Vignettes de Jour #1 – Medieval Music

A vignette, being defined as a small illustration fading into the background without a defining border, seems a good title for a short series of occasional postings about this and that. 
Let us visit this musical vignette first. A while ago whilst attending to business with our banking counselor at Crédit Agricole Charente-Maritime Deux-Sèvres, whereby the ‘CMDS’ designation indicates our region, she extended an invitation for a CA sponsored concert at the Abbaye aux Dames de Saintes. 
The Abbaye aux Dames is located on the right bank of the river Charente and thus the pine cone shaped steeple of its church of St. Mary is clearly visible from our house.
The former Benedictine abbey for nuns was founded in the 11th century. It’s succession of over thirty abbesses, most of them of noble families, were more than just religious ladies. Each abbess, commonly known as ‘Madame de Saintes’, wielded considerable political power even beyond the Saintonge region. In an exceptional display of power, the abbess was allowed to carry a crozier, her own version of the pastoral bishop’s staff, as a symbol of her authority. Ruling houses sent their daughters to the Abbaye aux Dames for their education and preparation of a life as either pawn or queen in their parent’s political games of chess. In a symbolic act of abolition of power, the last abbess, Madame Marie-Madeleine de Baudéan de Parabère was forced to take down the church bells of St. Mary’s on May 29, 1792. The French Revolution was extinguishing seven centuries of monastic activity in Saintes. Four months later the abbess died and her few remaining nuns were expelled from the building, which was immediately turned into a prison. Under the emperor Napoléon I the complex was used as military barracks, a purpose the German occupational forces repeated in the 1940s.
Since then much has changed. The historical monument has been restored, St. Mary has been re-consecrated as a parish church and the remaining cloister buildings have been turned into a well known and highly regarded music center for classical music, La Cité Musicale. One can even stay overnight in a former nun’s cell and enjoy contemplative perambulations in the cloister gardens during quiet, balmy nights.
We now wander back into our vignette and come full circle to the musical point. The concert we attended at the Abbaye was presented as Music of the Medieval Period, a little older than your average classical piano concerto. The musicians performed on instruments ranging from harpsichord to flutes, mandolin, cittern, viola da gamba, lute, fiddle and more. The ensemble calls itself ‘Les Witches’ and they aim “to resurrect the ambiance of a tavern at Shakespeares’ time”. The members of Les Witches are classically trained academic musicians, most of whom teach at music schools or university departments, when not playing gigs. 
At our concert, the witches were joint by a remarkable artist, Siobhán Armstrong. Ms. Armstrong is the foremost expert of the cláirseach, the Irish version of the ancient Celtic harp, a most wondrous instrument! This harp really sings with an astonishing range. In one piece the flute and the harp had such a vivid conversation it was overwhelmingly intense. We experienced a remarkable evening filled with beautiful music.
before the event

Harp & Harpsichord
“Music is a gift of God
Sweet sounds stir the strings of even the saddened heart”
(who knows, that’s my personal interpretation)








2 thoughts on “Vignettes de Jour #1 – Medieval Music

  1. We saw the 'Dialogues' at the Lyrical Opera in Austin. Our d-i-l used to wrk there & gave us tickets as a birthday present. It was incredible!! I'm happy, you saw it, too.


  2. On the ride over to Ft. Worth we were talking about Fort Worth Opera performances we had seen. I saw Poulenc's “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in 2006 sitting way up in the nosebleed row of Bass Hall. Thanks for your post about nuns in the French Revolution.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s