Kalenda maya is a 12th century song by troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, one of the Occitanian (later southern French) poets and singers who developed the musical tradition of fin’amor, refined or perfect love. Via Roman fertility festivals and Irish fiddle tunes, this article discusses the poetic content of the song and the problems of interpreting the musical notation of Kalenda maya, penned when written music was still developing in medieval Europe. Can there be a definitive version when there are textual variants of the same song or melody? How credible are renditions of Kalenda maya that impose a musical rhythm not present on the original page?
Raimbaut de Vaqueiras based the melody of Kalenda maya on an estampie he heard at court in Italy. Using principles written in 1300, I attempted to reverse engineer the sung estampie back into the tune it originally was. The reasons this proved impossible tell us something important about medieval music and the continuance of the spirit in which it was played.
We begin with a video of two interpretations of the melody played on gittern.
Kalenda maya: a celebration of unrequited love
Kalenda maya – meaning May Day, from the Latin, calenda maia – is the name of a song in Occitan by troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, c. 1155–1205, who spent most of his life in the Italian court. A story circulated that Raimbaut wrote these words to an estampie he heard played by two jongleurs (itinerant entertainers) playing vielles (medieval fiddles) at the court of Montferrat in northern Italy, where he was employed as poet/musician. The final line of Kalenda maya names its form: “Bastida, finida, n’Engles, ai l’estampida” – “Lord Engles [Lord Englishman, Raimbaut’s nickname for his patron, Boniface of Montferrat], I have constructed and completed the estampie”.
Kalenda maya is a love song to “Lady Beatritz”, daughter of Raimbaut’s patron. Raimbaut’s six verses follow the unrequited love theme beloved by troubadours: she is perfect (beautiful, noble, virtuous, etc.); I am hopelessly in love with her; she doesn’t want me; I am heart-broken. The opening verse begins, “May Day nor the leaves of the beech tree nor the songs of birds nor flowers of gladiolus please me, noble and vivacious lady, until I receive a swift messenger from your fair person to tell me of some new pleasure that love brings me”. The delights of the natural world – trees, birds, flowers – are understandable, but why is May Day in this list of pleasures?
The first of May is today associated with International Workers Day, also known as Labour Day or May Day, but that didn’t happen until 1886; or the festival of the Padstow ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse), which claims to be Britain’s oldest fertility ritual, still celebrated today, though records of it go back no further than 1803; or morris dancing, a 15th century courtly entertainment derived from Moorish dancing which became a European folk dance by the late 16th century; or dancing around the Maypole, the first evidence for which goes back to the mid-14th century in Llanidloes, Wales (in a poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd), apparently having migrated from England.
All of these associations postdate the song. What were the pleasures of Kalenda maya or May Day for Raimbaut de Vaqueiras in 12th century Italy? The time of year has long been associated with new life and fertility. In the 1st and 2nd century, for example, the Roman festival of Floralia was held in late April in honour of Flora, goddess of flowers, spring and fertility. Floralia was six days of flowers, games, hares, goats and prostitutes. From the 13th to the 15th century, a festival called Calendimaggio or cantar maggio – May day or sing may – is attested in Florence. Calendimaggio was a celebration of the seasonal cycle of the sun that brings warmth, birth and life, involving the exchange of flowers between lovers, the wearing of garlands, the playing of tournaments, songs praising life and love, and dancing in the streets. It seems that a similar celebration was in the mind of Raimbaut in the 12th century.
In the northern hemisphere today, spring begins on 1st March and summer on 1st June but, in the medieval calendar Raimbaut knew, spring and summer began a month earlier, so 1st May was the first day of summer. Modern urban people, with our electric lighting, central heating, fridges and 24 hour shopping, are largely cut off from the necessities of living by the seasons; but the natural rhythm of the annual cycle defined medieval life, as depictions of seasonal activites in any medieval Book of Hours demonstrates. Raimbaut’s list of pleasures – May Day, the leaves of the beech tree, the songs of birds, flowers – are all of a piece, all celebrations of the seasonal cycle of nature.
