The Monophonic Secular Tradition

views updated

The Monophonic Secular Tradition

Regional Styles.

At the same time plainchant was being sung in the churches and monasteries, there was a rich body of monophonic music developing for non-religious use. In contrast to the unified nature of chant, which was more or less standard throughout Europe, the music of the laymen varied by region. The entire Western Christian church was controlled centrally by an enormous, stable hierarchy in Rome that extended to all regions, with a single official language—Latin—all of which resulted in a single, uniform practice. The secular world, on the other hand, was divided into autonomous regions that were subject to sudden political change and maintained separate languages and customs. A discussion of secular music, therefore, takes on a geographical/national character, reflecting local cultures and preferences. There are a number of similar basic elements in all areas, but the differences are sufficiently large and striking to warrant a discussion by general regional types.

Lost Evidence.

Although we know that there was a thriving tradition of secular music in all areas, not all are well represented by surviving music. Very little secular monophony is preserved from England, for example, in spite of the fact that in the twelfth century Eleanor of Aquitaine was a patron of troubadours and trouvères, and literary sources such as the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer make it clear that there was a great quantity of secular music. The entire English monophonic repertory that has come down to us consists only of three sacred songs attributed to St. Godric, a Saxon hermit who died in 1170, and a handful of love songs. The surviving repertory from Spain is equally slim, although we do have the sacred cantigas, discussed below. Given the basic similarities of the social milieu in all parts of Europe, however, we can imagine that repertories and musical practices existed in all of these areas, similar to those that have survived.

Troubadours in the Courts.

Although much of the repertory of the minstrels was never recorded, we can catch a glimpse of it through one particular branch of the tradition that flourished in aristocratic circles: the courtly love songs written and performed by troubadours, and trouvères (men) and trobairitz (women). The name depended on where they lived and performed and the language in which they wrote: the troubadours mostly worked in southern France, northern Spain, and northern Italy, and wrote in the Occitan language (also called langue d'oc and Provençal), while the trouvères worked in northern France and wrote in a medieval version of French (Old French, langue d'oïl). The names come from the verb trouver, meaning "to find," which suggests that they invented ("found") their poetry and music. They were a talented group of professionals and amateurs that included nobles as well as members of the lower classes who lived and performed mostly in the courtly circles of France, England, and northern Italy (where they were known as trovatori) during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. In contrast to the other minstrels who led a somewhat insecure nomadic existence, these poets/composers were usually attached to a single location for long periods.

Courtly Love Songs.

Much of our impression of courtly life of the period is taken from medieval song texts, although what they describe is often idealized—describing a perfect world—rather than factual. The subject matter of these poems is highly stylized, following a partially imaginary etiquette of courtly love and behavior that is both elaborate and complex. "Lancan vei la folha," by the troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn is a good example of both the musical style of troubadour melodies and the convoluted and decorative language used in a typical love song; the lover expresses his devotion in reverential terms, vowing eternal devotion in spite of the woman being unattainable (often because she is married to someone else). In contrast, Bernart's musical setting is relatively simple: the melody that sets the first four lines of the stanza is repeated for the next four; a new contrasting melody is introduced for lines 9 and 10 (that is, it descends rather than ascends), and then the last half of the earlier melody returns for the final two lines. All of the stanzas are intended to be sung to the same melody, although the singer would be expected to insert different ornaments (embellishing notes, rhythms, or any number of other vocal expressive devices) for each stanza in order to add variety and support the text message.

The Pastourelle.

Another of the favorite formats in the troubadour/trouvère tradition was the pastourelle, which had as its theme the romantic pursuit of a shepherdess by a knight. Named after the French word for "shepherdess," these poems usually told the story of a noble visitor to the countryside who catches sight of a pretty rustic girl, approaches her, and offers her gifts in exchange for her acceptance of his advances. Sometimes the nobleman forces his attentions on her, and other times she outwits him. A variant of this form, called the bergerie, changes the situation slightly. Now a hidden narrator overhears shepherds, or a shepherd and shepherdess, debating. The 1284 Jeu de Robin et de Marion (Play or Game of Robin and Marion), by the trouvère Adam de la Halle, is the most famous of these, and incorporates a number of charming songs for the two principal characters and a narrator who tells the story.

The Cantimpanca and The Improvised Tradition.

