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Tristan & Iseult: The Harper's Tale

an original bardic musical storytelling performance piece
written by Sondra Bromka and John Bromka
for performance as Bells & Motley Consort

"Tristan & Iseult - potion music" photo by Ted Genagon, August 1999

A Brief History and Introductory Remarks:

A great many early versions of the Tale of Tristan and Iseult have come down to us from the 12th century, from the time of the troubadours, and of the French Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and of her famous Courts of Love. It was a time of great discussion on the nature, meanings, and many faces of love, and of the shaping of the very concept of romantic love. For there had always existed arranged marriages, and of course lust, but that century newly opened the poetic idea of transcendent love - love beyond the bounds of reason. And the human experience has not been the same ever since.

In the Middle Ages, this most favorite of stories would have been offered in the oral tradition as an evenings' entertainment, enriching many pleasant hours round the fire. Forward it would wind, with the twists and turns, mysterious actions, and interlacing cross-currents of a soap opera, holding rapt listeners of all ages. As with many a good story, at its conclusion it left its listeners with many unanswered questions, in this case, questions about the varied faces of love. Our challenge as modern storytellers is to reduce this four-hour journey to an understandable, poetic, and moving essence that remains true to its original spirit, but accessible for today's audiences, venues, and cultural needs. Of special importance: despite an abbreviated form, we wish to leave modern audiences with those unanswered questions and mysteries that will enrich their own life experience. (We have noted that too many modern versions seek easy resolution and clarity in deference to brevity.)

The origins of the story are actually much older than even the 12th century, harkening back to the time of the Arthurian legends, in which Tristan, Cornwall, and Brittany all play a part. Listeners can use their impressions of these related tales to evoke the setting.

We also draw from musical sources to enrich the setting and the story. There exists a rich legacy of Medieval material originally written to accompany this tale. This reflects the Bardic style of storytelling (that is to say, storytelling accompanied by music) and also attests to the popularity of this story among composing musicians. The musical pieces we have included range from the time of the 12th century troubadours, then backward to a few centuries earlier, when Tristan is said to have lived. There are also pieces as far forward in time as the 14th century, when the story continued to be told in the courts of Europe, and finally, pieces from the anonymous traditional realm.

The instruments we use to tell the story:

We begin and end with the Celtic harp, distinguised from other harps by its wire strings, for this is a Celtic story that takes place in the lands both north and south of the English Channel. The action takes place in Cornwall, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany, the northwestern corner of France, very different culturally from the rest of France because of its own distict Celtic origins.

The rest of the music is performed on the gut-strung Gothic Bray Harp, which was the harp that travelled throughout France and the rest of Europe in the hands of storytellers during the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. The brays give the harp its distinctive sound. These are little blocks of wood marching up the soundboard, lightly touching upon the vibrating strings to give them a buzzing or braying sound. The Welsh people likened it to bees.

Also featured is the Nyckelharpa, a bowed fiddle that goes back to the Middle Ages, and is still played today for traditional music in Sweden. In Germany they called it a Schl?idel, meaning a fiddle with keys, similar to the hurdy gurdy, which is also from that time.

Finally, there is the tenor recorder and pennywhistle, or feadog, the first being a wind instrument of the courts, and the second of the Celtic countryside.

The Music: Suite des Montaignes- Breton Gavotte, anonymous traditional
Sea Invocation- Isle of Man, anonymous traditional
Ne Vus Sans Mei, Ne Mei Sans Vus- Marie de France, 12th c.
Lai de Chevrefeuille- attributed to Tristan
Lamento di Tristan/la Rotta- anon.Italian, 14th c.


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