By DAVID VARNO/ BOMBSite
About a week after Valentine’s Day, I found myself on a barge under the Brooklyn Bridge where a pair of early music revivalists were set up in a perfectly amorous display. A woman wore a long red velvet dress and sat at a table with a single rose and a goblet, and she held a heart-shaped manuscript to her chest. Her partner stood at her back with a lute and plucked a simple tune as she began to sing. The strange beauty of their sound, at once transportive to a much different time and place, chastened my fear of gimmicks as they engaged in a musical dialogue of courtly love.
The performers were Eric Redlinger and Sylvia Rhyne, appearing under the name Asteria. As they explained between the songs, they were drawing from a period in the early 15th Century, at the end of the Ars Nova movement, before the Renaissance came to France. This generation of Burgundian composers has left a largely anonymous and relatively obscure body of Franco-Flemish songs, contained in a small set of manuscripts. Asteria excavated the songs from the Ox. Can. Misc 213 manuscript, housed now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. After the second set, Redlinger showed me the heart-shaped album that Rhyne uses, an exquisite facsimile of the manuscript that she created herself. There were notation and lyrics, along with illustrations of the songs’ themes of heartache, bliss, rejection, and slander, and Redlinger explained that the separate lines of music were intended for counterpoint, and that any harmony that occurred was purely incidental. The two made their own translations, occasionally adding or repeating lines to maintain the syllabic structure and rhyme scheme of the poems, most of which were 12-line rondeaux. They’re sung in the original language, but English synopses were made available with the program.
After the first song, Redlinger mentioned that it was the first time they had played on a barge (the venue, Barge Music, is docked at the Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn), and that in fact this was playing a part in the royal courts’ tradition, because often the courts would travel by barge along the rivers, accommodated with complete entertainment. As he said this, the bow, pointed across the water towards the Woolworth Building, made a significant climb in the changing tide, and our chairs slid ever so slightly on the hardwood floor. Occasionally, their act included a bit of dramatic flair, to highlight what Redlinger described as the “exquisite pain” of courtly love. Rhyne, who has starred on stage it turns out as Christine in Phantom of the Opera, rose to join him and his falsetto dropped to tenor as he moved up on the lute and her voice grew higher. When it was over they embraced. A later song, Pour mesdisans, which centers on the line “Neither for slanderers nor for their slander shall I not be joyful,” rounded out a series on the theme of slander. In the courts, a person’s honor was all they had, as Rhyne explained, and they were beholden to the lords, who kept tabs on their reputation. Rhyne sustained a note in uncomfortable tension, a deep, dying plea as she stared hopelessly at the audience, her hands withered at her side, her eyes in disbelief. In that pose, she resembled one of Whistler’s mistresses, eviscerated, left out to dry.
The songs are sung contrapuntally, and the use of imitation alludes to the dialogue enclosed in the lyrics. The words come from the knight, but at times he summarizes his conversations with the god of love, to whom he turns for advice, and as he asks the lady for her hand, she’ll repeat his question. Redlinger’s lute playing followed Ryne’s range sensitively, alternating between counterpoint and improvised harmonies that were added to the written music.
For the encore they performed a song from the later renaissance period, and the further degree of polyphony highlighted the simplicity of the songs they had just played.
“I love these songs for their plain beauty,” Redlinger said, pointing out that they adhere clearly to the text, while the lushness of the renaissance songs distract from the words, and the beauty becomes more sublime.
The Burgundian love songs’ textual roots are in the French Troubador poets, who preached the value of courtly love as the central raison d’être and the chief subject of artistic expression, and while their heirs would probably claim the same roots, even going back further to the Arabian Troubadors of the 9th Century, it was particularly interesting to hear these songs for their words, in the midst of a revolutionary musical crossroads.