Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper

VI. Desire and Seduction

Many lyrics survive from 11th-century sources which attest to the powerful influence of the Song of Songs ' dreamlike erotic language on medieval poets and singers. There are songs of almost transcendental desire – both feminine and masculine - but also simple, almost farcical lyrics of seduction, and we shouldn't be surprised to find all these delicacies spread by the harper before an appreciative intellectual, even ecclesiastical audience.

Iam, dulcis amica, venito

(Aquitaine, late 10c)

This is one of the most famous lyrics in medieval Latin to have survived. It exists in several versions, some of which stress the dramatic tension of the erotic situation, while others dwell on the almost sacred, dreamlike nature of the love-dialogue, mirroring the Song of Songs. The version found in the harper's songbook is distinctly a seduction scene.

Text: (He) Come now, sweet friend, whom I love as my own heart! Come into my little room that's laden with all that's exquisite. There the couches are covered, the house is ready with curtains, flowers are scattered within, and fragrant grasses among them. The table's been brought near, an abundance of bright wine, and whatever delights you, dear one. There sound the notes of sweet harmonies, even higher the flutes are blown - there a boy and a well-schooled girl are devising fair songs for you. He touches his cithara with a plectrum, she fashions her song to the lyre, and trays are brought by the servants with hot-spiced goblets of wine.The feasting does not concern me as much as our sweet conversation; such abundance of things does not matter as much as love's intimacy. So come now, my chosen beloved, dear to me than all women, radiant light of my eyes and greater part of my soul!

(She) I was alone in the forest and I loved secret places; often I fled from the uproar and I avoided the crowds. Now snow and ice are melting, leaves and grass growing green; the nightingale sings high above – love burns in the cave of the heart.

(He) Dearest one, do not delay now: let's bend our minds to loving! Without you I can't go on living - now we must love to the limit. What use to postpone it, my chosen one - it's got to happen soon anyway. You'll do it, so come, do it quickly - on my side, there's no delay!

(Translation: Peter Dronke)

Advertite, omnes populi

(Rhineland, early 11c)

Story-telling was an important part of the harper's art, and here, in the "Story of the Snow-Child", we even have a miniature farce, complete with a sarcastic narrator and a deceitful married couple.

Text: Listen, all you people, to an amusing story and hear, how a wife deceived a Swabian and how he deceived her in turn.

A humble Swabian, citizen of Constance who was transporting rich freight across the ocean in ships, left at home an all-too-wanton wife. Scarcely had he cleaved the sea with gloomy oars when... look! A Storm arises and the sea rages, the winds battle with one another, the billows surge, and, after many days at sea, the south wind deposits him, a wanderer, on a distant shore.

In the meantime his wife is not idle at home; some travelling players are in town, and young men gather around, and, unmindful of her exiled husband, she receives them joyfully. Pregnant on the very next night, she bore an unrightful son on the rightful day.

After two years have passed, the exile returns. The unfaithful wife runs to meet him, dragging with her a little boy. After they have given kisses, the husband says to her, "Tell me from whom you have this child, or else you will suffer the extreme punishment".

But she, fearing her husband, applies deceit. "My..." at last she begins, "my husband..." she stammers, "once, stricken with thirst in the Alps, I quenched my thirst with snow. So, pregnant from that, alas! I gave birth to this ruinous son! Languishing with love for you I arose at dawn and made my way barefoot across the snows and cold, and searched the desolate seas to see if I could find sails flying in the wind, or catch sight of the prow of a ship...."

Five years or more passed after this, and the merchant repairs his oars, refits his shattered ship, fastens the sails, and takes the snow-child with him. Once he has traversed the sea, he puts the child up for sale and, handing him over to a trader for hard cash, receives one hundred pounds; after selling the lad he returns a rich man. And upon entering his home he says to his wife: "Give solace, wife, give solace, dearest! ....I lost you child, whom not even you yourself loved more than I. A storm arose and a raging wind drove us, too tired to resist, onto sandy shoals; and the sun scorched us all terribly, and that child of yours....melted! Give solace, wife, give solace, dearest!"

