Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Courtly Love Songs

Composer Biography: Marcabru (c1099-1150)

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Marcabru was one of the most famous of the older generation of troubadours. What’s a troubadour, you ask? In the 11th through 14th century, there were four “flavors” of itinerant musician.

  • Troubadours (trobairitz): Poets and composers from the Occitan region of France, who made their way to Italy, Spain, and Greece. Their songs dealt mainly with themes of chivalry and courtly love. Most songs were intellectual and formulaic (so they could be easily adapted to the audience or situation), and many were humorous or vulgar. The movement died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.
  • Trouvères: The Northern France version of troubadour, roughly contemporary with them. The first known was Chretien de Troyes (fl.1160-1180), and they continued to flourish until about 1300. These were usually aristocratic performers, for whom the creation and performance of music was part of the courtly tradition. There were even kings, queens, and countesses among their number.
  • Minnesingers (Minnesängers): The German version of troubadours, writing of love and courtly endeavors in Middle High German from the 12th through the 14th century. Some were aristocratic and others were impoverished. They died out in favor of the Meistersänger, who were mostly commoners, like minstrels (English) and jongleurs (French).
  • Minstrels and Jongleurs: The impoverished version of troubadours and trouvères in England and France, respectively. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, such a person was known as a scop (shaper), who sang his own compositions to the accompaniment of a harp. They mostly told stories of distant places or of imaginary historical events, and often performed for royalty and high society. Their main unifying feature was traveling. Their popularity began to decline by the middle of the 15th century, although some form of itinerant musician has continued to the present day.

Marcabru was one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known. Two biographies attached to collections of his poems tell different stories. Both are based on elements in Marcabru’s poetry rather than independent biographical information, so not much is known about him.

He was born in Gascony, France, probably around 1099. He wasn’t of aristocratic descent, unlike most troubadours. One biography, written long after his death, says that he was a foundling, left at the door of a rich man. Marcabru himself said that he was the son of a poor woman named Marcabruna. He was brought up by Aldric del Vilar (12th century lord of Vilar), which kind of gives credence to the foundling raised by a rich man story, and he learned to write poetry from Cercamon (fl c1135-1145, an early troubadour also from Gascony).

People called him Pan Perdut when he was a young man, and later began to call him Marcabru. When he became famous, people said that he wrote bad poetry and worse satires, and he spoke evil of both women and love. Despite his bad mouth, he had a great reputation among his successors.

One of Marcabru’s patrons was Guillaume X of Aquitaine (1099-1137). He was the son of Guillaume IX, thought to be the first troubadour (11 of his poems survive, although the music didn’t). Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122-1204) was the daughter of Guillaume X (who wasn’t a troubadour himself) and was also a great patron of troubadours. Guillaume X’s support of Marcabru and other troubadours contributed to Eleanor’s becoming a patroness of troubadours by both tradition and inclination. As you know, she married Louis VII of France (1120-1180) in 1137, the year he became King of France. Louis was not sympathetic to the game of l’amour courtois as it was played further south, and the flirtatious habits of his wife ultimately led him to secure an annulment of their marriage in 1152. Eleanor promptly married a younger man, Henry of Anjou (1133-1189), who became Henry II of England two years later.

Only three important troubadour names from the period survive: Cercamon (fl 1135-1145), Jaufre Rudel (fl. mid-12th century), and Marcabru. Marcabru was probably Cercamon’s student, and they seem to have flourished at the same time. Marcabru certainly knew Jaufre, and mentions him in one of his poems. Jaufre took part in the second Crusade (1147-49) and died while on his pilgrimage.

Over 40 of Marcabru’s poems and four of his melodies survive. Lots and lots of music and even more poetry is lost, although approximately 2600 poems by more than 450 authors has been preserved. The music itself, sadly, didn’t survive because music notation hadn’t been invented yet (for more on that, see The History of Music Notation).

