Chapter 2 Rencesvals (1946) Rencesvals is a work for soprano and piano that sets text excerpted from The Song of Roland, a 4000-line chanson de geste that was composed in the 11th or early 12th centuries.1 In 778, Charlemagne invaded Spain to assist the Moorish rebel, Suleiman Ibn Al-Arabi against the Emir of Cordoba. After the invasion failed, the Frankish rearguard was annihilated by Basque guerillas at Roncesvaux during the retreat through the Pyrenees. The poem is the legendary account of the slaughter in the pass. In the heroic version, the Basques guerillas become a huge army of pagans and Saracens, Count Roland, the commander of the rearguard, and his men, slay enormous numbers of the enemy before they are overwhelmed, and Charlemagne returns with this army to exact vengeance from the Saracens. In reality, a Roland may or may not have commanded the rearguard action at Roncesvaux; all the other characters, with the exception of Charlemagne are invented. The guerillas melted away into the mountains.
The plot is enriched by the psychology of emulation and betrayal. When the pagans offer tribute and hostages, Charlemagne must decide which envoy he will put at risk to negotiate with them. After he rejects several candidates because they are too dear to him, his favorite nephew, Roland, nominates Ganelon, his own stepfather and Charlemagne’s brother-in-law. Ganelon accepts but is furious at the implication of his expendability, and at the favored treatment received by Roland in relation to that received by his true son, Baldwin. In revenge, he counsels the pagans to destroy Roland and the rearguard. Dallapiccola’s excerpts and my translation and formal indications follow.
Rencesvals (Fragments taken from La Chanson de Roland)
706 Vers dulce France chevalchet l’emperere.
Li quens Rollant ad l’enseigne fermee,
En sum un tertre cuntre le ciel levee.
Franc se herbergent par tute la cuntree.
710 Paien chevalchent par cez greignurs valees,
Halbercs vestuz e [bronies bien dublees],
Healmes lacez e ceintes lur epees,
Escuz as cols e lances adubees,
715 IIII/C. milie atendent l’ajurnee.
Deus! quel dulur que le Franceis nel sevent! AOI.
Tresvait le jur, la noit est aserie.