From the ‘Golden oldies’ series: Good song, funny language

If you are a Renaissance-minded chorister, you probably know the song. Dindirindin is just the sort of dreamy, exotic thing you would want on your programme as an early music ensemble. The King’s Singers made a good version, and there are loads more on Youtube. In fact, the King’s Singers made a whole CD with music from Renaissance Spain, because that is where Dindirindin was first heard.

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St Cirq-Lapopie, classed as one of the most beautiful villages of France (which is not fair because nearly every village looks like this)

Its form is relatively simple: four voices, homophonic, homorhytmic *), a refrain-verse-refrain stucture. The refrain has the words dindirin-dindirin-dindirin-daña, dindirindin to represent church bells. It’s probably wedding bells because the protagonist of the story is a young lady, who goes out into the fields on a beautiful morning and meets a nightingale, whom she tells: ‘Oh, while you’re flying, do go and see my lover and tell him I’m married now, will you?’
The song has two lines of verse, followed by the refrain – all that times three. A nice bonus is the fact that the second phrase of each verse has the same words as the first line of the next verse.
In fact, it is quite an important bonus, because the language is a bit of a hang-up. The ñ in daña presupposes Spanish origin, and indeed this piece is one of the 400 songs that were published in a Spanish songbook in the 16th century. The Cancionero de Palacio was so popular that its songs went all over Spain, Portugal and the South of France. But when I had my first look at the sheet music some fifteen years ago, the language was babble to me. Looks like Spanish, is not Spanish. Has French words, a bit of Italian… what the…? demanded the choristers of the conductor. Oh, it’s Provençal, he said. That was it. As good singers, we just repeated the sounds that he gave to us and all in all, we thought we sounded quite lovely.

*) One voice (often the soprano) sings the melody while the lower voices fill out the harmony. The rhythmic unison in all the parts makes the song an example of homorhythm.

In these past few years I have been singing Dindirindin with choristers from the Lot and the Aveyron during the Singing Holidays. After all, is it a song d’ici, so it should be sung by the people d’ici. Well, that started discussions. Somebody said ‘That’s wrong, you have to pronounce it like this.’ Somebody else said: ‘But my eighty year old neighbour pronounces this word like that.’ ‘It must be Occitan.’ ‘Not at all, it is just patois.’ So we go on Youtube and we hear as many different pronunciations as there are performances.  The one-time conductor said ‘Oh, it’s Provençal,’ but clearly that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Language is an interesting thing, especially when you find gems like this: language preserved like a fossil, frozen in time in a song.

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The last of the Knights Templars discussing which mead recipe to use for tonight’s sing-song.

The story behind this song seems to be the story of medieval contacts between Italy, Southern France, Northern Spain. Trade, pilgrims, escape routes. Influenced by commerce, diplomacy and the odd pirate, a sort of efficiënt language mix developed from the 11th century, a Lingua Franca, understood – more or less – by everybody. North-Italian dialects and varieties of Occitan (Provençal is one of those) served as a basis for the lingo.

Ah, it’s good to know the details. Er, details? What about the question of how to pronounce this Lingua Franca? After all, it had disappeared by the nineteenth century.  This is a problem comparable to establishing THE authentic way to play a Mozart symphony. So we are stuck, then, with educated guesses. Maybe it’s not such a big deal. Those traveling merchants and their friends the sea robbers would just shrug their shoulders. It’s enough to just more or less understand what the other one is saying.