CREATIVE PROJECT BY MANISHA SAIGAL (’24)
Performing Art (Instrumental Piece)
An Interpretation of “Laüstic“
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)
Music, to me, is a universal storyteller that evokes powerful emotions which words cannot describe. Similarly, love is a nebulous and subjective concept, often also indescribable. The Lais by Marie de France is a collection of poems that explore different forms and boundaries of love and suffering. “Laüstic”, in particular, connects love and music in the form of birdsong; the song of a nightingale represents the connection between two distant lovers. I thus decided to reimagine “Laüstic” from The Lais as a 3-minute orchestral piece. I chose to write it as an orchestral piece to allow for more fluidity, conventional flexibility and elaborate nuances which enhance the emotion and imagery exhibited by the music. This piece is titled In Memoriam as it is written in memory of the life and death of the nightingale in the poem, and concomitantly, the love it represents. Initially, the nightingale flies freely albeit in the distance, then it gets trapped and murdered, yet is remembered forever after. The stages of the nightingale’s life in the music parallel stages of the relationships between characters in the poem. The structure of the piece also mimics the poem’s, as it moves from describing love in the private sphere to the invasion of the public sphere into the private to quash that love. The emotion of the piece hence intensifies suddenly after a calmer beginning to reflect the tragic narrative of the poem. The piece is written in the key of A minor to communicate tragedy, predominantly using the harmonic minor scale, where the seventh scale degree is raised to create a stronger pull towards the tonic or root note. This strong pull is intended to evoke the emotion of unfulfilled desire and longing exhibited throughout the poem.
In Memoriam begins with a light flute melody accompanied by subtle undertones of strings to introduce the nightingale. The high tones of the flute are intended to form an image of a bird flying high in the distance. This section has a three-beat rhythm (3/4) indicating movement and wavering stability. It also establishes the distant yet dynamic relationship between the married woman and her neighbour, the knight. From 00:00 to 00:07 of the piece, I played an ascending, then descending flute melody, reminiscent of a bridge going over an obstacle. This was to reflect how the lovers manage to somewhat overcome the “great high wall of dark-hued stone” (38) between them. The increased ambience and reverberation effects imitate the sound of a large hall, thus exacerbating the feeling of distance. These first few seconds establish the secret and distant connection between the lovers that the free-flying nightingale represents. The overall sombre melody also foreshadows the tragic turn of future events.
The next section is introduced by bar chimes that create a transition into an enchanted, magical and dream-like space, mirroring the poem’s description of summer. This section exhibits the lovers’ time together with a syncopated and playful rhythm played by the harp to evoke the joyful emotion of their love. The soft and peaceful tones of the harp are also evocative of a lullaby, as the lovers saw each other at night as they listened to the nightingale’s song. The undertones from the synth are intended to create an ethereal and dream-like soundscape to reflect the magical and otherworldly quality when the “moon shone” as the lovers met (69). The effect of the background synth strings is a feeling of simultaneous distance and immersion, similar to how their love is physically distant, yet intimate and secret from the public. This is coupled with nature sounds I recorded from a forest to reflect the natural descriptions of summer and birdsong in the poem, and the association of nature with love and desire. The chord progression of this section is Am, G, F, G. This simple palindromic progression is intended to reflect the reciprocative relationship of the lovers as they “could toss tokens to each other, throw little gifts, lover to lover” (43-44). This section also has a 4-beat rhythm (4/4) unlike the first section. I wanted to create a sense of irony that their fleeting time together has the most stable time signature of the song. This is to parallel how Marie criticises the constructs of courtly love and the jealous husband trope in the poem. The tone of the poem seems to support the secret and unlawful relationship between the wedded woman and her bachelor neighbour, while painting her husband as the villain despite being legally in the right. The husband is referred to as a “spiteful boor” (116) while the neighbour is directly contrasted as “not a boor” (148). Hence, the sweet and short interactions between the lovers imply that their relationship is more stable and healthy than that of the woman and her husband, as he controls and guards her. Yet, this idyllic and enchanting relationship is only a transient fantasy. The changing time signature shows that events are ever-changing, and warns against getting comfortable with a false sense of secret stability. True enough, the end of this private fantasy is signified by the sound of descending bar chimes.
The middle section leading up to the climax of the piece encapsulates entrapment. The combination of percussion and random, spasmodic and dissonant strings is intended to portray the nightingale flapping its wings desperately trying to escape being trapped. I used tritones, also known as the devil’s interval, to create the dissonant and unsettling atmosphere. This feeling of entrapment and being stuck reflects how the lovers are also trapped – they never meet physically and will never do so. The jealousy and selfishness of the husband has also trapped the wife. The sudden, loud cracking sound created by several drums played consecutively imitates the violent and sickening snapping of the bird’s neck by the husband. The former bass drum beats resemble a heartbeat, which stops suddenly at the snap to symbolise the death of the nightingale and coinciding heartbreak of the wife. This heartbreak is a reimagination of the visual image of literal heartbreak in the poem when the dead nightingale “bloodied her breast” (119).
The death of the nightingale and the lovers’ relationship invite mourning. The high E note sustained by the strings creates a ringing effect to hold the tension and prolong the discomfort. The multi-layered amplification of the dead nightingale, created by the elaborate wrapping in lines 135-137, is represented by the several layers of strings that follow. The use of a “reliquary” (149) to carry the nightingale’s corpse suggests a religious significance much more precious than before. The added volume from all the strings being played simultaneously and the descending bassline create a dramatic, yet grand and reverent sound that intensifies. The dissonant E7/#9 chord, played at 2:07, also includes a tritone and reminds listeners of the previous horrific violence that the wife still has to live on with despite the grand new significance of the bird’s memorial.
The last part of the song is a repeat of the melody of the flying nightingale played at the beginning. However, it is played an octave lower using a flute organ to mimic the mourning at a funeral or memorial. The muted tone of the flute organ emphasises concealment, as the nightingale is now inaccessible, like their private love. At the end, the flute organ fades out and slows down to create the sense of eternal continuity, as the knight “carried it with him everywhere” (156). Although “the vessel [was] sealed” (155), symbolising a closed chapter of unattainable love, this love remains a literal and emotional burden he will always bear. The nightingale will be remembered forever, and with it, the love that never took flight.
Poetry and song in “Laüstic” glorify relationships in an unrealistic way, as the nightingale’s song romanticises the lovers’ unconsummated love. The Nightingale represents an idyllic fantasy that gets destroyed by reality and the public sphere. In Memoriam encapsulates the message that secret relationships in the private sphere do not last, and that idyllic fantasies are unsustainable. Yet, because this love ended so tragically, memories of it transformed to take on a newly elevated, greater significance. The memory of a relationship with a loved one, alongside the heavy burden of its loss, is carried forever.