Love and war during the Crusades

The sounds of the 12th-century Occitan troubadours filled the sanctuary of Country Club Christian Church last Friday as Ignea Strata presented an hour-long program of narration and song celebrating the art of these troubadours of the Middle Ages.

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“Love and War: Music From the time of the Crusades” featured the work of several troubadours, as well as some French motets and other polyphonic chants that reflect the politically complicated and tragic Albigensian Crusade. Also known as the Cathar Crusade, it was sanctioned by Pope Innocent III around 1208 against the people of Languedoc in southern France who were predominately Cathars, Christians who did not espouse the same beliefs as those sanctioned by Roman Catholicism. The campaign against them and the complications of the religious and political machinations that caused the deaths of thousands are recounted in the texts sung and spoken in Ignea Strata’s thoughtfully wrought program.

The theme of the program was set with the first song “Bem Degra de Chantar” (“I Should Refrain from Singing”), in which the troubadour laments “Remembering how grim things were/seeing how hard things are/And pondering the by-and-by,/I have every cause to cry.” Sung both at the beginning and at the end of the program by Leslee Wood, the lament established the frame of the narrative to follow, in which the members of the group narrated the story of the crusade.

Ignea Strata, whose members are Wood, Lucy Conklin, Joanna Ehlers, and Kirsten Hyde, produced a stunningly unified sound, perfect for the chant and chant-like elements of this program. While each singer was featured in several powerful solo moments, and each had distinctive vocal features and characteristics, the group’s true power comes with their sublime execution of a blended, cohesive sound. In numerous variations of the polyphonic chant, sometimes one or two voices would sustain a pedal tone sound around which the other voices would weave lyrics and melody, creating a homogeneous but rich and multi-layered sound.

The singers often accompanied themselves on the vielle (played by Lucy Conklin), a medieval stringed instrument a bit like a violin, or the small harp played by Leslee Wood, or various percussive instruments played by Ehlers and Hyde. Separated by narrative moments, the program proceeded through interesting perspectives on the events offered by the troubadours, soldiers, civilians, and clergy. The moments of spoken narration were welcome and useful although they were occasionally difficult to hear in the echoing sanctuary of the church, which was otherwise perfect for the songs themselves.

The Occitan troubadours were evidently quite prolific in their production of verse, but some melodies have been lost, so several tunes have been “re-imagined,” primarily by Leslee Wood in keeping with the known compositional choices of the troubadours of the time.

This program is a fine and commendable addition to Ignea Strata’s work. They offer a unique musical and intellectual challenge for their audiences and this program particularly opens a window into little-heard but beautiful music.

REVIEW
Ignea Strata
“Love and War: Music From the Time of the Crusades”
Reviewed on Friday, May 4, 2018
Country Club Christian Church
6101 Ward Pkwy, Kansas City, MO 64113
For more information: www.igneastrata.com