April 13, 2010

War: what is it good for?

Payin' the bills and not much else, if the Landsknechte are to be believed.

Wolfgang Roth's album "Early German Ballads," available through the Smithsonian Folkways label, includes several Landsknecht songs, in addition to other songs from the German Peasants' Revolt of 1524-1526.  They're not what you'd expect from a stone-cold mercenary singing about war - no guts and glory here, no reveling in violence, but a sense of profound weariness.  Here's an example from the CD:  "Lied Alter Landsknechte."

 Wir alten Soeldner von der hohen Wart'
Wir hab'n all ein eisgrauen Bart
Wir alten Soeldner sind mied und matt
Und haben schon lang' das Kriegsspiele satt.
     Ein eisgrauer Bart
     Ein Panzer von Erz
     Doch tief in der Brust
     Ein blutendes Herz.
     Jung Volk nemm acht
     Dass man Euch nit zu Landsknecte macht.
Uns alte Soeldner von der hohen Wart
Uns blieb im Leben kein Sturmwind spart
Uns alten Soeldner war nit Guts beschert
Als zu kaempfen und streitten mit nem blanken Schwart.
     Ein eisgrauer Bart...

The liner notes, available as a free download, contain the full translation.  But just to give you an idea, here's the chorus:
An iron-gray beard,
Armor of metal,
But deep in the breast
A bleeding heart.
Young folks, take heed
That they don't make a Landsknecht out of you.

I like this because it's a very honest, realistic look at war, and one we tend not to emulate in the SCA.  We in the society like to glorify our sport, and we should - it's fun, and there's clearly precedent.  There are lots of songs from period that talk about the glory of battle, the visceral joy of violence.  It's easy to lose track, though, of the fact that when these people fell in battle, they didn't get back up afterward and go drink with their buddies in the Green Dragon.  Marching off to war means so much more under those circumstances, as some of our members know all too well.

So inspired in part by these war-weary Landsknecht songs and the story of the German Peasants' Revolt, I'm working on a song that deals with a simple peasant's reasons for going to war.  What makes war worth it to an untrained foot soldier, with no delusions of grandeur and only a vague sense of national identity, if any?

It's a motet, unfortunately.  I say unfortunately because I was inspired by an excellent polyphonic-type piece at Bardic Madness, and it stuck in spite of the fact that I don't know any motets from period that deal with these themes.  Also my motet sounds a whole lot more like Les Mis than Machaut, but what are you gonna do?  It's my first crack at polyphony.  I'm learning lots, and my next motet will sound a lot more accurate for having written this one.

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