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'This is quite simply the best recording ever of the trouvere literature' (American Record Guide)
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This series is designed to explore the riches of French and English music from 1150 to 1450. Volume I of The Spirits of England and France () contains an anthology surveying the principal repertories from which these recordings are drawn: monophonic songs of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the conductus and Ars Antiqua motet, the polyphonic chansons of fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century France, and English music for the Mass or other devotions. The music for this recording, Volume II, has been selected from the earliest layers represented on Volume I, namely the monophonic song repertories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and specifically the songs of the trouvères. (The word ‘trouvère’ can be traced in the sense ‘a maker of songs’ from about 1165, in the Roman de Troie at line 5192. The fundamental meaning of ‘trouvère’ in Old French is ‘one who devises something’, and its usage was accordingly much broader than modern custom suggests.) Here are riches indeed, mostly from what is now Picardy, Artois, Champagne and Belgium. This repertoire is so large that a hundred recitals such as this would not encompass them. Nearly two thousand lyrics for solo voice have survived, with French words, from the period 1170–1300: love-complaints, tales of erotic adventures in the countryside, debates in verse about matters of love, political lyrics, spinning songs, prayers to the Virgin and calls to a crusade.
The grand chant, a protracted meditation upon the fortunes of loving, was the supreme genre of the trouvères’ art. The nostalgia and gravitas of a song such as Gace Brulé’s Desconfortez, plains de dolor lie close to the heart of the grand chant tradition, as do all of Gace’s songs with their lofty manner and their prestigious Champenois French. Grands chants favour abstraction: there is no explicit narrative context for what is said, and there is rarely an overt admission of physical desire. The lines of poetry are usually maintained at a length which keeps the rhymes from chiming too intensely, in contrast to lighter genres such as the pastourelle. In a grand chant, in other words, one writes like this:
Quant define fueille et flor
Not like this:
Quant voi la fleur nouvele
The more we explore these songs the more we appreciate the difference of tone and technique that separates these two passages, perhaps so similar at first glance. There may be a refrain in a grand chant, but it is usually one that becomes more rueful as each verse passes, or even more sardonic; it is rarely a celebratory refrain (and never a ‘choric’ one) in the manner of some lighter genres. Compare the tone of the refrain in Dolerousement comence by Gontier de Soignies, which acquires the insistence of desperation, with the refrains of the dansas or of Guibert Kaukesel’s balade. The melody of a grand chant is often spacious, the first four lines of verse being commonly set to the melodic pattern ABAB and the following lines to music that may extend the tessitura of the setting upwards. (This change in the tessitura often comes and goes swiftly; to identify it, and to savour it, is part of what constitutes an informed hearing of these songs.) The prevailing musical style of the grand chant was not generally associated with mensural rhythm, or so we have assumed here, and in conservative practice few instruments other than the fiddle were admitted to the performance of such songs.
The jeu parti (‘divided game’) is a debate, usually between two trouvères who address one another at the beginning of each stanza, as in Assenés chi, Grievilier by Adam de la Halle. These poems attest to the interest in questions of love—amounting to a secularized scholasticism—which is such a striking feature of later medieval civilization. The jeux partis have sometimes been treated unkindly by modern scholars; one, for example, has referred to the jeux partis of Adam de la Halle as ‘truly absurd’. No single defence can meet such a sweeping charge, but Assenés chi, Grievilier is representative of many jeux partis in that a true understanding of refined love is associated with the simple wisdom of maxims and proverbs (‘he hears badly who does not listen’): good breeding is clearly not enough. Perhaps this view of love had a special appeal for those who lived in the mercantile world of cities like Arras.
The chanson de toile was particularly favoured in Lorraine, not yet part of the kingdom of France in the thirteenth century. In the romance of Guillaume de Dole (?c1210) composed in the Liège area and thus to the north of modern Lorraine, a queen sings a chanson de toile while embroidering, announcing beforehand that ‘ladies and queens of days gone by were always singing spinning songs as they embroidered’ (lines 1148–1151). This is more than just a realization, through narrative, of the term chanson de toile (‘a song of embroidery’); it reveals the aura of romantic archaism that these songs possessed. This sense of archaism is often enhanced in the chansons de toile by a prosody that favours long lines and monorhymed stanzas, recalling the most ancient stratum of French narrative poetry: the assonating decasyllables of epics such as The Song of Roland or of the Alexander epic tradition. Au novel tens pascor is an example of this. Many chansons de toile are about the loneliness or distress of women: Au novel tens pascor reveals the consequences which could ensue from the use of language such as the male speakers in most trouvère lyrics employ (‘I beseech you for your love … if you deny me in this you will put me in torment’) and it also exposes the brutality of male, feudal power when it has no vested interest in persuading gently (‘if you are seen or encountered here, your life will be over forthwith’).
