On the second day of Valentines Week, my true love gave to me…
A love song.
You’ve heard them on the radio. From twangy country hits to 80’s power ballads, love is the most popular subject of modern music. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ve even had a boyfriend or significant other write you a song or play you a tune on his guitar. Never having dated a musician, I can’t say I’ve ever had the experience, but being serenaded by a man is definitely on my top ten list of romantic gestures (that is, as long as his voice doesn’t make dogs howl).
The modern love song has its origins in the Middle Ages and grew out of the tradition of courtly love. From about 1000 to 1200 AD in southern France, troubadours adapted poetry set to music that was popular in Spain in the preceding centuries. While songs at that time were primarily religious and devotional in tone and theme, the French (masters of l’amour, even then) sang of love, romance, fair maidens, and chivalrous knights.
While the same sets of musical accompaniments were used, lyrics were original, and skill was measured by the beauty of the unique poetry created by a specific troubadour. They often flattered aristocratic woman, conveyed passion and desire, wove tales of Arthurian legend, and were a staple of any refined court.
Early troubadours travelled from village to village, to major European cities, and accompanied Crusaders journeying to the Holy Land. While there were professional troubadours who entertained the elite, the custom of creating love ballads filtered up to the aristocracy. Knights and nobles who had joined the Crusades, seen marvelous exotic sights, and listened to traveling troubadours on their quests began to write lyric poems as well. Some of the most famous figures of the period were known to write ballads, including King Thibaut IV of Navarre, King Alfonso X of Spain, and King Richard the Lionheart of England. There were even female troubadours who wrote songs about love, returned and unrequited.
Ballads were the hallmark of “courtly love,” a medieval notion combined with the Code of Chivalry, and allowed men and women, often in loveless, but advantageous marriages, to show their esteem for a Knight or Lady. There were strict rules to participating in this activity, including keeping marital vows of faithfulness and chastity, but women were allowed to present tokens to their Knights and have songs sung of their beauty and desirability. The notion of “romance” as we know it today was born out of this practice of courtly love; grand gestures and being swept off our feet with flowers, compliments, opening of doors, and pulling out of chairs; romance over pure lust. It was quite an intricate and complex game that provided plenty of complications and intrigues at court, which might have been part of the appeal.
There may not be knights in shining armor or princesses in castle towers anymore, but music still touches us just the same. What are some of your favorite love songs? Here’s a short list of a few of my favorite romantic songs. There’s some classical and some 1950’s and 60’s hits to take you back in time. Maybe some of these will get you in the mood:
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18: II: Adagio sostenuto, Rachmaninov
Cello Suite No. 1, 1.- Prelude, Bach
Clair De Lune, Debussy
The Swan, Saint-Saëns
Dream A Little Dream Of Me, Mama Cass
I’ll Be Seeing You, Billie Holiday
Return To Me (Ritorna-me), Dean Martin
Read more about the history of love songs and the Middle Ages. And for the highbrow, try the The English Broadside Ballad Archive, with ballads from the Renaissance and beyond which are just awesome to look at.