ALTHOUGH wandering minstrels or bards have existed since the world began, and although the poetry they have left is often suggestive, the music to which the words were sung is but little known.
About 700-800 A. D., when all Europe was in a state of dense ignorance and mental degradation, the Arabs were the embodiment of culture and science, and the Arab empire extended at that time over India, Persia, Arabia, Egypt (including Algeria and Barbary), Portugal, and the Spanish caliphates, Andalusia, Granada, etc. The descriptions of the splendour at the courts of the Eastern caliphs at Bagdad seem almost incredible.
For instance, the Caliph Mandi is said to have expended six millions of dinars of gold in a single pilgrimage to Mecca. His grandson, Almamon, gave in alms, on one single occasion, two and a half millions of gold pieces, and the rooms in his palace at Bagdad were hung with thirty-eight thousand pieces of tapestry, over twelve thousand of which were of silk embroidered with gold. The floor carpets were more than twenty thousand in number, and the Greek ambassador was shown a hundred lions, each with his keeper, as a sign of the king’s royalty, as well as a wonderful tree of gold and silver, spreading into eighteen large, leafy branches, on which were many birds made of the same precious metals. By some mechanical means, the birds sang and the leaves trembled. Naturally such a court, particularly under the reign of Haroun-al Raschid (the Just), who succeeded Almamon, would attract the most celebrated of those Arabian minstrels, such as Zobeir, Ibrahim of Mossoul, and many others who figure in the “Arabian Nights,” real per-sons and celebrated singers of their times. We read of one of them, Serjab, who, by court jealousy and intrigues, was forced to leave Bagdad, and found his way to the Western caliphates, finally reaching Cordova in Spain, where the Caliph Abdalrahman’s court vied with that of Bagdad in luxury. Concerning this we read in Gibbon that in his palace of Zehra the audience hall was incrusted with gold and pearls, and that the caliph was attended by twelve thousand horsemen whose belts and scimiters were studded with gold.
We know that the Arabian influence on the European arts came to us by the way of Spain, and although we can see traces of it very plainly in the Spanish music of to-day, the interim of a thousand years has softened its characteristics very much. On the other hand, the much more pronounced Arabian characteristics of Hungarian music are better understood when we recall that the Saracens were at the gates of Budapesth as late as 1400. That the European troubadours should have adopted the Moorish el oud and called it ” lute ” is therefore but natural. And in all the earlier songs of the troubadours we shall find many traces of the same influence; for their albas or aubades (morning songs) came from the Arabic, as did their serenas or serenades (evening songs), planks (complaints), and coblas (couplets). The troubadours themselves were so called from trobar, meaning to invent.
In the works of Fauriel and St. Polaye, and many others, may be found accounts of the origin of the Provençal literature, including, of course, a description of the troubadours. It is generally admitted that Provençal poetry has no connection with Latin, the origin of this new poetry being very plausibly ascribed to a gypsy-like class of people mentioned by the Latin chroniclers of the Middle Ages as joculares or joculatores. They were called joglars in Provençal, jouglers or jougleors in French, and our word ” juggler ” comes from the same source. What that source originally was may be inferred from the fact that they brought many of the Arab forms of dance and poetry into Christian Europe. For instance, two forms of Provençal poetry are the counterpart of the Arabian cosidas or long poem, all on one rhyme; and the maouchahs or short poem, also rhymed. The saraband, or Saracen dance, and later the morris dance (Moresco or Fandango) or Moorish dance, seem to point to the same origin. In order to make it clearer I will quote an Arabian song from a manuscript in the British Museum, and place beside it one by the troubadour Capdeuil.
The troubadours must not be confounded with the jougleurs (more commonly written jongleurs). The latter, wandering, mendicant musicians, ready to play the lute, sing, dance, or “juggle,” were welcomed as merry-makers at all rich houses, and it soon became a custom for rich nobles to have a number of them at their courts. The troubadour was a very different person, generally a noble who wrote poems, set them to music, and employed jongleurs to sing and play them. In the South these songs were generally of an amorous nature, while in the North they took the form of chansons de geste, long poems re-counting the feats in the life and battles of some hero, such as Roland (whose song was chanted by the troops of William the Conqueror), or Charles Martel.