The pastourelle is the reverse of the grand chant in several respects. Pastourelles are usually narrative poems and are candid in their expression of a physical desire that sometimes prevails by force when it cannot prevail by entreaty (‘I, who was smitten, then took her and put her beneath me by force’). They often employ short-range effects of rhyme and melody to create chiming verbal sounds and an instant tunefulness. Their music may often have been mensural; measured rhythm is accordingly employed here for Quant voi la fleur nouvele, for Je chevauchai and for Por conforter mon corage, a pastourelle which shares its music with a motet-clausula complex and was almost certainly intended for mensural performance. A striking piece of evidence suggests that they may often have been associated with instrumental accompaniment: Richart de Semilli’s Chançon ferai plain d’ire et de pensee (not recorded here) uses exactly the same melody as Je chevauchai, and in the text of the former poem Richart declares that his song will be ‘played on the citole’ before the lady’s door. (See S M Johnson, The Lyrics of Richard de Semilli (Binghampton, New York, 1992), p. 52. Not all the sources of the song have this reading.) The melody in question, shared by the two poems, is much as we might expect for a thirteenth-century French lyric intended for instrumental participation: it uses highly assertive sequential patterns and was perhaps designed for mensural rendition. We have accordingly used a plucked stringed instrument, a lute, to accompany Je chevauchai.
The descort is represented by Gautier de Dargies’s La doce pensee. A descort (‘discord’) disrupts the decorum of all the forms mentioned above by using stanzas that are ‘discordant’ in several senses. First, each stanza has a different metrical form and melody; the stanzas therefore do not ‘accord’ with one another. Secondly, the form of the descort subverts the grand chant manner, and yet many descorts use a high-style poetic idiom that would be at home in a grand chant—another source of ‘discord’. Thirdly, the musical settings of descorts, La doce pensee included, often use patterns of literal and short-range melodic repetition that are rarely cultivated in the grand chant repertory. Sometimes the literal repetition is so insistent that momentary variation produces a striking sensation. Repetition of this kind also magnifies the effect of a shift in tessitura from one verse to another; this is a common device in the lai/descort repertoire.
Finally to the balade and dansa. It is curious that the performances of dansas and a balade recorded here should have so much in common with many previous recordings intended to represent general trouvère practice, for these dansas and the balade lie on the periphery of ‘trouvère song’ as do the musical practices here associated with them. With the balade and dansa we are on safe ground with regard to the use of instruments and of mensural rhythm, for these two terms both evoke dance. Several songs of the thirteenth century refer to themselves as balades, one of them being Guibert Kaukesel’s Un chant novel where the musico-poetic form is quite unlike that of most grands chants; notice the monorhymed lines in sequences of three, broken by a new rhyme that anticipates that of the refrain. This seems to be one kind of structure that thirteenth-century musicians associated with the term balade. This word has clearly been borrowed from Old Provençal; the corresponding French form is ‘balet(t)e’, and in one important manuscript of around 1300 the texts of many ‘balettes’ are given, preceded by an illustration of dancers accompanied by a drum. (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308.) Some of the ‘balettes’ in this manuscript (especially those which anticipate the Ars Nova ballade) are probably not intended for dancing, but there seems no reason why some should not have been performed exactly as the illustration suggests. We have accordingly added percussion to Guibert Kaukesel’s balade and have adopted a mensural transcription.
