Thibaut de Champagne / Alla Francesca
Le Chansonnier du Roi. Amour courtois et chevalerie au XIIIe siècle
English liner notes


Thibaut de Champagne, King of Navarre, left us some sixty songs — a noteworthy fact for his era — from which it was not easy to choose, so much do the poetry and melodies form miniatures that one would like to bring them all back to life today.

Each song is a world to be recreated, in the service of the text and melody that carries it, with a choice of instrumental accompaniment — always improvised — that is in itself the vector and adornment. I therefore attempted to weave a tapestry on the troubadour’s web of words and notes, each song contributing its tint to the shimmering colours. The thread is the prestigious ‘King’s manuscript’, containing all the compositions heard on this.

A few touches have been added here and there: several refrains, noted without melody in Chançon ferai, reconstructed from various motets including Onques n’amai); a counterpoint proposed on the song Seignor saichies (written in the style of sacred compositions of the period) and the option of a rhythmic interpretation for certain songs.

Love above all, but also allegory, politics, irony, and finally spirituality, successively animate this imaginary picture of the work of Thibaut de Champagne...

Brigitte Lesne

Thibaut de Champagne
(1201 – 1253)

The place and time of his birth locate Thibaut de Champagne, compte de Champagne and roi de Navarre at the heart of a great artistic ferment. Son of Thibaut III de Champagne and of Blanche de Navarre, he was thus the grandson of Marie de Champagne and the great-grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine, both of whom were patrons of many trouvères. The first, swept up by the erotic doctrine of courtly love, counted among her protégés Guiot de Provins, Chrétien de Troyes and Gace Brulé. The second, granddaughter of the first known troubadour Guilhem IX d’Aquitaine, included many troubadours in her entrourage, from both France and England. Champagne was thus the heartland of the poetic-literary movement of the langue d’oïl.

Under the influence of Gace Brulé, Thibaut came to know various trouvères, among them Philippe de Nanteuil, Raoul de Soissons, Thibaut de Blaison and perhaps Guillaume le Vinier. The number of his compositions and indeed the number of sources in which they were recorded (no less than thirty-two manuscripts) testify to his popularity. And the great esteem in which he was held during his lifetime is affirmed by many references to him and his art, from the Grandes Chroniques de France to Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia, where he is classified among the “illustrious poets.”

A virtuoso trouvère, he willingly tried his hand at every genre of poetic lyric meant to be sung: courtly songs, song with refrains, pastorals, jeux partis and tensons (poems in dialogue form), lays, and songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He knew how to exhibit his inventiveness in his writings, never hesitating to revisit canonical models with a touch of humor. His unusual freedom of tone together with the refinement of his rhetoric, the social condescension that sometimes colors his verse, never allows us to forget his high station, nor his role in politics, which he often—though briefly—evokes.

The Songbook of the King

The manuscript from which all the songs here recorded were taken (Paris, BnF, fr. 844) is in its present state the product of a long history, begun in the second half of the thirteenth century. A composite songbook, it includes mostly songs for one voice in the langue d’oc and the langue d’oïl, but also polyphonic works, songs in Latin, and instrumental dances. Three of its component signatures constitute a separable entity, added later to the initial manuscript by a copyist probably belonging to an Italian scriptorium: sixty songs, all except the last by Thibaut de Champagne. The oldest part of the manuscript dates at the earliest from the mid-thirteenth century and would have been completed at the very latest around 1300. It includes more than 450 songs by trouvères, 55 songs by troubadours, 40 motets and 3 lays. Numerous works were added on blank pages or parts of pages: about fifteen songs in the langue d’oc and the langue d’oïl, twelve instrumental pieces, several rondeaux and motets, five songs to the Virgin Mary in Latin, and a poetic fragment dated 1494, which mentions the coronation of Charles VIII ten years earlier.

