This performance is a recreation of the lost music of the Lai of Bisclavret. Steeped in Arthurian legend of shape-shifting knights who are cursed to turn in to werewolves, this is a timelessly entertaining tale of adventure, treachery, loyalty, and enchantment.
Le Lai de Bisclavret/The Lai of the Werewolf
Text (Anglo-Norman/Old French) by Marie de France, c.1180
With supertitles in English, translation by Dorothy Gilbert
Musical setting by Michelle L. O’Connor
The earliest documentation of the word lai dates from 9th century Ireland, where lâid, meaning ‘the blackbird’s song’, was used to refer to Gaelic narrative poetry. Marie de France may have written all twelve of the Breton lais (epic romantic poems of adventure, also called Narrative Lais) in addition to a collection of animal fables based on Aesop’s Tales, and Espurgatoire (an Irish tale about Saint Patrick visiting Purgatory). These writings are preserved in the thirteenth-century manuscript MS Harley 978 in the British Library. The poet Marie composed these lais in Anglo-Norman French in octosyllabic rhymed couplets, gifting her lais to a ‘noble reis/noble king’, and these lais vary in length from 118-1,184 verses.
Marie explains that she took her inspiration from Narrative Lais/Breton Lais which she heard from Breton storytellers. With Brittany serving as a geographic and cultural link between Ireland/Scotland and France, in the 12th century the influence of Celtic epic tales became absorbed into the tradition of French trouvères in the north and the troubadours in Provence. This was especially true during the time of the great patron of the arts, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, during her marriage to Henry II, when under her aegis, artists dared to go in search of new musical ideas that were not impelled by liturgy. The music for these Breton Lais, however, has not survived.
café au lai
Illumination by Richard of Verdun (fl.1288-1327)