It’s early in the 14th century, and the world is a mess. Flattery helps upward-climbing office seekers get a position from someone in power. Avarice is all but universal. And other vices rule the world as well. About 1310 a government employee somewhere in the middle level of the Parisian court, Gervaise de Bus, wrote a poetic narrative cast as an extended attack on all the vices prevalent in both church and court. He used as the central figure of this tale a horse, fallow colored, named Fauvel, the embodiment of all the principal vices, a bestial figure representing the worst of humanity. The book apparently enjoyed considerable success. Several years after the appearance of the first manuscript, some evidently very wealthy person commissioned an extraordinary manuscript that contained an enlarged version of the text (apparently with the involvement of other authors), one that also contained 167 musical compositions and a lavish collection of illuminated miniatures illustrating the story.
In 1990 a team of musicians of the Boston Camerata prepared a performance edition with a plot drawn from one of the main streams of the work, supplemented by roughly two dozen of the musical selections from the manuscript (which resides today in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, HERE), and by a series of projected reproductions of illuminations in the manuscript to illustrate the tale. This was the first of Camerata’s continuing series of “story-telling programs,” one that has been remounted a number of times in the near three decades since its conception. At first the work was prepared for video and recording; in 1999 it began to be performed in concerts with Joel Cohen’s English translation. That production has been revived a number of times, with the projected illuminations from the manuscript added most recently at the Boston Early Music Festival, in 2011.
The 2018 production of Fauvel’s tale on Sunday afternoon at the First Church in Boston began with a preface to the actual story in a series of musical numbers setting forth the political situation in 14th-century France: a reminder that Fortune reigns supreme (this to the Latin poem that opens Orff’s Carmina burana, but with the original Medieval tune; another Carmina burana poem not set by Orff drawing attention to the fact that avarice is everywhere; and four other musical numbers describing bad kings and bad bishops.
This sets up the narrative of Fauvel, divided into three “acts” (played without intermission): A series of songs establishing the character of Fauvel; Fauvel’s pursuit of Lady Fortune in marriage, which she evades by suggesting that Vain Glory would be a perfect mate for him. The closing section presents a lavish feast and wedding festival, including a noisy Charivari (traditionally designed to keep the newlyweds awake all night after the ceremony) for Fauvel and Vain Glory. In the end, heavenly forces are summoned to aid “the faithful people of France” in a defense against the crimes of Fauvel.
Four of the six Camerata performers were veterans of the recording, and all were superb in pitch, rhythm, diction, and counterpoint, not to mention characterizing the basic (and generally simple) acting moods and gestures required. Artistic director Anne Azéma sang the part of Fortune, as well as other songs, and played the hurdy-gurdy. Joel Cohen played the lute, guitern, and percussion, while carrying the tale forward in his lively narration, a free translation of the Old French text, while also occasionally singing. The excellent Timothy Leigh captured the character of Fauvel, by turns obsequious or arrogant, while Michael Barrett sang both as a vigorous participant in the narrative songs and, eventually, in drag as Vain Glory for the marriage with Fauvel. Steven Lundahl played the slide trumpet with various fanfares called for in the tale, as well as the sackbut and recorders. Shira Kammen played medieval fiddle and harp, the former almost non-stop and without printed music, quite breathtakingly playing the tunes of the monophonic songs or a drone to support them, and the tenor part of the polyphonic music. Nine singers from a course at the Longy School of Music of Bard College also took part in many of the monophonic songs, while a group of students from Brandeis contributed to the hullaballoo of the charivari.
The original characterized Fauvel’s name in a common Medieval way, building an acrostic on each letter of his name. The letters become the initials of a list of six vices, all of which he demonstrates. Joel Cohen’s translation goes:
The first “F” stands for flattery
Who rules the world, as all can see.
In our poem’s hypothesis
The “A” is meant for Avarice;
Unfaithfulness, then Villany
Then Envy, and then Laxity.
These six vices I’ve just named
Are by the name “Fauvel” well framed.
Fauvel’s an animal, a beast
No honor to him, please, no feast.
The translation on the whole comes close to the original French, though a few modernizations have been made for the American context. On Sunday we heard a very few well-received updates designed to connect the political strife and confusion of the early 14th century with that of the aging 21st century: a reference to “fake news” and to a passage in which Fauvel sits on the throne, described as having an orange mane.
The show runs roughly an hour and a half without intermission, but the musical variety and the often-witty translation of the lively polemic text make it flow smoothly, even though the musical numbers are in Latin or Old French (the program provides translations). Of course the performance cannot hope to include more than a small percentage of the 167 compositions included in the manuscript, but the selection included ranges widely in mood, evoking anger and comedy, frustration, scatological attacks and devout prayers. The selection of passages from the text of the manuscript and the musical content provides a vivid and varied range of scenes that entertain and delight the audience. The Roman de Fauvel is both a literary and a musical treasury. It is the first collection of music that includes representatives of the new Ars Nova style, including motets by Philippe de Vitry, as well as songs that reflect folk traditions and liturgical music as well. The Camerata performance takes us back seven centuries for a satisfying visit to the past while also reminding us how little has changed.
Today, of course, only people knowledgeable about 14th-century culture, both literary and musical, remember the name of Fauvel. But it is worth recalling that, in its own time, the story generated a common English phrase: One seeking a favor might be said to “curry Fauvel,” the fallow horse who enjoyed the treatment. But as time passed and the character was gradually forgotten, though, in English, the phrase retains its meaning without using a forgotten name. Today, those who eagerly seek a benefit by sweet-talking the potential granter of it is said to “curry favor.” Plus ça change….
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.