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Code to the Middle Ages

img  Tobias

Of course, even the best of times have their ups and downs and yet it could hardly be called over-exagerating when claiming that 2006 was a great year for the Spindlers: Deeply involved in one of the biggest historical projects of the last couple of years, which culminated in twelve months of exhibitions on German mediaeval history and entire cities being remodelled in ancient fashion, the family and their renowned band, the “Capella Antiqua Bambergensis”, enjoyed a well-deserved round of renewed interest and publicity. Most of which can be put down to them highlighting the “Codex Manesse”, the single-most-important collection of Minnesang with an affectionately packaged and extremely recommendable double CD. If you’re interested in mediaeval music and its history – read on!

So, what is Minnesang?

“Minnesang” is a term, which is hard to translate. After all, even the most famous German poet of the middle ages, Walther von der Vogelweide, couldn’t help but wonder, what it actually was. Still, everybody (including Wikipedia) seem to concur that it’s a sort of hybrid word between “Sang” (meaning “chant”) and “Minne” (a hopelessly romantic ideal of love and wooing for it - often unrequited, mostly impossible and almost always with an unhappy ending). From the early 12th century until the end of the 14th, this style was immensely popular and carried from town to town by a league of honourable artists, which were (surprise, surprise) referred to as “Minnesänger”. The songs they sang were the heart of their performance, but most of them lacked a written documentation. So, if the respective artists died, so did their “hits”. Rüdiger and Johannes Manesse from Zurich were among the many who regretted this – but the first to take action. This was somewhere around 1280 or so.

The collection takes shape

In a strenous, expensive and time-consuming process (which meant that Johannes wasn’t even able to see the finished book),.they started compiling the main musicians and their most famous pieces, carefully dedicating a chapter of the “codex” to each and introducing them with a painting. 140 singers and their oeuvre have thus been saved and even if the collection can neither claim completeness nor total freedom from subjective choices, it remains an immensely valuable treasure chest of information – in fact, about half of what we know from that time in musical terms has been put to paper here.

Digital times – let the music play!

After its inception, the codex travelled from one royal house to the next, its exact whereabouts remain unclear. It is only thanks to a few lucky coincidences and the tireless efforts of a librarian (Karl Ignaz Trübner) that it ended up in Heidelberg – where the Schindlers were more than happy to pick it up. Their first concern was to secure a digital copy of the beautifully layouted work, so it could not be lost again on the one hand and be made available to everyone interested on the other. Now, you can either check out the codex on the second CD of the “Codex Manesse” release or peruse the internet pages of the Heidelberg University, which allow you to look at each page of the manuscript.

Secondly, they were keen on spreading the word about this marvel. To this end, they contacted the top of the crop radio play writers in Germany, as well as Christian Brückner, the German dubbing voice of Robert de Niro. His deep and sonorous recital connects imaginatively composed fictional dialogues, aural biographies of some of the most famous Minnesänger, historical facts of the era and snippets from those mysterious and timeless songs, which have lost absolutely nothing of their bittersweet power. In order to drown in them completely, turn to the second disc, which features the Capella Antiqua in full flow: Thirteen tracks, ranging from the eternally sad “Ich muoz klagen” (which is the lead-in motive of the play) to the psychedelic rock-apporximation of the famous Palästinalied by von der Vogelweide.

Let the music do the talking

While the radio play is a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s worth of popular history, the music album is a breathtaking and atmospheric sampler, which awakens curiosity and the urge to learn more. If there is a negative aspect at all, it consists in the fact that the extensive booklet and all texts are merely available in German. But then again, the package makes sense for the music alone. And even the best releases have their ups and downs.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Capella Antiqua Bambergensis
Homepage: The Codex Manesse

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