In the Middle Ages, musicians worked within an oral tradition. Memory was the means by which knowledge and understanding were transmitted, and only when long use and tradition had fixed the performance [...]
They spoke about it
Adam de la Halle, one of the last French trouveres, had been introduced to polyphony at the Notre-Dame school in Paris and was gifted with outstanding creative talent. He is credited with some sixty musical compositions, including songs, rondeaux, motets and jeux-partis (in which two singers debate a given topic), as well as two theatrical works, one of which is the Jeu de Robin et Marion.
In many of his works, rather than abandoning tradition, he gave it new life by combining elements of lyric poetry, in which the text determines musical form, with the erudite techniques of church music, whose adaptation to the secular vocal arts he helped pioneer.
The Jeu de Robin et Marion, created at the court of Naples in 1285 and considered Adam de la Halle’s masterwork, is thought to be the earliest European example of a musical play.
It presents “gracious” Marion, a simple but quite resourceful shepherdess, along with her peasant companions, including Robin and Gautier. It also presents Aubert, a knight whose unsubtle attempts at seduction and whose pride in the prestige conferred by his social condition contrast with the restrained, discreet sentiments expressed by the minstrels of courtly love.
The play is a theatrical adaptation of the pastourelle, a lyric genre that was very popular at the time. The play features characters inspired by real life and puts them in everyday situations, showing powerless peasants and shepherds subjected to abuse on the part of soldiers and nobles. By contrasting the knight’s pompous, outmoded manner of speaking with the peasants’ naïve and colourful language, Adam de la Halle managed to treat this distressing subject with humour. The play was an immediate hit.
With The World of Robin and Marion, Ensemble Anonymus has taken Adam de la Halle’s work as a starting point. Some fifteen monodies from the Jeu de Robin et Marion are interspersed with three-voice motets, that is, learned compositions from the organum of Ars antiqua. The result is a balance of sacred and secular melodies, with a mix of texts and even different languages (French and Latin).
Most of the pieces chosen by Anonymus come from the manuscript known as the Montpellier Codex, a collection of over 300 polyphonic French compositions dating from 1270 to the beginning of Ars nova in the 14th century. Several motets in this important Codex borrow themes or texts from Adam de la Halle’s play, indicating its immense popularity.
The World of Robin and Marion rounds out this exploration of a swiftly evolving musical era with isolated anonymous compositions, pieces taken from the Bamberg Manuscript and an extract from the satirical Roman de Fauvel. Finally, in homage to the inventive minstrels of the period, a few instrumental interludes by Claude Bernatchez are gracefully integrated with the rest.
© André Caron and Irène Brisson, 2004. Translation: Jane Macaulay