New Delos recording, Colors of Feelings, features three song cycles from composer Philip Lasser. Before the release of this new CD, we wanted to give you a brief introduction to each of these works. Feel free to read and listen along via the embedded Spotify player:
Nicollette et Aucassin
Medieval French literature abounds with ancient legends and tales that no doubt evolved over previous centuries via the old European troubadour tradition, until they finally took more permanent form in handcrafted manuscripts. But precious few of them have served as inspiration for modern music, one prominent example being Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé (1938): his music drama treating the French version of the Tristan et Iseut legend. Now, with Nicolette et Aucassin, Philip Lasser gives new life to a little-known 13th-century “Chantefable” (sung-fable) in totally unprecedented fashion.
As Lasser tells us, “I was immediately drawn to this wonderfully tender and potent story … much like Romeo and Juliet, with the difference that it ends on an optimistic note.” The tale recounts the forbidden love between Aucassin, a comely youth of noble birth, and Nicolette, a lovely “captive maid” – presumably of common parentage – who has been raised as the goddaughter of another nobleman. His father and her guardian conspire to keep them apart, but the love-smitten pair – overcoming all obstacles between them – manage to finally reunite and escape together; the story ends as the young lovers ecstatically anticipate an idyllic life together in a distant land.
The original texts – as found in a lavishly illustrated manuscript housed in the French National Library – are unique in two primary respects. First, the unknown author’s alternation of 41 prose narrations with 20 “subtly rhyming” poetic verses intended to be sung is highly unusual in the French literature of the period. The manuscript further provides actual melodies – rendered in the period neumatic style – corresponding to the first two lines and the last line of each sung verse.
Lasser, in order to heighten the tale’s drama, has distilled the story to six sung verses and five English narrations, and transformed the original old French texts into the modern vernacular. He further employed the original manuscript’s actual melodies as the basis for his own musical design, beginning and ending each of the six verses with them. The finished product is a striking synthesis of ancient and modern that preserves the original music’s ancient modal feel while bringing it forward into the 21st century. Listen for passages of plainchant-like flow and strong whiffs of the Medieval organum style, with its open fourths and fifths – yet the overall result is distinctly modern in overall effect. Scored for two sopranos, with piano and narrator, Lasser emphasizes (as you will hear) that the two vocalists, rather than taking on the respective character roles, sing instead with “one and the same voice.” Note how beautifully the voices intertwine throughout.
The work was commissioned by pianist Margo Garrett in 2008 – so, once again, we have here a unique window into the close collaboration between performer and composer.
Given the clear narrations and the poetry translations, there is no need for further analysis or elaboration. The sensitive listener should have absolutely no trouble following either the story line or the music’s ancient heritage. So get ready to lose yourself in this fascinating, one-of-a-kind fusion of literature and music, the likes of which you’ve surely never heard before. — Lindsay Koob