discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

I sing because I must

Here’s a very old song.

I sing because I must

Chantar m’er de so qu’ien non volria  – I must sing about it, whether I want to or not – is by the Comtessa de Dia, a twelfth-century trobaraitz (female troubadour) from the far south of France. This is the land, bordering Moorish Spain, of the great castles such as Foix, Portiragnes and Puivert, a land of violent persecution in the name of Christian orthodoxy.

la comtessa de Dia


It’s hard, if not impossible, to disentangle fact from legend when one goes back this far. La Comtessa de Dia is one of the few trobaraitz for whom we have a name, perhaps because she was reputed to be the mistress of one of the most important troubadours of the period, Raimbaut d’Aurenga. The affair may be the stuff of legend, but her music survives, and A chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria is a classic of its kind.

For me, thinking about the book, the Comtessa’s music raises the question as to how far back I want or need to go. Hildegard of Bingen, the poster girl (poster nun?) for women composers, or further back, to ninth century Kassia, another nun, this time Orthodox, and in Constantinople? Or earlier still, to Miriam and her tambourine, or perhaps a music-making hetaira (courtesan) of ancient Athens?

Meanwhile, I am getting more and more immersed in my various roles here in Oxford (whether supporting, in a small way, other writers – the absurdly talented students on the Master’s in Creative Writing – or teaching Shakespeare & Co to undergraduates). So, listening to this music, and that of Hensel and the rest, is a good way to keep the flame alive. It helps me remember that I am not just writing a story of creativity against the odds, but trying to honour artistic achievement that reaches across the centuries, if only we would listen for it.


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