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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


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


By that time, however, it had spawned a hardy successor in northern France itself, despite hostilities between the northern courts and those of Languedoc. The earliest French imitations of Provençal lyrics, by poet-musicians who called themselves trouvères (in direct translation from the Occitan), were composed something less than a century after the Provençal tradition had its start, and gathered strength all through the thirteenth century while the art of the troubadours declined.

One of the main brokers of this northward migration was Eleanor of Aquitaine herself. She was the granddaughter of the first troubadour, the patron of a great troubadour (Bernart de Ventadorn), whom she brought with her up to France, and both mother and great-grandmother of notable trouvères. Eleanor’s trouvère son, Richard I (Lion-Heart), though born in England and eventually his father’s successor as king (1189–99), had succeeded first to the titles of his great-grandfather William and lived most of his life in Aquitaine. He never learned English. His poems are found in both Provençal and French sources; the only one to survive with its melody (or, at any rate, with a melody) is found only in French.


fig. 4-4 Tomb effigies of (a) Eleanor of Aquitaine and (b) her son, Richard I (Lion-Heart), in the crypt of the Plantagenet kings at the Abbey of Fontevrault, France.

That song, Ja nun hons pris (Ex. 4-3), while cast in a form resembling the canso (or, in French, chanson courtoise), is not about love but about honor. It is a lament on his famous captivity (1192–94) following the Third Crusade, when his enemy Leopold V of Austria held him for the proverbial “king’s ransom,” a ruinous levy that was eventually raised by Richard’s English subjects. (Apocryphal though it almost surely is, one cannot omit the “well-found” legend that Richard’s squire and fellow trouvère Blondel de Nesle succeeded in learning the captured king’s whereabouts by singing one of Richard’s songs within the royal earshot and hearing the King come back in turn with the refrain. The tale goes back to the thirteenth century and in 1784 was turned into an opera by the French composer André Grétry, in which Richard’s “romance,” as imagined by Grétry, is a dramatically recurring “leitmotif.” True or false, the story certainly shows the importance the knight-crusaders attached to their musical activity.)


ex. 4-3 Richard Coeur-de-Lion (Lion-Heart), Ja nun hons pris (first verse)

In its thirteenth-century sources Richard’s song is classified as a retrouenge, a term modern scholars have not yet succeeded in defining. It may mean no more than a song in the vernacular rather than Latin, but it probably has to do with the use of a concluding tag line or refrain. The form of the song will be familiar with its initial melodic repetition or pes, producing the stanzaic pattern aab. We first encountered it in the Salve Regina (it can be traced further back yet, all the way to the classical Greek ode), and we will re-encounter it again and again in later repertories. The German guild poets called Meistersinger (“master singers”; about them see below) finally gave it a name—“bar form”—in the fifteenth century, and we might as well borrow it back from them to describe their forgotten model. (The term came from the jargon of fencing, in which a bar or barat meant a well-aimed thrust.)

Eleanor’s trouvère great-grandson was Thibaut IV (1201–53), Count of Champagne and King of Navarre in what are now the Spanish Pyrenees. He was one of the most prolific of the French noble poets at the very height of their activity. His grandmother, Countess Marie of Champagne, Eleanor’s daughter by her first marriage, was the patron of Gace Brulé (ca. 1160–sometime after 1213), the first great trouvère, from whom Thibaut may have begun to learn his craft. Between them Gace and Thibaut turned out 110 songs with surviving music (62 and 48 respectively; of course these numbers reflect the much higher general survival rate among trouvère songs compared with those of the troubadours). Thibaut’s De bone amour vient seance et bonté (“>From love all wisdom and goodness come”) expresses the conventional, by now somewhat hackneyed if elegant sentiments of fine amours (to use the French variant of the phrase) in the equally stereotyped ode or bar form, by now the stock formal mold for channeling lofty expression (Ex. 4-4).


ex. 4-4 Thibaut IV de Champagne, De bone amour vient seance et bonté (first verse)

The foregoing pair of songs, by a pair of kings, shows how closely the early trouvère repertory was modeled on its Provençal progenitor. As long as the art of the trouvère remained an art of the castle, it seemed to differ little, except in language, from the art of the troubadour. And yet from the very beginning there were in fact some subtle but significant differences, both on the level of form and style and on that of social attitude and practice; and they became more pronounced with the passage of time.


To begin with, narrative genres loomed much larger in the trouvère repertory and vied more seriously with the lyric genres for pride of place. The lai, a sequence-like series of changing stanzas held together by a story line, was much more important to the trouvères than its Provençal counterpart, the descort, had ever been to the troubadours. This reflects the longstanding popularity of narrative poetry (romances and chansons de geste, “songs of deeds”) in the north. It was a Celtic rather than a Mediterranean inheritance. One of the earliest trouvères, Chrétien de Troyes, who was active at the court of Marie of Champagne from the 1160s to the 1190s, was much better known for his epic romances, including the original Arthurian legends of Perceval and Lancelot, than for his handful of lyrics.

