ArticlesNo. 94, Fall 2012

Troubadour Song as Performance: A Context for Guiraut Riquier’s “Pus sabers no’m val ni sens”


The songs of the troubadours present the fundamental challenge of understanding poetry as music. Although the Old Occitan lyric corpus was a sung tradition from its origins in the twelfth century, we do not know exactly how it sounded; the poetry and musical notation of troubadour song are only skeletal vestiges awaiting completion by the imagination. Miniature biographies of the troubadours known as vidas, which combine elements of fact and fiction, describe some poets as performers who sang and played instruments, while others apparently did not. Most manuscript sources of troubadour song lack musical notation; the few chansonniers that do include it provide the pitches and text underlay for one strophe of melody, with the remaining strophes of text laid out in prose format. The absence of music from so much of the written transmission of the corpus can be attributed to factors such as predominantly oral transmission of the melodies (resulting in their loss as the tradition waned) and the circumstances of compilation, which favored the presentation of the songs as poems. The repertory travelled in the thirteenth century to northern France, Italy, the Iberian peninsula and beyond through the movement of poets, singers, patrons, and not least, the formation of the manuscript tradition. As Marisa Galvez notes, the very concept of a troubadour corpus as an authorial tradition emerged from the chansonniers. The constitution of poetic personae in these manuscripts stands in for the construction of poetic agency and voice that would have occurred in performance (2012: 59–64). Many nonmusical, nonverbal components of performance that are now irrecoverable were as much part of the song as the melody and text, and were probably embedded in its early reception: the performers’ appearance and gestures, their relationship to the audience, their present or absent patrons.