The Highland River Melees demo on June 14, 2008 was sponsoring a bardic competition. Entries were to be in a period style and on the matter of the Hundred Years' War. Research led me to select the virelai as the song form, although it was a lyric rather than narrative style in the 14th century. As the subject matter, I have taken Froissart's account of the death of King John I of Bohemia and attached to it the legend that the adoption of the King of Bohemia's motto, "Ich dien" ("I serve") by the Prince of Wales dates to the battle of Crecy. The legend is that Prince Edward (the "Black Prince") was so impressed with John I's valor that he took up his motto.
The virelai, while a "fixed form" in number of stanzas and rhyme pattern, had no particular pattern of syllables per line nor stress patterns. Lines of seven and eight syllables were more common, but shorter lines (3-6 syllables) were frequently used for variation. I took as a model Guillaume de Machaut's Douce dame jolie. While I reproduced its syllabic count, I did not reproduce its stress pattern. In subsequently adapting the music from the original, I have had to make some small changes to accommodate that. Primarily, I have dropped some "pickup" notes, but I have also had to repeat or add bar of music in two places in the verses to make everything work.
Errors of which I am aware: I mispronounce "Crecy" to make a rhyme, and the last line of the last verse has one syllable too many. I also place a stress on "in" in the first line of the refrain and on "or" in the eight line of the second verse; while not strictly speaking impossible to do, it's not very good versification.
The final product is a good marriage of words to music. The music of Douce dame jolie has a character well-suited for this tale, blending a strong determination (felt in its rhythms) with an elegiac sadness (felt in its melody if one slows the tempo).
Bardic Performance Theme will Be The Antics of The Hundred Years’ War. Pieces must Represent the Time of Our Friend and Ally, King Edward; extra Credit for mention of The Black Prince and/or Battles in which He Fought. Any form will be Found Acceptable. There shall be a 10 minute Performance Limit. Entrants are strongly requested to Construct their Entries in Period style. Documentation is Suggested, but not required. Sponsored by Gerita della Mara and David ben Leon.
So ran the notice in the event announcement for Highland River Melees 2008. I had been harboring for some time a desire to compose a song in a period style, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity. Moreover, I would be teaching a class on research at the event, and it seemed like a good chance to put my newly-clarified ideas about research into practice, and to try and do this one "by the numbers."
I first planned something in an English style, but found a paucity of English 14th century songs. (While Chaucer was writing at the time, his work was not sung.) Some brief research revealed that, in the early and mid-14th century, the English court was still largely French-speaking, and its music French-inspired:
French remained the language of the English court throughout the thirteenth century and much of the fourteenth as well. Only scattered examples of vernacular poetry and prose survive from the period preceding the first flowering of English literature in the second half of the fourteenth century... We need not be surprised, therefore, to find that the Middle Ages produced only a handful of songs with English texts. (Hoppin 322)
So a French verse form would not be an inappropriate one to use to discuss the "antics" of the Black Prince.
Guillaume de Machaut was the premier French composer of the 14th century (and arguably the premier composer of his age) (Hoppin 398-432). He worked in all of the major song styles and regularized some of them. Under his influence, the lai went from a narrative work of any length to a standard form of 12 stanzas of 16 lines each. (This was too long for the competition, which had a 10 minute time limit.) His rondeau, ballades, and motets were all polyphonic - not something I could reproduce for a solo performance. (Some examples had textless parts that may have been for instrumental accompaniment (Hoppin 421, 423), but I did not feel up to learning medieval counterpoint in the time I had to develop this performance.) That left the virelais, some of which were polyphonic but most of which were monophonic (Hoppin 429) - 25 out of 33 of Machaut's surviving work.
