Last week on the podcast we heard music of Troubadours—poet musicians who flourished in the langue d'oc region of southern France. This week we hear a representative of their Germanic minnesinger counterparts with music of Oswald von Wolkenstein.
A 2014 Christophorus release from Ensemble Leones presents some little heard tunes from this early 15th century man in a recording called The Cosmopolitan.
A title like that gives a pretty good sense of the music and person this recording portrays. Cosmopolitan indeed. Oswald von Wolkenstien’s home base was in the Tyrolean region near Innsbruck, but he cast a wide net. He traveled far and wide and was a man at home with many languages and cultures, and that kept him on the leading edge of developing national musical styles.
Several of Oswald’s songs are macaronic—that is, they mix languages. Linguists sometimes refer to a pastiche of languages within a single setting as “code-switching” -Spanglish or Konglish, or Franglais, for instance. Oswald’s Do fraig amors, is a love song for his wife Margarete that uses 7 different languages, and the refrain is a fun one. It reads: "Do it in German and in Italian, rouse it in French, laugh in Hungarian, bake bread in Slovenian, let it resound in Flemish! The seventh language is Latin."
Another song from this recording, Herz, prich only (!) uses five different languages, but the way the words are set is really striking. There are long strings of schlagreime or so-called rhyming blows in which single words, or even single syllables, are tossed back and forth in quick succession between the two voices. Together, they make an intelligible and vivid text in which the very structure of the music depicts the heart-breaks of love.
To “cosmopolitan” the word versatility could be added to describe Oswald. He wore many hats. Besides his activities as a poet-musician minnesinger, he was also a politician, a diplomat, a mercenary, Lord of Hauenstein-castle, a Knight and a nobleman. Oswald’s adventures and achievements, imprisonments and yes, even financial disasters are all unusually well-chronicled in many accounts and records of the time. In terms of his musical contributions, they are well documented too. More of Oswald’s work survives than does for most of his contemporaries—and this is no accident. Over 130 of his works were methodically collected and compiled by monks, under Oswald’s own supervision, into luxurious and expensive codices with intricate illustrations. These large manuscripts, are now preserved in Innsbruck and Vienna.
Oswald Von Wolkenstein
In the arts, an appreciation of a creation is fed by a knowledge of its creator. And here’s a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. The portrait of Oswald that is the cover art of Ensemble Leones’ CD comes from the frontspiece of the aforementioned 1432 Innsbruck song manuscript. Unshaven, scarred, blinded in one eye, the portrait renders a man full of character. And as it turns out, seeing this portrait, and knowing a thing or two about Oswald’s life helps us enjoy his music with even more pleasure.
So here’s a little bit of Oswald’s life story—one of his autobiographical songs in which he relates a tale of his experiences in prison. Set in 15 verses, Durch aubenteuer tal und perg is a monophonic epic that tells how Oswald, after having a little run in with the law, was thrown into a castle dungeon until the sovereign Frederick, Duke of Austria, decided he would rather sing songs with Oswald, than hear him moan in his cell. Throughout the many verses, Oswald also describes the trips he took around the workd before his imprisonment to places like England, Scotland and Ireland, crossing the sea to Portugal, and continuing on even to Morocco and Granada.
Oswald's songs are stories first—the poetic texts primary, taking precedence in many ways even to the music. Listeners then, get the most out of these performances when that story is fully accessible. That’s why it's such a shame that to find texts and translations for the songs on Ensemble Leones recording, listeners have to go elsewhere to as they are not included with the CD package. On the other hand, the notes that come with the disc are really helpful, giving good synopses of each track. The notes also give a fair bit of information on the performers approach to making this CD. The notation for some of Oswald's music brings up many questions for interpretation, and the difficulties involved in understanding the notation is perhaps one reason why some of the songs presented here have not been recorded before. We're grateful then to Ensemble Leones for taking on the challenge.