Also Bernard de Ventadour, Bernat dei Ventadorn, and, in our times, the Master Singer.
Bernart de Ventadorn was one of the best-known troubadour composers, partly because so many of his works survive intact, partly because of his influence on the music of both troubadours (southern France) and trouvères (northern France), and partly because of the company he kept.
About 2600 troubadour poems survive, and only a tenth of those have music. Trouvère numbers are better—2100 poems with 1400 pieces of music. We have 45 of Bernart’s works, 18 of which have music, which is the largest number from a single (identified) composer.
The origins of troubadour music are unclear, although it seems possible that sources or influences include Arabic songs, which was known in France as early as the 9th century. Bernart is often credited with being the most important influence in the development of the trouvère tradition in northern France as well as that of the troubadours. He was well-known there and his melodies were widely circulated.
Bernart also had some impact on Latin literature. Boncampagno (c1165-after 1240), an Italian scholar, wrote about him in Antiqua metorica in 1215. Some of his songs survived in German texts, translated by Minnesingers such as Friedrich von Hüsen (c1150-c1190) and Dietmar von Aist (c1115-c1191). Some must also have been in English, because some of his best works were written at Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband’s court, Henry II of England (1133-1189), during Bernart’s short visit there in the 1150s.
Troubadours flourished until the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, which ferociously extinguished the high culture of Provence and Languedoc, destroying most of the troubadour music and poetry, and scattering the troubadours northward. Troubadour art had already spread north, thanks in part to the influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who took Bernart with her, first to the French court and then to England (from 1154-1155). Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), was a trouvère, which simply means that he was a troubadour who wrote in French rather than Provençal.
There are many stories about where Bernart came from, and the most likely is that he was born to a servant at the court of the Viscount of Ventadorn (now called Correze). Other stories are that he was the son of a kitchen scullion or a baker, that he was the son of a soldier rather than a nobleman.
He first worked for Viscount Eble II of Ventadorn (c1086-1155), from whom he learned the art of singing and writing, and then for the Duchess of Normandy (1105-1152).
Bernart composed his first poems to Eble II’s wife, Marguerite de Turenne (c1120-c1201). He declared his love for Marguerite and was forced to leave Ventadorn. He traveled first to Montluçon (about 90 miles northeast of Limoges, and perhaps 120 miles from Ventadorn) and then to Toulouse, another 30 miles west.
In Toulouse, he met Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who hired him. He followed her to England, staying in England only a year. He then returned to Toulouse, where he was employed by Raimon V (c1134-c1194), the Count of Toulouse.
Bernart ‘s preserved work dates from 1147 to 1180. There are 45 poems attributed to him, 18 of them with complete melodies, which is more than any other 12th century poet. Some of his songs, including his most famous, Quan vei l’aloete, show the melodic influence of Gregorian chant.
The fame of Quan vei l’aloete is what brought that same song change and mutilation—more than it might have suffered had it been obscure. But we have to be grateful because it’s due to these variations that modern scholars can piece together how the original might have sounded. For instance, we know that it originated in Occitan and there was also a version in Old French. A later generation knew it by its melody with another text, Plaine d’ire et de desconfort.
The initial melodic phrase of the song recalls the opening of a Kyrie (from the Vatican IX Mass Cum Jubilo). That’s interesting because the tune was given Latin words by Chancellor Philippe (c1160-1236) of Paris under the title Quisquis cordis et oculi, and the words change to detail the famous argument between the heart and the eye. This Latin version was sung all over Europe in monasteries.
There was also a French translation of the Latin text, Li cuers se vait de l’uiel plaignant, and a sacred version in the Mystery of St. Agnes, Seyner mil gracias ti rent. So many legends grew up around this song that Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) mentioned it in the 20th canto of Paradiso.
The song’s lyrics from Bernart are about love’s despair in the guise of a lark:
I see the lark in joy rise on its wings in the rays of the sun and then, oblivious, let itself fall. Because of the gladness that fills its heart, such great envy comes upon me to see it so joyful, and I wonder then that I do not rave and that my heart does not melt with desire.
Bernart formalized the chanson song form to allow sudden changes and ornaments. He popularized the trobar leu style, which was a delicate and cheerful style of song popular among troubadours. It defined the genre of courtly love poetry, and was imitated and reproduced throughout the 150 years of troubadour activity.
Bernart was known for portraying his idealized woman first as a divine agent and then suddenly as Eve, the original cause of mankind’s downfall. He often portrays this woman as clever and witty along with wicked. Remember how he got kicked out of Ventadorn? It’s nice that he was able to romanticize his experience. It could have gone rather badly wrong had he been less talented.
Bernart’s popularity has persisted into our times. There was a BBC television series called The Devil’s Crown in the late 70s that featured Bernart. Ezra Pound (1885-1972), the American expatriate poet, had a lifelong fascination with the trouvères and troubadours of Provence and southern France, and quoted from Bernart’s Can vei la lauzeta.
Late in his life, Bernart went to Dordogne (about 180 miles north of Toulouse, perhaps 90 miles east of Bordeaux), where he entered a monastery. He probably died there.
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