It is a sad fact for those interested in the lyrical art of medieval France that relatively few of the musical settings of troubadour and trouvère lyric texts have survived from the 12th and 13th centuries. In Nigel Watkins’ The Lyric Art of Medieval France, the author indicates that over four thousand lyric texts have survived from the time of the troubadour and trouvère, while monodic musical settings for these texts survives for only less than half of the repertory. This could be due to a lack of musical copyists, or the fact that many of the melodies may have been so well known or too well memorized by all that they did not necessitate documentation. There is also the possibility that, in some cases, the poems were meant to be read or recited rather than sung. Indeed, the vidas of many of the troubadours indicate that many were more accomplished or well known as poets than as musicians, although the opposite could just as well be true in some cases.
Adam de la Halle is believed to have been able to read and write both music and words. The importance of Adam de la Halle is so considerable that many musicologists have devoted much research into the work of just this one trouvère. Some even refer to Adam de la Halle as “the last of the trouvères.”
In the middle ages, the patronage system was crucial to the survival of many artists. A poet or musician receiving patronage was generally a member of his patron’s household. The artist received wages (probably a lump sum over a certain period of time), housing, clothing and, sometimes, land, while the patron’s reputation would in turn be enhanced by the presence of a distinguished musician or poet in his or her household. In addition to supporting talented artists, patrons would sometimes be responsible for the spreading of cultural influence as well as having an influence on current style and taste in poetry and music. Adam de la Halle had, at least in the early part of his life, a somewhat different career path than many of his contemporaries. Born in Arras between the years 1245 to 1250, the young Adam is believed to have received financial assistance from wealthy merchants in his town, where he was a prominent member of the poet’s guild. Adam married while he was a young clerk, but it has been suggested that regretting his lost career, he decided to further his studies in Paris in 1276 under the sponsorship of some of the rich merchants of Arras.
Adam de la Halle did enjoy a period of patronage when he entered the service of Robert II, Count of Artois. In 1283, Adam accompanied Robert on his expedition to Italy to aid his uncle Charles of Anjou in the war against the Sicilians. While there, Adam entered the service of Charles of Anjou and wrote some significant works for the entertainment of the French courts in the two Sicilies. Adam de la Halle is believed to have died in Naples around 1285 to 1288. Other evidence suggests, however, that Adam was one of the entertainers who performed for the coronation of Edward II in 1307. An English source from 1306 showed a ‘Maistre Adam le Boscu’ among the minstrels engaged for the coronation – Adam le Boscu d’Arras’ is another name by which Adam was called. If the English report did indeed refer to Adam de la Halle, his death would have occurred when he was over sixty. However, in Style and Symbol – Medieval Music 800 – 1453, Andrew Hughes suggests that the English record could have been referring to a different Adam, or a younger member of his family.
Adam is perhaps unique among trouvères in that he composed not only monophonic songs, but also in a great variety of other genres. In addition to monophonic chansons, he also wrote jeux-partis – debating songs – as well as some polyphonic rondeaux and motets. One work by which Adam is particularly known is the dramatic pastoral Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, referred to by some as the first opéra comique. The bulk of the artist’s musical and poet output, however, falls under the monophonic chansons.
At the end of the 11th century, the courts of southern France and the duchy of Aquitaine became the centre of a great outpouring of cultural activities. At the courts, a leisured society was devoted to cultivating poetry, chivalry and music. The years 1140 to 1220 marked the height of the art of the troubadours from the south of France and from Provence. In 1209, the barons of northern France, encouraged by the Pope, set out on the so-called Albigensian Crusade against heretics in southern France. This war between North and South destroyed not only the heresy, but also the civilization of the south. By the 13th century, Paris had become the centre of European civilization, with French as the “universal” language. The trouvères continued the tradition of courtly love of the troubadours in their chansons. Like the troubadours, the trouvères originated from various classes of society. At the end of the 13th century, the repertory of monophonic secular songs was represented best by Pierre de la Croix, and certainly by Adam de la Halle.
Although a great deal of attention has been paid in the present century to the polyphonic compositions as well as plays of Adam de la Halle, it was as a trouvère in the high courtly style that his contemporaries chiefly valued him. Unlike other trouvère, whose output has largely been preserved in a dozen or so large chansonniers plus a number of smaller sources, the songs of Adam de la Halle appear primarily in collections devoted entirely to his works. Adam’s courtly chansons survived in eight main manuscripts and several lesser ones.