And so the foundations for many forms of modem music were laid by the troubadours, for the chanson or song was always a narrative. If it were an evening song it was a sera or serenade, or if it were a night song, nocturne; a dance, a ballada; a round dance, a rounde or rondo; a country love song, a pastorella. Even the words descant and treble go back to their time; for the jongleurs, singing their masters’ songs, would not all follow the same melody; one of them would seek to embellish it and sing something quite different that still would fit well with the original melody, just as nowadays, in small amateur bands we often hear a flute player adding embellishing notes to his part. Soon, more than one singer added to his part, and the new voice was called the triple, third, or treble voice. This extemporizing on the part of the jongleurs soon had to be regulated, and the actual notes written down to avoid confusion. Thus this habit of singing merged into faux bourdon, which has been discussed in a former chapter. Apart from these forms of song, there were some called sirventes that is “songs of service,” which were very partisan, and were accompanied by drums, bells, and pipes, and sometimes by trumpets. The more warlike of these songs were sung at tournaments by the jongleurs outside the lists, while their masters, the troubadours, were doing battle, of which custom a good description is to be found in Hagen’s book on the minnesingers.
In France the Provençal poetry lasted only until the middle of the fourteenth century, after the troubadours had received a crushing blow at the time the Albigenses were extirpated in the thirteenth century.
In one city alone (that of Beziers), between 30,000 and 40,000 people were killed for heresy against the Pope. The motto of the Pope’s representatives was ” God will know His Own,” and Catholics as well as Albigenses (as the sect was called) were massacred indiscriminately. That this heresy against the Pope was vastly aided by the troubadours, is hardly open to doubt. Such was their power that the rebellious, antipapal sirventes of the troubadours (which were sung by their troops of jongleurs in every market place) could be suppressed only after the cities of Provence were almost entirely annihilated and the population destroyed by the massacre, burning alive, and the Inquisition.
A review of the poems of Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadour, Thibaut, or others is hardly in place here. Therefore we will pass to Germany, where the spirit of the troubadours was assimilated in a peculiarly Germanic fashion by the minnesingers and the mastersingers.
In Germany, the troubadours became minnesingers, or singers of love songs, and as early as the middle of the twelfth century the minnesingers were already a powerful factor in the life of the epoch, counting among their number many great nobles and kings. The German minnesingers differed from the French troubadours in that they themselves accompanied their songs on the viol, instead of employing jongleurs. Their poems, written in the Swabian dialect, then the court language of Germany, were characterized by greater pathos and purity than those of the troubadours, and their longer poems, corresponding to the chansons de geste of the north of France, were also superior to the latter in point of dignity and strength. From the French we have the “Song of Roland” (which William the Conqueror’s troops sang in their invasion of England); from the Germans the “Nibelungen Song,” besides Wolfram von Eschenbach’s “Parzival” and Gottfried von Strasburg’s “Tristan.” In contradistinction to the poetry of the troubadours, that of the minnesingers was characterized by an undercurrent of sadness which seems to be peculiar to the Germanic race. The songs are full of nature and the eternal strife between Winter and Summer and their prototypes Death and Life (recalling the ancient myths of Maneros, Bacchus, Astoreth, Bel, etc.).
After the death of Konrad IV, the last Swabian emperor of the House of Hohenstaufen, minnesinging in Germany declined, and was succeeded by the movement represented by the meister or mastersingers. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Germany was broken up into countless small duchies and kingdoms, many of the German nobles became mere robbers and took part in the innumerable little wars which kept the nation in a state of ferment. Thus they had neither time nor inclination to occupy themselves with such pursuits as poetry or music. In the meanwhile, however, the incessant warfare and brigandage that prevailed in the country tended to drive the population to the cities for protection. The latter grew in size, and little by little the tradespeople began to take up the arts of poetry and music which had been discarded by the nobles.
