Les Escholiers de Paris : Motets, Songs & Estampies of the Thirteenth Century

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Ensemble Gilles Binchois, Dominique Vellard
Anne-Marie Lablaude, Brigitte Lesne, Susanne Norin, Emmanuel Bonnardot, Willem de Waal, Pierre Hamon, Randall Cook

In fact, with the royal family’s increasingly frequent visits to Paris and the development of the university, Paris became the focus of a vital flowering that attracted the greatest artists, musicians, scholars, and theologians to Europe’s leading cultural center. From all provinces and all countries “escholiers” flocked to the universities and colleges, hoping to study with the most learned and renowned teachers of their day; thus was the social fabric of Paris enriched by young minds responding to the stimulus of the city’s artistic and intellectual ferment.

La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel), Paris, FranceMusic occupied a position of honour in this effervescent atmosphere, having experienced exceptional development at Notre-Dame from mid-century onwards. This school’s influence was so great that its creations spread throughout Europe, and soon music in every form and circumstance became a major aspect of the city’s social life.

In churches : construction work was completed at Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle towards the middle of the century and, counting the royal parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois and rich abbeys such as Saint-Victor, Paris boasted countless distinguished locations where musical Chapels and the liturgical apparatus as a whole vied in opulence and excellence for the embellishment of religious rites and processions.

5777c6e0ccd707d1d4ecce6308de6dc2For all public and royal occasions and popular entertainments : music was performed not only by professional musicians – both religious and lay – but also by the bourgeoisie. In his chronicles, Nicolas de Braie tells us that matrons and young ladies from the Parisian bourgeoisie sang chansons and motets greeting Marie de Brabant, wife of Philippe le Hardi, as she entered Paris after his coronation at Saint-Denis on June 24th, 1275.

At court : we learn from the chronicle of Saint-Denis that in the reign of Philippe Auguste (early in the century), jongleurs and minstrels gathered at the courts of princes, barons, and the wealthy where they “chantent et content noviaus motez et noviaus diz et risies de divers guises” (sing and recite new motets and new poems and tales in various styles). Not only 08b7a457327627392e5d18ba115f4e91did the nobility use musical entertainment to enhance its formal celebrations, but also, seemingly, as a background for ordinary domestic life. It was for the latter purpose that singers (children?) were kept on call by the royal family for use as wanted; in order to comply, rehearsals were held “every day after vespers” and also on Sundays, so that a repertory would be in constant readiness for performance.

Contemporary accounts indicate that certain musical forms were confined to specific social groups. The audience for motets and conduits, for example, was made up of the cultivated and wealthy. These were listeners capable of appreciating the innovation and musical and literary complexity of the forms ; connoisseurs eager to cultivate the most sought-after musicians; and thus a major influence in spreading the new music. The nobility, on the other hand, preferred the traditional chanson. Chivalric and mythological themes drawn from the poems of provençal troubadours or from French romans fulfilled the nobility’s desire to respect tradition and preserve the ideals courtly society.

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These remarks provide a partial explanation of 13th-century musical reality in Paris, but they should not circumscribe our perception of how amazingly these varied and diverse forms became an integral part of the city’s life. Theorist Jean des Murs underscores the extent to which music nourished all layers of society: not just the cultivated and privileged, but also the common people. It was generally recognized by the close of the 13th century that the role of music and dance had gone beyond mere entertainment to become a factor in the equilibrium and stability of society as a whole.

When this has been pointed out, is it then any wonder that numbers of our own century’s musicians and musicologists are fascinated by late 13th-century Parisian musical life? The formal and stylistic diversity, and the intriguing migrations of musical and literary material (through copies, adaptations, variations) have aroused keen interest among scholars and performers alike.

This situation is an invitation to performers to bring the full diversity of the period to the attention of their audiences – a task made possible by the excellent state of perservation of the major manuscript sources – and to juxtapose works containing common elements, thus revealing to today’s listeners certain features that were “understated” by their creators or that might be “underappreciated” by our contemporaries.

Dominique and Anne-Marie Vellard


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