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No. 1779:
Romance and Reality

Today, romance, reality, and engineering design. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It does not seem possible that Kenneth Clark's brilliant TV series, Civilisation, came out so long ago, in 1969. His style and content, imitated so often over the years, have permanently touched our thinking. The other night, I heard Clark's ghost once again in a concert by the group, Fortune's Wheel. Their music of the high Middle Ages, reminded me of Clark's program on Romance and Reality.

Harp and VielleWe've grown accustomed to many forms of early music -- pianofortes and gut-stringed violins playing Mozart, Purcell and Monteverdi in baroque style, Dufay and Josquin on renaissance crumhorns and viols. We've become pretty familiar with music from after the horrors of the fourteenth century plague and the Hundred Years War.

What little we do hear from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is usually Gothic cathedral music -- done in the Gregorian modes. Yet, the secular music of that age wore a very different face. The Virgin Mary had emerged as the primary intercessor for the European laity, and the odd result was a fixation on romantic love. Every woman was the Virgin in human form -- every man, her noble knight, serving her with absolute purity of heart.

The result, Clark says, was a form of fantasy behind which lay a sharp sense of reality. Outward reality was symbolic of the ideal order behind it. Reality was to be taken seriously, because it was a token of the ideal (or the fantasy) that underlay it.

Scholars have gradually decoded some of the secular music of that period from very limited sources, and written in primitive musical notation. But texts survive. So many lyrics -- sagas to tear one's heart. Here's an example, a simple expression of grief by a departing knight to his lady,

Without my heart, I depart in sadness,
and will have no joy until I return

But not all love is requited. Listen to this lover's lament,

Sweetest creature,
how can your subtle sweetness
be so harsh to me
when I gave my heart, my body, and my love?

The most poignant piece in the program was sung of a lady whose husband had died in a tournament. She begins a life with him gone.

Beautiful Doette began to build an abbey
which is very large,
and she will be the abbess.
there she will take in all
who, through love, know pain and suffering.

-- that last line sung in a heart-rending descending passage.

And there was the parallel with the best engineering. The new machine is always the fruit of fantasy, shaped in an ideal world of the mind, to function amidst harsh realities outside. Small wonder these people sent European technology on its blazing leap forward. Without the dream behind it, no machine -- no love -- stands up to worldly assault. Behind that glorious music, the other night, I also heard the engines that drove a great epoch in human history.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Clark, Sir K., Romance and Reality. Civilisation: A Personal View, New. York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1969, pp. 60-87.

The concert, titled Pastourelle, was presented by Fortune's Wheel (Lydia, Heather Knutson, Eric Mentzel, Shira Kammen, and Robert Mealy) at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, on Sunday, March 2, 2003 as part of the Houston Early Music Series. Instrumentation consisted of two vielles and a medieval harp.

Illustration of medieval romance