Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Program Archive

Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper

II. The Image of Dawn

The most poignant medieval image of dawn, known to us from the troubadours, is the erotic alba, a song of illicit lovers who must part after a night of love. But many dawn songs do not describe an amorous parting: they are songs which present the ineffable moment between night and day, when mysteries are made manifest, the light in the sky is in flux, visions occur, and voices of warning are heard mixed with the song of the nightingale. Here, as in the Song of Songs, the worlds of eros and the spirit are inseparable.


(Frankish, 10c)

Almost no instrumental music survives in written form from the period before 1200, and yet we know that instrumental music was performed with great sophistication at all sorts of courtly gatherings. Often, such pieces had exotic titles, attesting to their popularity, or to an association with a certain story or mythological character. This tune, found in numerous vocal manuscripts, is called "the swan" and is related to the lament of the swan heard later in the group. It is fitting that it is performed here in an instrumental version using a flute made from a delicate swan's bone.

Foebus abierat

(Northern Italy, late 10c)

This 10th century woman's song is the earliest-known depiction of a lover's ghostly apparation, a theme which has haunted folksong for a thousand years. Part of an ancient and important tradition, this song shares aspects of its text (and probably also its melody) with other medieval depictions of ghostly night-meetings between a man and a woman, including the Beloved in the Song of Songs, and Maria Madgalena's meeting in the garden with the resurrected Jesus.

Text: Phoebus had departed, his voyage past; his sister was riding with unbridled span, shedding her beams in forest springs, stirring wild creatures to prey, jaws agape. Mortals had let their limbs sink into sleep.

One night in April that has just gone by the image of my true love stood before me; calling me, softly, he touched me gently - his voice failed him, overcome by tears, he gave such sighs that he could not speak. At his touch I trembled fearfully; as if in terror I started up, with outstretched arms I pressed my body to his, and then I froze, utterly drained of blood – for he had vanished! I was holding nothing! Fully awake then, I cried out loud: "Where are you fleeing, I beg you, why so quickly? Only wait, if you will - I too shall enter, for I want to live with you forever!" Soon I regretted having spoken so.

The windows of the terrace had been open, the beams of Diana shone in all their beauty, while I in my wretchedness grieved, ah so long. Streams of tears flowed down over my cheeks; till the next day my weeping never ceased.

(Translation: Peter Dronke)

Clangam filii

(Winchester, 10c)

Called Planctus cigni - the swan's lament -, this sequence (Latin: sequentia) may have had its origins in West Frankish cloisters or even in indigenous song traditions. Its archaic theme of the soul's longing is made poignant through the voice of a swan, the lost wanderer over the dark ocean, seeking nourishment and a safe haven, and finding salvation by the light of dawn.

Text: Hear me, children, tell the lamentation of the winged swan who journeyed across the ocean. Bitterly he grieved for what he had make his voyage over the high seas. This was his cry: "I am doomed. What shall I do in my misery? My wings will never support me here in this moisture, the waves batter me, the winds dash me to and fro in my exile. I am confined between peaks of water. Flying, I moan, unable to mount higher. I can see plenty of fish, but in these waves I cannot reach them for nourishment. Sunrise and sunset and brilliant polar stars, give me guidance! Summon Orion to light my way, and sweep the clouds from my sight!" While the thoughts possessed his mind vermillion dawn came to his rescue. A breeze bore him up, making him strong, and he exulted, feeling himself flung amid the stars in their familiar high constellations. Joy overtook him, and he was ecstatic beyond telling as he dived and surfaced in the sea. Singing his melodies he glided to the welcome shores, dry land. Come now, all you multitudes of birds, and proclaim together in chorus: Praise and glory to the great King!

(Translation: Fleur Adcock)

Phebi claro

(Provence, late 10c)

This little Latin song, with its Provencal refrain, survives in a single 10th century manuscript. Does it describe the plight of illicit lovers, or is it a warning to believers (the milites Christi - soldiers of Christ), to watch for pre-dawn attacks by demons and spiritual doubt? The poem remains vague on this point, mixing instead images of eros and spiritual terror.

Text: When Phoebus's bright beam has not yet risen, Aurora brings her slender light to earth; a watchman shouts to slumberers "Arise!".

(Refrain): Dawn graces the dank sea, draws forth the sun, then passes. Oh watchman, look how the dark grows bright!

Our lurking enemies are bursting forth to intercept the idle and the rash - the herald pleads and calls on them to rise. Dawn graces the dank sea...

From Arcturus the north wind is released, the stars of heaven hide their radiance, the Plough is drawn toward the eastern sky. Dawn graces the dank sea...

(Translation: Peter Dronke)

Aurea personet lira

(Rhineland, early 11c)

The nightingale (Latin: philomela) is the quintessential creature of the hours before dawn, warning lovers, consoling the lonely and vexing the sleepless. Here, in the form of a sequence, the song of this little warbler is praised extravagantly and found to be better than all the instruments of man. Although the earliest extant musical source (sung here) dates from the 12th century, we find the text in numerous older sources, including the songbook of the Rhineland harper.

Text: May the golden lyre sound bright melodies, may a single string be tightened over fifteen notes; may the middle tone produce the first sound according to the hypodorian mode. Let us give praise to the nightingale with well-tuned voice, singing out a sweet melody as music without mastery of which there can be no true songs.... the nightingale is joyful, aware of her sweet voice....she gives forth notes to mark the summer peace to sleepers through intervals of song, and to the wayfarer lovely relief from toil. The loveliness of her voice, more brilliant than the lyre, in warbling outdoes all the little flocks of birds.... Blessed the season for which such a symphony re-echoes!... O you little birdlet, never cease to sing.... I want you to produce happy harmonies on your little tongue, so that you will be remembered in the palaces of kings. Now, we have rendered you enough splendid services which are pleasant in sound and rhythmic in wording, worthy for young scholars and their pastimes. The time has come to end our harmonic song.... May God preserve us and govern us in his mercy! Amen.

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski, abridged)

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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