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Composer Biography: Trobairitz, The Female Troubadours

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Only a few women are known to have produced troubadour music. As a species, they’re called the trobairitz, and there are probably more women among the unattributed troubadour music that haven’t yet been identified. The truth is, we don’t know who wrote most of the poems and songs.

There are 2100 troubadour pieces preserved, only 1400 of which include the music. Only 460 troubadours have been identified, and so far, the one who produced the most music (45 pieces) is Bernart de Ventadorn. That means that loads of the remaining pieces could have been written by women; we just haven’t identified them yet. Certainly, most of the pieces are ABOUT women. Which doesn’t preclude women from having written them.

The term trobairitz wasn’t used by these female troubadours themselves, but came up in 13th century Flamenca, which is now in Spain. Trobairitz comes from the same word as troubadour, “trobar,” which means “to compose” or “to find.”

The trobairitz composed, wrote poetry, and performed for the Occitan noble courts. They were part of courtly society—some of the troubadours, such as Bernart de Ventadorn, were of lower class, but the trobairitz weren’t. They were all nobility. They were also the first known female composers of western secular music.

Women at court were expected to sing, play instruments, and write poetical debates. And noblewomen in southern France had more control than elsewhere regarding land ownership because so many of the men were away on the Crusades. That led to the existence of the (somewhat) free-spirited trobairitz—educated, monied, and uncommitted.

We have records of their lives from something called vidas, which were loosely based the hagiographies called vitas. It’s interesting that most of these vidas were produced after the troubadour period ended. They’re pretty unreliable sources, as they often consisted of romanticized extrapolations from the poetry that the trobairitz (and troubadours) produced. But they name 23 female poets with 32 works attributed to them, so we have to be grateful for that.

The number of songs attributed to trobairitz is somewhere between 23 and 46, depending on your sources. There are many reasons for the discrepancy. It’s hard to know from the poetry itself whether or not it was written by a woman, a man speaking as a woman, or a woman speaking as a man. Some songs were presumed to be written by a certain person regardless of whether they were or not. Others were part of an exchange where two people wrote back and forth and perhaps only one got credit, or credit was given to two men when one of the writers was female. Some modern editors attribute the exchange only to the originator, male or female. And of course, many were anonymous.

The most famous trobairitz was Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, but you should know some other names, too.

Alamanda (fl. late 12th century)

Not much is known about Alamanda, but it’s thought that she was from Castelnau (near Montpelier).

She exchanged a tenso (argument song) with with Giraut (or Giraut) de Bornelh (c1138-1215) called S’ieus quier cossella bel ami Alamanda. The music survives in one manuscript and is the only example of her work that exists. Giraut wrote love songs to her.

Alamanda was considered fictitious until recent efforts revealed three other troubadours’ mention of her, including the trobaritz Lombarda (see below) from Toulouse.

Azalais de Porcairages (fl. mid12th century)

Also Alasais de Porcaragues

Nothing is known of Azalaiz’s dates but it’s thought that she came from the village of Portiragnes, just east of Beziers and about six miles south of Montpellier, close to the territories owned by the man she loved and his brothers.

Only one of her poems survives. The music is lost. The poem has 52 lines but the text varies considerably between manuscripts, so we only know for sure about the subject matter. The poem is nominally about the 1173 death of Raimbaut of Orange (c1147-1173). Raimbaut was the son of William VII and Tibors, who are going to come up again in a minute, in the Tibors discussion.

At any rate, the poem mentions Ermengarde of Narbonne (1143-1197), a well known patroness of troubadour poetry. The third strophe of the poem contributes to an ongoing debate begun by Guilhem de Saint-Leidier (c1150-c1200). The question was whether a lady was dishonored by taking a lover who was wealthier than herself. According to her vida, she was the lover of Gui Guerrejat (1135-1178), brother of Guillaume VII of Montpellier (1158-1202). Gui Guerrejat (1135-1178) returned her affections, but then he fell ill, became a monk, and died within the same year.