More than one scholar has commented upon the beauty and craftsmanship of the poetry for Adam’s thirty-six chansons. Deborah Hubbard Nelson comments that in spite of a lack of individuality in the poet’s lyric, the poetry of Adam de la Halle “communicates such a feeling of freshness that, if the reader or listener were not familiar with the poetic tradition of France and Provence in the twelfth and thirteen centuries, he might indeed credit Adam with remarkable originality. In the courtly chansons, according to John Stevens, we see Adam the craftsman, and “the maker of beautiful objects.” As in the case with other troubadour and trouvère melodies, Adam’s chansons can exist in divergent versions. Stevens points out that the divergence of notational practices is a result of the fact that copying or notating from memory was something that “was no simple mechanical act with a single ‘correct’ answer but an act which remained flexible, individual and creative, to match these same qualities in the singer’s and composer’s art.”
Thematically, most of Adams chansons follow the courtly tradition of the time – the poet addressing his forever-inaccessible lady. Related to this are the themes of the need for suffering as a test for love and the importance of hope. The central theme, or oxymoron, is the bitter-sweetness of love.
To understand the relationship between the poet and “his lady”, we must first understand that the audience in Adam’s time liked songs that dwelled upon the intricacies of this “relationship” – if we can call it that – between the lover and the object of his desire who seemed indifferent to him. According to Nancy van Deusen, “’she’ is as predictable as a ‘thing’, an object. She never relents, nor does she reciprocate. It is the poet-composer, not the ‘object’ of his love, who receives, during the course of his songs, a persona.” That said, it has to be pointed out that Adam de la Halle was not an absolute slave to the courtly tradition surrounding him. In one of his songs, the admission of a physical element with her lover came from the woman’s lips, that she “hopes often to lie against his sweet body.” It is also of interest to note that a number of the composer’s chansons preach “a more realistic and sincere ideal of mutual tolerance” – an almost 20th century concept of marriage, according to some. Other popular themes with Adam are the possibilities of ladies being deceived and the need for them to be constantly on their guard, against men, one presumes.
In addition to the songs in courtly tradition that constitute the bulk of Adam’s output of monophonic chansons are two songs of devotion to the Virgin Mary – Qui n’a puchele ou dame amée and Glorieuse Vierge Marie. In the latter work, Adam asks for the intercession of the Virgin Mary for the pardoning of his sins. It is interesting that Adam de la Halle’s (and perhaps other trouvères’) devotional songs use the same vocabulary and style that are used to describe more earthly love. On the whole, pious songs make up only a small fraction of the composer’s output.
Eighteen of Adam de la Halle’s monophonic compositions are jeux-partis – songs of debate. In the 13th century, the town of Arras had societies that encouraged literary pursuits amongst their members – the Confrerie des jongleurs et bourgeois d’Arras, otherwise known as carite des ardents. In The Lyrical Art of Medieval France, Nigel Wilkins explains that the carite des ardents was, “(i)n the first place a religious Guild in which jongleurs knew particular favour, since Our Lady was said to have appeared to two of them in the Cathedral of Arras in 1105 in order to present a miraculous candle, drops from the wax of which, when consumed in water, would cure the plague of the mal des ardents.”
Eventually the Confrerie developed a separate literary Guild in which both secular and devotional works were heard. Some of its members were extremely talented – Jehan Bretal, for example, a member of a wealthy family of bankers and merchants, partnered Adam de la Halle in sixteen out of eighteen of the composer’s jeux-partis. In the jeux-partis, the melodies are thought to have been composed by the one who poses the question, that is, the one who sings the first strophe. In thirteen out of sixteen cases, Jehan Bretal was the “questioner” and Adam the “responder”. All 16 of the jeux-partis in which Adam de la Halle took part and for which music had been preserved are included in manuscript sources of his collected works.
In The Lyric Art of Medieval France, Nigel Wilkins discusses the “composition” of the jeux-partis in some length. A superficial impression, as he points out, is probably one of two debating partners stepping forward to show off a brilliant display of improvisation to debate a point set out by a judge. However, further consideration of the construction of the jeux-partis, with their matching rhyme and metre, as well as rhythm and melody throughout, made it clear that, far from being an improvisation, the works must have been planned very carefully. There is evidence that the theme of the debate was issued many days before the contest. To this point, it has been suggested that the winner of the debate might also have “worked over” the rough edges of his composition so that the work would look good when published. Wilkins raises the possibility of a joint effort in determining the versification and the music.
It has also been pointed out that Adam’s meeting with the older Jehan Bretal had a significant influence on the younger man’s melodic style when he came to writing his monophonic chansons. In the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Robert Falck points out similarities between the jeux-partis involving Adam and Bretal with two of Adam’s chansons.