Following their custom in respect to their trades, they formed the art companies into guilds, the rules for admittance to which were very strict. The rank of each member was determined by his skill in applying the rules of the “Tabulatur,” as it was called. There were five grades of membership: the lowest was that of mere admittance to the guild; the next carried with it the title of scholar; the third the friend of the school; after that came the singer, the poet; and last of all the mastersinger, to attain which distinction the aspirant must have in-vented a new style of melody or rhyme. The details of the contest we all know from Wagner’s comedy; in a number of cases Wagner even made use of the sentences and words found in the rules of the mastersingers. Al-though the mastersingers retained their guild privileges in different parts of Germany almost up to the middle of the present century, the movement was strongest in Bavaria, with Nuremberg as its centre.
Thus we see that the mastersingers and the minnesingers were two very different classes of men. The mastersingers are mainly valuable for having given Wagner a pretext for his wonderful music. Hans Sachs was perhaps the only one of the mastersingers whose melodies show anything but the flattest mediocrity. The minnesingers and their immediate predecessors and successors, on the other hand, furnished thought for a great part of our modern art. To put it in a broad manner, it may be said that much of our modern poetry owes more than is generally conceded to the German medieval romance as represented in the works of Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried of Strasburg, and the unknown compilers of the “Nibelungenlied” and “Gutrune.” Music owes more to the troubadours, for, from what we know of the melodies of the minnesingers, they cannot compare in expressiveness with those of their French confrères.
In closing this consideration of the minnesingers, I will quote some of their verses and melodies, giving short accounts of the authors.
The best known of the minnesingers were Walther von der Vogelweide, Heinrich Frauenlob, Tannhauser, Nithart, Toggenburg, etc. We first hear of Walther von der Vogelweide in 1200, as a poet attached to the court of Philip of Hohenstaufen, the German Kaiser, and shortly after to that of his successors Otto and Friedrich. He accompanied Kaiser Friedrich to the Crusade of 1228, and saw him crowned in Jerusalem. He died in Würzburg, Bavaria. In accordance with his dying request, food and drink for the birds were placed on his tomb every day; the four holes carved for that purpose being still visible. The pictures in Hagen’s work on the mastersingers were collected in the fifteenth century by Manasses of Zorich, and have served as the basis for all subsequent works on the subject. The picture of Von der Vogelweide (page 21) shows him sitting in an attitude of meditation, on a green hillock, beside him his sword and his coat of arms (a caged bird on one side and his helmet on the other), and in his hand a roll of manuscript. One of his shorter poems begins:
Neath the lindens In the meadow Seek I flowers sweet; Clover fragrant, Tender grasses, Bend beneath my feet. See, the gloaming, Softly sinking, Covers hill and dale. Tandaradei! Sweet sings the nightingale.
We all are familiar with Tannhauser (plate 35), through Wagner’s opera; therefore it is unnecessary to say more than that he was a real person, a minnesinger, and that the singing tournament at the Wartburg (the castle of the Thuringen family) really took place in 1206-07. This tournament, which Wagner introduces into his “Tannhauser, “was a trial of knightly strength, poetry, and music, between the courts of Babenhausen and Thuringen, and was held in Erfurt. Among the knights who competed were Klingsor of Hungary, a descendant of the Klingsor who figures in the “Parzival” legend, Tannhauser, Walther von Eschenbach, Walther von der Vogelweide, and many others. Tannhäuser was a follower, or perhaps better, the successor of Walther von der Vogelweide, like him, a crusader, and lived in the first half of the thirteenth century. Toggenburg and Frauenlob were both celebrated minnesingers, the former (plate 7) being the subject of many strange legends. The simplicity and melodious charm of his verses seem to contradict the savage brutality ascribed to him in the stories of his life.