Biographical details in Marcabru’s works point to a period seeking work in Portugal and Barcelona that led to employment with Alfonso VII of Castile (1105-1157). In the 1140s, he was a propagandist for the Reconquiesta and in his famous poem with a Latin beginning Pax in nomine Domini (the rest is in Languedoc), he called Spain a “laundry where knights could go to have their souls cleansed by fighting the infidel.” In 1144, he returned to Provence, where he composed the song Cortazmen voill comensar (“dedicated men begin”) inspired by preparations for the second crusade.

Marcabru and his patron William X didn’t approve of the courtly love ideal of unattainable mistresses that would become so important in later troubadour music. Marcabru attacks it in his Dirai vos sense duptansa (“I shall tell you without delay”). It seems that he was a bit of a misogynist, as well.

He denounces the effeminacy and depravity of the courtly life and the conventions of courtly love. From this moral urgency and highly idiomatic style arises some of the most difficult poetry in the whole troubadour canon, the tobar clus (“closed form”), the so-called hermetic style.

But Marcabru’s moralizing lyrics are only one mark of his range. At the other end are the songs extolling true love, and his songs dramatizing a profoundly medieval view of “right order” are among the most civilized utterances in Provencal poetry, according to one source.

There are 43 chansons attributed to Marcabru, remarkable for the complexity of their texts, most of which discuss the niceties of courtly love. Only four of his melodies survive.

The troubadours sang their own songs, but there is a peculiar lack of evidence that they accompanied their songs on or played instruments. It’s possible, though, and it has a certain appeal to modern ears.

Troubadour melodies, using the works of others as well as Marcabru’s, are on a par with the poems in their ingenuity and diversity of their formal structures. Some melodies are continuous, with a different musical phrase for each line of text. Others repeat one or more melodic phrases in a variety of patterns that often have little to do with the structure and rhyme scheme of the poems.

The predominant influence on the melodic style was surely the music of the Church. The relationship is most obvious in settings of the rhymed poetry of hymns and verses, but in range, melodic direction, intervallic progressions, and cadential formulas, troubadour melodies scarcely differ from Gregorian chant in general. A surprising number adhere to the Church’s system of eight modes (for more on that, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes).

The style is syllabic, with occasional ornamental figures of two to five notes. These figures tend to come near the close of phrases, where they emphasize rhymes and strengthen the cadential (end pattern) feeling. They serve a musical function rather than being associated with particular words. Variants of the same melody in different sources most frequently involve the ornamental figures, suggesting that the singers felt free to modify vocal ornaments or introduce new ones. They might even have varied the ornamentation from stanza to stanza, something that became popular in the Baroque period.

Ornament aside, singers were left to decide for themselves regarding the rhythms of the melodies. In plainchant, and all other contemporary monophonic song, the notation of troubadour melodies gives no indication of note values or durations. Musical scholars seem to be unanimous in accepting the hypothesis that secular songs were sung in the triple meters of the rhythmic modes (for more on this, see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes), but they disagree as to how those meters should be adapted to specific texts.

Literary scholars, on the other hand, reject the use of triple meters whether the words are in Provencal, French, or Latin, because in none of those languages does versification depend on the regular alternation of strong and weak syllables—there aren’t any obvious poetic meters, in other words. The number of syllables in a line, the total number of lines, and the rhyming scheme were the only criteria for making succeeding stanzas of a poem correspond with the first. Constant variation of metrical patterns seems to be one of the subtlest techniques of troubadour verse.

The most frequent theme in Marcabru’s songs is the distinction between true love and false love—true love is joyful, intense, in harmony with the welfare of a community, and includes divine intentions, and false love is bitter, dissolute, self-regarding, and destructive. He denounces the courtly class for its preciousness and lust. Courtly love in the high courts was on the way to ruin, he says, because it’s infested with its own bastards. The women trick their husbands into raising the children of others, the men are cuckoo birds who lay their eggs in someone else’s nest, and the troubadours pander to this cupidity, being a vile crowd of liars and madmen who defame love and glorify lust.

In Marcabru’s songs, we meet the singer who takes a stand against the false lovers, whom he identifies as the other poets of the court. He goes on to distinguish the other sorts in the society he addresses; they become the characters whom future poets identify as their audience, besides the false lovers, there are the flatterers, slanderers, spies, the envious, the vulgar, and the true lovers, the last of whom will be the singer’s friends.