Interpreting the manuscript I: the definitive version
Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and other troubadours, Occitanian poets and singers of the 11th to 13th centuries, developed the musical tradition of fin’amor of which Kalenda maya is part. The source of the song is a manuscript (Bibliothèque nationale de France, fonds français 22543) written in western Provence in c. 1300, now known as troubadour manuscript R, entirely dedicated to troubadour songs, preserving 950 poems, 160 with their melodies. Though there are a large number of 13th and 14th century manuscripts including troubadour material, this is the largest single collection, and one of only two manuscripts dedicated entirely to this repertoire.
Another version of the Kalenda maya melody is used in an anonymous trouvère song, Souvent souspire mon cuer – Often sighs my heart – in a 14th century manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque l’Arsenal MS 5198). Its five verses are on the same theme as Kalenda maya: she is beautiful; I am hopelessly in love with her; she doesn’t want me; I am heart-broken.
The troubadours in the south and the trouvères in the north of (what is now) France developed a large body of songs which were being committed to writing during the same period. There has been much academic discussion and disagreement over the accuracy and interpretation of their written music.
The first issue is one of musical provenance. Many troubadour songs exist in different versions showing significant melodic variations. This is a problem if one is seeking an original or definitive version. I would argue that variants are no problem at all since variation is a necessary feature of the musical milieu of these songs, as it is with other traditional, communally-shared music to this day.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, Captain Daniel Francis O’Neill, Chief of Police in Chicago (pictured right), and his notation assistant, Sergeant James O’Neill (no relation), collected traditional Irish tunes for the book first published in 1907, now known as O’Neill’s 1001 Gems: The Dance Music of Ireland, or O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, or O’Neill’s 1001 Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Airs and Marches. The tunes they collected from Irish-American pipers and fiddlers had been transmitted from person to person, from generation to generation. James O’Neill wanted to write accurate notation so, when he asked a musician to play a piece again, perturbed that it wasn’t what he’d played last time, the player responded, ‘But that’s the point!’
Raimbaut died in 1205, and his Kalenda maya was written down a century later in a musical milieu that was orally transmitted, not fixed in writing. In other words, the troubadour repertoire was accessed in the same way as other traditional forms of music, evolving over time, passed from person to person, not fixed or final. In a later era, 17th century broadside ballads such as Barbara Allen and John Barleycorn became traditional songs, spreading around regions of England and to other countries and continents of the English-speaking world, spawning multiple different versions of their lyrics and melodies, being sung in all their variant versions even to this day. The effect of their travel and the fact that singers were active participants in a living oral tradition meant that each consciously or unconsciously changed note, word or phrase was potentially passed on into the tradition and sung by others. Sometimes a song would travel for miles and years virtually unaltered; other times new singers would spawn verses and melodies that accumulated such a degree of change that they transformed its identity into what became a new branch of the song’s family tree.
Having different versions of words or a melody is only a problem if we seek a ‘definitive version’ and expect all manuscripts and sung renditions to be faithful copies of one ‘true original’. There are two cultural clashes at play here, the first medieval, the second more universal.
The first clash is between the supposedly rigidly fixed and repeatable music of the church and secular musical freedom. Elements of the medieval church considered any personal expression or deviation in music to be hubris, bringing attention to oneself rather than giving glory to God. Composers of new church music had to find ways around this stricture if their music was to be heard, and they did so by adding elaborate new voices to existing, well-established music. This was still too much for some ecclesiastical fundamentalists. It is instructive that Robert of Courçon (Robert Curzon), English cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the angry voices railing against an individual singer’s or composer’s creativity, called deviation from plainchant “minstrelish and effeminate … wanton singers … they may be tolerated if they avoid minstrelish little notes” (Summae de eiusdem, early 13th century). In other words, they may be tolerated if they do not add vocal flourishes and creative deviations as secular singers do, as that emphasises the individual identity of the singer, which must be hidden to give glory to God.