Adam de la Halle’s polyphonic works have generated much interest in musicological circles. Nigel Wilkins thinks that Adam’s polyphonic writing, as applied to the motets, have significant implications for his subsequent development. In Style and Symbol, Andrew Hughes thinks it difficult to see Adam’s polyphonic songs as a link between the monophonic and polyphonic traditions, therefore “leaving a gap of a generation between Adam and Machaut.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists Adam’s polyphonic compositions only under rondeaux and motets. The term rondeaux, specifically the 13th century understanding of the term, is applied more or less to refrain songs that are “round” by virtue of an initial refrain that recurs periodically – somewhat like today’s popular songs. The exceptions to the standard rondeau form are Fines amouretes ai, which is a virelai, and Dieus soit, which is a ballade with an initial refrain.
The subject matter of the rondeau, virelai and ballade tends to deal with some trifle or detail of amorous casuistry. It is rare for a poem to be concerned with anything but love, which is invariably the courtly species so proudly sung by the troubadours. Even in the religious rondeaux in the vernacular are to be found, they are generally composed using the same language as amorous poetry.
In Fi, mares, de vostre amour, wittily describes a wife’s true feeling toward her husband and her lover:
A fig for your love, husband, for I have a lover!
He is handsome and good looking.
He serves me night and day,
and that is why I love him so.
As with the rondeaux, many of Adam de la Halle’s motets deal with the various aspects of love with wit. In the motet J’os bien a m’amie parler / Je n’os a m’amie aler / Seculum, the lover’s two points of view are given simultaneously in the two upper voices:
Of course I dare to speak to my lover when her husband is there, and kiss and embrace her right by her side, and call him a dirty old jealous man and a rogue too, and shut him out of his house while I have my will with my love, and make the wretch cool his heels outside.
I do not dare to go to my love because of her husband, who always keeps an eye on me; for I cannot be near her without looking at her pretty face, and between lovers it is hard to hide the signs of love.
In yet another motet, Adam employs the drinking theme as he recalls moments of his days as a student in Paris. This is a far cry from the traditions of courtly love that so permeates his other works:
Anyone who hears Adam, Hanikel, Hancant and Gautelot enjoying themselves will have much delight: when they sing hoquets the youngsters go faster than the clappers, as long as they have had a drink first!
Scholars have attributed five motets in three voices to Adam de la Halle with a high degree of certainty. Modern editors have attributed six additional motets to Adam because they contain musical material found in his genuine compositions. It is of course possible that other contemporary or later composers quoted Adam’s music in their own compositions.
When the name Adam de la Halle is mentioned in music history texts, it is usually in association with his famous Jeu de Robin et Marion – Play of Robin and Marion, described by Hoppin in Medieval Music as “a dramatized pastourelle with incidental music.” In fact, the work is one of three dramatic works by the composer but the only one that uses music extensively. This work of Adam’s has been referred to by many as the first opéra comique. Perhaps the nature of the composition would place it closer t the pastourelle than to what we presently associate as opéra comique.
There have been suggestions that much of the music of Robin et Marion is borrowed from other sources. Some of the melodies introduced in the dramatic work have been claimed to be popular folk tunes of the time. Adam also incorporated the only authentic surviving chanson de geste melody into the play, where it was quoted by one of the characters. One of the most popular and tuneful songs from the work has to be the monophonic rondeau with choral refrain sung by Marion at the opening. As with the texts of many of Adam’s other rondeaux dealing with amour, the nature of love is far from platonic:
Robin loves me
Robin has me
Robin asked me if he can have me.
Robin took off my skirt of scarlet, good and pretty, my bodice and girdle.
The early life and much of the work of Adam de la Halle highlight the importance of the patronage system and their influence on the style and taste of the arts. Moreover, the Confrerie in Arras to which Adam belonged, with its jeux-partis, shows the desire of the middle class to emulate members of the nobility. This climate provided an unusually fertile environment for the development of poetic as well as musical talents.
Adam de la Halle’s creative output is rather unique in that he composed both monophonic chansons as well as polyphonic works. The large number of manuscripts that contain his works shows the popularity of the monophonic chansons. In terms of both the poetry and the music, it is generally agreed that Adam does not seem to be an innovator. In his poetry, Adam “carried on the tradition of the Provencal and North French love lyric without adding substantively to it. Yet an examination of Adam de la Halle’s courtly chansons shows that the craftsmanship and beauty of both the poetry and the music are beyond question. Maybe it is in the idea of a work like Jeu de Robin et Marion that Adam de la Halle can be considered forward-looking and influential?
In his passionate essay on Richard Strauss, Glenn Gould suggests that Strauss is an example of a man who “makes richer his own time by not being of it; who speaks for all generations by being of none.” Perhaps Adam de la Halle, by being a representative of a past as well as a future generation of musical aesthetics, can also be thought of as one who “makes richer his own time by not being of it”?
Whatever the case may be, Adam de la Halle would always be thought of as both a prolific and highly skilled creator of poetry and music in most if not all genres common in the 13th century.