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The first concertplay (where music and theatre collide) by Clare Norburn. This intimate piece takes you back to the heady atmosphere of 12th-century Provence, soundtracked by the plaintive music and poetry of the troubadours, lively medieval dances and a narrative for an actor as the redoubtable Beatriz de Dia (medieval Amy Winehouse).

The story imagines how Beatriz came to write her impassioned song 'A Chantar', the only example of a troubadour song by a woman, where both the poetry and melody have survived. Beatriz’s poetry is grounded in the rules of courtly love. She lives in a world where emotions are sacrificed to the strait-jacket of ritual: her only recourse is to channel her pain, love and desire for revenge into this passionate song.


“Vision and Unsung Heroine were concertplay films released by The Telling in 2020, the soundtracks of which are heard here. Both are austere, serene and highly evocative, telling the stories of Hildegard von Bingen and Comtessa de Dia, a 13th-century female troubadour”

BBC Music Mag

on Unsung Heroine & Vision soundtrack CD

“an unprecedented approach to medieval music”

Bloomington Early Music Festival



Leila Mimmack as Beatriz de Dia

The Telling:

Clare Norburn, soprano

Giles Lewin, Vielle, bagpipes

Joy Smith, medieval harp & percussion

Directed by Nicholas Renton

Written & produced by Clare Norburn

Lighting Designer Natalie Rowland


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ABOUT THE WORK - Clare Norburn

The troubadours

Unsung Heroine was my first attempt at a concert/play in 2010. I didn’t know if I could write and the whole experience was, and continues to be, a learning curve. That means the narrative has been through many versions – each shorter than the previous. For many years I had been fascinated by the troubadours, a large group of poet-musician/singer-songwriters, both men and women, who worked in southern France from approximately 1100 to 1270. The music and poetry are complex and I wanted to try and provide a way into them for a first-time listener.


Many of our ideas about romantic love (including the concept of love at first sight) have pervaded down the centuries and stem from the idea of Fin Amor and the code of courtly love enshrined in troubadour poetry. Yet, many of the ideas integral to troubadour poetry also seem foreign to our modern ideals about what love can and ought to be. These include the idea that you can’t truly be in love with the person you are married to, and that one can only be truly in love if one experiences jealousy.


Fin Amor, meaning “True” or “Pure Love”, is bound up with the idea of chivalry and courtly love, and this is a particularly complicated area that has provoked debate amongst historians: much of the poetry is deliberately obscure – some is written in code – and some of the poetry is crafted as if only to be understood by the lover. There are also numerous references in the poems and songs to popular stories that haven’t survived and therefore mean nothing to us. Who are the Seguis and Valenca to whom Beatriz refers in her songs? We simply don’t know but they clearly have resonances. The differences and the oblique references mean that the poetry and songs of the troubadours need some explaining in order to be appreciated fully. 


Yet, despite all these obstacles to our understanding, these poems also speak surprisingly directly and are unusually personal for the age. They are also heart-felt, and use powerful and breath-taking imagery – as exemplified by Bernart de Ventadorn’s stunning poem, 'Can vei la lauzetta mover':


When I see the skylark swoop in joy towards its love the sun,

then forgetting everything as it lets itself fall, for the sweetness that comes to its heart,

I feel a great envy come over me of everyone whom I see rejoicing,

I wonder that my heart does not melt from desire.


The trobairitz and Beatriz de Dia

And then there is Beatriz herself and the collection of 20 or so trobairitz (the feminine term for troubadour) whose poetry survives. Amongst this group Beatriz stands out as special because more of her poems (four) survive than by any other woman. Moreover, her poem 'A Chantar m’er de so quieu non volria' is the only one of all trobairitz poems considered important enough to be written down in a manuscript which survives today. But the fascination doesn’t end there. The song itself is extraordinarily impassioned and forward for an age when women were generally treated as nothing more than the property of their husbands. 


There has been some debate about why these women were able to participate in the troubadour tradition alongside men. Some historians think the explanation is due in part to the prevalence of the Crusades (and the consequent dispersal of large numbers of men). Others link the existence of the trobairitz to changes to the property laws in this period in Occitania, the area of southern France where the troubadours lived. 


