Il Dit / Elle Dit: Love and Dialogue in the World of Christine de Pizan
Music of the courtly love tradition flourished in France in the late 14th and 15th centuries, offering bountiful material for modern musicians to explore and perform. However, as an all-female ensemble, this repertoire initially seemed problematic to us in two ways. First, as is often the case with secular love music from the Middle Ages, it is likely written entirely by men and centers the male point of view. This particular repertoire often exacerbates the issue by treating women as puppets for the author’s ventriloquizing, and even speaking of women in degrading or openly misogynistic terms. Second, the core of the repertoire suits an ensemble with a wider vocal range and more disparate voices than Trobár can comfortably accommodate. And yet, even with these issues, we didn’t want to throw out the period and its music altogether. For one thing, voices of the past which we disagree with remain important to remember. Plus, in purely aesthetic terms the music itself is worth re-sounding. Our quest became how to remain true to the period, while also elevating other voices, in a manner suitable for our unique ensemble.
In grappling with and searching for answers to these problems, we took two approaches. First, we sought to bring in more female voices from the period, to balance out the disparity in perspective. The works of female author Christine de Pizan, whose poem “Deuil angoisseus” is the only known poem by a woman that was set to music in this period, became a natural choice for inclusion. Second, we drew on work by musicologist David Fallows that explores a number of pieces for two equal voices, which account for about 10% of the chanson repertoire but are rarely performed. This discovery changed our understanding of French 15th-c. music as all fundamentally ruled by the cantus-tenor structure. Instead, the voices in these works exhibit an equality not just of tessitura but of role, trading off contrapuntal functions. Within this subset, a surprising number of pieces also feature a female speaker, and/or two dialogic texts sung simultaneously. Including equal-voice works alongside more typical chansons represents the repertoire and its variety of perspectives more truly.
Our program Il Dit / Elle Dit represents the synthesis of our two approaches, a happy marriage of ideas. We explore the concepts of dialogue, gender, and equality (at least of voice, if not power or position), weaving together spoken poems from Christine de Pizan’s Cent ballades with music of her contemporaries from both male and female perspectives (and a few simultaneously). The music includes both single and multiple texts, equal-voice and the more typical cantus-tenor-contratenor structure, and some instrumentals. Each set traces an imagined arc of story, creating a series of vignettes on medieval love and its possible progressions.
Since our founding in 2017, Trobár has created 8 original programs for our Cleveland audiences. We were featured on Early Music America’s 2020 Emerging Artists Showcase and Les Délices’ SalonEra series, performed on the GEMS (NYC) and Catacoustic Consort (Cincinnati) series, and won residencies at Avaloch Farm in 2018, 2019, and 2021. Our first album, Il dit/Elle dit: Love and Dialogue in the World of Christine de Pizan, will be released soon. Individually, members have performed with the Newberry Consort, Concordian Dawn, Moirai, Les Délices, Boston Camerata, Alkemie, and two are recipients of the Barbara Thornton Memorial Scholarship.
As part of our educational mission, Trobár hosts a free monthly podcast called Trobár Talks and has held residencies at the University of Louisville and Purdue University Fort Wayne. This spring, we were thrilled to begin introducing elementary-age children to medieval song and storytelling through our show The Donkey Prince, supported by a mini-grant from Early Music America.