Castelloza (fl. early 13th century)

Castelloza was a noblewoman from Auvergne. She was the wife of Turc de Mairona (dates unavailable), probably the lord of Meyronne. Turc’s family participated in a Crusade sometime between 1210 or 1220, which was the origin of his name (meaning “Turk”). Castelloza was thought to be in love with Arman de Brion (dates unavailable), a member of the house of Breon and of greater social rank than her. She wrote several songs about him.

Castelloza’s vida says that she was very cheerful and fun as well as learned and beautiful. Three, possibly four, of her songs survive, all about courtly love, and all without the music. This number makes her the second most prolific of the trobairitz after Beatriz de Dia. Castelloza is a more conservative poet than Beatriz, and although she remained committed to absolute fidelity, she talks at length about conditional and unconditional love.

Garsenda de Proença (c1180-c1242)

Garsenda was Countess of Provence and Countess of Forcalquier. She was the daughter of Rainou (or Renier), who was Lord of Caylar (dates unavailable), and Garsenda (dates unavailable), daughter of William IV of Forcalquier (1130-1208). After her mother died, Garsenda inherited Forcalquier from her grandfather. The Crusades had eaten away at the males in the family.

Garsenda was only 13 years old when William IV and Alfonso II (1157-1209) signed the Treaty of Aix in 1193, which allowed Garsenda to inherit William’s whole county. They also agreed that Garsenda would marry Alfonso II, who was in line to become Count of Provence. They married at Aix-en-Provence the same year and had at least two children, Raymond Berengar IV (1198-1245) and Garsenda (dates unknown).

In 1209, both Garsenda’s father and her husband died, and Garsenda became the guardian of their son and heir. Her brother in law, Peter II of Aragon (1178-1213), assigned the regency of Provence to his own brother Sancho (dates unavailable), but when Peter II died in 1213, Sancho became regent of Aragon and passed Provence and Forcalquier to his son Nuno Sanchez (c1185-1242).

Dissension broke out between the Catalans and the partisans of the Countess, who accused Nuno of trying to supplant Garsenda’s son, Raymond Berengar (1198-1245). The Provencal aristocracy allied themselves with Garsenda. Overwhelmed, Nuno high-tailed it back to Catalonia. The regency passed to Garsenda and a regency council was established from among the local nobles. She brought Forcalquier to the House of Barcelona and united it to Provence.

During her tenure as regent (c1209-c1220), Garsenda became the focus of a literary circle. The vida of troubadour Elias de Barjols (fl.1191-1230) refers to his patron as Alfonso, but Alfonso was long dead, so it was likely Garsenda.

There’s a tenso (an argument or debate in song) between Garsenda and an anonymous troubadour. In the poem, the lady declares her love for her interlocutor, who responds rather carefully. Some experts think that the unidentified troubadour is Gui de Cavailon (fl.1200-1229), whose vida includes the rumor that he was the countess’ lover. Gui was at the Provençal court between 1200 and 1209, so it’s possible.

Garsenda was a patron of Occitan literature, especially the troubadours, as well as writing her own poetry and songs. One of Garsenda’s poems survives in two different manuscripts, without music.

She was also the subject of a few songs. Aquitainian troubadour Elias de Barjois (fl. 1191-1230) fell in love with her during her widowhood, and for the rest of his public life, wrote songs about her. He entered a monastery with his love unfulfilled. Raimon Vidal (c1196-1252) also praised Garsenda’s patronage of troubadours.

In 1217 or 1220, Garsenda ceded Forcalquier to her son and retired to the monastery of La Celle (about 140 miles northeast of Limoges and about 75 miles from Forcalquier) in 1225. In 1242, she left the monastery to visit her newly born great granddaughter, Beatrice of England (1242-1275) in Bordeaux. Beatrice’s father, Henry III of England (1207-1282) was engaged in a war in France, and Garsenda brought 60 knights to help his cause.

She may have lived until 1257, when someone named Garsenda made a significant donation to a church in St. Jean (in the Pyrenees) on the condition that three priests pray for her soul and that of her long-dead husband.

