Quince Ensemble

David Lang: love fail

Innova 056




1. he was and she was  8:05

2. break #1   0:39

3. dureth  1:16

4. a different man  1:21

5. the wood and the vine  8:09

6. right and wrong  2:44

7. you will love me  2:40

8. forbidden subjects  2:52

9. as love grows stronger  5:48

10. break #2    0:17

11. the outing 1:42

12. i live in pain  3:49

13. head, heart  2:56

14. break #3  2:59

15. mild, light  4:22


Total: 49:39



Performed by Quince Ensemble
Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, soprano, glockenspiel
Kayleigh Butcher, mezzo soprano, conch shell, concert bass drum
Liz Pearse, soprano, ratchet, woodblock
Carrie Henneman Shaw, soprano, sizzle cymbal

Recorded at Wild Sound Studio, Minneapolis, MN, June/July 2019
Sound Engineering, Editing, Mixing, Mastering: Steve Kaul
Album Producer: Fredrick Gifford

love fail (2012) is a 60-minute meditation created by Pulitzer-Prize-winning post-minimalist American composer David Lang about the timelessness of love that weaves together details from medieval retellings of the story of Tristan and Isolde with stories from more modern sources. The music and libretto pull together narratives of love from such sources as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul, Thomas of Britain and Richard Wagner. The text is by David Lang (after Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul, Thomas of Britain and Richard Wagner).


Program Note from Composer:

Why is it that people still like the story of Tristan und Isolde? It has been told repeatedly for almost 1000 years, and in many different versions, with all manner of strange details added or changed. “The greatest love story ever!” But why? Of course, there is excitement, drama, love, lust, shame, death, dragons. I think the real reason why is because the love of Tristan und Isolde begins by accident - they drink a love potion. They didn’t mean to drink it, and they didn’t mean to fall in love. They drink and - BAM! - it starts. It is almost a laboratory experiment into what love might be like without any of the complications of how real love begins or works-without the excitement, embarrassment, frustration, guilt, or competition present in the courtships of ordinary people.


I thought I might learn something about love if I could explore this in a piece, putting details abstracted from many different retellings of Tristan und Isolde next to texts that are more modern, more recognizable to us, more real. First I scoured the literature and took my favorite weird incidents from the originals; for example, in Marie de France’s version Tristan carves his name on a stick for Isolde to find, she sees it and immediately knows what message Tristan means to convey, and that message – incredibly - is many pages long. Another example: Tristan and Isolde drink the potion, thinking it is wine, and Gottfried von Strassburg writes, dramatically, that it isn’t wine they are drinking, but a cup of their never-ending sorrow. (This, near the chapter in which Gottfried lists all the other Germanic poets working in the 12th century, and then tells you how he rates among them.) I compiled the oddest incidents from these versions of their romance, took out all the names or technological information that would make the texts seem ancient, and put them next to stories by the contemporary author Lydia Davis. These stories are oddly similar to the Tristan stories - they are also about love, honor, and respect between two people, but they are much more recognizable to us.


I based my words on scraps of the text I found on the internet – thank you google translate! I do want to acknowledge the translations of Robert W. Hanning and Joan Ferrante, A. T. Hatto, and Alan S. Fedrick, whose versions of these texts I consulted more than once.

– David Lang

love fail


1. he was and she was

(words by David Lang, after Gottfried von Strassburg)

he was a blessed man

he was an understanding man

he was an ecstatic man

he was a joyful man

he was a delightful man

he was a free man

he was a studious man

he was a masterful man

she was so wise

she was so fair

she was so shining

she was so lovely

she was so studious

she was so versed

she was so young

she was so fair

he was a persevering man (he was so persevering)

he was a learned man (he was so learned)

he was a skillful man (he was so skillful)

he was a strong man (he was so strong )

he was a skillful man (he was so skillful)

he was an excelling man (he was so excelling)

he was a fortunate man (he was so fortunate)

he was a rare man (he was so rare)

she was so masterful

she was so diligent

she was so refined

she was so polite

she was so accomplished

she was so lovely

she was so excellent

she was so dexterous

he was a fair man

he was a blessed man

he was an admirable man

he was a successful man

he was a noble man

he was an excellent man

he was a worthy man

he was a cherished man

she was so sweet

she was so soft

she was so secret

she was so wondrous

she was so charming

she was so lovely

she was so good

she was so young


break #1

(words by David Lang, after Beroul)

three years

three years after it started

it ended


2. dureth

(words by Sir Thomas Malory)

the joy of love is too short,

and the sorrow thereof,

and what cometh thereof,

dureth over long.


3. A Different Man

(words by Lydia Davis)

At night he was a different man. If she knew him as he was in the morning, at night she hardly recognized him: a pale man, a gray man, a man in a brown sweater, a man with dark eyes who kept his distance from her, who took offense, who was not reasonable. In the morning, he was a rosy king, gleaming, smooth-cheeked and smooth-chinned, fragrant with perfumed talc, coming out into the sunlight with a wide embrace in his royal red plaid robe…


4. the wood and the vine

(words by David Lang, after Marie de France)

now Iʼll tell you a story

that is also the truth –

it is the truth

the wood and the vine

we all know this story

We have heard it before

it was told to us by everyone

and everyone told it to you


a man and a woman

they loved so much

and were so true

and they suffered so much

and on a single day, they died.


their love was forbidden

he went back to the place

where he was born.

but being apart made him

sick with despair.


donʼt be surprised -


a lover grieves

when love is far away

sadness can make us all

sick with despair


he stayed there for years, until, at last,

he went back,

to get, to try, to hope

to get a message to his love


he hid in the woods

by where she lived

and found a path

where she might walk

he cut a branch and, on it,

he carved a single word -

his name -

and left it on the path

where she might find it.

then she would know the message

and she would know just what the message meant.


later she came along the same path

and saw the piece of wood

she knew exactly what it was

she saw the single word carved upon it

and she knew.


this is what she knew:


“dearest love

this is my message

I send it to you

I have waited for you

I have waited to see you

even now I am waiting for you in the woods


I cannot live without you

I cannot live without you


“you and I -

we are like the vine that winds itself around the branch

it twines and pulls and digs into the flesh,

so tight that the two of them become one

the two become one

if someone pulls the two apart then both will die.

so it is with us, my love, so it is with us.

you cannot live without me.