Nothing concrete is really known about Beatriz, Comtessa de Dia.  Historians think she may have been born in the early 1140s and died around 1212.  


Many of the troubadours have short stories, known as vidas, which are the medieval equivalent to a biography. However, unlike modern biographies, the vidas all too often blur the boundaries between fact and the myth of the troubadour. The vidas are also 13th century marketing hype, proclaiming each troubadour to be “the best singer in the world and the best lover”. So it’s often difficult to tell which statements are true and which are marketing embellishment – or downright fiction. 


Beatriz’s vida is very short: “The Countess de Dia was the wife of Guillem de Peitieus (Poitiers), a beautiful and good lady. She fell in love with Raimbaut d’Aurenga (Orange) and made many good songs about him.”


Beatriz’s vida raises more questions than it answers: there is no wife of a Guillem de Peitieus who held title to the county of Die.  Guillem de Peitieus is also the name of the first great troubadour who died some 15 years before Beatriz was born! There are also many Raimbaut d’Aurengas in the heraldic annals of the 12th century, including the troubadour who was a direct contemporary of Beatriz.

Dramatic choices

All this has meant that in crafting a story around Beatriz, I had a bewildering amount of “uncertain freedom”. I had to make a number of choices as to how to interpret the historical uncertainty. I started by trying to base my story around what we know of life in the region in this period: for example, I had Beatriz marry Guillem at the age 13, which was quite commonplace.


I have also tried to ground the script in troubadour concepts and ideas: for example, in the original (cut for our shorter film version) Beatriz’s mean-spirited in-laws become the Lauzengeirs, the whispering gossips who pervade troubadour poetry, who conspire against a lady and her knight. 


I have assumed that the Raimbaut D’Aurenga mentioned in Beatriz’s vida was the troubadour. That made it possible for me to imagine that Beatriz’s poem 'A chantar' was a response to the break-up of her relationship with Raimbaut. I have based the character and appearance of Guillem de Poitiers/Peitieus on the jealous red-headed husband with a horrible cough who keeps his beautiful wife in a tower in the trouvere song “Un petit davant lo jor”. All other 'characters' mentioned are completely invented but I have chosen Occitan 12th century names.  


The music and musical choices

Troubadour songs are notated in a similar way to chant: without notated rhythm. They are nearly all full of melancholy and so I wanted to involve other musical material to lift the piece - the repertoire of the trouvères (the northern French counterparts to the troubadours) tends to be more light-hearted. We are also performing a collection of anonymous French medieval dances called the Estampie roial. 


The trouvère tradition also included women poets/songwriters/performers, and the collection of trouvère songs we will perform also includes one melody and text by a woman (Blanche de Castille) and a poem by La Duchesse de Lourraine. Language is also a key difference between the trouvère and troubadour traditions.  Troubadour poetry is in Occitan, the old language of Provence and the Alpes Maritime and the south of France, the modern equivalent of which is still spoken in some hilltop villages today. The trouvère tradition is in Old French, the precursor to the modern French language.


The troubadour songs survive today because they were written down by scribes in the latter part of the 13th century. There are 3 main large manuscript collections. In many cases, therefore, the songs were written down some 50-100 years after they were first sung. Some of the popular songs survive in more than one manuscript and it is clear in these cases that the songs have been taken on different musical journeys with different embellishments and amendments made by different singers. The process is like a form of musical Chinese whispers and the melodies are often quite different. So the melodies we have today in only one edition are almost certainly only one possible musical interpretation of the song. 


For all the repertoire we are performing, a single line melody is all that exists. To bring the music off the page, we have made our own arrangements. We know, from texts and pictures, about the instruments that would have been used in this period for dances, but we don’t know whether singers would have performed with instrumental accompaniment or not. The instruments generally provide a drone or shadow the vocal line. For many of the texts a vocal line doesn’t exist. We know that the troubadours often borrowed melodies from poems with the same meter (known as a contrafactus) and to bring some of the songs to life we have used the same method. This includes one of Beatriz’s poems, 'Estat ai en greu cossirier'.


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