‘I needed the plangent, plaintive, beautiful music of the 12th century to understand Hugo’s pain’
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by children’s fantasy author Katherine Langrish @kathlangrish
Soundtrack by Diabolus in Musica
I don’t usually listen to music while I write. I’m a ‘strictly silence’ person, who needs to have the door shut and a monastic quiet reigning before I can sink into that writerly trance from which the best work comes.
But there are definitely exceptions. So far, all my books have been set in the past, and the past is a different country which it requires a tremendous effort of the imagination to recreate in all its multilayered splendour of sounds, smells, textures and tastes. I remember once visiting the Chiltern Open Air Museum and having to shout to be heard over the almost unbearable thunder of iron-rimmed cartwheels trundling over cobbles. I had no idea they were so loud. And that was a single large four-wheeled wagon, pulled by one carthorse. Imagine the din around the warehouses of London Docks in the 1880’s!
We construct history with music
Music is more than natural sounds, though. Music is constructed sound, full of meaning which reflects on the manners and desires of its own time. In turn, we construct history with reference to music. Swingtime, jazz, rock and roll, punk, all say something different about the decades in which they flourished. Impossible to imagine the sixties without the Beatles or the Kinks. And the same must be true for the deeper past. I once thrilled to a British Museum reconstruction of a Roman trumpet call. And there’s even an idea that some kind of music was once played in prehistoric caves like Lascaux…
My fantasy novel Dark Angels (US title The Shadow Hunt) is set in the 1190s, and features a flawed heroic figure, Lord Hugo of La Motte Rouge: a Norman warlord and ex-crusader, who believes his dead wife may – just may – not be dead after all, even though seven years have passed since he buried her. She may have been spirited away by the elf-folk and taken into the dark caves under the hill. And in that case, there may be a chance he can rescue her.
There are a lot of mysterious 12th century legends on this subject, the idea of lost lovers being re-encountered in some fairy land of the dead. Walter Map, a courtier at the court of Henry II, tells a story of a Breton knight who rescued his dead wife from a fairy dance. And a medieval retelling of the Orpheus legend, ‘Sir Orfeo’, probably also ultimately dates from this time, from a Breton lai subsequently translated into English.
So the idea came of my knight Lord Hugo as a sort of Orpheus figure. And therefore he needed to be musical. Now the Breton lais were lengthy stories in verse, usually performed by minstrels who probably chanted them, with a musical prelude and interludes. And of course the 12th century is also the time of the troubadour of southern France, whose songs were primarily songs of fin’ amour – of love.
Full of romantic emotion, often written by high-born noblemen and even women, the troubadour songs would usually be performed by a joglar or jongleur, a professional singer. But it seemed to me quite possible that my Lord Hugo might, on occasion, be prevailed upon to sing his own songs to the harp – especially if he thought that by doing so he might win back his dead wife. (For the trailer I chose the haunting guitar music of Richard Hughes – and also find him here – I thought it was much closer to the spirit of the times than some classical orchestral work.)
All I had to do was find some troubador songs to listen to. Fortunately there are numerous groups which specialise in ancient music, such as Diabolus in Musica’s La Doce Acordance. Here is another, which I translated here from the French to get myself into the right mood for writing Lord Hugo’s own songs.
The troubadour songs often use images such as the coming of the green leaves of spring and the song of the nightingale, to express the pain and delight and longing of love. Here’s a verse from a song by Guillem de Peiteus, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, comparing love to a hawthorn bough:
As for our love, you must know how
Love goes – it’s like the hawthorn bough
That on the living tree stands, shaking
All night beneath the freezing rain
Till next day, when the warm sun, waking,
Spreads through green leaves and boughs again.
(Trans W. D. Snodgrass.)
In my book, Hugo sings of his love:
When all the spring is bursting and blossoming,
And the hedge is white with blossom like a breaking wave,
That’s when my heart is bursting with love-longing
For the girl who pierced it, for that sweet wound she gave.
And I hear the nightingale singing in the forest –
Singing for love in the forest: “Come to me, I am alone…
Better to suffer love’s pain for a single kiss
Than live for a hundred years with a heart of stone.”
It’s Hugo’s love and pain that drives the plot of Dark Angels and I needed to hear the plangent, plaintive, beautiful music of the 12th century to get this right.
Katherine Langrish is the author of several fantasy novels for children and young adults: Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood, set in the Viking age, and Dark Angels (US title The Shadow Hunt), which is set on the Welsh border in the 12th century. Her most recent book is a short read Forsaken, based on a Scandinavian legend about a mermaid, published by Franklin Watts/EDGE November 2011. You can find her on Twitter as @kathlangrish