Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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

Eros and ambition

The clerics who worked, sang and studied on the Île de la Cité, within the close of Notre Dame and near the French royal court, were among the most accomplished and worldy men in the Europe of their time. In this society, we would expect to find the most illustrious poets, the most renowned scholars, surrounded, of course, by ambitious – and often libidinous – young men who were at the beginnings of their careers. The following songs give us a glimpse into the more worldly aspects of clerical life: the ambivalence towards physical pleasure (in a city famed for its temptations) and the need to concentrate on study, advancement and prestige.

We often think of the Renaissance as being a period of revival for Classical themes. Actually, the 12th century Parisian clerics witnessed a huge output of text and song touching on the heroes of Greek Antiquity, the Trojan War, and the old gods. It would not seem strange to the singers of the conductus Veneris prosperis that it is found in a manuscript containing principally Christian texts. And how convenient that the god Jupiter might condone behaviour which the church would consider sinful.

Tongue in cheek, the career-conscious young student singing Vitam duxi wants to ‘have it all’ and does not regret the time he wasted on the pleasures of life.

And since love and jealousy are never far apart, one luscious 3-voice conductus from Paris (Procurans odium) reminds us that vicious rumours about the beloved only serve to heighten the energy of eros, so that the lover can finally ‘harvest sweet grapes on the envious enemy’s thorns’.

Although Pierre de Blois (d. 1212) was a court poet for Henri II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, his works were widely appreciated by the intelligentsia in Paris as well (he had studied there as a youth). The complex sequence Olim sudor Herculis, with its ironically moralistic refrain, would have been appreciated fully by an audience which knew the story of Hercules intimately, and that audience was in Notre Dame. Who could resist – then or now – the playful subtext about ‘great’ men making fools of themselves in the name of Venus? And who would not identify with the singer’s plan, wanting to flee from her enticements in the name of career and prestige?


Veneris prosperis

Everybody should enjoy the happy arrival of Venus, when those tender flowers are budding out. Follow the ancient custom: be ready for love, and shun all other forms of vice. Pledge your dues to Venus, you tender youths…pleasure is the boy’s law! Jupiter, ruler of all things, has taught us that nothing agreeable is done basely. Thus he speaks, and thus he fulfills all his vows, living in conformity to his own edict. It pleases me, therefore, to live as a lover; to imitate Jupiter is not such a bad idea. Transfixed by the arrow of voluptuousness, I will sail under my own free will, navigating by the star of Venus!

Vitam duxi

I have lived a joyous life of love, caring more for pleasure than for propriety. But now I’m recovering from my former life, concentrating more on my studies than on amorous combat. Why? Only one thing compels me: that I should enjoy the favour of fame while living an easy life! It’s good that we devote some time to love, so that we know what it feels like when we want to avoid it in the future. Now, knowing what is forbidden, I will be able to resist passion when it returns. Still, we shouldn’t condemn love: it helps us to find pardon, seek grace, and it makes the inexperienced lover more courteous and gentle; otherwise, he might act boorishly while the fruit of Venus is being plucked.

Procurans odium

The slanderers’ plot to sow discord hasn’t worked out as planned. Evil rumors have only solidified the lovers’ hearts. And so the tables are turned on the unsuspecting enemy; he becomes a helper. Thus is confirmed the happy status of those who love truly.

I know that such mean attacks by gossips can be useful; thanks to them I had the luck to avoid being fed up with love. With bad intentions, they gave me only joy, and in the end my desire is compounded. With such a remedy in hand, I can harvest grapes from the thorns of my enemies.

Olim sudor Herculis

Once, the labours of Hercules (crushing monsters far and wide, removing the world’s plagues) shone far and wide. But in the end, this fame withered, and he was enclosed in blind darkness by the enticing girl Iole, the hero was made a captive.

[refrain]: Love withers the merits of fame; a lover never laments the time he has lost, but rashly labours to dissipate himself under Venus.

The Hydra, more savage than any plague, was not able to cause him alarm, him whom a mere girl subdued; he yielded to Venus’s yoke! [refrain]

The poisoned breath of Cacus, with flaming vomit; the deceit of Nessus; Geryon of the Hesperus and the gatekeeper of Hell (each with triple form) did not terrify him. But a girl made him captive with a simple smile.  [refrain]

In combat with the Libyan Antheus he stood firm, and checked the fraud of a cunning fall when he kept him from falling; but he who thus unbound the tight bonds of combat is conquered and bound when he – Jove’s mighty offspring – falls into Iole’s embraces! [refrain]

He had become famous by such great deeds of valour, he whom with soft chains a bland girl imprisons, and she showers him with kisses, offering him from her tiny lips the nectar of Venus. A man dissolute with the pleasures of Venus devalues the memory of great deeds and glory.  [refrain]

But I, stronger than Hercules, I will fight against Venus! I will flee her, and devote my full energy to study and the advancement of my career! O my dear Lycoris, farewell, and wish me well, for in this battle, flight is stronger than fighting.

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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