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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors
Richard Taruskin

Jehan’s musical debating partner at the Arras Puy was often Adam de la Halle, called “Adam le Bossu”—Adam the Hunchback—by his contemporaries (“although I am not one,” he complained in one of his poems). At the time of their jointly composed jeux-partis, Adam was a young man, just back from his studies in Paris. His advanced studies had acquainted Adam with the various forms of “university music” that we will take up in later chapters. They equipped him to compose polyphonic music, and he became the only trouvère to do so. His skills made him famous, and he had an international career that ranged from Italy, which he visited in the retinue of Charles d’Anjou, to England, where he is reputed to have performed, as an old man, at the coronation of Edward II in 1307. An entire chansonnier, evidently compiled late in the thirteenth century, is given over almost wholly to a retrospective collection of his works, grouped by genres: first traditional chansons courtoises, then the jeux-partis, and finally the polyphonic works.

Of these last there are two groups. The first consists of French verses, harmonized the way Latin versus (or, up north, conductus) were often harmonized at the time, in a fairly strict homorhythmic (-note-against-note or “chordal”) texture, and notated in score. (The second group consists of more complicated polyphonic compositions called motets; we will deal with them in chapter 7.) Like all polyphonic music of the period, Adam’s used a new type of notation that fixed the rhythms exactly. (We will deal with that in chapter 7, too.) Polyphonic writing was a very “learned” style for a trouvère, so what is especially interesting—even curious—about Adam’s polyphonically set verses is that they are cast in the folksiest (or rather, the most mock-naive) of all quasi-pastoral genres, the dance-song called rondel.

Mock-naive, because for all its rustic pretension the rondel (or rondeau, as it is more commonly called by musicians) is actually a quite sophisticated kind of poem. The name (“round” or “circular”) may originally have stemmed from the nature of the dance it accompanied; but it also well describes the “rounded” form of the poem, in which a “contained refrain” both frames the verse and appears, truncated, within it. A contained refrain is one that uses the same melody as the verse itself; thus the form of a rondeau can be represented with letters as follows: AB a A ab AB, where the capital letters stand for the refrain text, and the lower case letters for new text, all sung to the same tune. The trick was to contrive a poem in which the refrains both rounded the verse and also made linear sense when the whole verse was sung or recited in sequence. The clever effect that can be achieved in this way, even without music, has kept the “rondel” (as it is still called by poets) popular with makers of “light verse” into recent times. Here is an example by Austin Dobson (1840–1921):


  • [A] Rose kissed me today
  • [B] Will she kiss me tomorrow?
  • [a] Let it be as it may,
  • [A] Rose kissed me today,
  • [a] But the pleasure gives way
  • [b] To a savour of sorrow;—
  • [A] Rose kissed me today,—
  • [B] Will she kiss me tomorrow?

And here is an example by Adam de la Halle, perfect for memorization even in this hopelessly literate day and age because the “A” and the “B” have each been whimsically held down to a single measure (Ex. 4-6).

Adam De La Halle and the Formes Fixes

ex. 4-6 Adam de la Halle, Bone amourete

The first written rondeaux (texts only) are “found objects,” popular songs interpolated into old narrative romances to “illustrate” dance scenes. (The first such usage is in a manuscript dated 1228.) Rondeaux were the source of many of the popular refrains in the store from which thirteenth-century composers of chansons avec des refrains would draw. In fact, the word “rondeau” may have originally meant a song framed (sur-rounded) by a quoted refrain. No rondeau with surviving music seems to be any older than Adam’s polyphonic ones, however. There are ten monophonic rondeaux by Adam’s contemporary Guillaume d’Amiens, who was a famous manuscript illuminator besides being a trouvère, and another dozen by a Parisian cleric named Jehannot de l’Escurel (hanged for debauchery in 1304). There is no reason to think these pieces any earlier than Adam’s, though, just because they are written in a simpler texture.