Gormonda de Monpeslier (fl. 1226-1229)

Gormonda was from Montpelier in Languedoc. Only one piece has been attributed to her, but it was called the first French political poem by a woman.

She wrote a response to the famous anti-papal songs of Guilhem Figueira (c1208-after 1244), called Greu m’es a durar, imitating Guilhem’s poem in meter and rhyme for about 20 stanzas. Instead of blaming the papal legate Pelagius of Albano (c1165-1230) for the failure of the Fifth Crusade, she laid the blame on the foolishness of wicked people. She approved of the Crusade against the heretics at home, saying that heresy was more dangerous than Islam, and that the hearts of the heretics were false. She expressed an interest in watching Guilhem being tortured to death; she was probably not as fun to be around as Garsenda or Castellosa.

Little else is known about her, but it seems likely that she was closely associated with the orthodox clergy of southern France, Pope Innocent III (1160-1216), the French monarchy, and many other troubadours because of her political stance.

Lombarda (c1190-1262)

Lombarda is known only from her vida and a short tenso (argument song). She was probably from a banking or merchant family, and possibly from Gascony. According to her vida, she was noble, beautiful, charming, learned, and skilled at composing songs about fin’amors.

She was probably married and in her early 20s at the time of her poetic activity. Before 1217, when Bernart Arnaut (d.1226) claimed Armagnac, Bernart’s brother Geraud V (d.1219) visited and befriended Lombarda. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye when he left and sent a short poem to her house. Lombarda’s response is her only surviving work.

Her one attributed poem is in the trobar clus style (a “closed” style enjoyed by a scant few and perfected by Marcabru c1099-1150), one of the few women to do so. Her only surviving work is included in her vida.

Maria de Ventadorn (c. 1165-1222)

Also Maria Ventedorn, Marie de Ventadour, Marie de Turenne, Marguerite de Turenne.

Maria was the daughter of Raimon II Viscount of Turenne (1143-1191), and the wife of Eble V (d. after 1236), Viscount of Ventadorn. Along with her two sisters, she, according to Bertran de Born (c1140-before 1215), possessed “all earthly beauty.” She was the beloved patron of many troubadours.

She had a son, Elbe VI (dates unknown), who married Dauphine de la Tour d’Auvergne (1220-1299), and a daughter, called Alix or Alasia. Elbe V, Maria’s husband, was the grandson of Eble III (d.1170), who’d been a patron of the early troubadour Bernat de Ventadorn, and he was the great-grandson of Eble le chanteur (after 1086-1155), believed to have been among the creators of the troubadour genre.

Maria exchanged a tenso (debate song) with Gui d’Ussel (fl.1195-1209). This one poem is the only surviving example of her work, and no music survives. The song dates from around 1197. She and Gui alternated verses, debating whether becoming a lady’s lover elevates a man to be her social equal or whether he remains her servant. Maria argued the servant side.

She was mentioned in the works of several troubadours, including those of Gaucelm Faidit (c1170-c1202), the Monk of Mantaudon (fl 1193-1210), Gausbert de Puicibot (fl.1220-1231), Pons de Capduelh (fl. 1160-1220), Guiraut de Calanso (fl.1202-1212), Bertran de Born (1140s-c1215), and Gui d’Ussel (fl.1195-1209). She may also have had her own knight, Hugh IX of Lusignan (c1163-1219).

Tibors de Sarenom (c1130-after 1198)

Tibors was the sister and guardian of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange (c1147-1173) and the wife of the troubadour Bertrand des Baux (c1137-c1183). She was the earliest known trobairitz during the classical period of medieval Occitan literature, at the height of troubadour activity.

Only one poem and no music of hers survives. It’s the earliest surviving trobairitz poem, from 1150, called Beis dous amics and is included in her vida. Her name is in an anonymous ballad dated between 1220-1245, wherein she acts as the judge of a game of poetry.

