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ClassicsOnline Home » NEIDHART: Minnesinger and His Vale of Tears (A) - Songs and Interludes (Ensemble Leones)
Neidhart was one of the most popular Minnesingers—or “poet-musicians”—of the late Middle Ages. His songs deal with rustic, erotic and violent topics mediated, however, through court culture, which gives them a stylised, ironic sense of detachment. His division of songs into “summer” or “winter” adds another layer of complexity, with melancholy or dance-orientated topics prevailing, depending on the season. The instrumental music carries a rural character. The “Frankfurt Fragment” manuscript has never been recorded in full, and is here performed by one of the most outstanding ensembles in the field.
By Thorsten Preuss
Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio)
By Klaus Härtel
A Minnesinger and his ‘Vale of Tears’: Songs and Interludes
Neidhart, who owing to a nineteenth-century misapprehension is sometimes still wrongly referred to as “von Reuental” (i.e. “from the Vale of Tears”), was one of the most popular Minnesingers of the late Middle Ages, even though (or more likely “because”) his songs mainly parodied classical Minnesang topics rather than serving them. From this was coined the name that his genre of songs is known by in modern scholarship: Gegensang (Anti-Minnesang). While his contemporary colleagues, the troubadours and other Minnesingers, propagated the ideals of courtly love, Neidhart turned the established order of how to present this topic on its head. He transferred the settings of his poems from courtly realms into an apparently rustic milieu, his central characters not comprising nobles, but peasants—or so it would seem. By using this device of changing the scenery to something so obviously inappropriate, he cunningly opened up a multitude of layers of meaning. Superficially, he turned a serious matter into something hilarious, thus entertaining his audience in an unexpected way, while in his songs village-simpletons try to succeed in the tricky realms of courtly love and, of course, fail. Furthermore, he provides sex and crime through erotic or even obscene incidents, funny arguments between mother and daughter about who gets to go out with the dashing knight, as well as churlish brawls or even outright violent fights between protagonists. Hidden underneath these layers, in the background, however, Neidhart offers severe criticism of the privileged classes of medieval society. The antagonists of his songs, the rural simpletons, he names “dörper”, which can be translated as “village dwellers” or peasants (and can be seen as the German counterpart of the French “vilain”, which literally means “village dweller”, but which obviously translates as “villain”). However, with closer inspection they are not what they seem at first sight. In employing a Low German term Neidhart had artfully coined a new word in his Bavarian sphere that he used as a cipher or code for something else entirely; with his songs he meant actually to address the in-crowd at court themselves, the audience of his songs—courtiers who overdress, behave pretentiously, and act against the virtues of moderation that should govern the noble classes. Many a listener may have choked on their own laughter when thinking about the texts. Neidhart only played the fool and rather held up a mirror to his audience.
Furthermore, Neidhart tended to classify his songs into “summer” and “winter” songs, according to which season he employed in the Natureingang (nature introduction) that opens nearly every song. Here he establishes an emotional backdrop for the lyrics: “Winter” symbolizes a melancholic atmosphere and is well suited to introducing topics that strongly refer to classical Minnesang, while descriptions of the approaching summertime are generally used for lighter subjects, often containing dance descriptions.
These various ingredients made a winning combination in Neidhart’s works. His songs were popular enough to survive him by far and his oeuvre and style of writing was transmitted in numerous manuscripts for the next 200 years. “A Neidhart” would come to be known as a generic term for his style and in late sources it is hardly distinguishable which parts were written by the “original Neidhart” and which were adaptions “in the style of Neidhart”. In fact it does not really matter. The reality is that the corpus of songs transmitted under the name of “Neidhart” is a treasure trove to us, because the music associated with his name is the best documented among the Minnesingers. The fragmentary manuscript which recording represents the earliest transmission of Neidhart melodies and is arguably the earliest source for music of German Minnesang in general.
The Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment (Frankfurt/Main, University Library, Ms. germ. oct. 18—dated to c.1300), one of the rare sources of music for Minnesang, comprises eight partly damaged pages of an originally larger manuscript, transmitting the remains of six Neidhart songs, of which five survive with melodies more or less intact. Owing to its poor state and its rather small compass this fragment was never counted among the major sources for Neidhart’s oeuvre. It is probably as a result of some bad press surrounding the manuscript’s scribe, however, that it has been neglected by scholars and performers alike. Only later was the value of this musical source acknowledged, but never has it been recorded or performed as a whole even though the melodies prove to be of great beauty and high musical quality. The manuscript was written in Low German regions—a feature that it shares with most of the other rare examples of musical transmission of Minnesang—so that the originally Middle High German texts are presented here in a “Low Germanised” version; a version that is neither truly Middle High German nor Middle Low German. This might have been a further factor contributing to the manuscript’s low prestige. Another distinctive feature of this source is its apparent proximity to actual performance. Corrections in the music and melodic variations in written-out repetitions provide vital clues as to how singers of the late thirteenth century dealt with such monophonic pieces.
The fragmentary nature of the source puts major obstacles in the way of a performance from the original. Thus, before actually working on the music a playable edition had to be produced from the surviving material. On the basis of some photography commissioned with the Frankfurt University Library a new transcription was made, the careful analysis of which helped find a playable version for all the songs. Comparison with concordances was used to fill in the gaps in a meaningful way in order to establish a complete version of music and text. The results and findings of this analysis and reconstruction were employed for the present recording and are to be published with the Verlag der Spielleute (Reichelsheim/ Germany) as the opening volume of a new series of editions on medieval music. It contains the first complete colour facsimile of the original source, a line-by-line transcription, and a playable edition with an extensive commentary in German and English to make this significant musical source available to scholars and performers.