I cannot live without you.

I cannot live without you.

you cannot live without me.”


she went a short way into the woods

and found him

and they wept.

they wept with joy when they were together

and they wept with sadness when they left.


later he remembered the joy and the sadness

and he wrote this song:


“the wood and the vine”


every word is true.

all true.


5. Right and Wrong

(words by Lydia Davis)

She knows she is right, but to say she is right is wrong, in this case. To be correct and say so is wrong, in certain cases.

She may be correct, and she may say so, in certain cases. But if she insists too much, she becomes wrong, so wrong that even her correctness becomes wrong, by association. It is right to believe in what she thinks is right, but to say what she thinks is right is wrong, in certain cases.


She is right to act on her beliefs, in her life. But she is wrong to report her right actions, in most cases. Then even her right actions become wrong, by association.

If she praises herself, she may be correct in what she says, but her saying it is wrong, in most cases, and thus cancels it, or reverses it, so that although she was for a particular act deserving of praise, she is no longer in general deserving of praise.


6. you will love me

(words by David Lang, after Gottfried von Strassburg)

you will love me

me, alone

above all others

above all other things

you will love me


we will live one life

we will die one death

we will share one joy

we will share one sorrow


it is not wine

it is our lasting sorrow

it is not wine

it is our never-ending anguish

and we drink it

we drink it


7. Forbidden Subjects

(words by Lydia Davis)

Soon almost every subject they might want to talk about is associated with yet another unpleasant scene and becomes a subject they canʼt talk about, so that as time goes by there is less and less they can safely talk about, and eventually little else but the news and what theyʼre reading, though not all of what theyʼre reading. They canʼt talk about certain members of her family, his working hours, her working hours, rabbits, mice, dogs, certain foods, certain universities, hot weather, hot and cold room temperatures at night and in the day, lights on and lights off in the evening in summer, the piano, music in general, how much money he earns, what she earns, what she spends, etc. But one day, after they have been talking about a forbidden subject, though not the most dangerous of the forbidden subjects, she realizes it may be possible, sometimes, to say something calm and careful about a forbidden subject, so that it may once again become a subject that can be talked about, and then to say something calm and careful about another forbidden subject, so that there will be another subject that can be talked about once again, and that as more subjects can be talked about once again there will be, gradually, more talk between them, and that as there is more talk there will be more trust, and that when there is enough trust, they may dare to approach even the most dangerous of the forbidden subjects.


8. as love grows stronger

(words by David Lang, after Gottfried von Strassburg)

as love grows stronger

love holds us closer


as love grows stronger

love holds us tight


as love grows stronger

as love grows stronger


we become more beautiful

to each other


this is the seed

from which love grows

from which love never dies





as it ever was

as it ever is

as it ever will be



break #2

(instrumental, conch shell)


9. The Outing

(words by Lydia Davis)

An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.


10. I live in pain

(words by David Lang, after Beatriz, Contessa de Dia)

I live in pain

for someone I once had,

for someone I once wanted

for someone I once knew

for someone I once loved, without measure.

I see now that he left me

because I did not give him all my love

I see now I was wrong

and now I sleep alone


I want to hold him

in my naked arms

I want to lie beside him

in my bed

I want him more

than any long-forgotten lovers ever loved before

I want to give him everything

my heart

my love

my senses

my sight

my life


good friend, kind friend, fearless friend

when will I have you?

when will you lie beside me?

when will I give you my love?

you know how much I want you.

promise me

you will do what I say


do what I say



11. Head, Heart

(words by Lydia Davis)

Heart weeps.

Head tries to help heart.

Head tells heart how it is, again:

You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.

Heart feels better, then.

But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.

Heart is so new to this.

I want them back, says heart.

Head is all heart has.

Help, head. Help, heart.


break #3

(words by David Lang, after Thomas of Britain, and the Yom Kippur liturgy)

if I have to drown, I know, that you will drown

if I have to burn, I know, that you will burn

if God wills it


if I have to bleed, I know, that you will bleed

if I have to be devoured, I know, that you will be devoured

if God wills it


if I have to starve, I know, that you will starve

if I have to thirst, I know, that you will thirst

if I have to wander, all my days, I know, that you will wander, all your days

if I have to suffer, I know, that you will suffer


if I have to be impoverished, I know, that you will be impoverished

if I have to be degraded, I know, that you will be degraded

if God wills it

if God wills it, so be it.


12. mild, light

(words by David Lang, after Richard Wagner)

mild, light

see him smile

see his eye, open –

do you see it?


he shines so bright

like a star, rising

do you see it? oh, yes, I see it


do you hear his heart?

do you smell his sweet breath?

do you? yes, I do


am I the only one

who hears this music?

oh, I hear it

it is so soft

it is so sad

it comes from him

through me, and up

and rises all around me


I hear it, I breathe it in

I drink it, It is so sweet


will we just fade?

buried in the raging storm?

buried beneath the ringing sound?





so sweet