Edited because I wrote “Matteo DE Perugia” the entire way through the first time around. I suck.
Just a little season-appropriate music for you all to enjoy: Matteo da Perugia’s “Helas, avril”.
I first heard this piece when I was working for a Copenhagen sinfonietta in the autumn of 2010. The ensemble toured Sweden with a programme that included a re-composed version of da Perugia’s song. I had the responsibility for all the practicalities of the concerts, I was fresh out of the university and nervous that I would screw up somehow, but this song stopped me in my tracks and made me forget everything around me for a moment. I have returned to the piece several time since. It conveys such a beautiful sadness, and with that ancient tonality that always induces in me a sense of something distant and otherwordly. I regret that I’m not able to link to my favourite recording of the piece, namely that by ensemble Mala Punica. There’s a kind of modern sound to their interpretation of the song, and I miss that in the above recording which seems to strive towards a medieval atmosphere. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I do think that the modern sound and ensemble Mala Punica’s focus on the soloist’s voice do a good job at bringing out the secularity of the song, which is indeed a love song.
The lyrics present a persona who is infnitely sad despite the loveliness of the month of April, because he misses his beloved. As an earlier blog post betrays I have studied French medieval poetry a bit, and I remember learning that spring was frequently referred to by medieval European troubadours in their love songs as the season of love. I like how in “Helas avril” the joys of Spring are so directly contrasted by the inner life of the lovelorn protagonist.
You can read lyrics are, translated by Michel Chasteau:
April, alas, your sweet return has brought me
greater pain than I can well express,
seeing you so fair, so fresh and merry
bedecked with flowers, happy and carefree,
filled with scents of joy, while all I have
is memories of love, regrets and tears.
How eagerly would I go to meet sweet death
in this your season, ending thus my life
in defiance of Fate
and its power,
Since in your span I cannot see my lady,
And there is nothing I desire to see
apart from her
And that’s the truth
Your sight brings me the greater grief because
I feed distress wit inner agitation.
So do I pine, and must for ever pine
Until I see her noble form once more
And May will find me still complaining
if Mercy does not come to my assistance.
Apropos of modern interpretations of this song, the phrase “Hélas, avril” also appears in “La Javanaise” by the wonderful Serge Gainsbourg:
I have no idea if the lyrics are a reference to the 15th century song, but I like to think that they are. A casual medieval poetry quote would add even more swag to Gainsbourg than he already had, if that’s even possible.