The origin of the songbook is contested. According to some scholars, it was copied out in Artois, like many other songbooks in the langue d’oïl. According to others, it was destined for Guillaume de Villehardouin, prince of the region of la Morée between 1245 and 1278, before being “revised” for Charles of Anjou. But there is not enough evidence on either side: the manuscript certainly resembles others from Artois—in particular the manuscript entitled “De Noailles” (Paris, BnF, fr. 12615)—but it also exhibits important differences in handwriting, decoration and even subject matter. Richly decorated, it was vandalized, so that it has lost most of its initial capital letters which included depictions of the trouvères who were active between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Purchased by Mazarin for his own library in 1640, it was acquired by the Royal Library in 1668, when it gained the appellation “Songbook of the King.”

The Songs

Lover, man of culture, politician, wit, pious Christian, soldier ... The king-trouvère glitters with many different facets. Along with many contemporaries, he sings about courtly love: most of his songs are addressed to his lady, “the best there could be in all the world,” according to “Chançon ferai” (“A song I’ll make”). It is a canso (a song whose first two melodic phrases are repeated) written in a ten-syllable line, like most of Thibaut’s texts, with each of the stanzas ending in a different refrain. While “Chançon ferai” and “Pour conforter” (“To ease”) are enriched by archaizing poetic references to Tristan and Jason, “Nus hom” (“No one”) alludes to politics, and the envoi to Philippe de Nanteuil probably dates the song to one of the periods of revolt against the monarchy: 1226–27 or 1235–36. “De fine amor” (“True love”) offers generalizing thoughts about love in a syllabic line set to a melody: the poem served as a model for another courtly song and was cited by Dante, incontestable proof of its success.

Originally from Provence, the tenson was a fictional dialogue about love: “Dame, merci” (“Lady, have mercy”) offers a complex and sustained melody. Thibaut pokes fun at himself there, slipping into the text an ironic allusion to his generous waistline.

The two pastorals deal with love in a more frivolous way. In “J’aloie l’autrier” (“I strayed the other day”), a single word is often strung out over many notes (melism) and the meter is irregular; in “L’autrier par la matinee” (“One morning, just the other day”), each word is sung on a different note (syllabism) and the ten-syllable line is regular. Both poems present us with a rather pitiful knight, chased away by threatening shepherds or by a mocking shepherdess.

The revival of the cult of the Virgin in the eleventh century introduced a counterpoint to terrestrial love among the trouvères. “Dou tres douz non” (“In the most honored name”) treats one by one the letters that compose the name “Maria.” The simple matching of note with word (syllabism) in the song lets the complexity of the wordplay and the poetic sonorities with their great symbolic richness, shine through.

The songs of the Crusade, “Au tans plain de felonie” (“In an era full of wickedness”) and “Seignor, saichiés” (“Know well, my lords”) depict a lord in combat, at the end of a human and spiritual voyage which led him, like many of his contemporaries, to defend the Holy Land. The first unrolls a continuous musical form, unusual for Thibaut. The envoi of the second, in the form of a prayer to the Virgin, echoes the pious mariolatry of “Dou tres douz non.”

The personage described by Hue de la Ferté, an Angevin lord allied with the barons who revolted against the monarchy during the years 1226–1230, is someone else entirely. The text of “En talent” (“I have the will”) crackles with an extraordinary virulence against the count of Champagne, a sinner “inflamed by passion,” and the regent Blanche de Castille, whom he accuses of weakening the monarchy.

The instrumental pieces that have been chosen constitute a showcase for the words of the poet. The motets are compositions that juxtapose one or more voices over a melody whose origin is usually liturgical. The use of many melisms combined with a tension created by the use of intervals in “Onques n’amai” contrasts with the great sobriety of “Qui loiaument.” The dances ultimately testify to a courtly festivity. Late additions to the songbook, they constitute the only recorded examples of instrumental music in the Middle Ages. Formed from a succession of sections called puncta, they are characterized by the variety of their internal repetitions. Each of the sections concludes with a cadence, alternately held in suspense and carried to a conclusion.

From poetic speech to instrumental song, the expression of medieval “courtesy” is offered here under many aspects. The songs give us access, beyond the opus of a poet who furnishes his own personal history, to a part of the world he knew. And that world, while enriched by an ancient poetic and musical heritage, draws as well on the dances and diversions that characterized the festivals of the nobility as well as the polyphonic music of the church.

Anne Ibos-Augé
Translated from the French by Emily Grosholz