She was a lady of Provence, from a castle of En Blacatz, called Sarenom, about 110 miles northeast of Marseille, and 40 miles from Forcalquier, where Garsenda (see above) lived near the end of Tibor’s life. Tibor was courtly and accomplished, gracious, and very wise. She knew how to write poems, and she fell in love frequently and had suitors. She was greatly honored by all the men in her circle, and she was admired and respected by all the worthy ladies, according to her vida.

Her history is hard to parse. Most of the vidas were more hypothetical than factual, and Tibors was a very common name in Occitania. Her mother (Tibors d’Aurenga, dates unavailable), and her two daughters (yes, both of them) were also named Tibors.

Her father was Guilhem d’Omelas (d.c1156), and he came to own the castle of Sarenom (possibly present-day Serignan-du-Comtat in Provence or maybe Serignan in the Roussillon) through his marriage to Tibors d’Aurenga. Tibors d’Aurenga’s minor son (our Tibors’ brother) Raimbaut d’Orange (c1147-1173) inherited the castle when Tibors d’Aurenga died, so Tibors (our Tibors) and her second husband Bertran dels Baus (c1137-c1183) took it over.

Tibors had three sons by Bertran, Uc, Bertran, and Guilhem, also a troubadour. Tibor died shortly after Bertran. Documents about her are confusing (for obvious reasons).

Sources:

“Music in the Medieval West; Western Music in Context,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2014.

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995.

“Women Writers of the Middle Ages,” by Peter Dronke. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1984.

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Composer Biography: Bernart de Ventadorn (c1130-c1200)

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Also Bernard de Ventadour, Bernat dei Ventadorn, and, in our times, the Master Singer.

Bernart de Ventadorn was one of the best-known troubadour composers, partly because so many of his works survive intact, partly because of his influence on the music of both troubadours (southern France) and trouvères (northern France), and partly because of the company he kept.

About 2600 troubadour poems survive, and only a tenth of those have music. Trouvère numbers are better—2100 poems with 1400 pieces of music. We have 45 of Bernart’s works, 18 of which have music, which is the largest number from a single (identified) composer.

The origins of troubadour music are unclear, although it seems possible that sources or influences include Arabic songs, which was known in France as early as the 9th century. Bernart is often credited with being the most important influence in the development of the trouvère tradition in northern France as well as that of the troubadours. He was well-known there and his melodies were widely circulated.

Bernart also had some impact on Latin literature. Boncampagno (c1165-after 1240), an Italian scholar, wrote about him in Antiqua metorica in 1215. Some of his songs survived in German texts, translated by Minnesingers such as Friedrich von Hüsen (c1150-c1190) and Dietmar von Aist (c1115-c1191). Some must also have been in English, because some of his best works were written at Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband’s court, Henry II of England (1133-1189), during Bernart’s short visit there in the 1150s.

Troubadours flourished until the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, which ferociously extinguished the high culture of Provence and Languedoc, destroying most of the troubadour music and poetry, and scattering the troubadours northward. Troubadour art had already spread north, thanks in part to the influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who took Bernart with her, first to the French court and then to England (from 1154-1155). Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), was a trouvère, which simply means that he was a troubadour who wrote in French rather than Provençal.

There are many stories about where Bernart came from, and the most likely is that he was born to a servant at the court of the Viscount of Ventadorn (now called Correze). Other stories are that he was the son of a kitchen scullion or a baker, that he was the son of a soldier rather than a nobleman.

He first worked for Viscount Eble II of Ventadorn (c1086-1155), from whom he learned the art of singing and writing, and then for the Duchess of Normandy (1105-1152).

Bernart composed his first poems to Eble II’s wife, Marguerite de Turenne (c1120-c1201). He declared his love for Marguerite and was forced to leave Ventadorn. He traveled first to Montluçon (about 90 miles northeast of Limoges, and perhaps 120 miles from Ventadorn) and then to Toulouse, another 30 miles west.

In Toulouse, he met Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who hired him. He followed her to England, staying in England only a year. He then returned to Toulouse, where he was employed by Raimon V (c1134-c1194), the Count of Toulouse.

