Asteria’s second collection of medieval French chansons is a fascinating look at the dual image of the “Lady” and the “Rose” in both secular and sacred music of the latter Middle Ages. In this exquisite repertoire the duo continues their exploration of the roots of courtly love and chivalry. Soyes Loyal lifts their interpretive skills to new heights with ravishing poetry and weaving melodies that inspire the senses. Featuring gorgeous music from the mid-fifteenth century by Dufay, Jacques Vide and others!
Much of the courtly poetry from the 12th to the 15th centuries can be summed up, as Robert Morton does in his chanson from the latter 15th century, with one phrase: “Vive Ma Dame!” The Lady, the absolute, flawless, most worthy object of chivalric desire and loyalty, is surely one of the most mysterious and intriguing elements of medieval art. Simultaneously unattainable and unceasingly sought after, she embodies the essence of amour courtois (courtly love) as it was lived and practiced in the medieval courts of northern Europe.
The “Romance of the Rose”, the great love epic of this age, sets forth the code of chivalry in intricate detail and becomes a veritable manual for courtly conduct, describing the impassioned pursuit by a lover to win his “rose” through a variety of allegorical situations and encounters. As in the greater part of 15th century verse, the richness and evocativeness of the symbols lend an almost palpable form to their underlying meanings: the unmatched beauty and sensuality of the rose only heightens the allure of the lady it represents, just as its thorny guardian, a giant figure aptly named Danger, lends a larger than life gestalt to the risks of pursuing the lady. The journey the lover must undertake to be worthy of achieving the rose is alternately guided and thwarted by the characters he encounters. Figures representing personified human emotions and traits such as Jealousy, Largesse, and Slander all vie for the lover’s allegiance and express their opinions as to the correct course for him to take. It is by accepting or rejecting their advice that he shows himself to be worthy, and in the process teaches us the intricate rules of amour courtois. This work made a huge mark on medieval courtly society, its characters and sentiments still finding their way into song and verse texts more than 300 years after it first appeared. As affirmed by the anonymous author of ‘Soyes Loyal’ from the middle of the 15th century: “Remain loyal (to Amor) as best you are able – and you shall have the comfort of Sweet Hope!”
But there is another lady, another rose, of no small importance in this period: the Virgin Mary. The literary traditions surrounding the sacred stories are no less marked by their penchant for metaphor and allegory than are those of the secular. In many cases the very same symbols are used with only a thin layer of context distinguishing a profane reference from a sacred one. Popular sacred songs in the vernacular, such as the English carols “There is no Rose of Such Virtue” and “Of a Rose Sing We”, existed peaceably alongside secular chansons such as the anonymous ‘La Doulce Flour’ (the gentle flower) from the early 15th century and the Romance of the Rose itself. In each case it is obvious which rose we are talking about but only because our expectations are clearly defined. Whether there was any actual double-entendre intended in such works, or in the many grand laments of the period, such as the monumental “Dueil Angoisseux,” Gilles Binchois’ impassioned setting of a woman’s grieving on the death of her husband, is never clearly stated by the authors of that period. As with the allusions to the rose, only context separates the worldly interpretation of a work such as Binchois’ from the equally plausible interpretation of the work as a lament on the death of Jesus Christ.
In practice, the deliberate merging of sacred and secular in daily life occurred quite often during the latter Middle Ages. In a play presented to an assembled host of nobles during the celebrated Feast of the Pheasant of 1454, Philip the Good used the image of a gigantic ogre dressed as a Turk who menaces a demoiselle dressed in white (a thinly veiled metaphor for the defeat of Christian Constantinople) to allude to his plans for a future crusade. The oaths that Philip manages to extract from his guests are made, in grand chivalric tradition, “aux dames et au faisan,” in other words, to the honor of the assembled ladies and to the pheasant. The task at hand is a sacred one, yet the oaths are sworn to a secular icon.
“Soyes Loyal” explores the resonant symbolism that existed in both the secular and vernacular sacred chansons during the close of the medieval period in Europe. The individuals who populated the courts of medieval Europe were highly adapted to a dualistic existence. Their lives were marked by the daily chaos of disease and warfare, on the one hand, and the refinement and grace that accompanied the pursuit of the chivalric ideal, on the other. Praying to the heavenly Lady and then putting on a helm to fight in the name of an earthly lady was perhaps not so strange in this tumultuous epoch. We hope that listening to these works of extraordinary beauty sheds a glimmer of light upon the passions of the age! Vive Ma Dame!
Track listing – click on song title for
01-Lute Incipit (lute) (:20)
Total time: 52:40