The poets who came after Marcabru retained the same sorts of designations, although they didn’t take up his religious values or his prophetic stance. They were concerned instead with defining the values of courtliness in terms of fictional love relations, and they stood before their audiences as constituents and spokesmen. The differences between their poetry and Marcabru’s reflect the differences of their poetic task and their performing attitude.

However, these differences are not so great as they may seem. What Marcabru means by true love is a secular experience, not a religious one. This kind of love is good because it’s involved in a larger life, the life of a society, one with a certain ethical and religious mandate.

His poems are erudite, often difficult, sometimes obscene, and are relentlessly critical of the lords and ladies of his time and their morality. He experimented with pastoral themes, which he uses to point out the futility of lust. One poem tells of how the speaker’s advances are rejected by a shepherdess on the basis of class; another tells of a man’s rebuffed attempts to seduce a woman whose husband was off at the crusades.

Marcabru was a powerful influence on later poets, not only on practitioners of the hermetic style, but also on others who chose from the wide variety of his poetic (and presumably musical) forms, or who took up his moral stance. But no one could recreate his irascible and exalted tone.

When he persisted in saying bad things about the lords of Gascony, they put him to death.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University o California Press at Berkeley, Berkeley, 1997.

“Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères, an Anthology and a History,” translations and introductions by Frederick Goldin. Peter Smith and Doubleday, Gloucester, 1983.

Composer Biography Ludwig Senfl (c1486-c1543)

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Ludwig Senfl is one of those composers that you really should have in your playlist. He was a Swiss-German composer who spent most of his composing years in Germany, and was instrumental in bringing the Franco-Flemish sensibility to Germany that had already taken France and Italy by storm.

A collection published in 1544 by Georg Rhau (1488-1548) included 11 of Senfl’s pieces that reflect the transition to Protestant sacred music after the great debate between Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Maier von Eck (1486-1583, a German Catholic defender and philosopher) in 1519.

Although he was a Catholic all of his life, Senfl sympathized with the Protestant argument and borrowed from Protestant musical sensibilities. His works were representative of the Protestant Reform movement in music, even though most of his work was for fellow Catholics.

Senfl was born in Basel, Switzerland and moved to Zurich when he was barely a toddler. I didn’t find anything about his parents or siblings, or why they made the move. He lived in Zurich from 1488 until 1496, when he joined the Hofkapelle of Maximilian I in Augsburg, Germany. Except for a brief visit in 1504, he doesn’t seem to have gone back to Switzerland. If you’re doing the math, that’s a pretty young age to leave home forever. I also didn’t find out if he ever married, but he was a priest for a while, so perhaps he was disinclined to take a wife.

Little Ludwig left home to become a choirboy in Maximilian I’s (1459-1519) court. He was promoted to be a singer in the Imperial Chapel in 1507 and succeeded Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) as imperial chamber composer ten years later. The chapel was dissolved when Maximilian died in 1519.

Senfl, by then a grown man of considerable accomplishment, found work temporarily in Passau (in southern Bavaria), and in 1523, became “first musician” of the Munich court. Although staunchly Catholic, he admired Martin Luther (1483-1546) and sympathized with the Reformation efforts. He maintained a lively correspondence with Protestant Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) for many years, and it’s through these letters that we have most of the information about Senfl’s personal life.

Senfl traveled with Maximilian to Vienna in 1497, and again between 1500 and 1504, when he studied at a special school for boys whose voices had changed. This was also part of his training to be a priest.

While he was in Vienna on the second trip, he was lucky enough to study with Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), serving as Isaac’s copyist from 1509. He copied much of Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus (which is a collection of 375 Gregorian chant-based polyphonic motets) and completed it after Isaac’s death in 1513. That’s when Senfl became the official court composer.

In 1518, Senfl lost a toe in a hunting accident, which put him out of commission for nearly a year. When Maximilian died in 1519, Senfl (along with all the other court musicians) was unemployed. Maximilian’s successor, Charles V, refused to pay Senfl the stipend he was promised upon Maximilian’s death, and Senfl fell on hard times. He traveled extensively looking for work, continuing to write music in his spare time.

