Adam de la Halle

(c.1237 -1285/88)

French composer, one of the later trouvères. The son of a burgher of Arras, Adam was educated at the Cistercian Abbey of Vaucelles and intended for the priesthood, but he fell in love and insisted on marrying (the marriage did not last). From 1262 he studied at the University of Paris, and in 1271 was in the service of Robert II of Artois, whom he accompanied to Naples, possibly in 1282; some of his most important works were performed at the Naples court. He died there a few years later. While in Naples he created his famous Jeu de Robin et Marion, performed at Naples in 1275 or 1285. This play with songs and dialogue pieces is sometimes called 'the first comic opera'. It is not known whether the melodies are folksongs or the composer's own (though he certainly wrote the texts) or whether instruments were used to accompany the voices. It is a naive dramatic pastoral with many short songs sung by the leading actors. It went down in the history of French literature as the secular Singspiel, or song-play. His gracefully turned melodies typify the charm of the art of the troubadours.

The esteem in which de la Halle was held in his time is evidenced by the fact that his were the first musical works to be collected and edited. (They are now in the National Library of Paris.) It is surprising that this volume contains not only his chansons and song plays, but also rondeaux and motets for three voices. This shows that Adam was not only a Trouvère, but that he was also accomplished in the important art of polyphonic composition. Apparently he studied polyphonic composition at the University of Paris, which shortly before had been founded by Robert de Sorbonne and which numbered, among its staff, famous music theorists. Of the various musical forms which the polyphonic art had already developed, Adam de la Halle's rondeaux are of the simplest type. All parts carry the same rhythm and (as far as they are not instrumental), they have the same text. Adam was among the few thirteenth century composers to apply polyphonic techniques to the various contemporary types of secular music-ballade, rondeau and virelai; sixteen such pieces, in conductus style, survive. They are often very attractive and in some ways anticipate fourteenth century developments. Seven motets and many monophonic songs also survive. Other compositions of that time, such as the "motetus," were much more complicated. Nevertheless, when Adam's rondeaux were discovered toward the latter part of the 19th century, the melodies, were found to be rather strange. Today we are once more accustomed to the polyphonic sound and it no longer poses a problem to grasp the meaning of the melodic variations of the different voices.

Adam's rondeaux usually express a love theme, as do his troubadour compositions. The structure of the rondeaux, solo voiced "couplets" alternating with multi-voiced "refrains," shows that they too are based on the traditional folksong.

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