Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Le Roman de Fauvel
New program for 2019 directed by Benjamin Bagby


The old king is dead, and the time has come for accounts to be settled. The king's ambitious courtiers, his clueless sons, the faction of his powerful younger brother, his corrupt and unpopular ministers, the high clerics of the Church, and the court intellectuals are all competing for infuence, securing their positions, hoping to infuence the kingdom's future course.

In this period of instability and fear, a handful of court insiders -- young intellectuals working in the royal chancery and chapel -- begin to circulate a strange and subversive poem, later accompanied by songs and paintings in a luxurious manuscript: a delirious allegorical satire which bitingly comments on events without naming names. It is a scathing vision of a world gone mad, where an animal rules men, men become like beasts, and corruption and vice triumph on all levels; where the kingdom itself is debased and made feeble, where the personifed vices are ascendant, where the country risks being overrun with chaos. Who will save the kingdom from this horrible fate?

The kingdom is France. The time is 1315. The subversive poem is called Le Roman de Fauvel.

Who or what is Fauvel? He is at frst just a little fauve-colored horse in a stable in Paris, who manages to ascend to power among the elites. It seems that the innately unstable goddess Fortune, jealous of her irritatingly stable sister, Raison (Reason), has decided to favor Fauvel, moving him into the royal palace, where he is 'curried' (torcher Fauvel) by one and all. The power-hungry beast becomes a beastly man: as his name shows us, he is the personifcation of the vices: F = Flatérie (fattery), A = Avarice (avarice), U = Vilanie (meanness), V = Varieté (unpredictability), E = Envie (envy), and L = Lascheté (cowardice). His name also means Faus-vel = veil of falseness. He is a fake ruler.

As his power is consolidated and all crave his favor, Fauvel sees that he does not yet have complete control over his fate, and so after consultation with his courtiers (an army of Vices) he resolves to marry, and therefore dominate, the goddess Fortune herself. A wooing expedition to Fortune's palace is organized, where the powerful man with a horse's head sings exquisite love songs for the goddess, hoping for her hand in marriage. Although she rejects him with withering sarcasm, there is yet a consolation prize offered as bride: Vaine Gloire (= Vain Glory). The marriage is celebrated, and the wedding night features a noisy and disturbing Charivari, as Fauvel approaches the nuptial bed with Vaine Glory awaiting his beastly advances. A celebratory tournement is held, with the Vices jousting against the victorious Virtues, and the poem ends with a lament, fearing that the offspring of this horrible union will pollute 'le jardin de douce France'.

In 2020, to celebrate both the 700th anniversary of Fauvel's ultimate form in the famous manuscript BNF fr. 146, musical director Benjamin Bagby proposes a new production of Fauvel, a performance which will combine the latest Fauvel research with the long and deep performing traditions of his ensemble. Bagby will assemble a small group of today's best vocalists and instrumentalists, to shape the Fauvel story in a way that does not trivialize, but rather highlights the urgent and dangerous political nature of its time and ours. There are delightful moments of satire in Fauvel, but at its core it is an existential battle of virtue against vice, of the ruled against the ruler, and a cry for sanity as the country faces an uncertain future, ruled by an unpredictable and vain beast.

The ensemble will be expanded to include fve male voices, a narrator, and instruments including harp, vielle and fute.

Fauvel: detailed information

The background story:

By the end of the long reign of the Capetian King Philippe IV ‘le Bel’ (1285-1314), there was no lack of scandal or trouble in the realm of France: an adultery crisis in the royal family, the persecution (and mass murder) of the Templars, instability and schism within the Church which brought French popes to Avignon, and fnancial crises due to the predatory policies of Philippe's most powerful and hated minister, Enguerran de Marigny. The king's younger brother Charles de Valois, an enemy of Marigny, tried to infuence the king's two sons, Louis X 'le Hutin' (1314-16) and Philippe V ‘le Long’ (1317-22). There is even a theory that this poem was created as an admonitio for the young princes at the behest of their uncle Charles, that they might not repeat the mistakes of their father. Upon Philippe's death, Marigny was swiftly tried and executed, an event which is even allegorically celebrated in one of the 'new music' pieces found in the manuscript. Another motet mentions that Philippe V is now king. This story emerges from a very real and dangerous political crisis.

The manuscript:

The story is part of a long tradition of animal allegories, culminating in the Renart tales of the late 13th century. Le Roman de Fauvel was frst written by a chancery clerk named Gervčs du Bus (book I in 1310, followed by book II in 1314) and survives in several manuscripts, although only as a poem, without musical additions. But it was the revision and expansion, in 1316-18, made by another chancery clerk, mesire Chaillou de Pesstain, which resulted in the single famous illuminated manuscript we still possess today (BNF fr. 146), a large and luxurious book completed in 1318 and containing the original poem of 3,280 French verses, expanded by 1,808 new verses, and the addition of 169 musical items, in both French and Latin, clearly notated, and 77 images depicting the story.

This book is one of the single greatest treasures of France, and in 2018 it celebrates its 700th anniversary. It is a true multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk of its time and a radical synergy of text, sound and image, all combining to tell a story within the confnes of the royal chancery and chapel, the milieu of intellectuals and courtiers who were all trained in the best schools known in Europe. We will never know if it was 'performed' as a staged drama or pageant, but for an educated reader of the time, just the act of turning the pages of this book would have provided an intensive performance experience.

The entire manuscript of Fauvel can be viewed online.

The artwork:

The paintings depict Fauvel's rise to power, his being curried by kings, emperors, nobles, churchmen, monks, bishops, and even the pope. We see him presenting his suit to Fortune, the ensuing marriage and charivari, the tournement, and even a fountain of youth for his evil cohort. Some of the artwork has the quality of a satirical sketch, and here we are made to sense a free spirit which reminds us of such irreverent publications as Charlie Hebdo in our time. Subversive political satire has a long history in France.

The music:

The manuscript contains 169 musical numbers, a vast selection of all sung genres known at the time, from liturgical chant (also chant parodies) to 'early music' (Parisian church music from the 12th century, no longer in vogue in 1317, but re-purposed for Fauvel), some of the pieces having altered texts which ‘fauvelize’ them. But there are also new, cutting-edge polyphonic motets (using the latest notational symbols), as well as French songs in the fxed forms of the time: rondeau, virelai, balade, lai and dit. Most of the music is anonymous, but there are also known composers, ranging from contemporary (Philippe de Vitry, 1291-1361, with 5 motets) to Latin songs by such 'ancient masters' as Philippe le Chancelier (ca. 1170-1236), Gaultier de Châtillon (ca. 1135-ca. 1190), and Adam de Saint Victor (ca. 1110-ca.1150). There is no surviving instrumental music, but depictions of vielles and percussion in the charivari scenes.

Upcoming Concerts

22 August 2024
Brauweiler, Germany (Abteikirche St. Nikolaus Brauweiler), 7.30 pm
Musen der Sphären (World Premiere)

24 October 2024
Prague, University of Prague (Boethius 150th anniversary)
Boethius - Songs of Consolation (Quartet)

14 February 2025
Kulturzentrum Peterskirche, Kempen
Musen der Sphären

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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