Trivia And Sin: Modern Troubadours

In Magalluf this weekend (11-12 May), the Mallorca Live Festival is headlined by two British acts - one originally from Braintree and the other from Glasgow. Suffice it to say that the dance styles of The Prodigy and Primal Scream's psychedelic rock are a million miles away from the roots of popular music in Majorca, not just because of their modernity but also because they are British. That old mediaeval fellow, Ramon Llull, will be turning in his grave, albeit that he was a contemporary of and knew the Scot, John Duns Scotus, and that their mystical "illuminati" musings might conceivably offer lyrical possibilities to either of these bands.

Unsurprisingly, given the all-embracing contribution Llull made to Majorcan culture, he referenced music in some of his works. As such, therefore, he was probably the first person to do so in the Christian era following the thirteenth century conquest. Llull, prior to seeing the light and turning his back on frivolous matters, had been a troubadour.

The songs of the troubadour could cover a variety of subjects, but they predominantly had to do with chivalry and courtly love. Relevant to Majorca, and therefore establishing a link with culture that crossed from the mainland after the conquest, the troubadour tradition is generally accepted to have originated in Occitania and therefore in the Occitan language.

As he had some experience in the art, Llull was in a position to offer his views of the troubadour of his time. He wasn't entirely complimentary. Troubadours had "distorted" the original meaning of the art and dabbled in songs that dealt in "trivia and sin". The troubadour, he argued, had first come about with good intentions: praising God and consoling those who suffer from torment. He regretted the fact that troubadours no longer complied with this original purpose.

But it is debatable if this had been the original purpose, given a tradition that was imported and was littered with secular references and could border on the satirical. Llull had not exactly been godly before seeing the light, so his observations may well have been a comment on himself before he discovered his devotion to God and to religion. Either way, it was clear that even in the thirteenth century a music critic - if one wants to refer to Llull as this - was bemoaning changes in musical styles. And when it comes to a preference for trivia and sin, critics have been lamenting this ever since, not least those of modern times.

Despite Llull's misgivings, King Jaume III gave a form of protection to the activities of minstrels and troubadours, which was in the context of Catalan Passion plays of the first half of the fourteenth century. The singers were thus aligned with a church tradition, and some of the earliest documented references to popular music are - apart from Llull's - to do with the theatrical music of the church.

It was clear, however, that there was a great deal of secular context as well. This theatrical music assisted in giving rise to the folkloric tradition of the dances of the Cossiers and the Cavalls. Although these folk dances had close associations with religious fiestas, and still do, they were essentially secular. An indication of this is the fact that Llucmajor's Cavallets Cotoners, for example, were a Majorcan branch line of dances that came from the Barcelona guild of cottonmakers.

By the turn of the fifteenth century, the town hall in Palma - or Universitat as it was known - had established its troupe of minstrels and drummers. In so doing, it was a forerunner of what most municipalities nowadays have - their bands of music and their bands of drummers and cornet players. Likewise, there are the municipal choirs, and in the sixteenth century the Gran i General Consell (something of a precursor to the Council of Majorca) set that ball rolling by creating its choirs of minstrels.

The troubadours and the minstrels may long ago have disappeared, but the legacies of centuries ago survive to such an extent that it is arguable that the traditions have never been as strong as they now are. And it might in a loose sense be said that the glosador of today is something of a throwback to the days of the troubadour. The glosador, by and large, owes nothing to Llull's supposed "original purpose".

Side by side with this handed-down tradition is music and performance that is firmly of the current day. It is international, as represented by the likes of Primal Scream. Llull would have found a great deal of trivia and sin in today's music, but by the time he was criticising the mediaeval troubadour, he had perhaps become a bit of a fuddy-duddy. 

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