29 May 2007

Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères: The Changing Identity of Medieval Music

The interpretive reception of medieval music begins, as John Haines lays forth in the present investigation, already during the latter period of the Middle Ages.

Although the term “chansonnier” came into use only during the eighteenth century, the collections thus signified of troubadour and trouvère songs — assembled between the mid-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries — were a significant interpretive source of earlier musical invention. Before analyzing the first such collections, Haines sketches a brief history characterizing the individual poets of each group and their contributions during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While allowing for a progressive development from the southern poet or troubadour to a northern counterpart in the figure of the trouvère, Haines maintains a clear distinction going beyond a mere influence or exclusive imitation. The southern experimentation in the art de trobar is shown to become, in its contrast among the subsequent tradition of the trouvères, simpler in form and stylistically “more playful.” [12] Further differences are noted in the background of the poets, just as Haines marks gradual distinctions among successive generations of the northern trouvères. After an initial identification with the nobility, the later groups of trouvères originate, as here shown, in clerical or non-noble circles. As an additional point in the thesis presented, it is argued that the preservation of songs from the troubadours and trouvères was due, in part, to changes in the sociological and cultural landscape of the poet and audience. By the late thirteenth century Haines posits a “waning” of the song-art in composition at the same time that the collection of earlier songs was first undergoing commission. The copying of songs, often now paired with musical notation, removed such texts from the exclusive domain of performance and created a new context for their continued albeit altered appreciation. Featured here among the reasons for these earliest “editions” of the medieval lyric in France was the growth of an urban culture in areas such as Toulouse and Arras. With steady increase and diversification during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries these newly expanded metropolitan areas produced both poets and an appetite for collective volumes within a greatly enhanced industry of book production. The “first readers” of chansonniers proved themselves to be avid collectors, such that the earliest surviving volumes exhibit already a noteworthy diversity. Some of these first codices contain a mix of both troubadour and trouvères melodies, while others show a more restrictive use of available sources. In order that present readers might appreciate the contents of the early chansonniers, Haines provides informative charts mapping out their chronology, current location of manuscripts, and available data on lost sources which presumably included musical notation.

In his second chapter with an emphasis on late medieval and early modern reception of medieval song-texts, Haines outlines reasons why the period from 1400 to 1700 was crucial for establishing a subsequent historical image of the Middle Ages. A primary focus is here given to the sixteenth-century scholars Jean de Nostredame and Claude Fauchet, both of whom published fundamental historical investigations defining and categorizing — for their time — the legacy of the troubadours and trouvères. Although these works count among the first scholarly investigations on medieval song, Haines argues that they also gave rise to the earliest legendary stories about the poets, which persisted well into the eighteenth century and beyond. Nationalism, as symbolized in the quasi-historical depictions of Roland and Amadis, complements the critical and popular reaction to the poets as related by Haines, especially for the period of the Renaissance. As summarized by Haines, the reception of these two figures in legend “came out of a Franco-Italian debate over medieval literatures which itself was linked to the emergence of nationalism in both countries during this period.” [59] As a result of such debate, the legacy of the two groups of poets was determined, according to this argument, by the latter part of the seventeenth century. A literary competition of sorts between the two Romance nations prompted the selection of northern poets, or trouvères, as representative of the spirit of France. The neglect of the troubadours — as well as a sustained rivalry between the two groups of medieval poets — essentially had its roots in this significant period of reception.

In his following chapters on the reaction to medieval song during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Haines emphasizes dominant trends exemplified by figures such as Dr. Charles Burney, Pierre Aubry, and Gaston Paris. As expected from the response of contemporary European cultures including German and Dutch, a renewed interest in Old French literature by eighteenth-century “enlightened readers” signified not only a rediscovery of earlier poetic traditions but also a search for authentic literary evidence in the form of manuscripts. The earlier groundwork of Fauchet and Nostrdedame proved to be invaluable, if now subject to revision and expansion in the multi-volume literary histories undertaken during the time of Dr. Burney. As verified by Haines’s admirable survey of contemporary sources and commentary, the study of medieval French literature was a “legitimate scholarly concern” by the latter half of the eighteenth century. [93] Because of an earlier, and still at the time persistent, emphasis on songs of the trouvères, one is justified in asking after the fate of texts and music by the troubadours. After the publication of the first troubadour melody by Dr. Burney in his General History of Music (1782), the path was opened for a broader and more inclusive examination of earlier forms by poets from various geographic regions. The subsequent nineteenth-century reception of songs by the trouvères and troubadours represents, for Haines, a continuation of interest and study, which was present and “maintained from the Middle Ages on.” [157] His chapter on varying approaches to the medieval lyric throughout the nineteenth century succeeds in elaborating on such methods as a further development in the line of reception rather than a fresh discovery of medieval texts, as has been previously argued.

Whereas a number of musicological studies during the past decade or so have dealt with the survival of chant during the post-medieval period, the present monograph offers a revision of earlier views on music associated with the troubadours and trouvères. In addition to correcting a number of inaccurate or stereotypical assumptions, Haines presents the continuous reception of medieval song as a field to be studied both for its own merits and as a measure of cultural preference. The volume concludes with an extensive and useful bibliography.

Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin