Be'm plai lo gais temps de pascor
A singable English version of a 12th century troubador lyric
- Lady Teleri the Well-Prepared
- Tempore Atlantia (1000-1250) at Twelfth Night, AS XLIII (January 2009)
This was a work of adaptation rather than invention. Bertran de Born's plazer de guerra, a song of the pleasures of war - very Atlantian! - was already translated into rhymed English by J.J. Wilhelm. The music was available in a modern edition of Bertrand's work, but in neume notation - just noteheads, without any indication of relative length. I transcribed the neumes into modern musical notation, assigning values as seemed to fit the translated lyrics, and adjusted the lyrics as needed. The result is a singable English version of the work. However, troubador music is notoriously inaccessible to modern ears; it lacks a clear tonal center and tends to wander maddeningly. A brisk and confident performance can alleviate this somewhat, but I remain doubtful that troubador music will find an eager audience.
One evening, Lady Patricia of Trakai brought her new find, Lyrics of the Middle Ages, to Storvik's Music Ensemble practice. The out-of-print volume, purchased for $3 at a local used book shop, goes for $50 online. I was delighted to see that it was edited by J.J. Wilhelm, an extremely colorful professor of comparative literature I had been lucky to study with in college. Paging through it, we discovered Bertran de Born's Be'm plai lo gais temps de pascor ("How I love the gay times of spring"). It starts off innocently enough, enumerating the loveliness of the flowers and the birds... and then begins to enthusiastically describe the tents upon the battlefield, the crash of arms, and the loot to be had as the spring campaign season gets underway.
Was there a more Atlantian song than this? we asked.
It had some features attractive to us as SCA moderns: the "gotcha" introduction, which sets up expectations for one thing and then subverts them; the celebration of a medieval war ethos; the dramatic ending ("Better than be prisoner - Be dead!"). A footnote indicated that a tune existed for the words, and we decided we would put the tune and words together for performance.
After a little adventure (the footnote gave the wrong citation for the tune source), I located the critical edition of Bertran de Born's work that contained the tune. It was given, however, as staffless noteheads. This is not unusual, as scholars attempt to preserve the ambiguous nature of the original medieval manuscript, which gave neither note values, nor staff lines, nor time signatures. Sheet music appears, in this era, to have often functioned as an aid to memory, rather than as precise instructions for playing, so we should not assume that we are meant to sing every note with exactly the same value - the piece would be horribly boring and drone-like if we did.
So I undertook to transcribe the noteheads into more usual notes, and to match them with the translated lyrics. In a few places, I had to modify the lyrics as well; they were written to read and recite well, but not apparently to sing to the tune.
Bertran de Born and His Work
Bertran de Born lived c. 1150-1215, the eldest son and inheriting son of a nobleman. In addition to being a poet, he was a knight and a warrior. So it is not surprising that his poems are frequently about war and its waging:
"For Bertran war functions as a source and emblem of moral value. [...] For Bertran it is the ideal of war which upholds the secular virtues of the age, demanding that a knight be courageous, generous, courtly and slightly mad; a prince must display the same qualities in order to direct society to its proper goal. [...] The precise violence of war produces a well-formed death, a monument to the moral achievement of victor and vanquished alike." (Paden 34)
But this is an ideal, not the real. The knight and
the prince should always aim at this chivalrous ideal, even if - as
Bertran was surely aware - the reality of war often fell short of it.
"[E]ven there [the imagery] is characteristically removed from full realization by being expressed as a possibility, in the conditional tense, or as a hope, in the future tense. The martial panorama in poem 30 springs from the poet's imagination - Be'm plai lo gais temps de pascor, "The gay time of spring pleases me well"; whether he describes factual events which please him, or the pleasure which he takes in the thoughts of events he has imagined, one cannot say." (Paden 35)
But better by far to test oneself in less-than-ideal wars than to languish at home!
Bertran was a poetic innovator as well. He refined a process of imitation of others poem's structures - but not themes or content. Consider that before this time, troubador lyrics had no fixed form. The poet was free to set the number of syllables per line and the rhyme scheme. By imitating form but not theme, Bertran put poetry on a path on which poetic forms with a fixed structure could develop:
"It was apparently Bertran, in the absence of earlier known cases who first practiced the kind of structural imitation which was to become one of the notable characteristics of the troubador lyric as an art-form. [...] The verbal elements of such structural imitation were three: the abstract rhyme scheme, the number of syllables in each line, and the particular rhyme sounds. These three imply a fourth dimension of the song, the melody; by adopting the three verbal elements of his model's structure the poet assured that his words would fit the model's music. However, while we can easily compare any surviving poems with respect to rhyme scheme, syllable count, and rhymes, melodic transcriptions have survived for only about 10 percent of the extant troubador compositions, so that it is rarely possible for us to verify in detail that structural imitation extended to the melody. [...] Bertran's key innovations were two: it was he who first used the same rhyme sounds as he found in his model, thus developing the principle of imitation to the full; and it was he who freed imitation for thematic constraint by restricting it to the purely formal dimension. The latter innovation was a crucial preliminary step towards the development of such fixed forms as the sonnet." (Paden 45-46)
by way of thoroughness, we add that not all sources are in agreement
that this song is actually by Bertran de Born. Most scholars in the
field do accept his authorship. As discussed below, the music is
documentably not Bertran's, and in fact no music ever
accompanies this poem anywhere in the manuscripts. However, in it,
Bertran imitates another poem which does have music, and the assumption is that he imitated the melody as well.
some manuscripts, there are three additional verses which switch from
war-song to love-song. Paden et al. accept Bertran's authorship of
these as well. Wilhelm apparently did not, and did not translate
them. I do not include them in my version.
