“Be.m meraveill co non es envejos” is an example of one of my favorite genres of music and poetry: trobar.
Sharing this piece is a good chance for me to talk about the process of translating and arranging a work of trobar. And, since this piece also proselytizes quite a bit for Courtly Love, this is a good chance for me to talk about what Courtly Love is.
What Is Trobar?
In short: Trobar is the art of the troubadours.
The word trobar comes from Ancient Greek τρόπος [trópos], which means a style or manner of singing or speaking. After being adopted by Latin as the word tropus, it showed up as trobar in Aragonese, Catalan, Occitan, Old Portuguese, and Old Spanish, where it meant “to find, to invent, to compose” and later came to refer to a specific genre of music and poetry
English receives the term trobar from Occitan, the language of the troubadours. In fact, it is from the Occitan word trobar that the word “troubadour” comes: A person who writes trobar is, in Occitan, a trobador; the French version of this is troubadour, and we got the word from French in the 1720s.
In a little while, we’ll talk more specifically about what the stylistic characteristics of trobar were. But there’s another question we should answer first:
Who Were Troubadours?
Most 21st century people, when they hear the word “troubadour”, imagine a wandering musician, who traveled throughout France, earning his room and board by singing love songs. He is carefree and passionate, enjoys tromping through the woodland, and scorns scholarly cultivation for the heady freedom of self-expression. Tattered clothing and a tendency to fall dramatically in love are key parts of the image.
However, this is not at all what the word “trobador”/”troubadour” meant in the time when such persons actually lived (roughly the 11th-13th centuries), and it is not a very helpful definition when studying music history.
The above description of a wandering performer is much more accurate to what was called, at the time, a joglar (Occitan) or jongleur (French). Jongleurs were court entertainers who typically performed compositions by other people. A troubadour, on the other hand, was someone who wrote trobar – and as trobar is a highly complicated, erudite style, it was exclusively the demesne of the well educated, who were usually wealthy and almost always noble.
There was some medieval bickering about the interchangeability of the two terms; in fact, Guiraut Riquier, the composer of the piece I’m talking about today, wrote a letter to his employer, King Alfonso (remember him?), asking him to officially distinguish between joglars and trobadors. Apparently, Guiraut was concerned that using the word “joglar” for everybody was undesirable, since jongleurs not only performed music but also danced, juggled, and probably did some other, not-so-nice things that Guiraut did not want to be associated with. Alfonso wrote back saying that a joglar was a courtly entertainer (not a low-class one!) and a trobador was a poet and composer.
Some troubadours had personal jongleurs to sing their work. The most famous example is Arnaut de Maruelh, whose songs were carried as messages to his beloved by Pistoleta. Perhaps due to this relationship with Arnaut, Pistoleta also became a troubadour. (Isn’t the name “Pistoleta” adorable? :3)
It’s worth noting that, despite the amount of education required to compose trobar, there were some troubadours with humble beginnings, like Cercamon, who originally was a jongleur, and Marcabru, who was (probably?) an abandoned child. In these cases, mastering the art of trobar enabled them to rise in social station.
Although some troubadours did change employers and thus move to another location, they were typically not wanderers. Their association with romance, however, is valid, as we will see.
The troubadours lived in areas where Occitan was spoken (southern France, northern Italy, and northeast Spain). In addition to the outstanding quality of their poetry, they are significant for writing in their own language about (often) non-religious subjects. A great deal of their poetry has been preserved, which is unusual for European secular works of that age; this makes their work extremely valuable and important to literature and cultural history. They had a profound influence on the trouvères (northern France, 12th-13th centuries) and Minnesänger (Germany, 12th-14th centuries) – so great an influence, in fact, that trouvère music and Minnesang are often not considered to be separate genres at all (just trobar written in French or German).
What we know of the lives of the troubadours comes mostly from their vidas; these biographies were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, based mostly on the text of surviving poems, and are… probably full of lies. （*´▽｀*） Regardless, they contain absolutely delightful stories that portray the troubadours as lovable and/or despicable characters, and they are full of romance of the most dramatic, heart-wrenching ilk. For example, Jaufre Rudel‘s vida tells the story of how he falls in love with the Countess of Tripoli when he hears a description of her great beauty. He travels to Tripoli to see her but becomes sick. She rushes to the inn to see him, but he is overcome by his illness and DIES IN HER ARMS. Kyaaa~~!! o(≧∇≦o)
If you don’t think that is the most romantic thing ever, you have no soul.
