Heinrich Laufenburg – a forgotten poet, mystic and Minnesänger

Heinrich Laufenberg lived from about 1390 to 1460 in the Swiss region of Aargau, in Southern Germany and in Alsace. During is lifetime he composed a large body of songs and religious prose. Most of his work was preserved for posterity in one specific manuscript in the Strasbourg library, which was destroyed in a fire in 1870. Luckily a partial transcript of this manuscript was made before the fire, so that some of Laufenbergs work has survived to this day.

Laufenbergs surviving songs are of great interest both musically and textually. In one song Laufenberg praises Mary mother of god in artful poetry, in a lullaby he ask Jesus to protect a sleeping babe, in a third song he describe heaven’s kingdom in colourful detail.

The program “Königreich des Himmels – the kingdom of heaven” presents songs that have not been heard for the past 500 years. Laufenbergs lyric songs are framed by virtuosic instrumental music of is time. The program paints a detailed and colourful picture of the late medieval era, brought to life by the ensemble Dragma with authenticity, verve and sensuality.

A bestiary is a medieval manuscript depicting animals and mythical creatures. The illustrations are always linked with written descriptions of the animals. Neither the pictures nor the texts are necessarily realistic, but are destined to enlighten the medieval reader as to his role in the medieval world. About 50 bestiaries from the 12th and 13th centuries have survived: a large trove of beautiful, fascinating, and at times even strange pictures and texts.

The medieval interest in animals and mythical creatures was not limited to the visual and written arts. At the same time that the bestiaries were being compiled, medieval composers were producing uncounted pieces that describe these same beasts from a musical point of view. The compositions are often musical jewels, combining artful poetry with engaging melodies. In one of the pieces, “Python” by Guillaume des Machaut, the composer likens the less pleasing attributes of his beloved lady to the seven heads of the mythical snake. Another piece, “Ung lion say” describes a beautiful and wise lion holding watch in the garden of joy.

The program “Song of Beasts” combines the medieval pictures with texts and music, enfolding a modern audience in this fascinating mediveal world of verbal, visual and aural imagery. In the course of the evening, various mythical and real animals, such as the panther, the viper, the phoenix, the unicorn and the basilisk are introduced. The ensemble recites medieval descriptive texts taken from the bestiaries about each animal, the texts are underlayed with instrumental music of the time. The musicians perform both renowned and less well known medieval pieces about beasts. The musical and theatrical performance is enhanced by the projection of animated pictures carefully chosen from the medieval bestiaries. In smaller venues, a portable screen is used for the projection, in larger venues, the in-house technical equipment is put to use.

The program paints a multifacetted, moving and in-depth portrait of the medieval bestiaries, allowing a glimpse into a long lost medieval mindset.



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By the 12th century, the southern regions of the German speaking lands had developed into the center of classical Minnesong. In the Swiss region, the movement was particularly strong and lasted well into the 14th century. Many of the renowned Minnesingers carry names of Swiss towns in their coat of arms, and it was in this region that the greatest effort was made to collect and preserve the songs for posterity. The most important and comprehensive source of Minnesang is the Codex Manesse, a collection of songs by 138 different minnesingers, each introduced with a beautiful miniature. The manuscript was produced between 1300 and 1340 in Zürich, probably commissioned by the Manesse family, who also lend the manuscript its name: in one of the songs documented here, Johannes Hadlaub praises the brothers Manesse and commends their laudable effort in collecting the songs for the manuscript.

While there are many sources for the texts, the melodies to which these texts should be sung have not been as well preserved. Only few and fragmented melodies have survived to this day, some via obscure pathways. Ensemble Dragma has taken it upon itself to hunt for and collect the surviving melodies, reuniting them with the original texts. For texts which have seemingly lost their corresponding melodies, the ensemble has studied the parallel repertory of French and Occitan Minnesong (trobadors and trouvères) and well as the German “Sangspruchdichtung”, searching for possible contrafacts. After painstaking but rewarding work, the ensemble is now able to present a fascinating and colourful program of long forgotten songs firmly rooted in Swiss tradition.

A musical banquet

Many medieval pieces focus on food and drink – some use it as a metaphor, others describe feasts, revels and their accompanying debauchery – this program brings these pieces of different styles together in a riveting, moving and varied program.

The earliest repertoire focusing on the subject are the drinking songs transmitted in the Carmina Burana Manuscript, especially the secularised sequences «Vinum bonum et suave» und «Victimae novali zynke». Wine continues to be a subject of interest, being protrayed in various motets from Paris in the 13th century: these praise the quality of French Wine, particularly those from Auxerre and recount the wild revels and sumptuous feasts of the Parisian clerics in the country farms (auberges) around Paris. One of the most famous motets uses the tenor «Fraise nouvelle» (fresh strawberries), as the underlay for a detailed description of the Parisian market, another motet tells of the singer‘s craving for brined pork. Adam de la Halle regals the listener with the tale of the lovers Robin and Marion enjoying a picknick with small luscious pastries.

Italian composers also enjoyed the subject matter – many 14th and 15th century pieces survive transmitting recipes used to prepare typical Italian delicacies, for instance a caccia by Antonio Zachara da Teramo, giving the ingredients for a salsa verde combining fish and mustard or the erotic song explaining how to make a lasagne: «De la mia farina faccio le mie lasagne». An entertaining note is introduced in an anonymous song featuring a hungry mouse who dreams of pastries and capons, but has to subsist on old bread and turnips instead.

In the 15th century the French composer Dufay composed «Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys» in which the singer laments his departure from Laon “I am bowed down from the weight of nuts, as I cannot find any beans or peas“ and Gilles Binchois composed «Je ne vis onques» which was presumably performed at the famed pheasant feast in 1454.

The final part of the concert features the Spanish repertoire of the 14th to 16th century, such as pieces by Juan Encina, anonymous compositions from the Cancionero di Palacio and the vocal and instrumental ensaladas, the title translates as „salad“.