Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Adam de la Halle (c1237-c1288)

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Also Adam e la Hale, and Adam le Bossu (the hunchback), and Adam d’Arras.

Adam de la Halle is probably the most famous of the French trouvère composers and poets. (For more on the difference between troubadours and trouvères, see Composer Biography: Marcabru.) He was one of the last of the trouvères, and one of the few to use polyphony. This is exciting, because it meant that secular music was being done in multiple parts rather than unison, finally following liturgical music’s lead—and being documented.

Adam’s literary and musical works include chansons and jeux-partis (poetic debates), polyphonic rondels, motets in much the same style as liturgical polyphony, and a musical play (Jeu de Robin et Marion), which is considered the earliest surviving secular French musical play. He was the first vernacular poet-composer whose works were collected into a single manuscript, which shows the great esteem in which he was held then and now.

Adam was born in Arras, in northern France along the Scarpe River. The nickname of “hunchback” was probably a family name, as Adam explains that he wasn’t a hunchback himself. De la Halle was a common name (people didn’t have family names yet, and it was usual to take the name of your hometown as a disambiguator). His father, Henri de la Halle (dates unavailable), was a well-known citizen of Arras, and the nickname Le Bossu distinguished his family from other La Halle families.

Adam studied grammar, theology, and music at the nearby Cistercian abbey. He was destined for the priesthood, but renounced his intention and, in 1262, married a woman named Marie (dates unavailable), who appears in many of his songs. Sadly, the marriage didn’t last, and Adam went off to be educated at the University of Paris.

He returned to Arras in about 1270, but Adam and his father soon had a public argument with other citizens of Arras and had to go live in Douai, about a day’s ride away, for a short while. They returned, and Adam became a prominent member of the Confrerie des jongleurs et bourgeois d’Arras, the guild of performers, and the puy, Arras’ literary fraternity.

In 1271, Adam entered the service of Robert II, Count of Artois (1250-1302), and accompanied him when he went to Naples in 1283. Robert II was bringing troops to reinforce the efforts of his uncle, Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), after the disaster of the Sicilian Vespers (a rebellion that broke out at Easter in 1282 and unseated Charles’ family from ruling there).

Charles of Anjou had become Charles I, King of France, when his brother (Louis IX) died in 1270. He’d set up a proper court in Naples with musicians and the like, so he hired Adam away from Robert II. Adam stayed in Naples until 1288, when some think that Adam died (more on that at the end of this post).

Some of Adam’s more important works were written and performed at the Naples court, including Jeu de Robin et Marion, the earliest known French musical play. There will be more about that in a moment.

Adam wasn’t particularly distinguished as a musician, but he was a lyric and epic poet and a dramatist.

The total of Adam’s known works include 36 chansons, 46 rondels de carole (somewhat like a round), 18 jeux-partis (political debate), 14 polyphonic rondeaux (most in three parts), seven motets (five in three parts), one virelai, one ballette, one dit d’amour (a love ditty), and one congè (a song of departure). Most of his works are in the conductus style (for more on conductus, see Composer Biography: Leonin) and he was the only Frenchman of his time to use the polyphonic settings for the rondeau, virelai, and the ballade. His work spans the forms fixes used by polyphonic secular music for the next two centuries.

Adam’s early work wasn’t musical. He wrote a nice piece of theater, Le jeu Adan, also called Le jeu de la Feuillee (the Play of the Greensward) sometime around 1262. In this satirical drama, he introduces himself, his father, and the citizens of Arras with all their various peculiarities; it was intended to amuse his friends as he was leaving for Paris to pursue his studies.

Later, he wrote Le conge (The Departure), expressing his sorrow at leaving his wife and Arras, and there’s an unfinished chanson de geste called Le roi de Sicile in honor of Charles I, which he began writing in 1282, three years before Charles died. Another short piece, Le jeu du pelerin, is sometimes attributed to him. This one mocks his friends for forgetting him after he left Arras.

His shorter poetic works are meant to be accompanied by music. Both his music and literary works encompass virtually all genres of the time, and he is one of the few medieval musicians credited with both monophonic (chant) and polyphonic music. There are monophonic chansons and jeux partis, polyphonic motets and rondeaux, and three plays with musical inserts. The monophonic works continue the older tradition of the courtly lyrics and chanson de geste, and the three-voice rondeaux and the dramatic works are more progressive.