The fundamentalist ecclesiastical dream was of an unbroken tradition of church music, sung plainly, passed on orally and faithfully, replicated note for note from before the days when written music notation was able to give either accurate pitch or any signs of rhythm. The dream of the unbroken tradition was doomed from the start: singers cannot help creative deviations, whether they want to do it or not. As ecclesiastical music theorist Johannes Cotto (John Cotton or Johannes Afflighemensis) wrote in his De musica cum tonario, c. 1100, “For one says, ‘Master Trudo taught it to me thus’, another adds, ‘But I learned it this way from Master Albinus’, and a third, ‘Certainly Master Salomon sings it very differently’. And lest I delay you with more obscurity, it is rare that three people agree about one chant. For surely so long as everyone prefers his own master, there are as many variations in singing as there are Masters in the world.” If you are a singer yourself and learn music by heart for performance rather than singing from notation, you’ve probably had the same experience as me, akin to the phenomenon described by Johannes Cotto: you forget a line, go back to the music, read through the song as originally learned, not seen in some years, and exclaim: ‘Did I really ever sing that? But I must have done!’
The problem of seeking a ‘definitive version’ also raises the clash between the-artist-as-individual, wishing to protect the integrity of their work, and communal creativity in a largely oral/aural culture. The individual artist’s wish for fixity and control on the one hand, and the fluidity and unpredictability of music that is publically shared on the other, were somewhat at odds even within the era of troubadour activity. While there are clear examples of textual relationships between written troubadour compositions, there are also significant differences in music which can only be accounted for by variations created by the oral tradition. It is entirely understandable that a songwriter such as a troubadour, with their name to a song, wishes their art to be preserved as they originally made it. However, the predominant oral tradition, with its accretions and improvisations, made identical transmission impossible. If some troubadours disliked this fact, they were fighting the inevitable, and an important means by which their work was carried.
It follows that, in a predominantly oral culture, a ‘definitive version’ is a vain hope. I suggest we accept this as a testament to the richness of communally-carried music. If the story of Raimbaut de Vaqueiras hearing an estampie and remoulding it into Kalenda maya is true, then the melody of the song is already neither definitive nor original, being derived from a previous instrumental melody. Since we don’t know the circumstance of the composition of Souvent souspire and the precise relationship between it and Kalenda maya, we cannot give precedence to either version of the melody. It may be that two composers had the idea of using the same melody quite independently, so one was not based on the other, but both were based on a common ancestor, or it may be that Souvent souspire is derived directly from Kalenda maya. This question can never be answered, nor does it need to be: we can accept both songs as products of a multifarious oral tradition.
Interpreting the manuscript II: notation
The second issue is the accuracy of notation once the music has been committed to writing. Even when fixed in ink, a monophonic text cannot tell us about the accompaniment, the composer’s preferred instrumental arrangement (if any); his/her vocal style (there were male and female troubadours: trobador and trobairitz); or the pace of a particular song. A continuing question among medieval music scholars is how to interpret some of the earliest music manuscripts that are non-mensural, i.e. they do not indicate melodic rhythm.
In the medieval period there were several systems of musical notation developing. There had been previous forms of written music, such as used for the Hurrian songs of Ugarit, northern Syria, c. 1400 BC, and some form of music notation in ancient Greece and Rome, but such notation systems had clearly been forgotten, the clock effectively set back to zero. In the 9th to 11th centuries, then, written music was arguably no more than signs acting as aide-mémoires for singers who already knew the melody. The daseian (or dasian) notation of the anonymous 9th century Musica enchiriadis and its companion volume Schola enchiriadis, for example, shows precise pitch relationships but does not notate rhythm. Another of the earliest known forms of European music notation originated in the 9th and 10th centuries in the Benedictine monastery of Saint Gall (Sankt Gallen) near Lake Constance, in (what is now) Switzerland. These early neumes (note shapes or figures of movement) give the pitch direction of the melody but, since this notation lacks ledger lines, there is no precise pitch. This means that music-making from such sources today can only ever be conjectural.
Through the 12th and 13th centuries a more accurate system of neumes was developed. By the middle of the 13th century both pitch and rhythm are evident to the point where the scribe’s intentions are largely a matter of reading the page rather than jogging the memory. The system now known as square notation – or, to be more precise, square notation as described in the mid-13th century by Franco of Cologne, now known as Franconian notation – is seen in such English songs as Mirie it is while sumer ilast, c. 1225; Sumer is icumen in, c. 1250; and bryd one brere, c. 1290–1320, and tells the singer all the important information.
