We’ll hear musical laments that pass beyond the veil from the Codex Las Huelgas, as well as a musical homage by Josquin des Prez, and death’s depiction in the keyboard music of Johann Jakob Froberger. Plus, we’ll follow Percival on his quest for the Holy Grail, travel along Celtic crossroads, and hear a thirteenth-century service for St. Martin of Tours.
In the Middle Ages, the planctus was a popular musical genre intended for mourning. Surviving monophonic plancta exist in both Latin, Occitan, and Catalan.
Plancta from the early fourteenth-century Codex Las Huelgas, such as Quis dabit..., often commemorate the life and death of nobility or other notable persons. In this case, the planctus was written in honor of Alfonso VIII of Castile, who reigned from 1158 till his death in 1214.
Nearly two-hundred years later Josquin des Prez set a lament for a fellow composer and cherished music teacher. Josquin’s deploration on the death of Johannes Ockeghem takes its text from an elegy written by poet Jean Molinet. In Molinet’s elegy, composers such as Pierre de la Rue, Antoine Brumel, Loyset Compère, and Josquin himself are urged to “don the clothes of mourning” and honor their departed musical compatriot.
Even without words, music is able to express our innermost emotions, extending beyond this life into the next. The Tombeau on the death of Monsieur Blancheroche composed by seventeenth-century keyboardist Johann Jakob Froberger is proof of this. In the Tombeau, Froberger immortalizes the lutenist Blancherocher’s fatal tumble down a flight of stairs with a long descending scale. Be sure to listen for it!
Harmonia Vault Segment: Percival's quest for the Grail
One legend that explores the boundaries of this life and the powers beyond is Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail. Some versions of the story say the Grail was a cup used to collect Jesus Christ's blood as he died on the cross; others say the Grail grants eternal life.
Back in 1999, we retold the Percival legend on an episode of Harmonia featuring music of French Canadian ensemble La Nef from their recording Percival: The Quest for the Grail.
In this excerpt, Percival's desire to become a knight had led him far from home to the court of King Arthur...
In the next section of La Nef’s retelling of Percival’s story, the young knight, has reached King Arthur’s court. Arthur’s enemy, the Red Knight, has just stolen Queen Guinevere’s Golden Goblet, spilled it on her, and left great insult. Percival, to prove himself, sets off to challenge the Red Knight.
On the way, a young maiden and a fool predict that Percival will become a valiant and famous knight. Percival defeats the Red Knight, and puts on his armour.
“The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” also called “The Prikeli Bush,” is a centuries-old English folk ballad with alternate versions from countries like Finland, Sweden, and Germany. Its lyrics describe the fear of a maid at the gallows. The maid waits for the arrival of someone who will rescue her from her plight. Most of those who pass by don’t care to offer the hangman a bribe for the maid’s life; but, in our version, rescue finally arrives with the maid’s true love.
Another folk ballad takes its text from a medieval Welsh manuscript called the “Black Book of Carmarthen.” Its twelfth-century text transmits a dialogue between Ysgolan, a man dressed all in black, and an unnamed other. Ysgolan, possibly a cleric or bishop, recounts his crimes against God—including the burning of a church and the killing of cattle—as well as his punishment and pains received from seaworms.
Featured recording: Historia Sancti Martini
The ensemble Diabolus in Musica is named for the musical interval medieval musicians called “the Devil in Music.” Under the direction of singer and musicologist Antoine Guerber, the ensemble dedicates itself to the interpretation of plainchant and polyphony from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. Since 1992, Diabolus in Musica has performed at festivals throughout France and North America and put forth a trove of award-winning CDs.
Our featured recording by Diabolus in Musica is built around the reconstruction of music for the Solemn Office of St. Martin of Tours. This might be how music in his honor would have been sung at the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours in the thirteenth century.