Song of Blondel

[] This text was originally a paper in musicology, written in Swedish in 1996-97 and now found at [] The Music Library of Sweden

(Summary of: Blondels sång: ”Sök troget, så finner du”. Del 2. Berättelser om fångna själar och befriande musik 1190-1990, by Maria Ljungdahl. Department of Musicology, Göteborg University, Sweden, 1997.)

The Song of Blondel: ”Suche treu, so findest du”. Tales of imprisoned souls and liberating music.

1. A journey in time, through philosophies of music …stimmt sein Spiel zu sanfter Weise… …denn ein Ahnen sagt ihm leise…

1.1 Meta music and myths

Just like there are many novels written about writers writing novels, there are lots of music written about music and music-making. I am using the term meta music for that kind of music within music; which also is music meant to tell us things about the history and conditions of music itself. In some cases these musical stories describe how a songwriter (composer) struggles to express his (her) feelings for the adored person, and how he (she) wishes to send the result as music to her (him) alone, or, in cases of mild to severe megalomania, distribute it to the world as a whole.

Another meta musical category is songs that speak about the power of music: to signal, to call up memories and arouse emotions, to unite a group of people, to liberate from prison, and to heal from disease. Here we can find examples ranking between the simplest come-together-and-be-happy tunes for pre-school children, to utmost musical sophistication. Remember the many beautiful constructions that are composed around the myth of Orpheus — that musician, who persuaded the guardians in Hell with his moving music, only to fail in his quest because he couldn’t imagine the wife was following him. Roland Barthes interprets this myth like it speaks of the birth of Musicology itself: Orpheus, with his re-view of (his look back at) the ”object” Eurydice, is the first music critic in history! Thus, he learns his lesson, sacrifices the Queen, makes for his ascension to a better place — and serve Apollo for the rest of his afterlife, rich in experience and knowledge [Engh 1995:69f, in Solie (ed) 1995].

Among the Biblical myths about the powerful and beautiful art of music, are some stories of walls falling down by the effect of organised sound, like the city of Jericho, and one prison where Paul was suffering on his travels.

Many such myths have inspired to musical interpretations. A Grimm fairy tale, with possible musical settings (which I have not tried to track down), is Rapunzel. The girl with that name was put in a tower without a door, only windows, by a witch who took the baby girl from her parents in exchange for some leaves of the special rapunzel salad (a kind of lettuce), since the father had stolen those tempting vegetables from the witch’s garden to give to his pregnant wife. The girl grew up alone in the tower, singing for herself far from other people’s attention. When the witch wanted to visit her protégé, Rapunzel had to toss her braide of hair down for the visitor to use as a ladder. The inevitable prince (this is a fairy tale, for heaven’s sake!) enters in the same manner, after his interest is aroused by the singing. The witch interrupts the happy couple, and throws them out of the tower. First the prince, right out of the window. He falls in a thorn bush and hurts his eyes badly. Rapunzel is led away in another direction, where she goes on singing her song, until the prince finally re-arrives and recognises the song. His blindness is cured by Rapunzel’s tears of joy.

This tale is a nice story about how music can be of help when finding and rescuing prisoners from mystical towers. A more common situation in poetry, romantic pictures and music-dramatical works has for a long period in Western art history been the serenade. A man sings outside a tower or a house to make himself known, and entertain the adored one with sweet music. In Blondels Lied, the person inside the prison is a king, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, and the person singing to the imprisoned one is also a man, the king’s legendary minstrel Blondel de Nesle.

1.2 My two studies, their questions and methods

In my first study (Ljungdahl 1996) about Robert Schumann’s song Blondels Lied (Op. 53:1) I tried, among other things, to find the answers to my initial question, which was simply: what is this song about? My voice teacher in 1992, Hans Linden at Sankt Sigfrids Folkhögskola in Växjö, gave me the song and the challenge to do research for interpretational ideas. The lied is not among the well-known Schumann songs, like Dichterliebe, or Frauenliebe und -leben, so a source of information or a recording was not the easiest to find. (Since then, after 1997, the fine Hyperion Records’ issues of Schumann’s songs, with the pianist Graham Johnson’s interesting and extensive booklet comments, have changed this situation.)

My general aim with the second study (Ljungdahl 1997) then changed to be a research of the points where the Blondel legend focuses three time periods’ mutual relations and their ideologically coloured interpretations of the unhistorical story of Blondel and Richard. For example, Schumann’s ”Blondel” was created in 1840 in a tradition and milieu having very little common with on the one hand trouvère songs from the Middle Ages, on the other hand matiné movies from the 1950-ies — but both these latter examples are today natural references to the Blondel & Richard story. Works on the Blondel theme from different periods stand — with a few exceptions — practically isolated from each other, both stylistically and in their emphasis on different parts of the story. The meta music, the song used as signal between the protagonists, can’t be tracked from any tradition but varies just as much as the rest.