However, below is the roughly contemporaneous Lan quant li jor sont lonc en mai – When the days are long in May – a song by troubadour Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye, who died in or after 1147. This is the song of a 12th century composer in a 13th century manuscript, almost certainly carried in the interim by the oral tradition. The notation gives clear pitch but lacks indications of rhythm, and the time lag between composer and notation means it cannot be guaranteed that the pitches of notes are precisely as Jaufre Rudel originally intended.
There have been a range of theoretical solutions to the problem of rhythm in troubadour songs, still debated today. I don’t intend to rehearse all the suggested solutions and arguments here, except to say that the theoretical basis of all these solutions share the same level of corroboration in the troubadour texts and other sources of the time: none at all, since the texts are silent on the matter, and no music theorist of the medieval period discussed the subject.
The move from non-mensural to mensural notation was, of course, not instantaneous, so while the aforementioned 13th century English songs showed mensural neumes, the contemporaneous troubadour manuscript BnF 20050 (above) did not, in common with the majority of troubadour music. Kalenda maya (in BnF 22543) is an interesting case which illustrates the difficult middle ground of the debate. Since the same neume shapes are present in mensural and non-mensural music, indications of rhythm in troubadour ms. R can be judged as either present, absent, or transitional, i.e. partially present or semi-mensural where a system of written rhythm was partially developed.
Interpreting the manuscript III: the rhythm of Kalenda maya
The date of the Kalenda maya manuscript, circa 1300, falls within the period of the musical style known as ars antiqua, ancient art, denoting music of the high middle ages, roughly from 1170 to 1310. Most significantly, this includes the Notre Dame school of polyphony, composers working from c. 1160-70 to 1250, of whom only two names survive, Léonin and Pérotin. An anonymous member of that school wrote De mensurabili musica (The measurable music) in 1260, the first to describe the six rhythmic modes. In ecclesiastical melismatic music (with syllables sung over many notes), the mode was indicated visually by the way the notes were grouped using ligatures, indicating rhythmic accent. The modes give an overall pulse, an underlying rhythm, but of course the actual rhythm of the notes could be changed for a particular phrase. In practice, the first mode was used most often, with modes two, three and five also common. The fifth and sixth modes occured typically in only one polyphonic voice, the fifth in the lower voice and the sixth in the upper voice. The fourth mode was used rarely.
Those who believe Kalenda maya to have been written non-mensurally need a principle on which to add rhythm to what is seen on the page. The basis for doing so is the medieval church’s rhythmic modes. They were as follows, together with rhythms in modern notation.
Rhythmic modes can be helpful in giving shape to a secular melody written non-mensurally, but this method has problems. In early music debates there has been a great deal of controversy over whether these modes apply only to the polyphonic melismatic ecclesiastical music for which they were explicitly intended or also to monophonic secular music of the period. In other words, it is a question of whether the rhythmic modes were only part of the musical life of the church or a reflection of music-making generally.
Outside the church, there is no sound reason why the modes should apply or not apply globally in an either/or fashion. Unless we are to argue that all secular music was universally without a rhythmic pulse – an argument that is musically odd and for which there is plentiful contrary evidence – then some melodies outside the church’s jurisdiction must have used some of the rhythmic patterns used by the church, but without necessarily thinking of them as ecclesiastical modes: the church did not have a monopoly on rhythm. The more useful question, therefore, is not whether rhythmic modes were always or never used in secular music, but whether they were sometimes used, and the answer is clear: there is incontrovertible evidence for their application in secular music. For example, all 3 pieces of 2 voice textless polyphony on folio 8v-9r of the English manuscript, Harley 978, c. 1250–1275, are written in the first rhythmic mode (one of which can be heard here). Less clearly and more controversially, many secular melodies in non-mensural notation do make musical sense when a rhythmic mode is applied. That doesn’t mean we know our chosen rhythmic mode did apply historically, but we have to find some way of playing non-mensural music or else leave it silent. Others non-mensural melodies do not succumb to rhythmic modes, and this is only problematic if we expect their application to be universal.