Technically speaking, the word troubadour refers only to male composer-poets. The feminine version is trobairitz. (Side note: The feminine word for joglar is joglaresa!) I am using the word troubadour in this post to refer to composers of all genders; however, I think it’s important to make it explicit that there were female troubadours.
They are very significant, as they are the first known female composers of secular music in Europe. Because of their significance, they are widely studied, although in comparison to male troubadours there are relatively few known to us; fewer than 50 trobairitz poems survive, and only one of them survives with its music (“A chantar m’er de so qu’ eu no volria” by the Comtessa de Dia). And it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a poem really is by a woman, since male poets sometimes wrote from a woman’s perspective.
As far as we know, there was only one trobairitz who wasn’t a noblewoman (Lombarda, who was probably the daughter of a merchant).
In general, the poetry of women troubadours is considered to be more realistic in its content than that of men. Their depictions of love tend to be less idealized and more personal.
There’s an interesting tension in the work of the trobairitz because trobar, a male-dominated genre, has some conventions that silence women. In courtly love (the subject matter of most trobar), women are idealized love objects; a woman – or a good woman, anyway – is a morally perfect being who is to be obeyed and worshiped. This gives women a lot of power – but it also takes away their power, because they have to be perfect; and in any case, love objects don’t get to choose who falls in love with them. The lover (a man) subjects himself to the power of his beloved, so although he is entirely obedient to her, it’s not because he’s compelled by any quantifiable political or economic power. (So yeah, the power dynamics are… complicated.) When a trobairitz writes a poem, she might depict herself as a love object (often one whose lover has betrayed her). But she might choose to depict herself as a lover instead, with a male love object. (Which is my favorite.)
There’s also a very romantic poem by a trobairitz named Bieiris de Romans that is addressed to a woman named Maria. Scholars disagree about whether…
- this is a lesbian relationship
- Bieiris is writing from the point of view of a male character
- it’s a religious poem, and Maria is the Virgin Mary
- it’s meant to describe a platonic friendship (!)
- it was written by a male poet instead
…but regardless of the author’s intent, it’s charmingly homoerotic.
“Be.m meraveill”‘s Composer
Guiraut Riquier was one of the last troubadours. He was born around 1230 in Narbonne and died sometime after 1292 in Rodez. Although he has no vida ( 😦 ), we know a few things about his life based on the content of his poems; we know, for example, that he worked for Aimery IV of Narbonne, then Alfonso and Henry II of Rodez.
He is primarily known for being fastidious enough to painstakingly document all of his work. No other troubadour did anything like this. Guiraut wrote a songbook of all of his own pieces; there are 89 of them, and they are all precisely dated, sometimes even to the day. There are melodies for 48 of the poems (more than twice as many as any other troubadour), and they are all original. (No contrafacta for Guiraut!) And he was scrupulous about noting the type of poem: canso, vers, and so forth. (“Be.m meraveill” is a canso.)
Guiraut is also unusual for using formal repetition in his melodies. As we’ll discuss below, most troubadour works did not contain any kind of melodic repetition. Guiraut, however, often repeated phrases and other melodic ideas; he was especially fond of bar form (AAB).
We are lucky enough to have about 2600 surviving troubadour poems, which is definitely enough to make some generalizations about the genre.
To begin with, trobar is super self-conscious – a lot of troubadour poems discuss poetry-writing techniques, and they often praise the art of the poet and gush about how writing poetry is the only appropriate way to express love.
More importantly, trobar is virtuosic (it displays an expertise or special knowledge in a difficult skill). In other words, it’s very difficult to write a good troubadour poem. The rhymes are strict (no rhyming “girl” with”world” or other such nonsense), and the number of syllables to a line is inviolate. To be clear, there’s no set number of syllables or kind of rhyme that applies to all trobar pieces; poets set their own rules for each individual poem. But within each poem, the rules are held consistently. Scholars have found 1575 different metrical schemes, 1200 of which are used only once in the entire body of trobar. One example of a very difficult rhyme pattern is “Kalenda Maya” by Raimbaut de Vacqueiras; here’s my translation, which I am really proud of, though it is definitely not as good as Raimbaut’s.
