Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Troubadour & Trouvere Songs


The existing manuscripts of troubadour songs of the 12th century typically do not feature mensural notation. According to Fletcher Collins, the application of rhythm to these melodies has historically been problematic, as he writes in his introduction to A Medieval Songbook "Successive mensural transcribers of the medieval songs have gone on the reefs of their theories of transcriptions." He cites the work of Gennrich, whose lifelong work concluded with "another unmelodious compendium of songs" based on transcription of 215 of 262 songs in the third rhythmic mode (x). The third rhythmic mode is the dactylic, i.e., long-short-short. He then cites Ismael Fernandez de la Cuesta who says "the melodies of the Occitan songs do not seem to have been written at a modal rhythm." (from Las Cancons dels Trobadors, Institut d'Estudis Occitans, Toulouse, 1979, p. 31 - note, follow up on this source). Beck's and Gennrich's transcriptions, based on the rhythmic modes, are thereby inherently flawed in forcing such conformity onto the melodies. Again citing de la Cuesta, a song is "left warped and maimed when submitted to the artifice of rhythmical modes."

In criticizing the mechanical application of metrical modes, Collins is, however, unwilling to discard the idea of the use of metrical norms in the music. He feels that composers of medieval monophonic music were quite aware of "metrical units such as iambs, trochees, and dactyls, but also their musical counterparts, and that his compositions may therefore be interpreted mensurally in transcription and performance." (xi). Collins, writing in 1982, calls for a "fresh start" in the mensural notation of medieval songs. Melodious results through experimentation are necessarily to complement any rhythmic theory.

I find the widely published text-only versions of troubadour songs and other medieval poetry analogous to the billboards of Sharp's discovery in early 20th century Appalachia. Sharp notes that ballad poetry has historically been meant to be sung. Following this position, I find the task of mensural transcription of extant song melodies (and the more liberal task of conceiving melodies for text-only survivals) entirely necessary, whether to do so is considered reckless or even unacceptable.

Here is a chronological look at the mensural transcription of troubadour and trouvere songs:

1910: Pierre Aubry's Trouveres et troubadours, 2nd edition (Gennwich follows Aubry's lead on metrical mode transcription)

1958 Gennwich's publication of Der Musikalische Nachlass der Troubadours in three volumes

1982 Collin's publication of The Medieval Songbook and introduction, which I have cited.

1996 Elizabeth Aubrey's The Music of the Troubadours, Indianna UP, also availlable online at*

*An interesting note, in her opening acknowledgments, Ms. Aubrey thanks the late Thomas Binkley for his encouragement. Mr. Binkley's recording work was cited in John Haine's critique of early music performance in Early Music Journal, and he also seems to have mentored the group Altramar in preparation for their album Iberian Gardens. Binkley (1932-1995) worked in Europe in the 1950's, founding the early music group Studio fur Alte Musik (later called Studio fur Fruhe Musik) and later founding the Early Music Institute at University of Indiana in 1979. A consise and informative biography of Mr. Binkley can be found at (Image from, permission pending)

Rhythmic modes, from the anonymous treatise of 1240, De mensurabili musica:
  1. Long-short (trochee)
  2. Short-long (iamb)
  3. Long-short-short (dactyl)
  4. Short-short-long (anapest)
  5. Long-long (spondee)
  6. Short-short (pyrrhic)
Troubadours were composer-performers of Occitan poetry during the High-middle ages. The tradition supposedly began with William IX of Aquitaine, the "first troubadour." For investigation of the connection between the troubadour songs and Moorish Iberia, the historical position of William IX and his father, William VIII (born Guy-Geoffrey) is extremely interesting. Aquitaine, a region in present day South Western France, was a former Roman province ruled between the 5th and 6th centuries by the Visagoths who were driven out by Aquitaine allaiance with the Franks. From 868 to 1137, the region was ruled by the Dukes of Aquitaine. For a piece of material evidence linking Moorish Iberia to the songs of the troubadours, William VIII's 1064 expedition, the Seige of Barbastro offers a fascinating point of transmission. The military campaign, fought at the bequest of Pope Alexander II and an early battle in the Reconquista, was the Pope's first expedition against a Muslim city, wresting control from the Taifa of Muhammad al-Muzaffar (Bischko, 32?). The Christian occupation of the city proved to be quite brief, and Barbastro was returned to Muslim control a mere two years later. However, an invaluable piece of war booty was brought back to the Aquitaine court, namely a number of Arab singing slave girls.

The coincidence is astonishing: not only did William VIII bring home a number of highly trained musicians, but his son, William IX would initiate one of the most pervasive and influential movements in European music in the end of the 11th century. Furthermore, the younger William would have spent his entire youth in this court, and inherited his father's throne at the age of 15, thus becoming their master. This historical coincidence also finds support in analysis of the troubadour poetry as being reminiscent of or even paralleling thematic material and form of Arabic lyric poetry. There is some disagreement as to how much the troubadour songs really are influenced by the Arabic poetry, as Dwight Reynolds cautions, "whether the troubadour tradition derives from the Arabic lyric tradition is probably one of the most conflicted academic questions of at least the last century." (Reynolds).

(Image public domain, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod. fr. 12473)

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