Although he never became a Protestant, Senfl attended the Diet of Worms (about the Protestant revolution) in 1521, and was sympathetic to Luther. His intelligent receptivity to new ideas got him examined by the Inquisition and as a result, he voluntarily gave up his priesthood. He maintained correspondence with both staunch Lutheran Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) and with Martin Luther (1483-1546), starting in 1530. Luther, by the way, liked Senfl’s work. He also liked Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521), Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518) and Heinrich Finck (c1444-1527).

In 1523, he finally found regular work again at the Bavarian court chapel in Munich for Duke Wilhelm (1493-1550). This was a place with high musical standards, and a place that was tolerant of Protestants and their sympathizers. Senfl would stay there the rest of his life.

Within his lifetime, he won the praise of musicians throughout German-speaking Europe, and examples of his work appeared in numerous treatises. Those German-speaking areas that stayed Catholic produced few composers during the 16th century, and those few didn’t contribute new elements or innovations to the music of the Catholic Church.

Senfl is the most significant representative of the Netherlands/German style of motet and Lied composition in German-speaking regions during the Reformation. His work was eclectic in content and purpose, both in its secular and sacred forms. His melodies were enduring and maintained their popularity in Germany more than a century after his death.

He modeled much of his work on the Franco-Flemish composers of the previous generation, particularly Josquin. He used many already archaic features, such as cantus firmus (the practice of having the chant on which the polyphony is based sung slowly in one voice while the other voices wind around it) and isorhythms (repeating rhythmic patterns).

He wrote seven complete Masses, eight Magnificats, numerous Latin motets, German Lieder, four-voice Latin odes, and a few instrumental pieces. These form both the climax of the old German music and a highpoint of the new style at the beginning of the Reformation, which led to the virtuosity that would be Bach. Most of Senfl’s sacred texts were written for his Protestant patron and friend Duke Albrecht.

His German Lieder were secular songs, and he had a talent for writing highly singable melodic passages in parallel imperfect intervals (thirds and sixths), which was a kind of homage to the old-style of organum (these were usually parallel fourths, which is considered a “perfect” interval). The character of these songs varies widely, from simple settings of cantus firmus to contrapuntal powerhouses (where the voices move in opposite directions from each other—one up the scale and another down it, for instance), such as canons (like rounds) and quodlibets (cheerful popular tunes). His texts included courtly love songs, folksongs, comic ditties, and satire, and many of them became the basis for the Tenorlied (using a Lied melody as a sort of cantus firmus) that was popular in the early 16th century.

Senfl’s taste in technique and subject didn’t lead to a lot of innovation, but he did experiment. For instance, he wrote one piece where he disregarded polyphony and melody altogether and made the singers produce onomatopoeic bell sounds.

Senfl’s reputation stems mainly from the 250 German secular songs that he wrote. They illustrate every imaginable approach to the traditional German song melodies, from simple chordal harmonization to masterly canonic pieces with sharply contrasted counterpoint in the non-canonic parts. His Latin odes, with the tune in the descant (highest voice) set in a simple homophonic manner (like a chant), represent the style that later became common to German Protestant settings.

The quodlibet was Senfl’s specialty. In these, two or three different song tunes were combined in a dazzling contrapuntal display and despite the potential for chaos, remained distinct and recognizable.

Although his Lieder technique owes much to the German polyphonic tradition established by Finck and Isaac in the previous century, Senfl shows a greater range of emotions than his predecessors. Many of hos Lieder use a cantus firmus form of construction and close or free imitation in the other voices, meaning that the melody was repeated in an inexact but recognizable fashion.

Having studied with Isaac and the Spaniard Cristobal Morales (c1500-1553, biography to come), Senfl’s work reflected the “internationalization” of the Flemish style. His use of imitation is often freer than Jacob Clemens non Papa’s (c1510-1556)—as long as the general shape of the motif was perceptible, he allowed himself to vary the intervals considerably and to distort the rhythm.

Of particular note is Senfl’s Missa dominicalis super l’Homme arme, in which the chanson tune in one voice is combined with plainsong in another. This combination is even more remarkable because it appears throughout the Mass, not solely in one isolated movement. Composers such as Josquin, Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505), and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518), restricted the use of a double cantus firmus in a Mass like that to a single movement, most often the Credo.

In some passages to the L’Homme Mass, Senfl uses the borrowed melody freely, making interpolations and other digressions. The popular tune is in the tenor (except in the Benedictus, where it doesn’t appear at all), and the chant in the discantus (the high voice), except in the Agnus dei, where the two cantus forms exchange positions. The other two voices sometimes imitate phrases from one cantus or the other.

His motets show great skill with counterpoint and variation that’s supplemented by the warm lyricism of his own melodies. One particularly fine example is his Ave rosa sine spinis, which is based on the tenor of Comme femme, which is an interpretation of Josquin’s Stabat Mater.

Ludwig Senfl died in Munich after three years of illness, according to correspondence with Duke Albrecht. It isn’t known what he died of or the exact date, and no one knows where he was buried.

Sources:

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography: Oswald von Wolkenstein (c1377-1445)

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Oswald was one of the last south-German/Austrian poet-musicians, and was sometimes regarded as the last of the Minnesingers. (The Minnesingers were the German version of the Trouvères and Troubadours, a species of French itinerant poet-musicians in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their themes were mostly about courtly—or less proper—love.)

Wolkenstein is in Sachsen Germany, on the Zschopau River, southeast of Chemnitz in the Ore Mountains. If that’s too obscure for you, you can think of it as kind of near Dresden. I don’t know when he went there to have been named after the place, though—I couldn’t find anything on it. Although he did a lot of wandering around in his life, the place that gave him his name didn’t come up, so it was probably his father’s name.

German music from this period was isolated from that of other musical centers, like Ferrara and Paris, to some degree. European polyphony had developed almost exclusively in the hands of the French-speaking musicians or those in close and constant contact with the French, like the English. Even the temporarily individualistic music of the Italian trecento was gradually transformed by the French influence, especially once the Franco-Flemish invasion began. (See Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia for more about that).

When Johannes Ciconia went to Padua in the 1390s, for instance, his presence and that of his compatriots at the Papal chapel marked a new development: the occupation of Italian musical posts by foreigners. This was particularly noticeable after the Papal Schism, which lasted from 1378-1418. The Council of Konstanz (more on this in a moment) brought musicians together from all over as part of the pomp and ceremony that went with resolving this great debate. The Hungarian Emperor Sigismund brought his best musician/politician, Oswald von Wolkenstein, with him; likewise the singers who accompanied the English delegation were particularly admired in Köln on the way, as well as at Konstanz.

Oswald, who is, after all, the subject here, was born in the Schloss (castle) Schöneck in Pustertal, Tyrol. This is south of Munich, in what is present-day Italy, but has been both Austrian and German in the centuries between Oswald’s lifetime and now.

Oswald’s father was Friedrich von Wolkenstein and his mother was Katharina von Villanders. Oswald was the second of (at least) three sons.

When he was 10 years old (c1387), Oswald left his family and became the squire of a knight errant (which means a roving knight, one without a specific patron). He traveled for the next 14 years, writing an autobiographical song about it, called “Es fügt sich…” (“it fits,” or “it is fitting”). His journey took him far and wide, and he was even shipwrecked in the Black Sea. He was said to be fluent in ten languages.

When his father died in 1399, Oswald, now a grown man, returned to Tyrol and began a long feud with his older brother Michael about inheritance. Always tempted by travel, in 1401 or 1402, Oswald participated in a failed expedition to Milan with King Rupert of Germany (1352-1410). In 1407, he and his brother finally settled their argument, and Oswald received a third of Schloss Hauenstein and the accompanying estates in Seis am Schiern (an alpine village in southern Tyrol, now part of northern Italy). The other two-thirds of the castle belonged to a knight named Martin Jāger, who would become Oswald’s lifelong nemesis. Oswald didn’t like the property division once he got there, and he occupied the entire castle, appropriating Jāger’s share. You can imagine how popular that was with Herr Jāger.