Interestingly, although rhyme and syllable count matter very much to the troubadours, syllabic stress does not. Lines that parallel each other (that have the same syllable count and rhyme) may have varying stress patterns.
One feature of troubadour poetry that can be easy to miss at first is the relationship between different stanzas. (A stanza is a verse, basically.) With the exception of the form called descort (which was all about discordance), each stanza of a poem has the same poetic structure: they have same number of lines, and each line will have the same number of syllables as its counterpart (for example, all of the stanzas might have 10 syllables in the first line, 11 in the second line, etc.). Rhyme also tends to carry over from stanza to stanza; sometimes every other verse or every third verse has corresponding rhymes, but the most prized examples are those where every stanza rhymes with the next. If you look at the original text for “Be.m meraveill co non es envejos”, you can see that it has the same syllabic and rhyme structure for each stanza. My translation carries this over into English. Rarer ways to link stanzas include quoting the last line of each stanza as the first line of the next stanza, inverting rhymes from one stanza to another, and whatever other creative ideas the poet can come up with.
Troubadour poems often end with a tornada (an envoi), a final set of lines that says who the poem is addressed to. Tornadas use the same poetic form (and, we assume, the same melody) as the final lines of the regular stanza. “Be.m meraveill co non es envejos” has two tornadas, one addressed to Viscount Aimery (Guiraut’s employer) and a more general one addressed to all good people.
What Is Courtly Love?
Although trobar pieces can also be about God, war, being a good person, how great the troubadour’s patron was, how talentless another troubadour was, etc., most of them are about romance, which means we should talk about the dominant literary philosophy of love at the time: Courtly Love.
(Or, well, fin amors. “Courtly love” is a 19th-century phrase that is often used to translate it. More literally, it means “refined love” or “pure love”.)
A detailed explanation of courtly love, with all of its cultural context and literary precendents, would be too much to talk about here. We’ll get into the basics of it, but please keep in mind that these poems were written in a feudal society that had a vested interest in preserving the idea of loyalty to overlords. It was also a highly patriarchal society where the lives of women were very restricted. Courtly love elevates and restricts women at the same time, and its roots are tightly twined with the power dynamics of religion and feudalism.
Another thing that’s important to remember is that not every troubadour bought into courtly love to the same extent. Some were true believers who earnestly threw themselves at the feet of their beloveds. Others wrote poetry about courtly love because that’s what their employers wanted. Some did it for the purposes of pure seduction. Others thought it was ridiculous and made fun of it.
Okay! Beginning at the beginning: Courtly love is a literary theme and (to some extent) a philosophy of life that developed in the courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne, Burgundy, and Sicily at the end of the 11th century. It is a set of values and ideals surrounding romance and love.
A courtly lover is someone who:
- is chivalrous and noble (sometimes a nobleman, but always someone with noble behavior)
- is compelled by the Power of Love (not of his or her own will) to fall in love with and remain in love with a beloved person
- desires more than anything to please the beloved
- because of the desire to become more pleasing to the beloved, purges himself/herself from all evil and becomes a truly good person (which means refined and polite as well as morally excellent)
Andreas Capellanus describes even more symptoms of courtly love in his 12th-century treatise, De Amore. (Scroll to the bottom and look for “Rules”.) There are so many great quotes here. I can’t even. I swear this is real.
(Here is the entire text of De Amore, if you want to slog through the Latin.)
Here’s how to experience courtly love:
- Fall in love with someone whether they are already attached or not.
- Don’t ever have sex with them, just adore them from afar.
- Constantly try to avoid people who are petty/envious of your love/married to your beloved, because they are super-jealous even though you aren’t doing anything bad.
- You have to keep this relationship a TOTAL SECRET, except that you can’t keep it a secret because it is LIFE-CHANGING and WONDERFUL.
- Optional Twist: Actually have sex with them. Steps 1, 3, and 4 are the same.
Whether or not the lover and beloved are actually sleeping together (scholars disagree on to what extent these relationships were supposed to be physical), they had to be careful to avoid starting rumors that they were behaving badly. So they were constantly on the lookout for lauzengiers (malicious spies). These “gossiping spies” and “jealous men” show up everywhere in trobar.
