12.10.23, Haines, Medieval Song in Romance Languages

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Stewart Carter

The Medieval Review 12.10.23

Haines, John. Medieval Song in Romance Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 304. ISBN: 978-0-521-76574-9.

Reviewed by:
Stewart Carter
Wake Forest University

What do we expect of a book with this title? When I sat down to read it, I hoped to find a new slant on the rather well-known works of the troubadours and trouvéres, from William IX through Adam de la Halle, and perhaps onward to Guillaume de Machaut. I hoped to find answers to questions about these composer-poets' melodic structures, and I hoped to learn more about the performance traditions associated with these songs. What I found both surprised and puzzled me.

Haines's book is clearly a revisionist history. Taking a post-modern view of the historiography of medieval music, he sets about to redress the imbalances he has found in the work of "traditional" musicologists, from Kiesewetter and Coussemaker right up to Taruskin. He notes that in the nineteenth century, the nascent discipline of musicology was heavily influenced by archaeology, and particularly by the latter's emphasis on "great monuments." Traditional music scholarship viewed the Renaissance as the age of Lasso and Palestrina; the Baroque, of Bach and Handel; the Classical, of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Armed with this mind-set, early scholars of medieval music seized on the surviving "monuments" of medieval music, particularly the beautifully notated manuscript collections. Haines argues that musicologists have been misled long ago by the self-conscious (and self-aggrandizing) efforts of certain early poet-composers--particularly Adam de la Halle and Guillaume de Machaut--who were determined to secure a place in history for their creations and did so essentially by overseeing the preparation and preservation of their "complete works."

Apart from de la Halle and Machaut, Haines barely mentions the "giants" of medieval song. The blurb at the beginning of the book tells us that this is "a detailed survey of songs performed in Vulgar Latin and early Romance languages from around 500 to 1200" (i). The author challenges his readers to consider vernacular song that lurks beneath the surface--songs that preceded that written record, or were not written down at all. The source material here ranges from some quite interesting songs in manuscript--a mini-repertoire that surely will be totally unfamiliar to most readers--to contemporary literary references to secular song, to outright speculation. Haines makes a strong case that standard histories of music have tended to pigeon- hole medieval monophonic song repertoire into two main categories, sacred (Latin) and secular (vernacular). He makes the very cogent--if well-known--point that the history of medieval song is heavily slanted in favor of the Christian Church, which held a virtual monopoly not only on manuscript production but also on historiography. The medieval record, says Haines, is a written record, and the Church sponsored the lion's share of the writing of text, as well as of musical notation.

Haines's written musical record--that is, music surviving in notated form--is noteworthy, including as it does twelve manuscript sources, with some variants, in notation ranging from diastematic neumes (Clermont Ferrand, Bibliothèque du Patronomie, Clement Communauté 240) to handsomely rendered chant-like notation on a four-line staff (Amiens, Bilbliothèques d'Amiens Métropole 573D). It comprises a varied repertoire--including an alba from the late tenth/early eleventh century, passion songs, a lament, and a crusader song, to name but a few. Facsimiles of these songs appear in Part II of the book, along with transcriptions in modern notation of those that were originally in staff notation and diplomatic transcriptions of those that were not.

But Haines is not content to rely on the written record. He expands outward, considering contemporary written descriptions of song and engaging in informed speculation. The author takes great pains to demonstrate the pervasiveness of medieval song in Romance languages, first by establishing a working definition of song as "music produced by the human voice" (11), and then by attempting to place chronologically the emergence of Romance languages from vernacular Latin. Exactly when this occurred is impossible to say, for as Haines notes, there are no written texts in Romance languages before the ninth century (14).

Somewhat surprisingly, a substantial proportion of the music Haines discusses is sacred. The dividing line between sacred and secular music in the Middle Ages was considerably less distinct than it was a few centuries later--particularly at a time when "pagan" traditions were still quite strong in European society and the Church's attitude toward these traditions was mercurial. The author demonstrates, for example, that songs about Christ are related to epic songs about secular heroes, that Christian laments are much like secular laments, that the cult of Mary is not unlike early goddess cults, and that early hymns are inextricably related to dancing. More than half of the early songs that survive with notation have sacred texts, or at least have a sacred tinge.

Haines quite rightly points out how frequently the Church's condemnation of secular music-making was coupled with the condemnation of women--women wailing laments at funerals, women dancing carols, women singing bawdy songs in an attempt to lure "chaste men" into sin. The author's insistence on the importance of the role of women in medieval vernacular song is one of the strongest features of the book. It is unfortunate, though, that essentially none of this music survives in notation. The carols surviving from fifteenth-century England offer perhaps a faint echo of earlier carols in Romance languages, and there are some traces of women's laments.

Haines is at his most speculative in his discussion of medieval lullabies. I do not doubt that medieval women sang lullabies to their children; surely women have always done so. The problem is that the evidence for medieval lullabies is quite sparse: no notation for such music survives from the period in question, and literary references are rare. It is important to remember that the music musicologists write about is the tip of the iceberg. From the standpoint of the number of its practitioners, music-making among ordinary people has always dominated what we call "art music." The issue of medieval lullabies, then, seems to be an anthropological one--and perhaps that is the author's point.

Haines's book offers a unique approach to the topic of medieval song in Romance languages. Students and scholars wishing to delve more deeply into the entire scope of this topic are likely to be disappointed, since the author's concept of "medieval" is limited. But those who have long wondered about the predecessors of the troubadours, whose art seems almost to have sprung from nowhere, now have at least a partial answer to this question, as well as a strategy for further inquiry.

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Stewart Carter

Wake Forest University