Adam De La Halle and the Formes FixesAdam De La Halle and the Formes Fixes

ex. 4-7 Adam de la Halle, Dieus soit en cheste maison (ballade)

The rondeau was one of three types of dance-song (carole) with refrain that came into widespread use as models for composed music beginning with Adam in the late thirteenth century. They differed from one another chiefly in the deployment of the refrains. What they had in common was more significant. Take away the refrains from a rondeau—that is, simply take away the capital letters from the alphabet scheme up above—and we are left with the long-familiar canso, the basic stanza in ode or bar form, thus:


Add a refrain (not a “contained” refrain but one with different music) on either side of the basic stanza, and we get the form of Adam’s Dieus soit en cheste maison (“God be in this house”):

It was called a ballade (Ex. 4-7). Give the refrain the same music as the “tail” (cauda) or nonrepeating line of the stanza, so that it is “contained,” and we get the form of Adam’s

Fines amouretes ai (“Many fine lovers have I”):


It was called a chanson balladé, “danced song,” or more commonly, virelai, from the Old French verb virer, “to turn around” (Ex. 4-8; since it is conventional and commonsensical to begin an alphabet scheme with the letter A, the virelai form is almost always given as A bba A, which unfortunately disguises the basic stanza within it). These three genres—ballade, virelai, rondeau—encompass the whole repertoire of what would be called the formes fixes, the “fixed forms” in which lyric poetry, no longer associated with the dance, would continue to be written and set to increasingly elaborate music over the next two centuries. Rather quickly, moreover, the ballade shed its refrain when set as a fancy polyphonic composition; in doing so, of course, it merely reverted to the basic canso shape.

Adam De La Halle and the Formes Fixes

ex. 4-8a Adam de la Halle, Fines amouretes ai (virelai)

Adam De La Halle and the Formes Fixes

ex. 4-8b Adam de la Halle, Je muir (Rondeau)


It was during his sojourn in Italy that Adam wrote what has become his best known work, Le jeu de Robin et de Marion, best translated as “Robin and Marion, a play with music.” It was a sort of offering from his employer, the Count of Anjou (based in Sicily), to the king of Naples, before whom it was performed in 1283. With its alternation of dialogue and sixteen diminutive monophonic dance-songs and duets, this work has often been anachronistically compared with the later “singspiel” or comic opera. More appropriately, it can be described as an acted-out pastourelle, for that is the narrative tradition to which its dramatized plot belongs. Marion, a shepherdess, loves the shepherd Robin (as she tells us in the opening song, a modified virelai; Ex. 4-9); accosted by Sir Aubert, a knight out hunting, she resists; Robin goes to town in search of protection for her; while he is gone Sir Aubert comes back, abducts Marion; Robin, warned by his friend Gautier, pursues, is beaten back; Marion escapes anyway; the lovers, reunited, celebrate.

Adam De La Halle and the Formes Fixes

ex. 4-9 Adam de la Halle, Robins m’aime (from Le jeu de Robin et de Marion)

Because Adam’s collected work is so readily available in the retrospective manuscript described above, it was published in an edition by the French musical antiquarian Charles-Edmond-Henri de Coussemaker as early as 1872. “Le trouvère de la Halle,” as he was called there, thus became the earliest medieval musician whose work was comprehensively recovered in modern times. Performances of Le jeu de Robin et Marion (usually harmonized in a contemporary fake-medieval style), billed as “the world’s first opera,” enjoyed a big vogue in all the capitals of Europe. There was a particularly successful revival in St. Petersburg’s “Antique Theater” in 1907, with harmonizations by the local conservatory musicologist, an Italian named Liberio Sacchetti. It was produced by the same team that later brought “Russian ballet” to Paris and made musical and theatrical history. Thus it is a striking instance of the interest musical modernists have often shown in “early music” and the inspiration they have drawn from it—another theme to be pursued in later chapters.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004004.xml