The experience of being in courtly love is paradoxical – it’s a mix of eroticism and spirituality, moral elevation and illicit feelings, passion and self-discipline, humiliation and exaltation. These feelings are often expressed in the terminology of feudalism: The lover is the vassal of the beloved, and the beloved is often addressed as “my lord” (even though she is usually a woman). The beloved is analogous to one’s overlord in feudalism or God in religion. That’s a lot of power – and a lot of expectations. (¤﹏¤)
Even though we don’t have the music for every troubadour poem, all of them originally had an accompanying melody. We know that the pieces were performed by singers (and also that the singers accompanied themselves with instruments, or that jongleurs accompanied them – though we don’t really know what exactly the instruments played).
We have about 460 extant melodies. A lot of these are repeats, though, so there are about 250 different songs that we have music for. These notated tunes have the pitches notated, but no information about rhythm at all.
There are some really problematic aspects of reading the music. First of all, the tunes that we have were almost all (or maybe even all?) written down by scribes a long time after their actual composition, and we know for a fact that sometimes the scribes got thing wrong. (As in, sometimes the same song is attributed to different composers in different manuscripts.) And there are some places where we know we’re making assumptions; for example, we sort of assume that the person listed at the beginning of each song is the composer and the poet, but this might not be true. And there are some songs that we can recognize as contrafacta – for example, Bernart de Ventadorn‘s “Quan vei l’alauzeta mover” had no fewer than five other songs based on it – but there could be others that we think are brand-new tunes but are really new lyrics written to lost pop songs or whatever. We also assume, but don’t know for sure, that there was one “correct” tune for each set of lyrics. For the songs that have multiple versions, the various tunes are sometimes very different from each other; maybe this was not a “mistake”, but was in fact totally acceptable to contemporaries of the composer.
The second problematic issue is the matter of mode. The mode is the collection of pitches that are allowed in a piece, along with some rules about how those pitches are related to one another. Most Western music from this period is written in the church modes, a set of modes used in Gregorian chant. (My friend Jadzia has an excellent explanation of the church modes here.)
However… troubadour music might not be written in the church modes. I cannot stress enough how shocking and exciting this is. The pitches of the melodies (which we can clearly read, or at least we assume so) seem to fit in to the church modes most of the time, but every so often, they break rules:
- The range can be as large as a 16th or as small as a 4th.
- The melody sometimes doesn’t end on the final, or seems to modulate, or behaves as though it has two tonal centers.
- Accidentals that are almost nonexistent in other music, like E♭ or G♯, show up occasionally. (Interestingly, they are notated not at the most expected places but at the least expected places – which might indicate that we should assume that they are reminders for the difficult-to-remember notes and that we should apply them in all of the expected places as well!)
Is there a different tonal system at work here, one lost to memory? Since we lack any detailed medieval treatises on secular monophony, we may never know.
The third aspect of trobar that is problematic – and it’s a big one – is the matter of rhythm. As far as we can tell, troubadour notation contains no information at all about rhythm; it notates pitch only. All we can do with the rhythm is guess. Our guesses are guided by some facts: We know how many pitches should be sung to each syllable, and we know which syllables are stressed when spoken. We also know what the rhythm for other 13th-century music was like.
But that’s the weird part. Franconian mensural notation, which records rhythm precisely, was invented in the 1250s. And it was used in some of the same manuscripts that troubadour songs are in! So if scribes had a way to notate musical rhythm, why did they choose not to notate the rhythm for trobar? Does it mean that the songs have a completely free rhythm? Or was it simply easier to copy them that way? Were their rhythms performed differently each time? Were the scribes not aware of all of their notation system options? Is the music rhythmic, but unmeasured? If it’s unmeasured, does that mean it has irregular-length measures, or rubato, or absolutely no rhythmic guidance from the composer at all? Looking at this rhythmic-notation-free sheet music, how did performers of the day decide how long they should hold each note, and which notes should receive stress? I’m sure there are also considerations that we, with our 21st-century paradigms, haven’t thought of. Maybe the troubadours didn’t care about rhythm, and we’re the only ones making a big deal out of it.
