Bring on the troubadours

Paul Levine presents a show of medieval songs and poetry at the W.T. library.


Paul Levine of West Tisbury was never all that taken by poetry. He attributes this to having teachers in high school who were something less than inspiring. Besides, his natural inclination was toward science. Levine would go on to spend a distinguished career teaching and researching genetics at Harvard University, Washington University, St. Louis Medical School, and Stanford University. His interest in poetry came about relatively late in life.

About eight years ago, when Levine was 83, he and his wife were vacationing in a small village in Provence in southern France. Each year the village celebrated the life of the local 18th century poet, Victor Rieu. Aside from the parades, the costumes and the pageantry, what most intrigued Levine about Rieu was that he wrote and spoke in Occitan, an ancient language that is still spoken by many people in the south of France; Occitan is a sister language of Italian, Spanish, and French.

According to “Poems from the South of France, translated by William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden,” “In the 12th and 13th centuries, and continuing into the 14th, the region that we know as the South of France was home to the troubadours — poets whose lyrics were heard from the Pyrenees to the Alps. These poets did not speak French, but Occitan. The word ‘troubadour’ meant ‘to find,’ ‘to invent,’ or ‘to compose,’ hence the troubadour is one who finds, invents, or composes.“

Levine, who had a basic interest in medieval history to begin with, said he began exploring the countryside, climbing up to castles, talking to people, and listening to the language. He became fascinated by the troubadours, enchanted with the ancient poetry and music, and an admirer of the society in medieval Occitania. The Occitans were less feudal than the regions in the north of France, and women had more rights. They were ruled by a count, and Muslims and Jews were included in the government.

The first troubadour was said to have been Guilhem IX, the father of Catherine of Aquitaine. Some were to the manor born, others were more common … one of the foremost troubadours was a baker. Guilhem spawned some 400 troubadours over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries. The vast majority of these were male, but there were a small percentage of females as well, or trobairitz (trobairisesas, pl.) as they they were called. And it was the work of the troubadours and trobairisesas that would later inspire Dante, Petrarch, and even Ezra Pound.

The poems in “Poems from the South of France,” according to the introduction, range from “pious hymns to the Virgin to heartfelt celebrations of the joys of warfare. The most prominent theme was sexual desire. The poetry compels us to recognize that the members of fashionable society felt free, when they chose to ignore the strictures of the church regarding sexuality.” Levine said there were poems that were laments, satires, riddles, polemics, even biographies.

When Levine returned home from Provence, he attended some courses in the poetry and songs of the troubadours at Stanford University, taught by Professor Marisa Galvez. He developed into something of a scholar in his own right of the poems, songs, and music of the 12th and 13th century. And on Sunday, July 15, Levine will be presenting “World of the Troubadours and Trobairitz” — his eighth such show — at the West Tisbury library.

Ed Merck, who plays recorder in the show, said, “Paul does the research on the show and finds the poetry, and usually there’s a very sketchy tune that comes with the poem, and by sketchy I mean what you might find in a jazz fake book … really just a few notes, and that tells you a lot about the informality and the improvisatory nature of the music.”

The format of the show begins with each poem being recited in English by Island residents: Jenny Allen, John Alley, Christopher Carrick, Jeanette Demeestère, Kanta Lipski, Hunter Moorman, Arnie Reisman, Susanna Sturgis, and Gaston Vadasz. Following the reading of the poems in English, each poem will be sung in the original Occitan language by soprano Shannon Rose McAuliffe and tenor Daniel Gosten. They will be accompanied by Richard Maloney on the lute, Jan Elliott and Ed Merck on recorders, and Lisa Esperson on percussion.

In an age of movies, TV, and social media, it will do us all a world of good to proverbially sit around a 14th century campfire and enjoy a timeless selection of poetry, songs, and music.