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Music and Letters 76.2 (2006) 300-302

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Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères: The Changing identity of medieval music By John Haines. pp. xii + 347. Musical Performance and Reception. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, £50. ISBN 0-521-82672-1.)

You don't have to talk to colleagues from other musical fields for very long to realize that most musicologists find medieval studies curious. Arguments about the interpretation of fragmentary evidence that could mean almost anything seem acrimonious out of all proportion to their importance for the intellectual life of current musicology. To a very large extent the character of medieval studies derives from their history, particularly the lasting influence of scholars active around 1900, with whom all reliable work in the field is still thought to begin. Reception studies of medieval music have not generally looked back much more than 100 years before that, to Fétis or perhaps Burney; but what John Haines shows in this fascinating survey of the historiography of troubadours and trouvères is that the intellectual appropriation of some repertories has a far longer history.

Haines's story begins late in the thirteenth century with the compilation of the trouvère chansonniers and (on average slightly later) the troubadour manuscripts. The latter, in other words, were compiled long after the creation of the repertories they represent, the trouvère manuscripts somewhat after; and in a sense, therefore, the manuscript 'sources' are already part of the later reception history of work that is lost in its original state. Haines gives a lucid though very brief account of the manuscripts, their notations, their contents, and their interrelationships, with some discussion of the legends surrounding the composers.

His second chapter looks at the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and especially at the formation of an antiquité françoise, a notion of the cultural past as gloriously French. According to a writer's agenda this might mean French tout court or specifically southern French; and the feature most admired in recovered medieval song was naïveté of a sort to be found naturally in folk music. All these notions are invented, of course, to suit the times, but all have resonances still audible in writing on medieval French song today. The year 1581 saw the first scholarly edition claiming authority from the manuscript sources, Claude Fauchet's Recueil des poetes françois, which established distinctions between troubadours and trouvères, musars and juglars, and between various genres of poetry (tenso, sirventes, fabliaux, romans, chansons, lais among others) which have continued to serve until now. Haines offers a sympathetic view of the sixteenth-century pseudo-historians, especially of Jean de Nostredame, whose inventions and mistakes continued to be recycled until at least the eighteenth century. At the same time, Italian and French writers debated the priority of their vernaculars as the proper successor to Latin and claimed the troubadours as essentially Italian or French according to their needs.

The trouvères, at least, were indisputably French, and with the suppression of Occitan under Louis XIV were promoted as the true ancestors of modern French culture, while the troubadours were ignored until the nineteenth century, and remained, as Haines reminds us, a minor field of study until quite recently. The collecting of trouvère manuscripts thus begins in earnest during the seventeenth century, and as a result, around 1700, we see the first signs of curiosity about the music and its transcription. In discussing the eighteenth century, Haines is particularly interesting over the distinction between scholarly and creative uses of medieval song. Burney encapsulates both in his side-by-side presentations of something like the original notation and modern arrangements with basso continuo, but various positions in between were taken. Haines refers to 'a delicate balance of fact and fancy which would have an enduring impact on the reception of medieval French music until the present day' (p. 101); and one knows what he means. Even today there is something quite [End Page 300] proprietary about French, and for that matter English, Italian...


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