The music was given on pages 495-498 of Paden as staffless noteheads, with no barlins or meter. Notes were, however, tied to show melismas in the original.
This music was not written by Bertrand de Born, but rather by Guiraut de Borneill, for his No pose sofrir. Guiraut's song possesses the same metrical and rhyme structure and the same rhyme sounds as Bertrand's. As noted above, Bertrand pioneered a structural imitation where he would model one of his own poems on one written by a contemporary, down to the rhymes used. This implies - although does not dictate - that the same melody was used. Certainly the same melody can be used, and this is what is generally done for this piece.
piece was highly melismatic (many notes sung to a single syllable).
While our version also contains melismas, they are generally in
different places than in the original (see below).
Arranging the Music
I wrote down on paper the notes of each line, noting the melismas (mostly to ignore them later). Then I underlayed the English text for the first verse and started a matchup. I had to regroup most of the melismas to work with the text; while undesirable, this is perhaps unavoidable when moving from French to English. I dropped one repeated note, an E that appeared inside a melisma and then immediately outside of it. In my arrangement, both are inside the melisma so I combined them into one note.
Next, I picked out the melody, paying careful attention to which notes I wanted to hold and which I didn't. Stresses often (but not always) were getting about twice the duration of unstresses, especially if we were in an iambic situation. (Breve - semibreve, was one of the common rhythmic modes, so that's about right.)
I made one substantive change to the tune. I had a one-syllable word ending a line with an F-E melisma,
and the next line started with an E - it just didn't sound right. I
removed the E at the end of the line and held the F for longer.
As a troubador piece, it probably shouldn't have much in the way of rhythmic accompaniment. However, considering the audience and the subject matter, it plays very well with the first verse mostly without drum, but then adding one when the song's true martial intent becomes clear. It gives it an edge and some energy.
I largely used the poetic translation by J.J. Wilhelm, with the following adjustments:
From "Who's the first man" to "Who's first man"
"And when the battle's fierce" to "And when the battle's getting fierce"
"And horses running free" to "And their horses running free"
"Will hack at arms and heads" to "will hack at arms and legs and heads"
"Better than taken prisoner: be dead' to "Better than prisoner: be dead"
From "Not eating or drinking or sleep" to "Not eating, drinking or sleep"
"hear the cry: Charge!" to "hear the cry of Charge!"
envoi is a coda of sorts, a message tacked on to the end of the poem.
In this case, I liked the natural ending of the piece far better than
its envoi, which was complaining that Bertran's contemporary princes
were not hasty enough in making some war. While it might have been
striking political commentary in its time, it doesn't have much
relevance to us. In theory, it could have been rewritten to a generic
call to war, but there was a second problem - the tune for the envoi
was not included. Perhaps it may not have originally been sung? This
might be an area for future research, but the performance as it stands
is already quite effective.
Results and Conclusions
The resulting score should be taken as a general guideline. The piece benefits greatly from a free meter that can slow or speed a bit to add interest and emphasis. For added "snap" (not a documentable feature but one that makes it more interesting to the SCA audience), some of the more languid "quarter note - half note" patterns can be sung or played as "quarter note - quarter note - quarter rest" - roughly speaking. This is a piece that requires good bardic performance judgement.
The esteemed Baron Igor of Clan Cambion offered his considered opinion on the tune, upon hearing it practiced at Storvik's Novice Tournament: "That sucks!" Indeed, the strange and wandering melody, typical of the troubadors, is not one that immediately appeals to modern ears. There is a lot of medieval music out there that I think people would like, if they gave it a chance. The troubador corpus is not that music. Having been up close and personal with this song for a while, I think I can see some of the beauty that's there, but it's really not accessible to our ears. You have to work at liking it.
The piece was eventually performed as a dramatic reading, in duet form, with a recorder prelude. (Recorders are a later instrument, but they make a fair stand-in for any fipple flute.) It was well-received.
The works of the troubadors were key in defining medieval concepts like chivalry and courtly love. They deserve more exposure. But would it, philosophically, be wrong to write new tunes for them? Perhaps in the style of the trouveres, the northern neighbors of the troubadors? If, as Timothy McGee suggests, medieval monophony is "heightened poetry" and the music is primarily in service to the words, and if we are primarily concerned with presenting the words to a wider audience, can we reinvent the music? Or would it be more intellectually honest to give a spoken-word performance, perhaps with authentic musical accompaniment? These are the questions this project has left me asking.
Timothy McGee. Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Performer's Guide. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1985.
William D. Paden, Jr.,
Tilde Sankovitch and Patricia H. Stablein, eds. The Poems of the Troubador Bertran de Born. University of California
Press: Los Angeles, 1986.
J.J. Wilhelm, ed. Lyrics of the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities vol. 1268, Garland Publishing, Inc: New York, 1990