Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Sequentia celebrates its 40th anniversary in March 2017




Katja Zimmermann

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Seth Cooper
Seth Cooper Arts Inc.
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The Grail, the Knight and the Poet

Musical reflections on Perceval (Chrétien de Troyes, ca. 1190) and Parzival (Wolfram von Eschenbach, ca. 1210)

Katarina Livljanic voice
Benjamin Bagby voice, harp
Elizabeth Gaver vielle
Norbert Rodenkirchen flutes


The powerful story of the Knight and the Grail probably has its roots in the indigenous cultures of medieval Europe, where it lived in oral tradition until being set in verse – during the late 12th century – as the story of the naive boy/knight Perceval. In his quest to become a chevalier, Perceval visits the suffering Fisher-King but neglects to ask the meaning of the silent procession he witnesses: a magnificent vessel called the Grail and a bleeding lance. This pivotal moment, this question left unasked, was first captured in French verse by the poet Chrétien de Troyes, writing at the illustrious court of Marie de Champagne, and started a literary tradition of adaptations and sequels – most notably by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach – which continued throughout the Middle Ages and into our own time. The principal images of this story: the suffering of women in a society of warriors (the death of Perceval’s abandoned mother Herzeloyde and the lament of Sigune, a dead knight’s lover); the Grail, the bleeding lance and the unasked question; and Perceval’s deep contemplation of his beloved’s face in the form of three drops of blood fallen on fresh snow, are found reflected in poetry and song throughout the 13th century.

Our programme presents performances  – in recitation and chant – of key scenes from the romances Perceval ou le conte du Graal, by Chrétien de Troyes, and the slightly later German re-telling of the same story, Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. These will be interspersed with solo song and instrumental music from the same period. The accompanying songs, performed in medieval French, German, Latin and Occitan, amplify and reflect on the story’s themes.

Translations of the sung/recited texts will be video-projected during the performance.

The Pieces

Vrou Herzeloyd diu rîche (extrait de Parzival, ca. 1210)
Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170 - ca. 1220)

Der Ritter (pièce instrumentale)

Lors vit devant lui en un val (extrait de Perceval, ca. 1190)
Chrétien de Troyes (fl. fin du 12ème siècle)

Atressi con Persevaus (canso de trobador)
Rigaud de Berbezilh (fl. fin du 12ème siècle)

Kievrefuel (pièce instrumentale)

Alrêrst nu âventiurt ez sich! (extrait de Parzival, ca. 1210)
Wolfram von Eschenbach

Mit iamer ûf den toten (extrait de Jüngerer Titurel, ca. 1270)
Albrecht von Scharfenberg (fl. fin du 13 ème siècle)

Lasse! fait el, malaüreuse (extrait de Perceval)
Chrétien de Troyes

Künec Artûs (pièce instrumentale)

Welt ir nu hoeren war sî komn Parzivâl der Wâleis? (extrait de Parzival), Wolfram von Eschenbach

Notes on the Pieces

Our programme begins with the famous scene from Wolfram’s Parzival, Vrou Herzeloyd diu rîche, in which the innocent boy Parzival – who has been kept by his mother from learning about chivalry and fighting – meets three armed knights in the forest. Thinking they must be gods, he asks how he can become like them, and is instructed to visit King Arthur. The boy’s mother, Herzeloyde, already having lost her husband and two other sons to knightly combat, is determined to protect Parzival from any contact with chivalry. But now he is determined to depart on his quest, and as he leaves home his mother dies of a broken heart.

The instrumental music in this programme is reconstructed using instrumental structures and modal models (both German and French) of the period. In the pieces Der Ritter, Kievrefuel and Künec Artûs, we hear the instrumental sounds of bowed strings (fiddle), plucked strings (harp) and winds (flutes), well-known to minstrels of the late 12th century.

In a central scene from Perceval, Lors vit devant lui en un val, Chrétien describes young Perceval’s encounter with the mysterious Grail and the bleeding lance, carried in solemn procession before the young warrior when he is received in the castle of the ailing Fisher-King. Thinking it rude to question his host, Perceval neglects to ask about this mystery, a simple question which would release the king from his suffering. The subsequent evening of polite conversation and delicious food & drink – interrupted by the Gail and lance again passing by – will be regretted by Perceval for years to come.

In the following canso by the trobador Rigaud de Berbezilh, Atressi con Persevaus, the poet makes reference to this famous scene, only now it is the lover, lost in thoughts of the beloved’s beauty, who forgets to speak. This song contains the first datable mention of the Grail and the lance, proof that the story has existed in oral tradition before Chrétien’s masterful retelling was created in ca. 1190.

In the next scene, from Wolfram’s version of the story (Alrêrst nu âventiurt ez sich!), Parzival has left the Fisher-King’s castle and deep in the forest comes across a beautiful young woman, sitting in a linden tree and cradling the body of a dead knight. She sings a lament (Mit iamer ûf den toten) for her dead lover, Schionatulander. This lament of the girl, Sigune, is found in Albrecht von Scharfenberg’s monumental Jüngerer Titurel, one of the many later ‘continuations’ of the Parzival/Perceval story which proliferated in France and Germany. The melody, added to the manuscript by a later hand, is the only known notated tune for such a romance (the other sung scenes are reconstructions).