In my essay I wanted to show that the interpretation of a 19th century song can be grounded in three time aspects, here concentrated around 1190 (the time of the story), the first half of the 19th century (the time of the composer), and the second half of the 20th century (the time of the interpretation). I have studied what we today can know about the legend’s origin; I have searched for other works on the same theme, which could have been inspirations to the text and music in Blondels Lied; and I have given examples of how the same protagonists are presented in works from our own time.

The content, meaning and moral of the story varies with different periods and works. The 13th century (fictional) cronicle focuses on history and tries to rise the status of the musician. In the 1780-ies the story is used in an opera with pre-revolutionary aristocratic liberal ideas. In Schumann’s time, 1840, German heroic poems tell tales of English Medieval kings and minstrels. In the 1950-ies, during the Cold War, the movies present Anglo-Saxon folk heroes like Robin Hood and Ivanhoe. In the 1970-ies the musical movements seeks roots in folk music, troubadours, and Early music. Lately, in the 1990-ies, the focus is on myths and cultural studies.

© Maria Ljungdahl (Sweden) 2005


Engh, Barbara: Loving It: Music and Criticism in Roland Barthes. In: Solie, Ruth (ed): Musicology and Difference. Gender and sexuality in music scholarship. University of California Press 1995

Music history debate 2001

Denna artikel publicerades först på svenska 2001 i STM-Online, vol 4. []

Music History as entertainment, or how ”When You Say Nothing At All” got the status of Early Music.

Professor Olle Edström’s article in STM-Online [] is interesting, because it is in my opinion important that at least some scholars keep a distance from their subject, and through these kinds of texts, contribute personal experiences and knowledge, keeping the discussion about skepticism and self-critique alive.  In another article by Professor Edström, ”Fragments”, from an issue of the magazine STM some years ago, I read his ”report from the front” — meaning not ”here are the latest results from the best scholars”, but ”here stands the battles, these are the weapons, here we must live or die”. I hope there are more Swedish musicologists who keep the questions around the subject’s content, function and future open!

Then, what Eva Öhrström writes in the same latest issue of STM-Online, about our music teacher education’s lack of music history — and not least the students’ almost total lack of previous knowledge — is even more true for other categories of teachers’ knowledge in and attitudes to music and music history. There is not just a question of which kind of music the education should focus on. There is a real question, if there ought to be expectations of any knowledge of music and music history at all! For example: in a Swedish school (where the pupils’ ages were 10-12 years), I have seen a ”Middle Ages theme” show, with parents in the audience. Everything seemed to be well-researched and prepared — if a little misunderstood and tweaked — except the music part of the show, which by the pupils were announced (with no irony) as ”a typical Middle Age dance”. Followed from the speakers the theme song from the movie Notting Hill — ”You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All”. Surely a nice example of a popular song from the year A.D. 1999, and besides, the girls in class had contributed their own choreographical interpretation of it. But: nearly thousand years away from the period.

Some weeks earlier, I had been asked by the teachers if I, being a ”music expert” (in their words), could help them with material for the theme studies. I knew the students had access to both the early music CD’s that I purchased for this occasion, and my selection of sheet music with easy songs and recorder arrangements from roughly the correct epoch. But they had simply chosen not to use this opportunity – neither did they try to study it on their own, nor to ask me for help.  The result was they took the easy road and chose a well-known tune which felt good for dancing. I hope nobody was fooled into thinking this was authentic medieval music. But you never know. At the start of the term the Head Mistress presented this school years  ”Composer of the year” — the music which is chosen for a school years’ morning meetings and as background music for math classes (Mozart effect, anyone?) — as the 1000 year old Gregorian church music. Guess which ”Gregorian” CD she played for the audience?

Maybe it had been best if I had said nothing at all about my education in music history. At least I said nothing at all — in an attempt not to hurt anyone’s feelings — about my thoughts at the show. Though, the disrespect for facts and knowledge this ordinary and very nice Swedish school showed in a presentation of a  historical theme, would surely not pass as harmless entertainment before quiet and content parents, had it concerned a misinterpreted piece of knowledge  in an account of a religious beliefs or social studies subject. For example, if the pupils had been allowed to show a ”Christmas ham” (a traditional Swedish Christmas dish), saying this was a typical Arab meal, or, were allowed to explain the Christian Democrat party’s ideology as origining from the former Soviet Union? Now this was ”only” history and music. Both are examples of relatively useless subjects. Music is something that can count as pure entertainment. Nothing you need to be serious about or have any knowledge of. Or is it?