The present CD is the first recording of the Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment in its current state, not only featuring all its melodies but also all its lyrics in the exact reading of the source. All Neidhart songs on this recording were taken from the said manuscript. Even though the source is only a fragment of a once larger manuscript and in its piecemeal state cannot have constituted a coherent performance repertoire, the surviving songs nonetheless form a well-balanced and varied programme. They show the distinctive trademarks of Neidhart’s oeuvre and touch on many aspects of his lyrical portfolio, featuring content, form, and musical modes typical to his work: “Sinc eyn gulden hoen”  and “Willekome eyn sommerweter suze”  represent the genre of light dance songs. “Mir ist ummaten leyde”  and “Summer unde winder” 3 are two very typical Neidhart songs that start out as almost classic Minnesang with the characteristic 180 degree turn to “dörper” topics after the first couple of strophes. “Allez daz den sumer”  and “Ich claghe de blomen”  stand for the grand love-lament that dwells on didactic and philosophical reflections about courtly love. The latter piece, which also features the most sweeping of all melodies within the source exhibiting a compass of almost two octaves, grants one a rare glimpse into the requirements of a professional singer of the time: the final strophe is a request for abatement of taxes. And even though in this source the above-mentioned “winter songs” prevail, the fragment contains at least one clear “summer song”.
Two examples of Minnesang by Neidhart’s contemporaries keep company with his pieces in the recording: “Guoten wib wol üch der eren”  by “Der tugendhafte Schreiber” (i.e. “the virtuous scribe”, a pseudonym)—one of the participants of the legendary Contest of Song on the Wartburg—provides classical Minnesang in its pure form as a contrast and backdrop for Neidhart’s modifications. Since the song is transmitted without its melody, a suitable tune was adapted from another Minnesang transmitted in the fourteenth-century Jenaer Liederhandschrift. “Vil wol gelopter got”  by the famous Walther von der Vogelweide—possibly a rival of Neidhart’s and likewise a fellow campaigner in the Wartburg Song Contest—only survives with a fragmentary melody. It concludes the programme thematically and musically and with a substitution of its missing middle part is—like “Guoten wib”—first recorded here.
The three-voice “Je muir, je muir”  by Adam de la Halle is thought of as an encore to the programme, giving an outlook on an age of polyphonic song-writing that already blossomed in France but from which the German Minnesang of Neidhart’s time was yet but far.
Because of their often rustic, erotic and violent content as well as the frequent occurrence of dance topics in Neidhart’s songs, they are nowadays commonly interpreted in a churlish, folk-like fashion with an emphasis on rhythm, percussion, and large orchestration—much as people generally assume pub songs and peasant dances must have sounded. (Since no music of these classes survives from the Middle Ages, however, this assumption of course also stays within the realm of speculation.) Nevertheless, Neidhart’s oeuvre is—just as classic Minnesang—part of the court culture and has nothing to do with peasant music. On the contrary, his songs lived through being comparable to the high art of his colleagues and by treating it ironically. Thus at least for the early transmission of Neidhart songs such as in the Frankfurt Fragment, there is nothing to suggest that his songs should be approached differently from how we assume other repertories of courtly love song were interpreted. The world invoked in Neidhart’s songs is an illusory world, a stage so to speak, with rustic elements only serving as allusions, specifically employed to generate certain effects. In a sense Neidhart’s oeuvre could be compared to the Baroque love for shepherds’ idylls, which also only quotes bucolic elements to stylise and idealise them. The songs from the early Neidhart sources are therefore much more indebted to irony than to horseplay. Consequently, Ensemble Leones only quotes the rustic milieu and shifts these quotations mainly to the instrumental accompaniment and the instrumental pieces. The singers approach the pieces via an intensive declamation of the texts and by superimposing subtle shades of irony on their interpretations where suitable, without trying to make peasant music out of Neidhart’s songs.
The instrumentation and composition of the ensemble reflects the aforementioned insights. Just as in classic Minnesang, Leones adopts a small instrumentation, with the songs interpreted either soloistically a cappella (“Ich claghe de blomen”), or with the singer accompanying himself (“Allez daz den sumer”), or accompanied by either one instrument (“Summer unde winder” and “Sinc eyn gulden hoen”) or two (“Mir ist ummaten leyde”, “Willekome eyn sommerweter”, “Guoten wib wol üch der eren” und “Vil wol gelopter got”), with the vielle (fiddle) serving as the main accompanying instrument.
The instrumental pieces of the programme were borrowed from contemporary compositions or other Neidhart sources and especially arranged for this recording. They act as “dividers” between the songs and carry a discreet rural flavour, conveyed through rhythmic, dance-like elements and the use of instruments such as the bagpipes. In doing so, however, they still never entirely leave the courtly domain.
Our thanks go to the parish of Binningen “Heilig Kreuz” for generously providing the church and community hall for the recording, and especially to Theo Ettlin (church musician), Christian Schaller (priest), Raymond Stalder (caretaker), and Reto Zimmermann (administrator); Frankfurt University Library and specifically Günter Kroll for granting access to the original of the Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment, for the photographs, and the permission to reprint; Baptiste Romain for the instrumental arrangements; Uri Smilansky for lending the German vielle; Kirsty Whatley for checking and correcting all English translations (including these acknowledgements); and Gabriele E. Lewon for planning, logistics and general niceness.
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