According to the Bible, there is nothing new under the sun. For evidence of that, consider a lengthy book of poetry, preserved in a decorated manuscript from early-1300s France. It’s called Le roman de Fauvel (The Romance of Fauvel) and it bubbles over with juicy tales of political corruption, doomed romantic entanglements, and a litany of sins. All of them still plague humanity.
In its satirical examination of our foibles, the Fauvel collection remains a timeless treasure trove of 14th-century music and verse that has long intrigued the Santa Fe-based early-music scholar and musician Mary Springfels. “I’ve been dying to do this for years,” she said. Finally, her dream is coming to life.
On Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2, Springfels and her six-member contingent known as Severall Friends will offer excerpts from the enormous Fauvel collection as she imagines they were performed 700 years ago, singing the original songs that accompany the text and playing period instruments. These performances will be enhanced with visual aids: projected illustrations from the manuscript and translations of the French and Italian texts.
Much of the manuscript, written by poet Gervais du Bus circa 1314, hurls barely concealed barbs at the hypocrisy of the Church and the abuses of power by the court of King Philip IV (1268-1314) and his son Philip V (1293-1322). “Philip [IV] was a disaster,” Springfels said. “He expelled the Jews, destroyed the Knights Templar, and moved the Pope to Avignon. He and his son were maniacs.” Looking closer, Springfels began to see a connection between the corrupt political world then and now. “The timing of this program is ideal, since so much of our current political atmosphere is Fauvel-like.”
It may be a stretch for modern audiences to accept that connection. Our antihero Fauvel, after all, is depicted as a conniving horse who winds up in the court of the French king. Listeners back then likely got the inside jokes, as well as the significance of the horse’s name — originally Favvel, an acronym for six human vices: flattery, avarice, vileness, variability (fickleness), envy, and lascheté (cowardice).
In developing the project, Springfels faced a number of challenges beyond the subtle political references and the unfamiliar sounds of medieval music. She also had to wrestle with the sheer size of the poem. “It would probably take two to three weeks to perform the whole thing,” she said.
Undeterred, she dove into the translated manuscript — nearly 7,000 lines of verse intermixed with 169 vocal compositions. Springfels chose two dozen ballads and motets, most penned by anonymous composers. “It took a long time, but I boiled and boiled and boiled it down.”
Along with Springfels playing citole and vielle (two early string instruments), the ensemble includes Drew Minter (voice and harp), Shira Kammen (medieval fiddle), Mark Rimple (citole and gittern), Tracy Cowart (harp and voice) and Spiff Wiegand (hurdy-gurdy and percussion).
Much of the music will be accessible to audiences, Springfels insisted. “It’s self-contained. People can just walk in off the street and enjoy it. We can all relate to what the story tells.” Still, she recognizes the challenge of bringing a medieval work to Santa Fe audiences. “There really isn’t a large early-music crowd here,” she admitted. “But we’re working on it. We understand that it’s an uphill battle.” To help those attending the two performances, she’s written four pages of program notes.
Fauvel’s exploration of the ebb and flow of love will be easily understood, she pointed out. The story involves a troubled romance between Fauvel, described by Springfels as “a rogue and a villain,” and a female figure who was familiar to 14th-century audiences: Dame Fortune. In rebuffing Fauvel’s advances, she convinces him to marry Vainglory instead. Among those attending the wedding are Flirtation, Adultery, and Carnal Lust. Incidentally, Dame Fortune is the star of Carl Orff’s modern choral extravaganza Carmina Burana, which begins and ends with an ever-spinning wheel that crushes all those who try to escape their fate. “It’s not all apocalyptic,” Springfels said of Fauvel’s tone. “At one point, Dame Fortune exclaims, ‘This too shall pass.’ So there’s an element of hope in the text.” ◀
▼ Severall Friends presents The Lascivious Low Road — Currying Favor in Medieval France
▼ Open rehearsal 3 p.m. Friday, May 31, Unitarian Universalist Santa Fe, 107 W. Barcelona Road (a donation of $10 is requested)
▼ 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 1, San Miguel Chapel, 401 Old Santa Fe Trail
▼ 3 p.m. Sunday, June 2, Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, 1738 N. Sage St., Los Alamos
▼ $20, free for students with ID; 708-989-1729, severallfriends.org