The term dansa is Old Provençal but most of the surviving dansas in that language are to be found in French or Catalan manuscripts. (Of great importance here is G A Bond, ‘The Last Unpublished Troubadour Songs’, Speculum, 60 (1985), pp. 827–49.) The dansas recorded here are late (?c1310) and probably quite Frenchified versions of a very varied dance-song tradition in Old Occitan which appears to have been of little interest to the compilers of the principal troubadour sources. Amors m’art con fuoc am flama and Donna pos vos ay chausida are both written in mensural notation in the ‘Manuscrit du Roi’ (trouvère chansonnier M). The dansa is associated with instrumental accompaniment in several sources from the later twelfth century onwards, including the Doctrina de compondre dictatz attributed to Jofre de Foixà. This treatise on troubadour poetry was probably composed around 1300 and is therefore approximately contemporary with our dansas; we have added bagpipes to Amors m’art con fuoc am flama and a lute to Donna pos vos ay chausida.
The instrumental estampies are additions of the early fourteenth century to this same ‘Manuscrit du Roi’. They are included here not only to represent a precious stratum of music in one chansonnier but also to provide examples of tunes constructed in a melodic and rhythmic style that is quite foreign to the central genre of the grand chant: the estampies help us to keep some important contrastive relationships in the front of our minds. As on the first volume of The Spirits of England and France, these estampies have been treated as art-music for a solo fiddler.
Underlying a good deal of trouvère poetry, and especially the grand chant, is a desire for purity of language. Most conspicuous to us, perhaps, is the purity of sentiment; as we have seen, blunt admissions of physical desire are generally confined to certain kinds of poem such as the pastourelle. The grand chant often deals in more evasive terms, including the ubiquitous joie, where the possibility of protesting an innocent or idealistic sense for the language used is always open. There is also, however, purity of language in the sense of purity of dialect. One of the early trouvères, Conon de Béthune, was chided for his Picard accent by the French king, Philippe Augustus, who spoke Francien, the dialect of the Ile-de-France and the ancestor of Modern French. (Conon relates this himself in his song Mout me semont Amors.) It has also been observed that Adam de la Halle generally avoids Picardisms in his grands chants; just as striking is the way he respects the case system of Old French, decaying rapidly in his own day. The linguistic tone of a grand chant was perhaps often comparable to that of a conservative version of Received Pronunciation English preserving the dative case (‘to whom do you refer?’) and retaining subjunctives (‘if I were you’).
was a member of the minor noble family of Burulé from Champagne. He had connections of some kind with Geoffrey of Brittany, son of Henry II of England and brother of Richard the Lionheart. Gace’s songs, more than seventy in number, were probably written between 1179 and 1212, and long after his death these works of ‘my lord Gace’ (This is the respectful title given to Gace in Jean Renart’s Roman de Guillaume de Dole (lines 845 and 3620) of disputed date (c1210) but almost certainly composed during Gace’s lifetime.) were cherished as authoritative examples of the grand chant. His Champenois form of French did much to establish the lyric koine of the first half of the thirteenth century. There may have been personal contacts between Gace and Gautier de Dargies, a member of a cadet branch of the family of de Dargies from the modern Oise.
was apparently from Arras, a Parnassus of lyric poetry in the thirteenth century. The few songs associated with his name, together with the almost total obscurity of his name today, provide a reminder that many beguiling lyrics lie waiting to be discovered in little-known corners of this huge repertoire of poetry and music. The same might be made about , a trouvère of whom so little is known for certain that it is hazardous even to translate his name (Ernoul the old? Ernoul the fiddle-player?), or indeed about . Richart may have had associations with the city of Paris, mentioned in several of his songs. His French places him around 1200. The name of Gontier de Soignies points to the northern and north-eastern regions of France and modern Belgium which were the homeland of most trouvères. Audefroi, active during the first third of the thirteenth century, was another trouvère of Arras, a city where a respect for the old, high traditions reaching back to Gace Brulé and others coexisted with a vigorous inventiveness and an insatiable appetite for songs of every kind. Audefroi was single-handedly responsible for an impressive number of the surviving chansons de toile. was an Artesian poet-composer of remarkable versatility, for his surviving works include vernacular verse-dramas, polyphonic motets, polyphonic rondeaux, and songs in several of the traditional genres including the jeu parti.
A note on performance
The manuscripts often show great variation in the number of stanzas in any given song. There is evidence that abbreviated versions of many songs were in circulation, and numerous instances might be cited which suggest that some people in the thirteenth century found the grand chant, for example, too grand. In the editions performed here we have generally been content with four stanzas.
We are grateful to Stephen Haynes, Peregrine Rand and John Stevens for help and advice.
Christopher Page © 1995
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