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  • The Refrain and the Rise of the Vernacular in Medieval French Music and Poetryby Jennifer Saltzstein
  • Yolanda Plumley
The Refrain and the Rise of the Vernacular in Medieval French Music and Poetry. By J enniferS altzstein. ( Gallica, 30.) Cambridge: Brewer, 2013. xii + 194 pp., music.

In this stimulating book, Jennifer Saltzstein probes anew the tradition of ‘refrain’ quotation in thirteenth-century French poetry and music. The recurrence of these snippets of lyric material — typically, one or two verses of text set to a simple melody — across a variety of genres has solicited considerable attention from both musicologists and literary scholars over the years. While recent studies have centred especially on their role in interpolated romance, Saltzstein tracks refrain quotations within specific geographic centres and social communities across a variety of genres: notably vernacular motets and songs but also plays, translations, proverb collections, and didactic literature. Her main mission is to explore ‘the relationship between intertextual refrain quotation, hermeneutics, and the increasing prestige of the vernacular’ (p. 4). Challenging old assumptions that refrains represent the vestiges of an orally transmitted repertory of popular dance song (Chapter 1), she relocates them instead within the literate compositional practices of the clerical milieu. Herein lies the main premise of the book: that poet-composers drew on scholastic, Latinate writing practices, and treated refrain as vernacular auctoritates, thereby working ‘to authorize Old French music and poetry as media suitable for the transmission of knowledge’ (back cover). She develops this argument over a series of thoughtful analyses. She considers monastic contexts, showing how quotations variously link some motets, a translation of Ovid, and a collection of proverbs and refrains glossed in Latin (Chapter 2). She identifies a new corpus of refrains that links works by Artesian cleric- trouvèresacross several generations (Chapter 3); by translating their exegetical skills to vernacular song, these authors, she suggests, bestowed prestige both on the musical tradition of Arras and on its Picard dialect. This sets a useful context for an interesting reappraisal of Adam de La Halle, Arras’s most famous (and most studied) poet-composer (Chapter 4). Saltzstein concludes plausibly that Adam’s creative use of clerical literary techniques in his refrain quotation, and his self-fashioning as authoritative cleric-composer, contributed to his posthumous reputation as vernacular auctorand magister amoris. Finally, the legacy of refrain quotation in the following century is explored in a brief examination of the reworking of certain refrains by Guillaume de Machaut, who, like Adam, spanned lay and clerical milieus and similarly was concerned with his status as vernacular authority. By tracing continuities across the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this book adds fuel to the current questioning of narratives that emphasizes radical shifts from ‘performerly’ to ‘writerly’ poetics and towards new musical priorities across this timeframe. It demonstrates convincingly that thirteenth-century poet-composers were already ‘preoccupied with “writerly” concerns’ (p. 153), and it is certainly true that in the fourteenth even such avant-garde figures as Machaut continued to engage with the lyrics and citational practices of their predecessors, albeit in new ways. In sum, this fascinating and thought-provoking study sheds light on the intellectual and artistic contexts within which refrain quotation was practised; especially eye-opening is a [End Page 231]demonstration of how specific communities negotiated refrains and how these enigmatic lyric tags mediated their members’ poetic and musical exchanges.

Yolanda Plumley
University of Exeter

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
pp. 231-232
Launched on MUSE
2015-05-11
Open Access
No
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