Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Program Archive

Voices from the Island Sanctuary:
Ecclesiastical Singers in Paris (1180-1230)

Passionate young urban males

The creators of these songs, young clerical intellectuals but also some established courtly poets, were the ‘angry young men’ of their time, deeply concerned with justice (for their own class, that is) and decrying corruption in the Church and at court. At the confluence of Notre-Dame, the schools of the Left Bank, and the courtly aristocracy, we feel even today the immense creative energy of these young men.

In 1236, riots in the city of Orleans resulted in the deaths of more than 100 students. The outraged scholars of Paris were soon hearing the anonymous Latin song Aurelianis civitas intoned within the safety of the Latin Quarter and the precincts of Notre Dame.

Ambitious young Parisian clerics were fascinated by Fortuna, the goddess who turns the mysterious wheel which randomly brings the weak to the height of power, and the powerful to a humiliating fall. In the two-voice conductus O varium fortune lubricum, we are reminded that even the great societies of Troy, Carthage, the Romans and the Greeks were not immune to her power. How could the illustrious Parisian clerics and noblemen be otherwise?

This was a period of profound disgust at how money had come to rule the world and the Church; positions of power -- especially in Rome – were openly for sale, leading young Parisian poets to protest in vehement, virtuosic song. In a nod to a well-known conductus exhorting Christians to crusade in the Holy Lands, a new text, Curritur ad vocem nummi, instead cynically exhorts the listener to perfect the art of usury and bribery, ignore the law, and do whatever it takes and get rich as fast as possible, without a care for others.

Texts of praise and lamentation were also heard in Paris. In the planctus (lament) Anglia planctus itera, probably created upon the death of the English king Henri II Plantagenet, in 1189, we hear the high art of rhetoric in song, as the imagery of a solar eclypse is used to express the darkness and confusion of ‘renewed loss’: Henri’s son Geoffroy de Bretagne had died 3 just years earlier.

Finally, the text to Bulla fulminante (‘a fulminating Papal Bull’ – perhaps in reference to the divorced French king Philippe Auguste, who had been excommunicated by the pope?), was set to the final melisma of a famous conductus about the search for justice and truth. Here, a new song is created which sarcastically declares that the deaf papal courtiers in Rome are completely corrupt and will only respond to bribery.


Aurelianis civitas

O city of Orelans, filled with evil and polluted by an unimaginable crime!... You have murdered Christ’s servants, whom you should have shielded from the rage of the crowds… Weep, o city of blood, for the gravity of your crime!  O blessed city of Paris, in which an impious man is instantly punished for his iniquities. It is a proper place for study, where the citizen is good to the student; a city to which one always would return if one could ever bear to leave it.

O varium fortune lubricum

O Fortune, changing and slippery, your tribunal and judges are unstable. You prepare huge gifts for him whom you would tickle with favors as he arrives at the top of your wheel. But your gifts are unsure, and finally everything is reversed; you raise up the poor man from his filth and the loudmouth becomes a statesman.

Fortune edifies and ruins; she throws down the man she earlier honoured, and protects the one she had rejected before. She contradicts her own decrees, and her gifts cannot be kept. Hers is a fragile alliance: it oppresses the nobles and makes them poor, while making the poor noble and rich.

Thanks to the meddling of deceiving Fortune in war, the brilliant city of Troy lies pitifully now in ruin and ashes. Who destroyed the authority of the Romans? Who destroyed the eloquence of the Greeks? Who destroyed the glory of Carthage? Undependable destiny has taken back what is has given and has smashed everything which is built up.

Curritur ad vocem nummi

Run to the sound of money calling – a pleasant invitation! We all have a secret lust for the forbidden, even though we know we shouldn’t. Learn, then, how to fool people! Just do it! Deny yourself nothing in this life and live like the rest of us. Live like the rich clerics: measure the punishment according to the bribe. When you bring in your net and see that the harvest is ripe, then at least add a little usury to your portfolio.

He who hasn’t mastered the arts which will make him fit for this life, he should stand on the sidelines to watch and learn. Dare everything, even if you use trickery and fraud. Leave nothing out! That’s my credo: let the world serve you! You have no need to adhere to the law, no need to worry about justice. Let this edict be holy to you: Where virture is a crime, there is no place for God!

Anglia planctus itera

England, repeat your lamentations and return to grief: consider the double loss as a double star has set. Harshly death has raged in you…therefore, always inclined to grief, enter into grief. The sun of Paris has been eclypsed in Britain and is seen everywhere. O day, noxious to the world! O day announcing grief, covering the sun in darkness! O day, daughter of the night! O day without forgiveness! O day full of darkness!

Bulla fulminante

When the papal Bull fulminates, when the judge speaks a thundering verdict, when the accused makes an appeal while a false judgement weighs upon him, that’s when Truth is oppressed, picked apart, and sold, and justice becomes a whore. One appeals again and again to the Curia, but the goal isn’t reached until the last coin is spent.

If you’re seeking favors from the Roman Curia, then first change your habits: do not offend the judges with your integrity, and remember that it’s useless to be well qualified. You’ll wait many months while others move past you. With a nice bribe, however, you will be noticed immediately.

The gatekeepers of the pope are deafer than Cerberus. You can howl all you want, in the mistaken hope that something will change. But even the plea of Orpheus (who moved Pluto, the god of the underworld) would remain unheard there. But they might listen if you knocked with a hammer made of silver.

Upcoming Concerts

29 October 2021, 7.30 pm
Friends of Chamber Music Kansas City, Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, Kansas City, USA
Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf

22 to 26 November 2021
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France
Workshop n°2 Roman de Fauvel – part III

8 December 2021
Actus humanus, Main town Hall, Gdansk, Poland
Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf (60 mins.)

18 to 26 march 2022
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France
Roman de Fauvel – part III, mise en scène: Peter Sellar

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's teaching activities in 2019

In March 2019, Benjamin will give two weekend courses on the solo songs of Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236). The courses are being hosted by the Centre de Musique Médiévale de Paris. Dates: 9-10 and 30-31 March.
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After retiring from his teaching position at the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he taught between 2005 and 2018 in the professional masters program, Benjamin Bagby continues to travel widely in 2019 to teach practical workshops for young professionals:

Folkwang Universität der Künste (Essen-Werden, Germany).
Benjamin has joined the faculty of this renowned masters program for liturgical chant performance and medieval music. The dates of his courses in 2019: 5-7 April; 26-28 April; 17-19 May; 30 May–01 June.
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For the second year in a row, Benjamin will teach an intensive course in the 8th International Course on Medieval Music Performance (Besalú, Spain): Songs of the troubadours (for singers and instrumentalists).
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Amherst Early Music Festival (Connecticut College, New London CT) 21-28 July:
An intensive course on the solo cansos of the Occitan troubadours, with a focus on songs from the great Milan songbook Bibl. Ambr. R71 sup. (for singers and instrumentalists).
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