Chapter 2 Rencesvals (1946)

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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.

Carles se dort, li empereres riches.

Sunjat qu’il eret al greignurs porz de Sizer,

720 Entre ses poinz teneit sa hanste fraisnine

Guenes li quens l’ad sur lui saisie.

Par tel air l’at trussee e brandie

Qu’envers le cel en volent les escicles.

Carles se dort, qu’il ne s’esveillet mie.

1830 Halt sunt li pui e tenbrus e grant,

1831 Li val parfunt e les ewes curant.

814 Halt sunt li pui e li val tenebrus,

815 Les roches bises, les destreiz merveillus.

816 Le jur passerent Franceis a grant dulur.

Rencesvals (Fragments taken from La Chanson de Roland)
translation by Dana Richardson

I Musical Form

706 The emperor rides toward fair France. [Expo/1st row area, 1-9] Roland fixes the ensign to his lance;

From a hilltop he lifts it toward the sky. [trans., 10-12]

The French encamp in the vicinity. [2cd row area, 13-16]

710 The pagans ride through the wide dales [Dev., 17-32]

Wearing well-reinforced coats of chain-mail.

Helmets strapped on, and belted their swords,

Shields on their shoulders with their spears arrayed,


715 Four hundred thousand await first light. [Return, 33-45]

God! What sorrow the French don’t know their might!

717 The night has come, the day has called a truce. [A, 46-51]

Charlemagne sleeps, the powerful emperor.

He dreamt that he was at the pass of Cize. [B, 52-54]

720 Within his fists he held his oaken spear;

By the hands of Ganelon it was taken [C, 55-60]

And so violently shaken

That its splinters flew through the air.

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