This debate has aroused great passion among modern early music theorists, but lack of evidence means that definitive answers are not possible for any particular piece of non-mensural secular music. Nevertheless, the favoured 20th century versions of Kalenda maya are based on the first rhythmic mode. A variant of this rendering is played first in the video and is shown below in modern notation. There are other similar versions, i.e. other rhythmic solutions in the first mode.
My second rendering of Kalenda maya follows what I take to be the rhythmic signs given in the manuscript. It seems to me that the scribe in this piece – and throughout the whole of this manuscript – appears to have written intentional mensural neumes, using the long as the foundational value; with ligatures to indicate melismata (a single syllable sung on more than note); occasional plicas, tails indicating an additional note; and vertical lines indicating caesuras or rests.
Both of these versions of the melody are conjectural. The first version uses the first rhythmic mode, which may or may not have been intended. The second version takes the notation as mensural, which the scribe may or may not have intended. Other solutions are theoretically possible. Kalenda maya can easily be played in the second rhythmic mode, for example. Even other readings of pitch are possible in the case of the low b in the final section, which is how I read the neume in the manuscript, clearly positioned below the following note indicating, it seems to me, a scribal error in drawing one too few ledger lines.
Playing Kalenda maya as if the neumes in troubadour ms. R (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 22543, 14th century) are mensural does work and makes a cogent melody, and other melodies in the same manuscript can similarly be read mensurally with great success, such as Marcabru’s L’autrier jost’una sebissa trobei pastora mestissa (The other day beside a hedge I found a humble shepherdess) and Bernart de Ventadorn’s Lai can uey la fuelha (standardisation: Lanquan vei la foilla; translation: When the birds are leaving).
Folquet de Marseilla’s Tant m’abelis l’amoros pessamens (So pleasure me the amorous thought) appears in ms. R and as Molt m’abelist l’amoros pensament in troubadour ms. W (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 844, 14th century). Both renderings are shown above. Its appearance in ms. R poses a question about whether the music of this manuscript really can or should be read as indicating rhythm. The text and music of the first verse of this song appears in a motet as Mout m’abelist l’amouras pensement in the Montpellier Codex (Montpellier, Bibliothèque Inter-Universitaire, Section Médecine, H196, f. 151v-152r), a mensural manuscript of French polyphony, compiled circa 1300. The first soundfile below is the song as it appears in troubadour ms. R, read mensurally; the second is the same phrase as it appears in the Montpellier Codex.
There is the melodic variation one would expect of a tune carried in the oral tradition. What is more striking is the vast rhythmic difference, and this poses unanswerable questions. Is the difference explained by troubadour ms. R being non-mensural, after all, meaning that the scribe had the Montpellier Codex rhythm in mind but still wrote non-mensurally? Or is troubadour ms. R mensural, and both melodic and rhythmic variations are part and parcel of differences in this song developed by the oral tradition? Or did the composer of the motet deliberately make the rhythm more complex to spice up the motet?
Such are the problems in attempting to arrive at a musically credible and performable version of Kalenda maya. Plausible answers are possible. Provable answers are more elusive.
Reverse engineering back to the original instrumental estampie
The story that Raimbaut de Vaqueiras based the melody of his song on an estampie played at court in Italy raises the question: presuming this was an instrumental estampie, since fiddlers are mentioned and not singers, can it be reverse engineered back to the piece he heard?
Parisian musical theorist, Jean de Grouchy, commonly known by his Latinised name, Johannes de Grocheio or Grocheo, wrote his treatise, Ars musicae – The art of music – in c. 1270–1300. Giving implicit credence to the origin story of Kalenda maya, Johannes described estampies being played by the best vielle players (medieval fiddlers) “before the wealthy in their feasts and entertainments”. In common with the anonymous Doctrina de compondre dictatz, c. 1300, and Guillaume Molinier, Leys d’amors, early 14th century, Johannes distinguished between the estampie as an instrumental piece and as a song. As we will see, it follows from this that Raimbaut would have altered the instrumental estampie to turn the melody he heard into his sung estampie. As an exercise in conjectural musical archaeology, I wanted to know if it was possible to reverse engineer the changes Raimbaut made, attempting to take the melody back to the instrumental estampie. It was to prove impossible, but the reasons why are instructive.
