Her voice has been described as luminous, dazzling and shining and her acting witty, delightful, and feisty, Shannon Mercer is an artist of uncommon musical artistry, whose passion for her art form [...]
They spoke about it
When I first heard about the trobairitz phenomenon I was intrigued ; imagine, women in the 12th and 13th centuries writing with such freedom. I wondered what in the social and political climate of Southern France at the time could make that freedom possible. Was it the lack of a strong central government ?
The French monarchy had a tenuous hold only on the South at that time. Less power was beheld to the Pope and the Church since the head of each court held more power then anywhere else. Perhaps that is why there is so much in these texts that would certainly be frowned upon by the Church, even today.
Perhaps women have always thought and written about such things and it is a mere chance than this small sliver of repertoire survived. What is certain, though, is that these women were given a voice, their poetry was sung, and that should tell us something about the society in which they lived. The trobairitz were mostly noble women : wives and daughters of the ruling dukes and counts.
They were also often the lovers of troubadours, who were rarely from the nobility. Perhaps this proximity to different layers of society provided them with a clearer view of the world in which they lived.
Much of what we know of the lives of the trobairitz is what can be gleaned from the short biographical introductions to their poems. These introductions, called vidas, were often written long after the woman’s life and can hardly be considered reliable. For example, Beatritz de Dia was married to Guillem de Poitiers, Count of Viennois, but was the lover of Raimbaut d’Aurenga and is even thought to have written some poems currently attributed to him. Azalaïs de Porcairagues was said to be the lover of Gui Guerrejat, the brother of William VII of Montpellier.
The poems I chose (written in occitan, langue d’oc) to set to music reflect themes such as love (sometimes adulterous or lesbian), how to manage expectations of marriage and motherhood, relationship roles, and also political posturing. The way I wrote these songs is based on the way troubadours and trobairitz set their poems to popular melodies, meaning that any poems can be sung with a number of melodies and any melody can be attributed to a given song.
I have not written art-songs, although they share some elements with art-song, through-composed accompaniment and some throughcomposing of the melody, for example. The melodies I have written, though inspired by the character of the text, could be used to set any number of poems. Some could be adapted to dance rhythms. Some are adapted from instrumental pieces.
This conceptual separation between the poetry and the music, as well as the period in which these texts were written, is the reason why this poetry is extant without music. I felt it was therefore fitting to pursue the tradition. I have not made any attempt at historical accuracy in these compositions. There is so little evidence of how these songs might have sounded 800 years ago that attempting to recreate something that might have been heard then could only be hypothetical and contentious.
I have used my background playing actual medieval music as a source of inspiration in the composition of the songs but I have also drawn on my experience playing folk music from different cultures and on my Lebanese and Scottish ethnicities. I think the style of these pieces reflects the time and place in which we live : Montréal 2013.
I would like to thank all the musicians involved in this project for their support and sense of adventure. I would also like to thank La Nef, the Arte Musica Foundation and Analekta for the confidence they put in me on this project. And I would like to thank Shannon Mercer for taking on such a daunting task. I am privileged to be surrounded by all these people. This project is the result of nearly eight years of research and composing. I hope that the result does justice to the trobairitz and to their poetry.
© Seán Dagher