Bernart ‘s preserved work dates from 1147 to 1180. There are 45 poems attributed to him, 18 of them with complete melodies, which is more than any other 12th century poet. Some of his songs, including his most famous, Quan vei l’aloete, show the melodic influence of Gregorian chant.

The fame of Quan vei l’aloete is what brought that same song change and mutilation—more than it might have suffered had it been obscure. But we have to be grateful because it’s due to these variations that modern scholars can piece together how the original might have sounded. For instance, we know that it originated in Occitan and there was also a version in Old French. A later generation knew it by its melody with another text, Plaine d’ire et de desconfort.

The initial melodic phrase of the song recalls the opening of a Kyrie (from the Vatican IX Mass Cum Jubilo). That’s interesting because the tune was given Latin words by Chancellor Philippe (c1160-1236) of Paris under the title Quisquis cordis et oculi, and the words change to detail the famous argument between the heart and the eye. This Latin version was sung all over Europe in monasteries.

There was also a French translation of the Latin text, Li cuers se vait de l’uiel plaignant, and a sacred version in the Mystery of St. Agnes, Seyner mil gracias ti rent. So many legends grew up around this song that Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) mentioned it in the 20th canto of Paradiso.

The song’s lyrics from Bernart are about love’s despair in the guise of a lark:

I see the lark in joy rise on its wings in the rays of the sun and then, oblivious, let itself fall. Because of the gladness that fills its heart, such great envy comes upon me to see it so joyful, and I wonder then that I do not rave and that my heart does not melt with desire.

Bernart formalized the chanson song form to allow sudden changes and ornaments. He popularized the trobar leu style, which was a delicate and cheerful style of song popular among troubadours. It defined the genre of courtly love poetry, and was imitated and reproduced throughout the 150 years of troubadour activity.

Bernart was known for portraying his idealized woman first as a divine agent and then suddenly as Eve, the original cause of mankind’s downfall. He often portrays this woman as clever and witty along with wicked. Remember how he got kicked out of Ventadorn? It’s nice that he was able to romanticize his experience. It could have gone rather badly wrong had he been less talented.

Bernart’s popularity has persisted into our times. There was a BBC television series called The Devil’s Crown in the late 70s that featured Bernart. Ezra Pound (1885-1972), the American expatriate poet, had a lifelong fascination with the trouvères and troubadours of Provence and southern France, and quoted from Bernart’s Can vei la lauzeta.

Late in his life, Bernart went to Dordogne (about 180 miles north of Toulouse, perhaps 90 miles east of Bordeaux), where he entered a monastery. He probably died there.

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

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

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.

Composer Biography: Marcabru (c1099-1150)

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Marcabru was one of the most famous of the older generation of troubadours. What’s a troubadour, you ask? In the 11th through 14th century, there were four “flavors” of itinerant musician.

  • Troubadours (trobairitz): Poets and composers from the Occitan region of France, who made their way to Italy, Spain, and Greece. Their songs dealt mainly with themes of chivalry and courtly love. Most songs were intellectual and formulaic (so they could be easily adapted to the audience or situation), and many were humorous or vulgar. The movement died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.
  • Trouvères: The Northern France version of troubadour, roughly contemporary with them. The first known was Chretien de Troyes (fl.1160-1180), and they continued to flourish until about 1300. These were usually aristocratic performers, for whom the creation and performance of music was part of the courtly tradition. There were even kings, queens, and countesses among their number.
  • Minnesingers (Minnesängers): The German version of troubadours, writing of love and courtly endeavors in Middle High German from the 12th through the 14th century. Some were aristocratic and others were impoverished. They died out in favor of the Meistersänger, who were mostly commoners, like minstrels (English) and jongleurs (French).
  • Minstrels and Jongleurs: The impoverished version of troubadours and trouvères in England and France, respectively. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, such a person was known as a scop (shaper), who sang his own compositions to the accompaniment of a harp. They mostly told stories of distant places or of imaginary historical events, and often performed for royalty and high society. Their main unifying feature was traveling. Their popularity began to decline by the middle of the 15th century, although some form of itinerant musician has continued to the present day.