The basic formula:
"A refrain of several lines begins the poem and then returns to conclude each of its three stanzas. The stanzas themselves subdivide into three sections, of which the first two have the same form and are sung to the same melody. The third section returns to the form and melody of the refrain... The refrains, and therefore the third sections of the stanzas, range in length from three to eight lines, but the longer forms with six or more lines occur in over half the poems. Each of the first two sections of the stanzas is shorter and usually consists of two or three lines. Further variety of poetic structure results from the characteristic use of lines of contrasting lengths combined with nearly complete freedom in the disposition of the rhymes." (Hoppin 430)
Variations on the basic formula:
Machaut took full advantage of all these opportunities for creating different poetic forms within the basic structure of the virelai. He evidently liked the form of the example in [his work] Reméde de Fortune, for he reproduced it in every detail in Virelais 24, 28, and 29. The common scheme of these four pieces is as follows:
Poetry: A7A7B4B7A4A7B4 b7b7a4 b7b7a4 a7a7b4b7a4a7b4b A7A7B4B7A4A7B4
Music: A b b a A
[Captial letters indicate the refrain. All A/a's rhyme, as do all B/b's. Musically, A and a are the same tune, but A is the refrain while a is part of the verse. The numbers denote the number of syllables in the line.]
All of the other virelais differ to a greater or lesser extent in their rhyme schemes and in the lengths and number of their lines. (Hoppin 430)
Machaut further often (in 20 virelais) made use of open and closed endings - so the b lines, rather than musically bb would be b(open) b(closed) - the music was the same except for a few bars at the end. Similarly, the A/a section could be decomposed into two halves, A(open) and A(closed). (This is done in 8 of the virelais.) (Hoppin 431)
Many virelais are like No. 10 in being almost entirely syllabic. [That is, one note per syllable of poem.] Others introduce a few vocal ornaments of two or three notes to a syllable without losing their simple, almost folklike quality. Longer melismas occur once or twice in a small number of pieces, but they rarely extend beyond two or three measures. (Hoppin 431)
Froissart is the primary source for the early Hundred Years' War; he lived during the time and chronicled it. The Battle of Crecy was fought in 1346; Froissart wrote his Chronicle between 1361 - 1369. He has this to say on the death of King John I of Bohemia:
The valiant king of Bohemia called Charles of Luxembourg, son to the noble emperor Henry of Luxembourg, for all that he was nigh blind, when he understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: 'Where is the lord Charles my son?' His men said: 'Sir, we cannot tell; we think he be fighting.' Then he said: 'Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.' They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies. The lord Charles of Bohemia his son, who wrote himself king of Almaine and bare the arms, he came in good order to the battle; but when he saw that the matter went awry on their party, he departed, I cannot tell you which way. The king his father was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other. (Froissart, tr. Bourcher, 99-107)
It is a matter of fact that the motto of the Prince of Wales is "Ich Bien," the same as the king of Bohemia's; this is confirmed by the Prince's own website. The feathers of his badge come from the first Prince of Wales's mother, Phillipa of Hainault - the insistence of some Internet sources (e.g., Wikipedia) that the feathers and the motto come from John of Bohemia is incorrect. The badge does seem to date to the time of the Black Prince, and the much more plausible hypothesis holds that he took Bohemia's motto as his own to honor his fallen foe.
Count Lützow, an early scholar of Bohemia, recounts the legend in detail in a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 1904:
But the French marshal and his men, seeing that the English were prepared to resist, turned their backs and began basely to fly. When it was told to King John that the French were flying, and he was entreated himself also to seek in flight the safety of his life and that of his men, he said: "God forbid that a King of Bohemia should fly; rather lead me there where the battle is raging most fiercely. The Lord be with us; we fear nothing, but watch carefully over my son." When he had been led to the battlefield King John, struck by many arrows, was killed, and many Bohemian nobles who were with him on August 26.
[His son Charles is led off the field; he is reluctant and resists, unlike in Froissart's account.]
When the battle was ended and the King of England heard that King John had fallen, he caused his body to be searched for; and when it had been found he solemnly, and with many tears, took part in the funeral. He then delivered the body to his countrymen, saying: "The crown of chivalry has fallen to-day. Never was any one equal to this King of Bohemia." The knights then took up the royal corpse and carried it to Luxemburg, where it was buried in St. Mary's church of the Benedictine Order." (Lützow 19).
The published version of Lützow's lecture gives no citations, so I have not been able to track this remarkable quote any farther back. It may be Bohemian folk tradition of uncertain origin.