In 1408, preparing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Oswald paid for a memorial stone to be made and installed on the wall of the cathedral in Brixen (another southern Tyrolean town, now part of Italy). The stone still stands there, showing Oswald in Crusader gear, with the long beard of a pilgrim. But before going on the crusade, he wrote several songs for his beloved, Anna Hausmann, the wife of Brixen citizen Hans Hausmann. (It isn’t clear whether the love he felt was requited or not.) When he came back from this pilgrimage in 1410, he acquired the right to take up residence in the Augustinian abbey called Neustift, which was near Brixen. This abbey would later produce collections of Oswald’s music.

In 1414, Oswald became a member of the entourage of Friedrich IV, Duke of Austria and Count of Tyrol at the Council of Konstanz (1414-1418). There’s a nice portrait of Oswald in the council’s chronicle. While he was there, he met other notable dignitaries, emissaries, musicians, and nobles who would affect how he lived the rest of his life.

Oswald soon entered into the service of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, as a diplomat. This service got him traveling again, including to England, Scotland, and Portugal, where he participated in the conquest of the Moorish city of Ceuta. In 1416, he joined King Sigismund in France, and they went together back to Konstanz, where the Council still convened.

The Council of Konstanz took so long because it ended the great Papal Schism, also known as the Three-Popes Controversy. The deposed or accepted the resignation of two of the papal claimants, and elected Pope Martin V (1369-1431) in 1417. The council also condemned and executed Czech philosopher Jan Hus and ruled on issues of national sovereignty, the rights of pagans, and whether the conflict between Poland and the Order of the Teutonic Knights was a just war.

In 1417, Oswald married Margarete von Schwangau (her hometown is right near Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle on which the Disneyland Castle is based). They had seven children. None of this stopped him from pining after Ann Hausmann, and you’ll hear more about that in a minute.

Oswald joined the Elefantenbund in 1418, an alliance of noblemen against Friedrich IV, who had been banned by King Sigismund for aiding the flight of the antipope John XXIII from the Council of Konstanz (euphemistically called a “resignation” earlier). Friedrich, with the help of the local peasants, resisted Sigismund, Oswald, and the Elefantenbund, and Friedrich vigorously pursued his enemies all over the area.

On the home front, between 1421 and 1427, Oswald was involved in a series of bitter quarrels with other landowners, and his own wild and lawless behavior led to his arrest and imprisonment twice.

In 1421, Anna Hausmann lured Oswald into a trap set by Martin Jäger, and he was brought to Innsbruck, handed over to Friedrich, and imprisoned. In 1422, Friedrich ransomed Oswald off in exchange for 6,000 ducats (about $4.8 million US in today’s money) and an oath to be non-violent evermore. This agreement allowed Oswald five months to settle his debts with Marin Jäger and other nobles. But Oswald didn’t meet his obligations and also didn’t show up in Tyrol Castle when he was supposed to. Instead, he slipped away to Hungary, where he met up with his old friend King Sigismund. Together, they plotted a war against Friedrich. This war was eventually started by Oswald’s older brother Michael, who also allied with Sigismund.

In 1422, the castle where Sigismund and Oswald were hiding, Schloss Greifenstein, was under siege by Friedrich’s troops, and it took most of the year to get out of there. The citizens and peasants of Tyrol and Brixen supported Friedrich, so soon, most of the nobles, including Oswald’s two brothers, surrendered. Oswald fought on with a few other nobles, and Oswald was the last to surrender.

Sigismund couldn’t afford three wars all at once, and by the end of 1424, Sigismund and Friedrich had made peace. Oswald was witness to it. That same year, Oswald commissioned the Neustift monastery to create a manuscript of his collected songs.

Oswald returned home penniless, and when Friedrich insisted on the 6000 ducat ransom that was three years overdue, Oswald fled. In 1425, he lived in Schloss Neuhaus, near Gais (another southern Tyrolean town that’s now part of Italy). Meanwhile, Friedrich renewed his siege of Schloss Greifenstein.

