The King Manor Museum in Jamaica, Queens is an old house – the earliest part dates from the 1750s – but not a third as ancient as the music that rang out there Friday night. Even amid New York City’s thriving Early Music scene you’d be hard pressed to find anything earlier than the 13th-century songs of the French trouvères, secular musicians and songwriters whose lyrics and melodies have almost miraculously survived in centuries-old printed collections. The musicians of the small ensemble Tenet benefited from the superb acoustics of the manor’s small concert hall, presenting five sets of folk songs on themes of love, presented by the 5 Boroughs Music Festival.
The opening number burst forth with starkly beautiful polyphony from Adam de la Halle, a hunchbacked composer from the second half of the 13th century. Here and throughout the concert, Tenet’s three primary voices shone. Jolle Greenleaf’s soprano rang clear as a bell. A subtle melancholy air rode on mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett’s darker tones. And tenor Jason McStoots’s strong satiny voice filled the hall with grace and, when called for, humor.
Shira Kammen, Robert Mealy, and Charles Weaver backed them up and played a few instrumental numbers on vielle (a predecessor to the violin), harp, and lute. The instruments’ woody organic sounds sang plaintively in solo contexts, and merged into velvety tapestries when played together. Remarkably, the three musicians had improvised all their parts, as only the words and melodies have been preserved, but the results were convincing. I could easily imagine I was in a drawing room (or tavern) in Paris, 800 or more years ago, reveling in the then relatively new tradition of secular song.
The songs ranged from ribald to chivalrous, risible to romantic. Greenleaf sang an old-style ballad called “Volez-vous que je vous chant” that would sound familiar to anyone who’s heard the Childe Ballads or listened to Joan Baez. Brackett’s rendition of the slightly surreal “Aussi comme unicorne sui” glowed with bright warmth: “I am like the unicorn / whom contemplation stuns / as he gazes at the maiden…Love holds the key to this prison.”
Greenleaf delivered an ecstatic and melodically dramatic vision of love in the outdoors (“En avril au tems pascour”); the instrumentalists showed off in a raucous “Estampie” (no translation needed); and McStoots led the ensemble in a delightful and funny lay in which a woman complains about a boorish husband who “does nothing but amass gold and silver / and keeps me dying of frustration constantly / because he won’t let me have any fun.”
The vivid scenario of “L’autrier par la matinee” would fit right in with today’s #MeToo movement: “I’d rather have my shepherd Pete / than a rich guy who’s a liar,” sings a shepherdess besieged by a randy knight. The knight gives up on seductive words and tries physical force, relenting only when she calls for trusty Pete.
Lyrical high stakes made “Dites, seignor” one of the evening’s many highlights, with McStoots and Greenleaf trading verses – in contrast with the lighter fare of “My husband is really jealous” and its answer, “Souffres, maris (Be patient, husband).” Another gripping number, accompanied by mournful double-stops on the vielle, featured Greenleaf as a wife sitting quietly reading a book and getting that knock on the door, the one all servicemen’s spouses fear to hear.
The program ended upbeat, with a vision of dancing lovers and an accelerating account of the troubles of a long-suffering husband whose final plaint is that his prideful wife “even forces me / to clean house on Sundays, / the wench!”
It’s ironic that amid all the ancient music available to us, some of the oldest of all is the most resonant, reminding us how little some things really change. People still laugh and complain and mourn and sing about the same things as ever, and the ancient tunes themselves strikes chords in us. The contemporary folk music scene and the Early Music scene intersect more than you might think. Tenet proved it decisively with this program – and with such sublime musicianship that I hope they preserve it for future concerts (they performed it again last night at Christ Church Riverdale in the Bronx) and in a recording studio.