Marcabru was one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known. Two biographies attached to collections of his poems tell different stories. Both are based on elements in Marcabru’s poetry rather than independent biographical information, so not much is known about him.

He was born in Gascony, France, probably around 1099. He wasn’t of aristocratic descent, unlike most troubadours. One biography, written long after his death, says that he was a foundling, left at the door of a rich man. Marcabru himself said that he was the son of a poor woman named Marcabruna. He was brought up by Aldric del Vilar (12th century lord of Vilar), which kind of gives credence to the foundling raised by a rich man story, and he learned to write poetry from Cercamon (fl c1135-1145, an early troubadour also from Gascony).

People called him Pan Perdut when he was a young man, and later began to call him Marcabru. When he became famous, people said that he wrote bad poetry and worse satires, and he spoke evil of both women and love. Despite his bad mouth, he had a great reputation among his successors.

One of Marcabru’s patrons was Guillaume X of Aquitaine (1099-1137). He was the son of Guillaume IX, thought to be the first troubadour (11 of his poems survive, although the music didn’t). Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122-1204) was the daughter of Guillaume X (who wasn’t a troubadour himself) and was also a great patron of troubadours. Guillaume X’s support of Marcabru and other troubadours contributed to Eleanor’s becoming a patroness of troubadours by both tradition and inclination. As you know, she married Louis VII of France (1120-1180) in 1137, the year he became King of France. Louis was not sympathetic to the game of l’amour courtois as it was played further south, and the flirtatious habits of his wife ultimately led him to secure an annulment of their marriage in 1152. Eleanor promptly married a younger man, Henry of Anjou (1133-1189), who became Henry II of England two years later.

Only three important troubadour names from the period survive: Cercamon (fl 1135-1145), Jaufre Rudel (fl. mid-12th century), and Marcabru. Marcabru was probably Cercamon’s student, and they seem to have flourished at the same time. Marcabru certainly knew Jaufre, and mentions him in one of his poems. Jaufre took part in the second Crusade (1147-49) and died while on his pilgrimage.

Over 40 of Marcabru’s poems and four of his melodies survive. Lots and lots of music and even more poetry is lost, although approximately 2600 poems by more than 450 authors has been preserved. The music itself, sadly, didn’t survive because music notation hadn’t been invented yet (for more on that, see The History of Music Notation).

Biographical details in Marcabru’s works point to a period seeking work in Portugal and Barcelona that led to employment with Alfonso VII of Castile (1105-1157). In the 1140s, he was a propagandist for the Reconquiesta and in his famous poem with a Latin beginning Pax in nomine Domini (the rest is in Languedoc), he called Spain a “laundry where knights could go to have their souls cleansed by fighting the infidel.” In 1144, he returned to Provence, where he composed the song Cortazmen voill comensar (“dedicated men begin”) inspired by preparations for the second crusade.

Marcabru and his patron William X didn’t approve of the courtly love ideal of unattainable mistresses that would become so important in later troubadour music. Marcabru attacks it in his Dirai vos sense duptansa (“I shall tell you without delay”). It seems that he was a bit of a misogynist, as well.

He denounces the effeminacy and depravity of the courtly life and the conventions of courtly love. From this moral urgency and highly idiomatic style arises some of the most difficult poetry in the whole troubadour canon, the tobar clus (“closed form”), the so-called hermetic style.

But Marcabru’s moralizing lyrics are only one mark of his range. At the other end are the songs extolling true love, and his songs dramatizing a profoundly medieval view of “right order” are among the most civilized utterances in Provencal poetry, according to one source.

There are 43 chansons attributed to Marcabru, remarkable for the complexity of their texts, most of which discuss the niceties of courtly love. Only four of his melodies survive.

The troubadours sang their own songs, but there is a peculiar lack of evidence that they accompanied their songs on or played instruments. It’s possible, though, and it has a certain appeal to modern ears.

