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Classical 101

Jordi Savall and Hesprion XXI Remember The Forgotten Kingdom

THREE AUDIO FILES - ALL MUSIC If you're a fan of Jordi Savall's viol playing (do you remember the soundtrack from Tous les matins du monde?) and you like the idea of blending classical music with world music and you like richly researched multicultural CD booklet notes, then you must get your hands on a copy of Savall's most recent musico-historic contribution, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Crusade Against the Albegensians. The Tragedy of the Cathars (Alia Vox, 2009). Savall, the Spanish-born viol player who established his international reputation with a weighty discography of viol standards by the likes of Francois Couperin, Marin Marais and Henry Purcell, has more recently taken to exploring the musical results of East meeting West. With Savall and his ensemble Hespèrion XXI, we have wandered with Sephardic Jews after their 1492 expulsion from Spain (Diáspora Sefardí, Alia Vox, 1999); we've sat cross-legged amidst a harem of exotic instruments - ouds, rubabs, tulaks and darboukas, as well as viols - in music of the Islamo-Judeo-Christian world around the Mediterranean (Orient-Occident 1200-1700, Alia Vox, 2006); and we've visited Istanbul, where Turks and Armenians contributed with seemingly equal authority to the city's profoundly rich musical culture (Istanbul Dimitrie Cantemir:1673-1723, Alia Vox, 2009). With The Forgotten Kingdom, Savall and Hespèrion XXI bring to light the cultural richness of the area around today's southern French region of Languedoc, an area once known as Occitania and even before the Middle Ages famed as a hotbed of Roman, French, Balkan, Eastern European and Middle Eastern cultural exchange. Along with linguistic, scientific and artistic influences, the region also absorbed the religious and philosophical influences of Judaism, Islam, and any number of approaches to Christianity. One of these approaches to Christianity was that of Occitania's Cathars, a sect whose distinctive theology and open disavowal of the hierarchy and some doctrines of the Catholic Church opened its members to the charge of heresy and, eventually, to Church-ordained violence. The Cathars of Occitania held that the material (read: evil) world was not the creation of God, who created only the spiritual (read: good) world. The world of the flesh was, in their view, the devil's handiwork - a theological point that, in its overt Scriptural defiance, set Rome's teeth on edge. The Cathars also had different ideas about the Sacraments: their belief that not water baptism but baptism by (what they likely viewed as the apostolically ordained) laying on of hands was the only way a human being (i.e. a flesh-and-blood person of the material world Satan created) could return to God's "forgotten kingdom" was another aspect of Cathar theology that flew in the face of the Catholic Church. Eventually a decades-long Crusade through most of the first half of the thirteenth century in the region all but exterminated the Cathars (or Albigensians, as the Occitanian heretics came to be called) and left Occitania, once divided between the Kingdom of Aragon and the county of Toulouse, under the political control of the King of France. Roughly coinciding with the Albigensian Crusade was the flourishing of the culture of Occitania's poet-musicians, the Troubadours. In The Forgotten Kingdom, Savall and Hespèrion XXI perform Troubadour chronicles, as well as Cathar liturgical works, of the region's roughly five hundred years of Cathar history, including the development and spread of Occitanian Catharism, the events of the Albigensian Crusade, the resulting Dispaora in Italy and regions of what we now call Spain and the demise of the Eastern Cathars with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. The result is a CD as esoteric in sound as it is solid in historical grounding, as beautiful in execution as the Albigensian Crusade was ugly in its genocidal effect. Listen to some fanfares and battle calls that, on this recording, serve as a soundtrack for the beginning of he Albigensian Crusade: [audio:kingdom_1.mp3] Here's music telling of the massacre of upwards of ten thousand people of the town of Béziers: [audio:kingdom_2.mp3] Now listen to an instrumental lament, which Hespèrion XXI uses to signify the demise of Catharism in the East, after the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. It's haunting in its beautiful simplicity: [audio:kingdom_3.mp3] To call The Forgotten Kingdom a CD is actually fairly inaccurate, since the collection's three actual discs are only modestly - one could even overlook them - sleeved next to the hard front and back covers, which sandwich some 560 glossy and beautifully illuminated pages of historical annotations in seven languages, including Catalan, Castilian and - perhaps most importantly for this collection - Occitan. This isn't exactly light reading, nor, as a reminder of Catharism's historical moment and gruesome endgame, should it be. But Hespèrion XXI's gorgeous performances of this forgotten kingdom of musical delights seem to soften this blow. Even when you've read the CD notes and have an outline of the fascinating and grim story of Occitania's Cathars, thanks to the music, you can hear the beauty in this ancient episode - a small bit of evidence, perhaps, that in the eternal struggle of this world, light can prevail over darkness.