New genres of narrative song based on the folklike pastorela (pastourelle) idiom became popular in thirteenth-century France. One of these, the chanson de toile, always reflected the woman’s point of view, whatever the sex of the singer. The name of the genre, literally “picture-song” (from toile, “a canvas”), referred to the opening device of setting a domestic scene (what in painting is called a “genre scene”), usually of a lovely maiden (Bele Doette, Bele Ysabiauz, Bele Yolanz, etc.) spinning, weaving, or reading a book—but mainly pining for her lover. Each stanza ended with an exclamatory refrain to underscore the maiden’s tender feelings.

Most chansons de toile have come down to us without attribution. The name of only one poet is primarily associated with this genre: Audefroi le Bastart, to whom are attributed six out of the two dozen or more specimens that survive. Like the songs of Thibaut IV, Audefroi’s Bele Ydoine is found in the so-called Manuscrit du Roi, prepared for Charles d’Anjou, the brother of King Louis IX of France (and himself a trouvère), between 1246 and 1254. With over five hundred songs (fifty by troubadours, the rest by trouvères in descending order of social rank), it is the largest and most sumptuous of all chansonniers.

Refrains lived a life of their own in the works of the trouvères. Detached from their original contexts—in pastourelles, in chansons de geste, in otherwise unrecorded dance songs (caroles) and popular ditties—they circulated like proverbs from song to song, and it became a mark of skill for a trouvère to contrive new settings for familiar tags. Ier mains pensis chevauchai by Ernoul Caupain, an especially elaborate chanson avec des refrains, incorporates no fewer than eight of them, one into each stanza.

Narratives and migrating refrains were both popularizing touches, and so was the general lack of concern among the trouvères for the values of trobar clus, so beloved of the troubadours. Chançon legiere à entendre ferai, wrote Conon de Béthune (d. 1220), one of the noblest trouvères by birth and a knight-crusader to boot: “I will make a song that is light upon the ear, for it matters to me that all may learn it and willingly sing it.” Few among his northern counterparts were inclined to contradict him, and Conon’s sentiment would only gain in force as the courtly art he practiced underwent a phenomenal social transformation.

For past the middle of the thirteenth century, the main site of musico-literary activity among the French shifts from castle to town, mirroring the general movement of society. Urbanization, on the rise since the eleventh century, had begun to gallop. Over the century ending around 1250, the city of Paris doubled in size. Its streets were paved and its walls expanded. The first Louvre (a fortress) and several major churches including Notre Dame were built, and the city’s schools were organized into a university. The episcopal town of Arras to the north was granted a commercial charter in 1180 and soon became an international center of banking and trade, the bastion of France’s emerging class of town-dwelling freemen—bourgeoisie, in the original meaning of the term. It was at Paris and (especially) Arras that musical activity burgeoned among this capacious class and came to be organized along lines comparable in some respects to crafts guilds.

This tendency was epitomized in the Confrérie des Jongleurs et des Bourgeois d’Arras (Brotherhood of Minstrels and Townspeople of Arras), nominally a lay religious guild founded near the beginning of the thirteenth century, which became a leading sponsor of musico-poetic pursuits. Audefroi le Bastart, the specialist in chansons de toile, was a member, as were the three most important trouvères of the late thirteenth century: Moniot d’Arras (d. 1239), Jehan Bretel (d. 1272), and Adam de la Halle, the last of the line (d. ca. 1307).

To the first of this trio, whose pseudonym means “The Little Monk of Arras,” belongs the most famous pastourelle in the repertory, Ce fut en mai (“It happened in May”; Ex. 4-5). Its text contains a valuable bit of testimony, corroborated by other witnesses, about how such songs were performed: it describes a dance accompanied by a fiddle (viele). On the assumption that it is itself a dance song, it is transcribed in a regular alternation of long and short syllables yielding a sort of iambic meter. The musical structure approximates the “binary” form of later dance styles: two phrases of equal length, each repeated with contrasting “open” and “shut” cadences. That plus the use of the major mode (Lydian with B-flat) makes this a consummate imitation folk song. There is little left here of the Latinate.


ex. 4-5 Moniot d’Arras, Ce fut en mai (pastourelle)

Jehan Bretel was the great master of the jeu-parti (“mock-debate”), the trouvère equivalent of the troubadour tenso. These jousts-in-song were performed and judged before the so-called Arras Puy, a branch of the Confrérie that held regular competitions at which songs were “crowned.” At least one manuscript from the period actually indicates with little cartoon crowns the chansons couronées that were so honored by the Puy. Jehan Bretel, not a nobleman but a wealthy burgher of the town, won these contests so often with his jeux-partis that he was elected “Prince” or presiding judge of the Puy, thus putting him out of contention. His elevation was a formal assertion of artistic “meritocracy”—aristocracy achieved by merit, not birth.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004003.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004003.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004003.xml