Similarly uncertain is another quote I have found only on the Internet. An article on Everything2.com restates Lützow's story, but has Prince Edward reply to his father's comment: "The king of chivalry has fallen, but he shall not die," and adopts the "Ich Bien" motto. The source for this is a posting on the Bryn Mawr Classical Newsgroup, where it is uncited. (The author also attributes the ostrich feathers to John, which is incorrect.)
So we have a genuine period account of John's death, and the genuine badge of the Prince of Wales featuring his motto. We have an uncited quote from a respected scholar of Bohemia of the early 20th century, stating that "The crown of chivalry has fallen to-day," and a possibly entirely spurious account of Prince Edward being inspired by that to take up the motto. While I would not assert that the quotes given in any of the sources are fully accurate (not even Froissart was in John's camp to hear him say anything), some of them are sufficiently poetic to be enlisted in the service of telling the authentic story.
From reading a few examples (but not a comprehensive list) of Machaut's virelais, I have the distinct impression that they were used for love lyrics. They are complaints of a lover, often addressed to his lady, and are fairly timeless. They are not narratives or chronicles of events. So I initially thought about playing on the motto "I serve," writing a virelai in Prince Edward's voice that spoke of his military and love-service.
But I found the story of King John I too striking and eventually decided to use that as my material. I've cast it as a lament (the troubador genre would be planh, but that's not really applicable to the 14th century) by Prince Edward over the death of John of Bohemia. In that it expresses his grief, it is a lyric; in that it narrates the events leading up to it in detail, it is a narrative.
I used "ay" for the A/a rhymes and "or" for the b rhymes. Since the stanzaic structure was not fixed, I decided to proceed via imitation, and modeled my poem on the structure of Douce dame jolie. Its A/a section is 7-7-7-8, and the b sections are 7-3-6.
I made a guess at the stress structure, but I don't speak French and got it wrong. By the time I consulted my sheet music for the song (de Gallardon 16-17), I had generated a second draft of which I was fairly fond. But the stressed beats in the music informed me that I had entirely mistaken the stresses of the original. (I discuss how I dealt with the problem in Music, below.) My stress patterns are not "wrong" in any absolute sense - there is no requirement in the virelai form for a specific pattern - but they do not imitate Douce dame jolie's, which made adapting the music challenging.
The story I tell in the song is a blending of Froissart's and Lützow's accounts. The French are fleeing the field but Bohemia will not. The lines "But he will not die today," "Chiv'ry's crown has died today," and "None like him will be, nor were before" all consciously echo the quotes in the various sources. The prince's motto "Ich Dien" is also used.
The poem has its weaknesses. In its first line, "Blind King John falls in the fray," "in" takes a stress. Int the second verse, eighth line, "or" takes one. This isn't a very natural way of speaking, although the use of music allows me to force it. The second line of the first verse, "At Crecy," has to be mispronounced to make the rhymes work. The last line, "None like him will be, nor were before" has nine syllables when it should have eight. Musically, since it begins with an unstress, it is an easy matter to subdivide the note, cramming "None like" into the musical space alotted for one word in previous verses. I kept this line as it is, rather than rewrite it, because I could not invent a rewrite that expressed what I wanted to say as cleanly and powerfully. (Arguably, if I were a better poet, I could accomplish that and adhere to my established form.)
One of the reasons I chose Douce dame jolie as a model was the assumption that, if I ran out of time before the event, I could use the music from that piece for this one rather than compose my own. When I reversed most of the stress patterns in the poem, this became a challenge.
For the A/a part, the changes were simple. Machaut's song starts on an unstress - a pickup beat. I dropped it. The note that would have started his next line moved up to be the last note in my lines. An additional beat was added at the end of the section to even everything out. This version of the chorus got into my head and ear. When I realized that I was having real problems with the b sections, and worried that making some small changes to the original tune would grate on listeners familiar with it, I found that I couldn't let Douce dame jolie go.
