14th century love song: Frolicking Little Angel

Illustrative photo: Codex Manesse, CC0

If one was to look through history in search of the predecessors of today’s popular music, then one of the oldest songs worth a mention would have to be Frolicking Little Angel (entitled Andělíku rozkochaný in Czech). This love song from 14th century Bohemia sounded rather strange even in its time. It was certainly different from all the other liturgical compositions of the Middle Ages.

Illustrative photo: Codex Manesse,  CC0

Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries produced music belonging to the genre of lyric poetry. The main themes were courtly love, bravery, and death. The songs told various stories and legends. That type of music existed, of course, in the Czech lands as well. But Frolicking Little Angel was a bit different from the trends of its time.

How the Frolicking Little Angel was preserved

As opposed to other songs that came to Bohemia from Western Europe, Germany and mainly France and Aquitaine before that, Frolicking Little Angel goes against medieval conventions. With its simple melody, it speaks to the listener in a much more natural and honest way. Although it should be mentioned that there were most likely more songs from the Middle Ages similar to Frolicking Little Angel in that regard. But sadly, only a few of their musical notations were preserved to this day. The fact that we have even the few is thanks to a lucky coincidence – the existence of the Vyšehrad anthology (Vyšehradský sborník) of Tomáš Štítný ze Štítného, written in 1396. The anthology contains the notation of Frolicking Little Angel along with two nameless folk dances.

Another book that played a big role in helping to preserve the song Frolicking Little Angel is Jaroslav Pohanka’s History of Czech Music in Examples (Historie české hudby v příkladech), in which the notation of the piece was rewritten in the modern standard. Its 1958 publishing paved the way for many new variations of Frolicking Little Angel, leading many writers and musicians to continue to heap praise on the piece to this day.

Jaroslav Krček,  photo: Tereza Kopecká,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.5

It is also praised by the composers who have created modern variations of the song. Foremost among them is Jaroslav Krček, who is a big expert on this type of medieval music. The title of his excellent variation on Czech medieval music is Dřevo se hudbou odívá, which can be loosely translated as “the wood is clad in music”. The name is a reference to a medieval song called Dřevo se listím odívá, which means something like: “the wood is clad in leaves”. And this album contains Krček’s modern take on Frolicking Little Angel.

Minnesingers and troubadours

Let’s get away from modern music for a bit and take a look at the work of the minnesingers or the historically older troubadours. These poets, composers, instrumentalists, and singers rolled into one appeared in 11th century Aquitaine, a very cultured and wealthy part of what is today southwestern France. They spoke the Occitan language, a Romanic language related to French and Catalan. The language also gave them their name: troubar means to create in Occitan, so a troubadour is a creator. The most famous troubadour and the first one known in history was none other than William IX, Duke of Aquitaine.

William IX,  Duke of Aquitaine,  source: CC0

The Catholic Church considered him to be corrupt and immoral and excommunicated him for his frivolous lifestyle. Eleven lyrical compositions celebrating love and a beloved woman were preserved from the duke’s work. Sometime in the 12th century, the lyrical tradition spread to Germany, creating the Minnesang movement, which then arrived in the Czech lands sometime around the 13th century.

Minnnesang then began to be performed at the king’s court during the late reign of the Přemyslid dynasty. The Czech kings going from Wenceslas I. to Wenceslas IV. of Luxembourg were all known to be Minnesang enthusiasts. The aforementioned Wenceslas IV. would even dictate stories in German to his scribes, which were then sung by the minnesingers.

Despite interest in Minnesang from the ruling elite, most of the music being composed at the time was still religious. This was due to not only to the religiousness of the people back then but also due to widespread illiteracy among the population. Most people who could read and write back then were church scholars. So it is likely that the most popular song of the time was written by a cleric.

Ivo Žídek  (left),  photo: Czech Radio

The work of this unknown cleric is the longest Czech song of the Middle Ages, its title is Již mnie všie radost ostáva, which can be loosely translated as “all my joy is leaving me” most likely composed by someone called Záviš of Zápy. This Záviš of Zápy was an associate – and perhaps even the confessor – of Jan of Jenštejn, who was, at the time, the Archbishop of Prague.

When attempting to draw interest in medieval music in the present-day, the choice and style of interpretation of the music poses a significant challenge. This challenge is often taken up by the world’s most renowned opera composers. One such composer was Ivo Žídek, who possessed a great expressive ability that enabled him to successfully tackle even this intricate historical song.

The Best of Czech classical music series was created on the basis of Lukáš Hurník's and Bohuslav Vítek's project "Millenium hits" which was broadcast on Czech Radio Vltava.