Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.09.37 Doss-Quinby et al, Robert de Reims: Songs and Motets

21.09.37 Doss-Quinby et al, Robert de Reims: Songs and Motets

The corpus of the trouvère Robert de Reims, active between the years 1190 and 1220, is the subject of this beautiful edition. As the editors of this volume note, not much is known about Robert (also called "La Chievre"), save that he was likely active in the literary circles of Arras, and that he is one of the earliest known trouvères (1). Like his trouvère contemporaries, Robert composed both text and music, and this volume includes both elements in its editions of Robert's nine extant lyric poems and four polyphonic motets--something lacking from the only other edition of Robert's works, which does not include the music at all. [1]

The output of medieval lyric poets is of interest to musicologists, historians, and scholars of French and comparative literature alike (something reflected in the disciplinary makeup of the editors of the volume), and as such new editions of trouvère corpora (and the corpora of other related lyric traditions) need to appeal to an interdisciplinary audience. This edition does just that, by combining careful analysis of Robert's works from musical and literary standpoints. The musical aspects of this edition are of particular note, as they shed light on current discussions on the connections between monophonic and polyphonic music. Robert's corpus includes both monophonic songs (chansons) and polyphonic, polytextual motets--distinct musical genres found in different sources. (The chansons are extant in anthology-style compilation manuscripts, or chansonniers, from Artois, Picardy, Burgundy, or northeastern France, while books of polyphony are Parisian in origin.) Connections between these two repertoires were first made in corpora from the early fourteenth century, [2] and research from the last several years has moved back in time to analyze music from the thirteenth century. [3] Gaël Saint-Cricq, one of the editors of this volume, has argued that Robert was not only the author of the motets' French (newly-composed) texts, but also "involved in the making of the music, either within a collective procedure or simply as the sole author of the music," demonstrating that trouvères were involved with the composition of motets much earlier than previously thought. [4] Questions of generic poetic development, and the challenging of traditionally-held ideas about the origins and dates of poetic genres, are also inherent to current scholarship in comparative literature.

The edition is beautifully laid out and includes a number of tables and charts that show clearly how Robert's corpus is both unique within and similar to the larger trouvère lyric corpus. As the editors note in the introduction to the edition, Robert's corpus is "exceptional on a number of fronts," both because his work "was clearly at the nexus of monophonic song and polyphony" and also because he composed both conventional and parodic love songs (and is the earliest known trouvère to have written comedic parodies of traditional courtly love songs) (1).

The edition opens with a succinct but thorough introduction. The editors provide a brief overview of the life of Robert, the manuscript tradition of Robert's corpus, its thematic content, a discussion of graphic inconsistencies of the language of the base manuscript they use for the edition, and Robert's versification, before turning to an analysis of the music of Robert's corpus and the ways in which the melodies interact with their texts. Finally, the introduction concludes with a discussion of editorial policy for both music and text, and a description of the way the critical edition is laid out. The descriptions of editorial policy are one of the editions's strengths: they are clear, detailed, and make truly transparent a process that can often be rendered opaque, which will be of use to both scholars familiar with Old French poetry and music and newcomers alike. However, it does seem that this volume is intended for an audience from literary disciplines--likely those who are familiar with Robert from his poetic texts, not from his musical output--as demonstrated by the sections discussing Robert's music. The musical sections use a number of technical terms borrowed from rhetoric that are not explained, while musical terms (i.e., "motet") are explained.

As mentioned previously, Robert's corpus is of particular interest to musicologists because it includes both chansons and motets, and in several cases monophonic chansons were made from melodic lines taken from polyphonic motets. The editors make a distinction between these two types of chansons, distinguishing between the songs that began life as monophonic chansons (here called "genuine" using Saint-Cricq's term in his 2019 article in Early Music History) [5] and those which were originally part of polyphonic motets (5). While this distinction between "genuine" songs and motet melodies could be more clearly explained earlier in the introduction, the reworking of the chansons which were originally motets is fruitfully and thoughtfully discussed in the context of the medieval traditions of continuations and borrowings. The connection between songs and motets in the trouvère repertoire is currently an area of much exciting research, so this volume's decision to include both songs and motets together, and to analyze the recomposition of motets into songs, has much to offer scholars working on these questions.

The poetic texts are translated into both English and modern French, and include stanzas not transmitted in the base manuscript. The editors do not attempt to make their translations rhyme, which is a useful choice--rhyming translations can unnecessarily obscure the meaning of the original text. The melodies are underlaid with all of the Old French stanzas (not just the first stanza), which makes analysis and performance considerably easier. Finally, the motet editions include the Biblical references for the Latin text, but do not translate the Latin itself. This might have been a useful inclusion (in the introduction, the editors provide thoughtful analyses of the ways in which the Latin text might correlate with the French text for some--not all--of the motets).

The editors do make one editorial decision that I found somewhat curious. In their discussion of editorial policy, they state that they have used trouvère MS X (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, n. a. fr. 1050) as the base manuscript for their editions because most of Robert's songs are transmitted in it. In doing so, the editors adhere very closely to X, explaining that "[their] presentation of the songs as they appear in a single manuscript, and in the order in which they appear in that source, even when the particular version in X may be viewed as 'faulty,' is meant to reinforce Robert's authorial presence" (26). The invocation of the complicated issue of medieval authorship, especially in light of the discussion of shared authorship with regard to the monophonic songs created from earlier motets, warrants more explanation as to what the editors actually mean by Robert's "authorial presence." Much scholarship on medieval lyric poetry engages directly with the meaning of authorship in the Middle Ages, or the attribution of songs to authors in anthology-style manuscripts compiled by scribes, addressing the complex notions of subjectivity, attribution, and (re)composition that are inherent in these sources, and this particular editorial choice left me wondering what kind of presence Robert could have had in a trouvère chansonnier. [6] Certainly, distinct lyric traditions interact with different issues concerning the figure of the authorial persona--particularities that are apparent even within individual manuscripts from a single poetic tradition--perhaps making the need for clarification even more necessary.

However, this is a minor quibble, and all in all, this edition merits high praise. Its inclusion of Robert's music, its juxtaposition of the motets and chansons, and its French and English translations ensure its value to a wide audience. It is a beautifully clear, detailed, and thorough edition that will be useful to Anglo- and Francophone scholars of literature and music alike.



1. Wilhelm Mann, ed., "Die Lieder des Dichters Robert de Rains, gennant La Chievre," Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 23 (1899): 79-116. Mann's edition also leaves out the motets.

2. Mark Everist, "Motets, French Tenors, and the Polyphonic Chanson ca. 1300," Journal of Musicology 24 (2007): 365-406.

3. Gaël Saint-Cricq, "A New Link Between the Motet and Trouvère Chanson: The pedes-cum-cauda Motet," Early Music History 32 (2013): 179-223.

4. Gaël Saint-Cricq, "Genre, Attribution, and Authorship in the Thirteenth Century: Robert de Reims vs 'Robert de Rains'," Early Music History 38 (2019): 141-213, at 181.

5. Saint-Cricq, "Genre, Attribution, and Authorship," 141-213.

6. See for example Sarah Kay, Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Marisa Galvez, Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Judith A. Peraino, Giving Voice to Love: Song and Self-Expression from the Troubadours to Guillaume de Machaut (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Olivia Holmes, Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to Italian Poetry Book(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and Sylvia Huot, From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).