The changes to the b parts couldn't be solved by simply shifting everything over a note. Douce dame jolie contains several melismas. I shifted my word alignment under these, using the extra notes to pad out syllables that needed to continue until the next musical stress came along. The result is somewhat more melismatic than the original. Also, this left me a full measure of music short at the end of the b sections.
Douce dame jolie features b(open) and b(closed) endings. For the b(open), I found I could repeat a figure from the ending (the F-G-a rising figure) to make everything match. (I dropped the pickup 'B' note that leads into Machaut's b sections.) For the b(closed), I just loitered on the final (D) for the required extra beats.
Fifteenth and sixteenth century treatises offer some advice for good singing. They include recommendations to sing from the front of the mouth (rather than the chest or through the nose), to articulate words clearly, to avoid vibrato, and to avoid “cheap tricks” with intonation and volume to elicit emotion from the listener. (Singers were not told to entirely avoid dynamics; instrumentalists were in fact encouraged to mimic singers’ use of them. But it seems that overwrought play-acting was frowned upon.) (McGee 55-56) This is an approach well-suited to someone like me who has never had classical vocal training. I decided that my natural singing voice would be well-suited to this, as long as I kept things out of my chest voice (which I do love to use).
Although it is tempting to bring a drum or tambourine to emphasize the meter, I will sing unaccompanied. As a lyric and "high" courtly piece, the tempo and meter in the virelai can be somewhat free.
I am overall very pleased with the result. I mostly regret the errors in the poem that I was unable to find solutions for. I think the words blend well with the music - there is a strong sense of rhythm and motion that fits with the martial material, and - if the tempo is slowed slightly - the melody can convey a sense of sweet sadness and regret (perhaps not surprising, considerings its original purpose).
Blind King John falls in the fray
Blind King John falls in the fray
Twelve fair knights around him lay
But he will not die today
Ich dien I carry evermore
France's king, he rides away
Blind King John would go fore
Twelve brave knights around him stay
Chivalrous, valiant corps
Bridles all in fine array
'Round each other let them lay
Make a knot so all convey
Their king to thickest of the war
Blind King John...
One good blow he would relay
Dip his bright sword in gore
Forth they go, without delay
Death to pay
We heard their laughter roar.
Neither their blind king nor they
Any lament or dismay
In that battle did betray.
King John slew knights of England four
Blind King John...
English knights this troop waylay
John the brave fights no more
And, too, here, in Crecy's clay
Twelve men stay
Witness this, I implore
Chiv'ry's crown has died today
For this worthy foe I pray
Mem'ry his I keep alway
None like him will be, nor were before
Blind King John...
It was very satisfying to work within a period verse form's constraints, even one better suited to Romance languages than to English. But the next time I consider contrafacta to a period tune, I will analyze the tune and its meter before composing poetry.
Connors, Paul. Personal communication on the Bryn Mawr Classical Newsgroup, archived at http://depts.washington.edu/dwsamplr/arch-classics/0996.html.
de Gallardon, Mistress Linette. Music for the Beginning Scadian Harper. Self-published.
Froissart, Jean. Chronicles of Froissart. John Bourcher, tr., G.C. Macaulay, ed. (London : Macmillan, 1908), pp. 99-107, at http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Crecy.html, accessed 6/4/2008.
Hoppin, Richard. Medieval Music. W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.
Lützow, Francis. Lectures on the Historians of Bohemia: Being the Ilchester Lectures for the Year 1904. University Press, Oxford, 1905. On Google Books at http://books.google.com/books?id=9q4DAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA19&dq=The+crown+of+chivalry+has+fallen+to-day#PPA19,M1, accessed 6/4/2008.
McGee, Timothy. Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Performer’s Guide. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1988.
"The Prince of Wales: The Prince of Wales's Feathers." http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/personalprofiles/theprinceofwales/abouttheprince/theprinceofwalessfeathers/, accessed 6/4/2008.
Velox, "Battle of Crecy@Everything2.com." http://everything2.com/e2node/Battle%2520of%2520Crecy, accessed 6/4/2008.
Blog Posts About this Project
Virelai form and style
Scansion problems identified
Inability to change melody
Modifying tune to fit words
Last tweak to lyrics