The problem with music historiography and the other musical study subjects is largely that so many elementary school pupils, music teacher students, and indeed anyone — by their own free will, curiosity or desire — situated near the flow of media products and information, really doesn’t own the tools which are needed to build a strong and historically grounded knowledge about the human world from scattered cultural and scientifical wreckage. It does not matter how the college teachers and music professors choose and reject among the music histories to fill their courses with subject content. From post modern fragments with ethnic spices you can’t cook a nourishing knowledge soup. It becomes nothing more than fast facts in, and drivel out. Those who don’t have history as their foundation and reference in their musical studies — both in playing and in purely educational situations — too easily find themselves out on that quagmire of floating interpretations and lost credibility, where their own tastes and the contingencies of the zeitgeist lead the way, to terrible effect. Applying this reasoning to the education of music teachers and to undergraduate education in musicology, it is very hard to compile a music history slanted to contemporary culture (=pop and rock music), because in that there is an overflow of information and a lack of distance which takes a certain experience to handle. In my opinion, you cheat the students of something important, if you allow them to study only stuff they are already familiar with, uncritical and without historical perspective.

Some time ago I read Alan Sokal, whose critique of, among others, Bruno Latour Professor Edström mentioned. I have not read the article by Sokal that Edström is referring to, but a book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont — their clearly thought out and part quite amusing attack on (natural) science abusers, Fashionable Nonsense. Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Picador, New York 1998). Sadly I have not read Latour in original, but assuming from what Sokal/Bricmont is referring there seems to be better philosophers to turn to when discussing how to bridge the gap between ”the two cultures”, or how to explore a scientific philosophy which takes into consideration both Nature and Culture. (Regarding ”Science Wars”, see Norman Levitt’s critique [].

This is a discussion and an attitude I have long been interested in, but never really knew if it is worth the effort trying to address it directly. Nonetheless, we must considerate the education system, which early on sorts talents and interests between two or three well-separated streams. This leads in turn to a dearth of people knowledgeable in more than one scientific or artistic field, people who can talk to each other without misunderstandings and confusion of terms and language. Bridging the gap between specialties becomes nothing but a pious hope for good effects from the exchange of ideas and experiences. Sometimes that hope leads to research money to some group of scholars. Sometimes people with this attitude start new journals; for example the British Prometheus (]. But seldom does anything material change in our view of knowledge and reality. All talk which doesn’t lead to useful results becomes in the worst case just another new form of entertainment, which confirms the public prejudices about scholars out of touch with reality. What is useful in music research, then? If there is some kind of eternal good or use in musicology, music history and musical knowledge, I do not think this good grows best in an interdisciplinary soil, but should be sought on classical ground: where a humanist Academia lays the foundation of general education, civilization and personal growth. That is where we musicologists have something to contribute to interested natural scientists and technicians. In return we can get their help with researching the physical world’s conditions for music — the biology, acoustics, instrumental and recording technology; all the measurable and concrete stuff. There are surely no good reasons to strive to make music research into an exact science — however tempting it can be to get part of the mathematically based natural and social sciences status in society. All this has been said before, but need to be reiterated in every debate about the future of the humanities!

© Maria Ljungdahl 2001 (English translation 2003, with kind help from Dr. Michael W. Morse, Toronto

Var helst en usling bor (“finns”, skall det visst vara! sorry)

På Nova Zemblas fjäll, i Ceylons brända dalar,
Var helst en usling finns, är han min vän, min bror:
Då jag hans öde hör, med tårar jag betalar
Den skatt jag skyldig är,  natur!  dig allas mor!

Nej,  himmel!  icke jag ditt delningssätt anklagar.
På blomman av min vår du hagelskurar sänt:
Men om jag tälja fått en mängd av sälla dagar,
Att jag ett hjärta har, jag kanske än ej känt.

Bland ödens ebb och flod min levnads julle kastas,
Av svaga hoppet styrs,  med plågor överlastas:
Jag ingen hamn för töcken ser.

»Du   ej   den  ende  är» . . . Tröst för ett tigerhjärta!
Barbarisk tröst!  . . . Vad! att det finnes fler,
Som digna under livets smärta!
Det tröst? . . .  Min milde Gud! . . . det tröst i nöden ger?

Bengt Lidner (1757-1793)