne Timberlake.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.