Johannes de Grocheio described the estampie as having several sections, each repeating with an open and close ending (in modern notation, 1st and 2nd time bars). He explained that whereas each section of a ductia (another musical form) is of equal length, the distinguishing feature of an estampie is that its sections are of different lengths, as is true of Kalenda maya and all other estampies, French, Italian and English.
Raimbaut was a French man in Italy, presumably listening to an Italian style of estampie in the Italian court. A comparison of the surviving French and Italian estampies shows that the French pieces tend to be shorter and more straightforward in structure. La Seconde Estampie Royal from Manuscrit du Roi, c. 1300, is a typical French example, in the form (x and y being open and close endings) Ax/Ay Bx/By Cx/Cy Dx/Dy Ex/Ey Fx/Fy. The Italian istanpittas are longer and far more complex, with puncta repeated at various points. The Italian Ghaetta, for example, from BL Add. 29987, c. 1400, is in the form ABCx/ABCy DECx/DECy FECx/FECy GBCx/GBCy.
Kalenda maya is a 12th century song. The evidence for French instrumental estampies is c. 1300 and for Italian istanpittas c. 1400, a century later, both considerably distant in time from Kalenda, so we have to make some assumptive leaps. The structure of each Kalenda maya verse is AABCxCy. If we assume that the Italian form was always more complex than the French, that what Raimbaut heard was similar in structure to the complex Italian istanpittas of c. 1400, then Kalenda maya is a radical simplification, subtracting material, omitting unrecoverable puncta to serve the song form. If, however, we assume that the complexity of Italian istanpittas was a later development, then we don’t know what the earlier form might have been or what Raimbaut may have heard in the 12th century. In either case, lack of information and missing musical material makes it impossible to reverse engineer Kalenda maya back into a conjectural instrumental piece.
So the useful information we gain from this exercise is that: both instrumental and sung estampies are marked by having several sections of differing lengths, with open and close endings; it is possible that a sung estampie was created from an instrumental by omitting all the sections after the open and close endings, thus radically simplifying the form; and, in this case, while we can create an estampie song from an extant instrumental, a surviving sung estampie cannot be used to reconstruct an instrumental estampie, as the difference in form required that instrumental material was omitted and forever lost.
Where music was written non-mensurally, the contemporaneous musician familiar with the melody would have filled in the rhythm from memory, but after several hundred years we either have to let the music remain silent or be creative – by reference to rhythmic modes or otherwise – to make it playable. This necessarily creates for us a range of variant readings, and we are in similar territory to the traditional musician, reshaping and remoulding the raw material that has been passed down into a piece of musical art that is at once communal and yet highly personal.
Secular medieval music was never intended to be simply sung or played from the page. If Raimbaut felt free to adapt and change the melody he heard then, in the light of early music practice, surely we can, too. After all, through most of history, the vast majority of musicians have been part of a creative oral tradition that is not tied rigidly to a manuscript or set unalterably in stone by an individual composer. We see this in the troubadour and trouvère traditions, despite them having named composers; we see it in medieval song variants, such as Kalenda maya and Souvent souspire and similar examples; and we see it still in O’Neill’s Irish-American fiddlers and pipers and in traditional music around the world. As the musician said to note-taker James O’Neill when O’Neill complained that it wasn’t what he’d played last time: ‘But that’s the point!’
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
4 thoughts on “Kalenda maya, the troubadours, and the lessons of traditional music”
Thanks for the mention of O’Neill’s compilation of Irish tunes, I’ve just ordered it. I live in Chicago and there’s a pub nearby called Chief O’Neill, in honor of him. I knew he was a Chicago cop but didn’t know he collected Irish music. I learned the standard version of Kalenda Maya and am looking forward to trying your version
Hello, Paul, and thanks for your comment.
It’s pleasing to know there’s a pub named after Chief O’Neill. I do hope it’s a pub with live music, as that would be so fitting.
If you ever do a recording of Kalenda Maya, I’d like to hear it.
All the best.
Brilliant article! You really articulate the issues with great clarity. I’m adding a link to my page.
Thank you, Emilysue. Much appreciated.