Frauenlob (plate 44), as Heinrich von Meissen was called, represents the minnesingers at the height of their development. He died about 1320, and his works, as his nickname suggests, were imbued with das ewig weibdiche in its best sense. He was called the Magister of the seven free arts, and was given the position of Canon of the Cathedral of Mayence, with the title of Doctor of Divinity. He also wrote a paraphrase on the “Song of Solomon,” turning it into a rhapsodical eulogy of the Virgin Mary, carrying versification to what seemed then its utmost limits. The picture shows him playing and singing to some prince, the carpet on which he stands being lifted by the attendants. It makes plain the difference between the minnesingers and the troubadours. In this picture the singer is seen to be accompanying himself before the king, whereas in plate 28 we see two troubadours in the lists, their jongleurs playing or singing the songs of their masters, while the latter engage each other in battle. In order to give one more example we will take the pictures of Conrad, the son of Conrad IV, and the last of the Hohenstaufens (plate 11). He was born about 1250, and was beheaded in the market place at Naples in 1268. The story of Konradin, as he was called, is familiar; how he lived with his mother at the castle of her brother, Ludwig of Bavaria, how he was induced to join in a rebellion of the two Sicilies (to the crown of which he was heir) against France, his defeat and execution by the Duke of Anjou, himself a well-known troubadour. The text accompanying his picture in Hagen’s work describes him as having black eyes and blonde hair, and wearing a long green dress with a golden collar. His gray hunting horse is covered with a crimson mantle, has a golden saddle and bit, and scarlet reins. Konradin wears white hunting gloves and a three-cornered king’s crown. Above the picture are the arms of the kingdom of Jerusalem (a golden crown in silver ground), to which he was heir through his grandmother, lolanthe. One of his songs runs as follows, and it may be accepted as a fair specimen of the style of lyric written by the minnesingers.
The music of these minnesingers existing in manuscript has been but little heeded, and only lately has an attempt been made to classify and translate it into modem notation. The result so far attained has been unsatisfactory, for the rhythms are all given as spondaic. This seems a very improbable solution of the mystery that must inevitably enshroud the musical notation of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries.
Nithart (plate 36), by whom a number of melodies or “tones” are given in Hagen’s book (page 845), has been dubbed the second “Till Eulenspiegel.” He was a Bavarian, and lived about 1230, at the court of Frederick of Austria. He was eminently the poet and singer of the peasants, with whom, after the manner of Eulenspiegel, he had many quarrels, one of which is evidently the subject of the picture. His music, or melodies, and the verses which went with them, form the most complete authentic collection of mediæval music known. In considering the minnelieder of the Germans it is very interesting to compare them with the songs of the troubadours, and to note how in the latter the Arab influence has increased the number of curved lines, or arabesques, whereas the German songs may be likened to straight lines, a characteristic which we know is a peculiarity of their folk song.
In speaking of the straight lines of the melodies of the minnesingers and in comparing them with the tinge of orientalism to be found in those of the troubadours, it was said that music owes more to the latter than to the former, and this is true. lf we admit that the straight line of Grecian architecture is perfect, so must we also admit that mankind is imperfect. We are living beings, and as such are swayed to a great extent by our emotions. To the straight line of purity in art the tinge of orientalism, the curved line of emotion, brings the flush of life, and the result is something which we can feel as well as worship from afar. Music is a language, and to mankind it serves as a medium for saying something which cannot be put into mere words. Therefore, it must contain the human element of mere sensuousness in order to be intelligible.
This is why the music of the troubadours, although not so pure in style as that of the minnesingers, has been of the greatest value in the development of our art. This orientalism, however, must not mask the straight line; it must be the means of lending more force, tenderness, or what not, to the figure. lt must be what the poem is to the picture, the perfume to the flower; it must help to illustrate the thing itself. The moment we find this orientalism (and I am using the word in its broadest sense) covering, and thus distorting the straight line of pure music, then we have national music so-called, a music which derives its name and fame from the clothes it wears and not from that strange language of the soul, the “why” of which no man has ever discovered.