Adam was among the few 13th century composers to apply polyphonic techniques to the various contemporary types of secular music: ballade, rondeau, and virelai. The pieces are very appealing and, in some ways, anticipate 14th century developments.

Like his contemporaries and fellow trouvères Colin Muset (c1210-c1270) and Rutebeuf (c1245-1285), Adam wrote numerous polyphonic rondeaux, ballades, and virelais. He wrote a set of three-part rondeaux in the latter part of the 13th century, but apart from their isolation, these charming works had little in common with most 14th century rondeaux. They were all written in conductus style, note against note, with all three voices singing the same text, none of which held true for the 14th century rondeaux.

The manuscript copy of his works gives the title of “Li Rondel Adan” to a group of 16 pieces that are among the first polyphonic settings of dance songs. Most are rondeaux, although the forms and rhyme schemes are not completely standardized. One of the pieces has the form of a virelai and another is a ballade with an opening refrain.

Adam wrote his most famous piece, Jeu de Robin et Marion, in 1284 or thereabout, and it’s the earliest known French musical play on a secular subject.

The pastoral tale tells, with a great deal of earthy humor, how the maiden Marion resisted a charming knight and remained faithful to her beloved, Robin the shepherd. It’s based on an old chanson, Robin m’aime, Robin m’a and consists of dialog interspersed with refrains from popular songs. The melodies are probably local folk music, and are more fun and melodious than the more elaborate music of Adam’s songs and motets. Robin et Marion is thought by some historians to be the predecessor of the genre of comic opera.

Nearly all of the music in the play is sung by the characters of Robin and Marion, although a little is given to the knight who vainly pursues Marion and to Robin’s cousin Gautier. The music is simple, as befits a bawdy country comedy. Modal rhythms, particularly the first mode (for more on this, see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes), had been deeply rooted in the Western musical consciousness for centuries already, and so you’ll hear them predominating here too.

Jeu de Robin et Marion was likely welcome entertainment for Charles I and the dispirited French court. Charles died in 1285 and Adam’s dedicated his final work, Le Roi de Secile, to his memory.

A tribute written in 1288 refers to Adam’s death, but he was also reported to be in England in 1306, among musicians at the knighting of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward II, 1284-1327). It’s probable that Adam died in 1306 or thereabout, back in Naples, which is now part of Italy.

Renewed interest in medieval music in the 19th century led Edmond de Coussemaker (1805-1876), a pioneer in the study of medieval music, to publish Adam’s complete known works in 1872. Editions of other manuscripts and medieval song repertories followed in the 20th century. Recently, there’s been even more interest in medieval music, and the technology to disseminate it is now incredibly efficient.

Sources:

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University o California Press at Berkeley, Berkeley, 1997.

“Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères, an Anthology and a History,” translations and introductions by Frederick Goldin. Peter Smith and Doubleday, Gloucester, 1983.

“Chanter M’Estuet, Songs of the Trouvères,” edited by Samuel N. Rosenberg. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1981.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] Composer Biography: Adam de la Halle (c1237-c1288) […]

  2. Dear Melanie Spiller. All you tell about the life of the man is based on few words on works that should be his. Can you prove that the man with his many names and many years of birth and death ever existed? And can you prove that the works that should be his are of the man? No, nobody can. You mention Grout & Palisca as a source. Grout & Palisca has no source on the subject. It is their own imagination. I ask you wat I ask you because I am making a music encyclopedia for own use. As you can see I am not very far. Only at Adam. Forgive me my bad English. Mariane Sepers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands

    M.A. Sepers

    February 7, 2016 at 5:53 am

    • Fortunately, I used quite a few sources, so either they’re all wrong/fictitious, or perhaps they, including Grout and Palisca, are right. It’s important to use as many sources as you can because it is so easy to get things wrong. Or to make conjectures about what might have happened. Good luck with your encyclopedia.

      Melanie Spiller

      February 29, 2016 at 12:07 pm


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