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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fail To Your Heart's Content:
Courtly Love and David Lang's love fail

By Robert Jackson Wood

Modified Manesse Codex Image by Al Cofrin
referencing a 12th-century telling of the Tristan story.
Few things are more universal than songs about frustrated love, be it unfulfilled, unconsummated, or unrequited. Yet there was a time, believe it or not, when those songs would have been puzzling at best—and been downright heretical at worst.

Before the late 12th century, to speak publically of love was usually to speak of religious or political matters having little to do with the cravings of worldly desire. In the Christian world, love meant either the greater love of God binding together all things (as in "I love you, but my love for you is really an extension of God's love for the whole universe") or the related agape love shared between devout brothers and sisters in platonic union. In the political realm, love often meant something purely utilitarian—marriages entered into to produce would-be kings and political heirs or to maintain control of property. Love was largely a duty, not an indulgence.

Leave it to vagabond poet-musicians wandering the medieval French countryside to change all of that. In a fascinating instance of life imitating art, the songs of the troubadours, rife with accounts of indecent proposals and adulterous passions, helped to introduce a new, largely secular (and delightfully manic-depressive) way of talking about love into society as a whole. For the church, it was heresy. But for women, it meant having a newfound social power unheard of in the centuries before.

David Lang
Fin’ amors or “courtly love” it was called, and it usually involved a knight pining over an idealized and often married aristocrat above his station, setting in motion illicit urges that were entertained but rarely fulfilled. If the idealized lady wasn’t cold and remote, she at least served as a symbol of a certain impossibility implied by the notion of absolute romantic union. And yet the point was less to mourn failed love as it was to enact a celebration of sorts—of what it meant to be desired and to desire, and of noble social decorum itself as enacted by the dutiful, well-disciplined lover.

“Courtly love” serves as the starting point for David Lang’s ambitious project love fail (at the BAM Harvey Theater, December 6—8), performed by the deservedly idealized, untouchable early music group Anonymous 4. Assembled from a handful of courtly love stories from across the centuries that have been purged of all historical reference, love fail sets in motion a single universal narrative of unfulfilled amor, set to music with an equally timeless bent.

The earliest of the stories referenced is Marie de France’s 12th-century version of Tristan, in which the Knight Tristan and the married Queen Iseult decide fatefully that, like the honeysuckle vine wrapped around the hazel tree, one cannot live apart from the other. 
"Cut off from the one he loved, for they
Were like the honeysuckle vine,
Which around a hazel tree will twine,
Holding the trunk as in a fist
And climbing until its tendrils twist
Around the top and hold it fast.
Together tree and vine will last.
But then, if anyone should pry
The vine away, they both will die.
“My love, we’re like that vine and tree;
I’ll die without you, you without me.”
Another version is Richard Wagner’s slightly different Tristan, in which desire between the knight and his smitten lady can reach fulfillment only in death. Contemporary writings by Lydia Davis, Lang himself, and others, round out the texts.

Prepare to be smitten by Anonymous 4. But if you choose to show up dressed to impress in your shiniest knightly garb, know that they’re well above all of our stations.

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