Thus the treacherous Swabian tricked the wife, thus fraud overcame fraud: for the child whom the snow engendered quite literally melted under the sun.

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski)

O admirabile Veneris idolum

(Northern Italy, 11c)

This famous poem has been the subject of much discussion over the years: Is it a heterosexual song of desire, sung by a woman, or is it an older man lamenting that his young male lover has been seduced by a rival (a genre known in antiquity as paidikon)? We cannot know for sure, and since the gender situation is vague the singer must embody both possibilities. We do know that the poem has its origins in northern Italy, near Verona, that its fame spread to Germanic lands, and that the melody is also known as that of the sacred pilgrims' song, "O Roma nobilis".

Text: O marvelous idol of Venus, in whose substance there is no defect: may the prime-mover, who created the stars and heavens and who founded the seas and land, protect you. May you not suffer deception through the craft of a thief. May Clotho, who carries the distaff, cherish you. "Keep the boy safe!" not by supposition, but with resolute heart I entreat Lachesis, sister of Atropos, that she not consider pulling off the thread. May you have Neptune and Thetis as companions when you are borne over the river Adige. Why do you take flight - please tell - even though I love you? What shall I do, wretch, since I cannot see you? Hard substance from the bones of Mother Earth created humankind when the stones were cast. Of these this dear boy is one, who does not heed tearful moans. While I am sad, my rival will rejoice: I cry out like a hind when a fawn takes flight.

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski)

Puella turbata

(Frankish, 10c)

Here, we reconstruct what could have been an instrumental tradition of minstrels from the Rhine with their rendering of an ancient Frankish melody, a piece entitled Puella turbata ("The troubled girl"). We will never learn who the girl was - although it's probably not hard to guess why she was troubled -, but we do know the power that this melody had over the centuries, both within the church and outside it.

Suavissima nunna

(Rhineland, early 11c)

An amorous dialogue between a man and a nun, in which both participants begin each line singing in Latin and then finish it in Old German, making for a hilarious and chaotic swirl of erotic confusion. A medieval English censor was fairly successful in effacing this song (and other naughty lyrics) from the Canterbury manuscript, but a combination of technology, scholarship, and good luck have made a reconstruction possible.

Text: (He) Sweetest nun, ah, trust me joyfully! Blossom-time has come, the grass is green on the earth.

(She) What do you want me to do, young man? You are wickedly urging your beloved far away from heaven.

(He) My dearest one, put my love to the test! Now the leaves in the wood are green, now birds sing in the wood.

(She) Let the nightingale sing! My soul will be Christ's, to whom I vowed myself, to whom I shall be true.

(He) Oh lovely lady, I am telling you my trust, oh dwelling-place of my soul, angel of the heavens!

(She) Yet the rewards of the angels will force you to betray the soul of your little bird.

(He) Dearest nun, put my love to the test! What is more, I shall give you great honor in the world.

(She) All such things pass like clouds in the sky. Only Christ's kingdom endures forever.

(He) I too believe he reigns so beautifully: he does not refuse to give - that indeed does he grant.

(She) I so want to trust in the name of my lover, who is true to me, that you are wounding my senses.

(Narrator) Praise be to Love that he is converting her, her whom he will penetrate like the sun, as now she is eager for love.

(Reconstruction and translation: Peter Dronke)

Veni, dilectissime

(Rhineland, early 11c)

This timeless text speaks for itself.

Text: Come, dearest love (with ah! and oh!) to visit me - I will please you (with ah! and oh! and ah! and oh!). I am dying with desire (with ah! and oh!). How I long for love! (with ah! and oh! and ah! and oh! and ah! and oh!). If you come with the key (with ah! and oh!) you will soon be able to enter (with ah! and oh! and ah! and oh! and ah! and oh!).

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski)

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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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