Troubadour melodies, using the works of others as well as Marcabru’s, are on a par with the poems in their ingenuity and diversity of their formal structures. Some melodies are continuous, with a different musical phrase for each line of text. Others repeat one or more melodic phrases in a variety of patterns that often have little to do with the structure and rhyme scheme of the poems.

The predominant influence on the melodic style was surely the music of the Church. The relationship is most obvious in settings of the rhymed poetry of hymns and verses, but in range, melodic direction, intervallic progressions, and cadential formulas, troubadour melodies scarcely differ from Gregorian chant in general. A surprising number adhere to the Church’s system of eight modes (for more on that, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes).

The style is syllabic, with occasional ornamental figures of two to five notes. These figures tend to come near the close of phrases, where they emphasize rhymes and strengthen the cadential (end pattern) feeling. They serve a musical function rather than being associated with particular words. Variants of the same melody in different sources most frequently involve the ornamental figures, suggesting that the singers felt free to modify vocal ornaments or introduce new ones. They might even have varied the ornamentation from stanza to stanza, something that became popular in the Baroque period.

Ornament aside, singers were left to decide for themselves regarding the rhythms of the melodies. In plainchant, and all other contemporary monophonic song, the notation of troubadour melodies gives no indication of note values or durations. Musical scholars seem to be unanimous in accepting the hypothesis that secular songs were sung in the triple meters of the rhythmic modes (for more on this, see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes), but they disagree as to how those meters should be adapted to specific texts.

Literary scholars, on the other hand, reject the use of triple meters whether the words are in Provencal, French, or Latin, because in none of those languages does versification depend on the regular alternation of strong and weak syllables—there aren’t any obvious poetic meters, in other words. The number of syllables in a line, the total number of lines, and the rhyming scheme were the only criteria for making succeeding stanzas of a poem correspond with the first. Constant variation of metrical patterns seems to be one of the subtlest techniques of troubadour verse.

The most frequent theme in Marcabru’s songs is the distinction between true love and false love—true love is joyful, intense, in harmony with the welfare of a community, and includes divine intentions, and false love is bitter, dissolute, self-regarding, and destructive. He denounces the courtly class for its preciousness and lust. Courtly love in the high courts was on the way to ruin, he says, because it’s infested with its own bastards. The women trick their husbands into raising the children of others, the men are cuckoo birds who lay their eggs in someone else’s nest, and the troubadours pander to this cupidity, being a vile crowd of liars and madmen who defame love and glorify lust.

In Marcabru’s songs, we meet the singer who takes a stand against the false lovers, whom he identifies as the other poets of the court. He goes on to distinguish the other sorts in the society he addresses; they become the characters whom future poets identify as their audience, besides the false lovers, there are the flatterers, slanderers, spies, the envious, the vulgar, and the true lovers, the last of whom will be the singer’s friends.

The poets who came after Marcabru retained the same sorts of designations, although they didn’t take up his religious values or his prophetic stance. They were concerned instead with defining the values of courtliness in terms of fictional love relations, and they stood before their audiences as constituents and spokesmen. The differences between their poetry and Marcabru’s reflect the differences of their poetic task and their performing attitude.

However, these differences are not so great as they may seem. What Marcabru means by true love is a secular experience, not a religious one. This kind of love is good because it’s involved in a larger life, the life of a society, one with a certain ethical and religious mandate.

His poems are erudite, often difficult, sometimes obscene, and are relentlessly critical of the lords and ladies of his time and their morality. He experimented with pastoral themes, which he uses to point out the futility of lust. One poem tells of how the speaker’s advances are rejected by a shepherdess on the basis of class; another tells of a man’s rebuffed attempts to seduce a woman whose husband was off at the crusades.

Marcabru was a powerful influence on later poets, not only on practitioners of the hermetic style, but also on others who chose from the wide variety of his poetic (and presumably musical) forms, or who took up his moral stance. But no one could recreate his irascible and exalted tone.

When he persisted in saying bad things about the lords of Gascony, they put him to death.

Sources:

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

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

“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.

“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.