Oswald continued his feud with Friedrich long after all the others had given it up, and was forced to flee to Lake Konstanz in 1426. But Friedrich’s people found him and he was imprisoned in Innsbruck. He soon realized that he had no choice but to make peace with Friedrich, who finally forced him to pay Martin Jäger for the stolen and occupied properties, which allowed Oswald to have uncontested full ownership of Schloss Hauenstein and its estates at last. But Friedrich had learned that Oswald wasn’t to be trusted, and Oswald had to swear not to contact any nobles outside Tyrol unless Friedrich specifically approved it in advance.

Not one to sit tight or to mean an oath after he’d sworn it, Oswald broke his vow in 1428 and went to Heidelberg to meet the Archbishop of Köln. He met with other nobles there and tried to convince them to support him in his dispute with his cousin, Hans von Villanders (dates unavailable), who owed Oswald 2200 ducats ($1.8 million in today’s money). He soon became embroiled in local squabbles because the archbishop was friends with both Martin Jäger and dear old Friedrich. The controversy turned into a fracas and Oswald publically beat the archbishop. Yikes! I’m pretty sure that archbishops are on the list of people you should never beat up, publically or privately. At any rate, initially Sigismund backed Oswald in that argument, but soon, he switched sides and freed the archbishop from Oswald’s henchmen.

In 1430, Sigismund summoned the nobles who supported him to Nuremberg, and Oswald and his brother went off to join them, pausing for two months to celebrate Christmas in Konstanz. During this hiatus, Oswald wrote many love songs of a rather erotic nature, the most famous of which is “Ain Graserin,” about a bathing woman. The “frizzy hair” between her legs, according to the song, creates an overwhelming and irresistible desire in the singer.

Once he finally joined Sigismund in Nuremberg, Oswald became a member of the first rank of the Order of the Dragon (Sigismund’s own noble militia against the Ottoman Turks—on a side note, Vlad the Impaler was a member of this group), a very select position that only two dozen nobles held. This lofty position obligated Oswald to participate in Sigismund’s campaign in Bohemia in 1431, which didn’t go at all well. Apparently 50,000 Bohemian soldiers were scary to Sigismund’s entire Imperial army, and the skirmish was over before it began.

In 1432, Sigismund sent Oswald back to Tyrol to prepare the county for an invasion by the Bohemians (Hussites), and to negotiate with them. While Oswald was busy doing his bidding, slippery Sigismund fled to Milan and then to Piacenza (just 45 miles south east of Milan) under the pretext that he needed to go to Rome in order to be crowned emperor. Meanwhile, Oswald commissioned the Neustift abbey to create a second collection of his songs.

When Sigismund called Oswald to join him in Piacenza, Oswald toddled off, but the visit didn’t go well, leading Oswald to write a song of complaint, “Wer die ougen vil vershüren” (“who will disturb the eyes”), set to a French melody. Tired of Oswald too, Sigismund sent Oswald off to Basel. After a year of negotiations, Sigismund was finally crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1433 by Pope Eugenius IV (1383-1447), with Oswald dancing attendance.

After all that, Oswald settled down a bit, and when Friedrich died with only an underage heir in 1439, Oswald was put in charge of the contracts for the young man’s guardianship. He used the opportunity to seek the assistance of one of the guardians in resolving his 18-year-long argument with his cousin Hans von Villanders over bonds that Oswald had given Hans to hold.

When Friedrich’s heir’s guardianship ended in 1443, one of the guardians decided to extend it for six more years because he was enjoying the benefits of being King of the Holy Roman Empire. This caused a new revolt in Tyrol, and Oswald became one of the five commanders of the uprising. His job was to run the fortress at Mühlbach, which blocked the most likely invasion route from Styria, where the new king had taken up residence. Oswald ended up, as a result of skirmishes and maneuvering, as one of the electors to an opponent to the usurping king.

Oswald died that same year, succumbing to an intense heat wave in Merano, Italy. His body was brought to Neustift Abbey and buried near the front in the monastery’s church, where his grave was rediscovered in 1973.

