Named “Artists for Peace” by UNESCO in 2008 “for their outstanding musical commitment to intercultural dialogue and their contribution to furthering the Organization’s ideals,” Savall and his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras in The Forgotten Kingdom present a lyrical testimony to the high human cost when power and terror conjoin. Their focus is on the eradication of the Cathar culture of Occitana in southern France in the thirteenth century, an eradication accomplished by the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition that followed in its wake. The Cathari’s heretical embrace of dualism and anti-clericalism was answered by the strong arm of Roman ecclesial power, and tragic devastation accompanied the uprooting of the heresy; the killing of 20,000 residents of Beziers in 1209 suggests the scale of both the response and the tragic results. Savall’s work here is in part a musical excavation of this landscape, but is more prominently an explicit political reminder that our modern history resounds with the echoes. He writes of humankind’s “terrible amnesia” as “one of the principal causes of our inability to learn from history”; with references to Franco, Hitler, and the more recent wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq he underscores the persistence of that tragic inability.
The music ranges over several centuries. Some of it—fanfares, a haunting funeral march, and the like--is dramatic, even cinematic, in evoking the narrative landscape, with laments offering affective comment. Other music, such as the anti-clerical sirventes of Peire Cardenal, bring the specifics of the narrative into tighter focus. However, although the music is performed with the high polish, strong expressivity, and intensity that have long characterized the work of Savall and his colleagues, this is less an exploration of the music than the use of the music to remind of the poignant stakes at risk in aggression, in the demonizing of others, in not hearing the human voice of those we oppose. Savall’s expansive The Forgotten Kingdom makes the humanity of that voice both inescapable and memorable. The “artist for peace” leaves us much to ponder.