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Troubadours and trouvères

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | 1 Comment »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 3

Dante & The Troubadours. Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (link)

The word troubadour is a Frenchified version of trobador, an old Provençal (or Occitan, or langue d’oc) word that derives from trobar, which may be translated as to compose or to find. The first troubadour whose work we know today was Guillaume (1071-ca.1127), count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine. We’ve encountered Aquitaine previously in this history, as home to some of the earliest examples of polyphony; this large region of southern and central France was nominally ruled by the French king but was essentially independent and by the 12th century a home to strong spiritual and artistic communities. This was a feudal society, and like Guillaume most of the troubadours were members of the nobility, although some were commoners whose talents brought them elevated status. High-born or low, the world of the troubadour was an aristocratic one – it was a rich person’s hobby, rather than a profession – and their lyric poems reflect lordly and knightly concerns: service to their master, political topics, self-aggrandisement, war (Guillaume was a leader of the Crusade of 1101, losing his entire army in a massacre before they had reached the Holy Land), but also – and mostly – what we might call courtly love and the troubadours knew as fin’ amors. The troubadours’ love songs usually spoke of a love that was unconsummatable, because the object of the poet’s affection (or worship, really) not only outranked him but was generally married too. Some 2,600 troubadour poems are known today, although music exists for only about one-tenth of these. The melodies bear similarities to those found in the chant repertoire, though some might be related to folk music of the time. As for the poetry, it was virtuoso work, admired for its technical ingenuity such as stanza structure and the relationships of rhymes. The various types of subject matter allowed the existence of numerous genres, such as the canso (a courtly love song), the pastorela (a mock-popular style of song involving a knight and a shepherdess), or the planh (a lament on the death of some important figure). Dante Alighieri discussed the qualities of the troubadours’ poetry in his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, and Sequentia’s album showcases the composers and music that Dante mentioned in his writings. Whatever their artistic merits, though, Dante in the Divine Comedy placed some of them in Hell: they were nobles, after all, and involved in the politics and intrigues of the time.

Proensa. Paul Hillier, Stephen Stubbs, Andrew Lawrence-King, Erin Headley. ECM New Series (link)

The troubadours didn’t necessarily perform their own songs; for this they could employ a joglar, a commoner who worked as a singing entertainer and who learned the song orally from the troubadour. These minstrels could themselves become troubadours by developing their own creative faculties; one such was Bernart de Ventadorn (ca.1130-40 – ca.1190), whose work is the best-represented in the surviving troubadour repertory and includes one of the best-known of all medieval songs, the canso Can vei la lauzeta mover (When I see the lark). Listening to the lengthy instrumental introductions to many of the pieces on Sequentia’s album and this one by Paul Hillier, one must bear in mind, as we’ve already seen in this history, the difficulties of knowing exactly how this music was performed. Because it was an oral art, the troubadours’ music that survives does so in manuscripts created long afterwards, giving us the melody but nothing else. It’s possible that instruments weren’t used much by the troubadours, perhaps only in those genres that were not so high in style and furthest removed from liturgical melody. Paul Hillier also gives us some spoken poems, beginning his album with one by the first troubadour and ending with one by the last, Guiraut Riquier (ca.1230 – ca.1300). By the 13th century, power had shifted north, and in 1209 began the Albigensian Crusade, in which the church attempted to destroy the religious movement of Catharism in Languedoc; aided by the French, who had more secular ambitions, this decades-long campaign also hastened the decline of Provençal culture and with it the art of the troubadours.

The Spirits of England & France 2: Songs of the Trouvères. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)

But by then the troubadour influence had spread elsewhere. Eleanor of Aquitaine, granddaughter of the troubadour Duke Guillaume, married French king Louis VII in 1137 and, following an annulment, wed the future English king Henry II in 1152. She was a notable patron of the arts, with Bernart de Ventadorn among those at her court, and her son Richard the Lionheart was himself a trouvère – the French form of troubadour. There are fewer extant trouvère poems than troubadour ones, but far more melodies are known: of the 2,100 or so surviving poems, most have accompanying music, and in fact many poems appear in different manuscripts with different settings, the later settings being presumably the work of persons other than the original poet. The manuscript sources for troubadour and trouvère poetry are collections known as chansonniers, and in both cases the earliest major sources date from the 13th century – a time when the peak of troubadour activity had long passed but the trouvères’ art was in full flower. At first, the difference between a trouvère and a troubadour was essentially one of language. Thus, the Provençal canso became the French chanson d’amour, the pastorela became the pastourelle, a joglar was a jongleur, and so on. However, one notable difference was that the trouvères showed a greater interest in various narrative genres, which reflected a tradition in French poetry (for example, the 12th-century trouvère Chrétien de Troyes is much better known as the author of romances on such figures as Sir Lancelot and Sir Perceval).

On the Banks of the Seine. The Dufay Collective. Chandos (link)

The contrast between troubadour and trouvère increased over time, because the medieval world was changing. Urban centres were growing – by 1200 Paris had a population of 100,000, which doubled over the following century – and a new class, the bourgeoisie, was emerging. In such a large city it was easy for jongleurs to find work, and the music of the trouvères filtered down from the highest social classes. On The Dufay Collective’s album you can hear a greater role for instrumentalists, as well as more popularising touches in the music, such as the use of refrains. During the 13th century the jongleurs began to organise themselves in much the same way as craftsmen formed guilds, establishing codes of conduct and furthering their members’ interests. One notable group was the Confrérie des Jongleurs et des Bourgeois of the northern town of Arras, a growing commercial centre with a thriving wool industry; its members would largely have been tradesmen of the middle class. Arras was also home to the Puy d’Arras, a poetical society that maintained the courtly tradition of the trouvères through competitions but was far less of a social organisation than was the Confrérie. Among the members of both the Confrérie and the Puy was Adam de la Halle, noteworthy for being the only trouvère known to have composed both monophonic and polyphonic music.

Estampies & Danses Royales. Hespèrion XXI/Jordi Savall. Alia Vox (link)

Some of the oldest known compositions for instruments alone can be found in the late-thirteenth century Manuscrit du Roi, which contains not only various troubadour and trouvère songs but also a number of pieces without text. Aside from two works entitled Danse and another whose beginning is missing are eight pieces of music entitled Estampie, a word whose meaning is unclear but might refer to the stamping of feet. It’s not clear, either, what the purpose of an estampie was – whether it was a proper dance or simply a piece of instrumental music to be listened to. Like the troubadour songs, the instrumental music of the Manuscrit du Roi is given just as a melody, and it’s up to today’s performers to decide on matters such as the instruments used and the tempo to be taken. There’s a considerable difference between the quite straightforward approach taken by The Dufay Collective, above, in La septime estampie real and the more elaborate instrumentation, complete with percussion, adopted by Jordi Savall and his musicians. Is one more “correct” than the other? Of course it’s possible – recommended, even – to enjoy both.

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant   (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony   (8tracks mix)

Stephen J. Nereffid lives near Dublin, Ireland, and spends far too much time listening to classical music.
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One Response to “Troubadours and trouvères”

  1. 1
    David Smith Says:

    Interesting and informative as ever – thank you.


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