Compositions

Sometimes Oswald is classified as a Meistersinger (this was a 14th through 16th century German guild for craftsmen who produced lyric poetry, regional music, and unaccompanied art song). He took a highly individual approach to composition, especially regarding text-setting, and he had a fondness for through-composed songs (no repeated section like a chorus, and no obvious divisions into sections—Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I heard for the first time recently, is a through-composed song, for instance and is readily available on Youtube.com), which matched his text style nicely. His often innovative approach to composition (notably his use of large melodic steps and instrumental interludes) sets him apart from other Meistersingers.

His poetry covers a variety of themes from a battle cry and animal sounds, to satire and para-liturgical texts, as well as lots of love poetry inspired by his wife and other ladies. Events from his rather active life are recorded in his songs, and much of his biography can be extrapolated from his music.

Oswald was the ultimate Renaissance jet-setter. Three polyphonic pieces (multiple lines of parallel melodies) attributed to Oswald are French songs to which he set his own German texts. His various visits to Italy also had an effect and his works are the first examples of the influence of Italian music on that of Germany. He was particularly fond of introducing instrumental ritornelli (pieces that circle back in their melodies), especially in his polyphonic works. These range from simple songs with instrumental accompaniment to fairly developed three-part vocal compositions, which, because of technical shortcomings, are usually less successful than his works in two parts.

He also gets classified as a Minnesinger (12th -14th century lyrical songwriters, parallel but different from the Troubadours and Trouvères). His music was representative of 15th century love songs and German polyphony, and he was thought to be the very last of the Minnesingers. (There will be posts on Minnesingers and on Troubadours and Trouvères sometime soon.)

Oswald was skilled in the music notation of his time, but his creative work is that of a gifted dilettante. His works often contain elements borrowed from contemporary French and Italian song as well as from folksong. His monadic pieces (chant), from the standpoint of text, belong to the usual types—there are love songs, religious songs, and bitter political Scheltgedicte (“scolding poems”).

His style puts depth of expression before conventional rules, and his works are marked by unshackling from the weighty traditions governing German courtly song that had bound his predecessors. Most of his songs are monophonic (chant), but some are in two or three parts, and a few of these are contrafacta (replacing the words without changing the melody) based on works by Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377), Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), and others.

He drew on a wide range of compositional techniques, including canon (like a round), organum (two parallel lines of chant), hocket (rhythmic alternation of notes, like hiccups), and conductus (chant in one or two voices that is meant to be used for processions). His texting of the tenor line anticipates the Tenorlied in the next century, where the melody of a lied (romantic solo song with accompaniment) was used as a cantus firmus, running slowly throughout the piece while the other voices dance around it, using elements from it, or repeating it at a faster pace.

Toward the end of his life, he seems to have rejected these more complex compositional devices and concentrated on setting songs with a greater emphasis on the need to instruct others to “do right” (rechttun) in this world.

Despite the wide variety of his work, he was a poor contrapuntist and often fell back on contrafacta (text substitution). His two-part “”Der may mit lieber zal”(“he with loving zeal”) is based on a three-part virelai by Jean Vaillant (fl.1360-1390), and uses a charming imitation of bird-song. His two-part “Mein herz das ist versert” (“my heart is thus destroyed”) borrows almost unaltered the cantus firmus and tenor of Francesco Landini’s popular ballata “Questa fanciulla” (“this girl”). Others borrowed from Oswald, too, such as Konrad Pauman (1410-1473), who used Oswald’s “Wach auf” (“wake up”) on a sixth tone (a hypophrygian mode—for more about modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) in his own Magnificat.

Some 120 of his songs survive, marking a new departure in the development of German song. They’re not courtly and stylized as had been the fashion, but are the expression of genuine personal feeling. Many are love songs, inspired by his various love affairs and also his marriage to Magarete von Schwangau in 1417, and these are particularly heartfelt. Some are topical, containing references to current political events, others were inspired by his visit to Jerusalem (1409-1411), and there are also a number of sacred texts.

The first collection has 42 complete songs was produced in 1425, with another 66 poems added to it between 1427 and 1436. The second collection was produced in 1432. The third collection is from 1450, and is a copy of the second collection. There are pictures of Oswald in both the first and second collections that were done under the supervision of Oswald himself. This is thought to be the earliest authentic depiction of a German author.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & CO., New York, 1994.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippen. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.