To add to the mystery, some trouvère melodies (remember the trouvères? they’re Northern France’s slightly later version of troubadours) are written using a form of partial mensural notation. This is even more puzzling. Why did the notation system need to be adapted? Why not just use it as is – or not?
We 21st-century performers, if we want to perform troubadours songs, must give it some kind of rhythm. So how do we decide how long to hold the notes? These are the things that I personally take into consideration when transcribing trobar:
- While people from different cultures are, well, different, they are also the same in many ways. Except when we have evidence that medieval people preferred something different from 21st century people, it’s reasonable to choose something modern audiences might like.
- Troubadours cared about poetry. So they’d probably want the words, when sung, to be intelligible and to be stressed the same way they are stressed when spoken. (This is complicated by the fact that troubadour poems have inconsistent stress patterns, as I discussed earlier. So a rhythm that matches the stress pattern for Verse 1 might sound totally awful for Verse 2.)
- It’s a huge freaking hassle to try to write something in modern notation without indicating rhythm.
- It’s also a huge freaking hassle to write out a separate rhythm for each verse. Plus people would be like, “Kasha, why does this 4-minute song take up 8 pages?”
Ultimately, we just don’t know what troubadours intended as far as the stress/syllable thing goes. Scholars who think that music’s job was to support the text tend to argue that the rhythm was different on every verse. Scholars who think the music came first – pointing to the numerous examples of contrafacta – tend to argue the opposite. But no one knows. Also, each song, and each performance of each song, could have been done differently. We’re talking about a lot of people over a long period of time. And the flexibility of the notation – without prescribed rhythm – allows for infinite variation.
For the rhythm in “Be.m meraveill”, here’s what I did.
- I decided to go ahead and use the same stress pattern on each verse. This imposes an additional rule on the poem that Guiraut Riquier did not have to follow when he wrote the original, but I think it is worth it in order to avoid the reaction of distaste that some modern listeners have for lyrics that do not line up with musical stress. With that in mind, I wrote a translation of the entire poem based on what I thought was a common-sense stress pattern.
- I went to set the poem to the music, and when I played through the tune, a specific meter and rhythmic pattern immediately suggested themselves to me. They seemed very obvious. I think this is because of Guiraut’s tendency to use melodic motifs and consistent phrase structures. (Remember, he’s a very late-period troubadour, and he pays attention to form.) The problem is, this very obvious meter and rhythm did not fit at all with the translation I had written.
- I rewrote my translation to fit the rhythm that made sense with the music.
Next time, I’ll look at the tune first, especially if it is another Guiraut piece.
“Be.m meraveill co non es envejos” & Musical Form
“Be.m meraveill” has an interesting form. Most troubadour songs are different from what modern listeners expect: They are freely composed, with each melodic phrase/line of poetry having no musical relationship to the next; lines that rhyme in the poem don’t have similar melodic material. (Those of us who live[d] during and after the Common Practice Period expect melodic patterns and tend to find trobar surprising or even confusing.) Intriguingly, the forward-thinking “Be.m meraveill” does have that repeition we expect.
First, its phrases have open-closed relationships with each other: The first phrase (see Line 1, for example) sounds a bit unresolved, and the second phrase (see Line 2) resolves the tension by ending on the tonic pitch.
Second, the form is full of repetition – the kind of repetition that, like the open-closed phrase relationship, modern listeners understand. First you establish a pattern, then you deviate from the pattern, then you return to the pattern. (Think of a standard pop tune: verse and chorus + verse and chorus + *bridge* + verse and chorus.) That deviating section creates drama in the music: We thought we knew what was going on, but now something different is happening! Then it returns to the pattern from before, and we feel relief. Guiraut does exactly this in “Be.m meraveill”: Its form is AB AB C AB (where all A lines have the same melody as each other, and all B lines have the same melody as each other).
It’s pretty cool how, when you strip it down to the bones, music hasn’t changed that much in 750 years.
“Be.m meraveill co non es envejos”
- Date: 13th century
- Composer/Poet: Guiraut Riquier (c. 1270 – d. 1300)
- Manuscripts: Chansonnier La Vallière (Bibliothèque nationale fonds fr. 22543)
- Original Language: Occitan
- Genre: trobar
- Form: ababcab