Trovatori, the Italian equivalent of French troubadours, flourished at the northern Italian courts during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, producing a repertory similar to that of the troubadours. At the same time, outside of the court the centuries-old practice of the village bard survived in the person of the cantimpanca (singer on a platform), or cantastoria (singer of history), carrying on a tradition that lasted long after the trovatori died out. The cantimpanca was a poet and singer who improvised music while he sang verses about historical subjects, love, and any other topic that interested him. His verses often commented on current political events, and he accompanied himself with a lute or a lira da braccio. Some of these poet/musicians were quite famous and had regular followings; the Florentine cantimpanca Antonio di Guido, who performed on Sundays in the piazza in front of the Florentine Church of San Martino in the late fifteenth century, could count among his fans Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent), the great Florentine statesman and patron of the arts. Pietrobono de Burzellis, who was located principally in Ferrara, was widely acclaimed both for his virtuosity as a lutenist and for his singing voice, as well as his ability as an improvisor. Although some of the poetry of these popular entertainers still exists, not a note of the music has survived.


introduction: "Lancan vei la folha," written by troubadour

Bernart de Ventadorn in the twelfth century, is a good example of the musical style of troubadour melodies. All of the stanzas, which illustrate the combination of total loyalty and extreme suffering expected of a lover in the "courtly love" tradition, are intended to be sung to the same melody, although the singer would be expected to insert different ornaments for each stanza in order to add variety and to support the text message.

source: Bernart de Ventadorn, "Lancan vei la folha" (When I see the leaves). Trans. Robert Taylor. Used by permission.


The German counterpart to the courtly tradition of the troubadour and trouvère in France was the minnesinger (Minne = love), a singer of love songs, popular during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Originally the kinds of songs—the subject matter and the forms—were similar to those of the troubadours, but in the late thirteenth century many of the minnesingers began to write on more popular themes, including parodies of the idea of courtly love. Many of the songs in this later period are quite humorous and earthy. The tradition lasted into the fifteenth century in Germany, nearly one and a half centuries after it had died out in France. A notable minnesinger of the later period was Tannhäuser, who was involved in the Fifth Crusade (1217–1221), and whose life inspired one of Richard Wagner's operas in the nineteenth century. Tannhäuser's song (minnelied) Est Hiut Ein Wunniclicher Tac ("Today Is A Wonderful Day"), written in four stanzas around the year 1250, is a song of penitence. Its narrow range and simple rhythms are typical of the genre.

The musical form is known as Bar, matching the form of the poetic stanzas. It consists of two unequal sections; the first section is shorter and is repeated immediately (setting the first eight lines of the text, 4+4), the second is longer (setting the last twelve lines) and includes material from the first section plus new melodic phrases. The tradition of the minnesinger gave rise to the highly organized guild of the Meistersingers in the Renaissance, another of Wagner's opera subjects.

Carmina Burana.

Another repertory of German songs is found in a manuscript known as the Carmina Burana, dating from the end of the thirteenth century, which contains over 200 secular poems. The collection is from the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern (south of Munich), and consists of a number of poems in Latin as well as some in German. The repertory is quite broad, including drinking songs and parodies of religious songs, as well as some with texts of love, many of which are related to the minnesinger repertory in terms of style and subject matter. In recent times the composer Carl Orff (1895–1982) used the poetry and some of the melodies as an inspiration for his Carmina Burana, a substantial work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists.


Elizabeth Aubrey, The Music of the Troubadours (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

E. J. Dobson and Frank L. Harrison, Medieval English Songs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Francesco Flamini, La lirica toscana del Rinascimento anteriore ai tempi del Magnifico (Pisa: 1891; reprint, Florence, Italy: Olschki, 1977).

William Powell Jones, The Pastourelle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931).

William Paden, ed. and trans., The Medieval Pastourelle. 2 vols. Garland Library of Medieval Literature 34–35, Series A (New York: Garland, 1987).

Shira I. Schwam-Baird, ed. and trans., and Milton G.

Scheuermann, ed., Le Jeu de Robin et Marion (New York: Garland, 1994).

John Stevens, Words and Music (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Ronald J. Taylor, The Art of the Minnesinger: Songs of the Thirteenth Century Transcribed and Edited With Textual and Musical Commentaries (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1968).

Michel Zink, La Pastourelle: Poésies et Folklore au Moyen-Age (Paris: Bordas, 1972).

see also Literature: Courtly Love ; Literature: The Non-Narrative Lyric Impulse

About this article

The Monophonic Secular Tradition

Updated About content Print Article