After her lament concludes, Perceval and the girl begin to talk (Ensin son doel de ce menoit) and she inquires about his evening with the Fisher-King. In a sharp dialogue, she learns that he did not ask about the Grail and the lance, and she berates him, revealing that his name is not Perceval le Gallois but Perceval l’Infortunté, and that she is in fact his cousin. She predicts that misfortune will come to him and to others.

In another important scene from the story (Welt ir nu hoeren war sî komn Parzivâl der Wâleis?), Parzival is riding alone through the forest and must spend the night outside in a snowstorm. In the morning, he sees how a stray falcon attacks some wild geese, causing one wounded bird to shed three drops of blood on the freshly-fallen snow. As he contemplates the drops of blood, Parzival falls into a trance and sees there the face of his beloved Cundwîrâmûrs (conduire amours): flushed cheeks and a full red mouth, set in a perfect white face.

The image of the beloved’s face and body, expressed through the erotic power of the colors red and white, has long been used in love poetry. One of the Champenois trouvères, Gace Brulé (who may have known Chrétien at the court of Marie de Champagne) often used this imagery in his chansons (Chanter m’estuet ireement); and in Germany we find a strong tradition, even within the church, of singing surprisingly erotic texts from the Song of Songs, such as Dilectus meus candidus et rubicundus (from the cathedral of Regensburg). Parzival’s reverie in the snow is the ultimate expression of the chivalric ideal of love-service and devotion, finding its spiritual reflection in the Latin version of King Solomon’s great canticle of physical desire.

On a more mundane level, the Parzival story – having become popular and widespread throughout Europe by the end of the 13th century – entered the ranks of all great romances in history. In a lighthearted dance-lay, Ich lobe ein wîb, the German poet Tannhäuser includes Parzival, Blanchiflur, Gawan and other Arthurian characters in a long catalogue of all the great lovers of history, joining the dance with Venus, Helena, Dido and Isolde, and culminating with the poet’s own unnamed girlfriend. It is interesting to note that the melody to this lay is found in the same German manuscript as the Song of Songs settings heard previously.

From his roots in indigenous oral tradition, Perceval made a long journey via the pens of Chrétien and Wolfram and their many followers, eventually finding himself on a Bavarian dance-floor. And 600 years later his name would become famous again on the operatic stage at Bayreuth.

Benjamin Bagby (2008)

Thanks to Prof. Richard Trachsler for assistance with the pronunciation of Old French.


The texts of the romances are taken from the standard editions of Chalres Méla (Perceval), Karl Lachmann (Parzival) and Kurt Nyhom (Jüngerer Titurel).

Musical reconstructions of the romances by Benjamin Bagby and Katarina Livljanic.

Instrumental reconstructions by Benjamin Bagby, Norbert Rodenkirchen and Elizabeth Gaver.

Atressi con Persevaus (melody): Paris, BNf. f. fr. 20050, fol 85. Text edition: Martín de Riquer.

Mit iamer ûf den toten: (melody and text) Wien, Nationalbibl. Hs. 2675, fol. 1v.

Chanter m’estuet ireement (melody): [RS 687] Paris, BNf. f. fr. 845, fol. 87. Text edition: S.N. Rosenberg.

Dilectus meus candidus et rubicundus (meoldy & text): München, Bayr. Staatsbibl., clm 5539, fol. 53v.

Ich lobe ein wîb (melody):München, Bayr. Staatsbibl., clm 5539, fol. 161. Text edition: Johannes Siebert.

Upcoming Concerts

22 August 2024
Brauweiler, Germany (Abteikirche St. Nikolaus Brauweiler), 7.30 pm
Musen der Sphären (World Premiere)

24 October 2024
Prague, University of Prague (Boethius 150th anniversary)
Boethius - Songs of Consolation (Quartet)

14 February 2025
Kulturzentrum Peterskirche, Kempen
Musen der Sphären

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's teaching activities in 2019

In March 2019, Benjamin will give two weekend courses on the solo songs of Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236). The courses are being hosted by the Centre de Musique Médiévale de Paris. Dates: 9-10 and 30-31 March.
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After retiring from his teaching position at the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he taught between 2005 and 2018 in the professional masters program, Benjamin Bagby continues to travel widely in 2019 to teach practical workshops for young professionals:

Folkwang Universität der Künste (Essen-Werden, Germany).
Benjamin has joined the faculty of this renowned masters program for liturgical chant performance and medieval music. The dates of his courses in 2019: 5-7 April; 26-28 April; 17-19 May; 30 May–01 June.
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For the second year in a row, Benjamin will teach an intensive course in the 8th International Course on Medieval Music Performance (Besalú, Spain): Songs of the troubadours (for singers and instrumentalists).
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Amherst Early Music Festival (Connecticut College, New London CT) 21-28 July:
An intensive course on the solo cansos of the Occitan troubadours, with a focus on songs from the great Milan songbook Bibl. Ambr. R71 sup. (for singers and instrumentalists).
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