Saturday, January 10, 8274

Jehan de l'Escurel (c. 1274-1304) - Formes Fixes

Poet-composer Jehan de Lescurel (also Jehannot de l'Escurel) (c. 1274 - May 23, 1304) was the son of a merchant in Paris, and probably studied at Notre Dame.

A transitional figure from the trouvères to the ars nova, his lyrical style unites him later composers, and they clearly thought enough of him to include his music in the same manuscript which preserves the Roman de Fauvel.

Aside from one polyphonic composition, all of his 34 surviving works are trouvere-like monophonic songs.

His works include

Ballades [Music at the Time of the Crusades]

Chansons, such as "Jolivete et bone amor," performed in David Munrow's Instruments of the Medieval and Renaissance on the Hurdy-Gurdy

, such as "Gracieusette" (IMR on Double Pipes)

and Rondeaux.

His lyrics include word-painting more in the style of later 1300's composers, and are simple and charming.

While debauchery is not a prominent theme in his works, he was hanged for such, along with three other young clerics of Notre Dame (including Oudinet Pisdoé), for "crimes against women"!

On the other hand, recent research suggests that "Jehan de Lescurel" was a rather common name in early 1300's Paris, and that there may be no real link between Jehan de Lescurel, the composer, and Jehan de Lescurel, the dangler.


Formes fixes (English: fixed forms) are French poetic forms of the 1300's and 1400's which were translated into musical forms, particularly the forms of songs. Specifically, these forms were the ballade, rondeau, and virelai. These forms all consist of a complex pattern of repetition of verses and a refrain, with the musical content in two main sections. The first comprehensive repertory of these forms was written by Guillaume de Machaut.

The formes fixes stopped being used literally in music around the end of the 1400's, although their influence continued, and the poetic forms continued to be used by poets, especially the rondeau.

Sometimes forms from other countries and periods are referred to as formes fixes. These include the Italian 14th-century madrigal and later ballata and barzelletta, the German bar form, Spanish 13th-century cantiga, and the later canción, and villancico.


The ballade (ot to be confused with the ballad) is a verse form typically consisting of three eight-line stanzas, each with a consistent metre and a particular rhyme scheme. The last line in the stanza is a refrain, and the stanzas are followed by a four-line concluding stanza (an envoi) usually addressed to a prince. The rhyme scheme is therefore usually 'ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC', where the capital 'C' is a refrain.

The ballade is particularly associated with French poetry of the 14th and 15th centuries. One of the most notable writers of ballades was François Villon. In Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (play), it is a ballade that Cyrano composes impromptu during a duel.

The many different rhyming words that are needed (the 'b' rhyme needs at least fourteen words) makes the form more difficult for English poets than for French. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the form. It was revived in the 19th century by English-language poets including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne. O

There are many variations to the ballade, and it is in many ways similar to the ode and chant royal. There are instances of a double ballade and double-refrain ballade. Some ballades have five stanzas; a ballade supreme has ten-line stanzas rhyming ababbccdcD, with the envoi ccdcD or ccdccD. An example is Ballade des Pendus by François Villon.

A seven-line ballade, or ballade royal, consists of four stanzas of rhyme royal, all using the same three rhymes, all ending in a refrain, without an envoi.


A hurdy gurdy (also known as a "wheel fiddle") is a stringed musical instrument in which the strings are sounded by means of a rosined wheel which the strings of the instrument pass over. This wheel, turned with a crank, functions much like a violin bow, making the instrument essentially a mechanical violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents (small wedges, usually made of wood) against one or more of these strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic string instruments, it has a soundboard to make the vibration of the strings audible.

Most hurdy gurdies have multiple "drone strings" which provide a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy gurdy is often used interchangeably with or along with bagpipes, particularly in French and contemporary Hungarian folk music.

Many folk music festivals in Europe feature music groups with hurdy gurdy players, but the most famous annual festival is at Saint-Chartier, in the Indre département, in central France, during the week nearest July 14 (Bastille Day).

The hurdy gurdy is thought to have originated in Western Europe some time prior to A.D. 1000, being a genuine European invention. One of the earliest forms of the hurdy gurdy was the organistrum, a large instrument with a guitar-shaped body and a long neck in which the keys were set (covering one diatonic octave). The organistrum had a single melody string and two drone strings which ran over a common bridge and a relatively small wheel. Due to its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of whom turned the crank while the other pulled the keys upward. Pulling keys upward is a cumbersome playing technique, and as a result only slow tunes could be played on the organistrum.

The pitches on the organistrum were set according to Pythagorean temperament and the instrument was primarily used in monastic and church settings to accompany choral music.

The abbot Odo (878-942) of

Cluny is supposed to have written a short description of the construction of the organistrum entitled Quomodo organistrum construatur (How the Organistrum Is Made), known through a much-later copy, but its authenticity is very doubtful. One of the earliest visual depictions of the organistrum is from the twelfth-century Pórtico de la Gloria (Portal of Glory) on the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, which includes a carving of two musicians playing an organistrum [above at Chanson].

Later on the organistrum was reduced in size to allow a single player to both turn the crank and manipulate the keys. The solo organistrum was known from Spain and France, but was largely replaced by the symphonia, a small box-shaped version of the hurdy gurdy with three strings and a diatonic keyboard. At about the same time as the symphonia was developed, a new form of key pressed from beneath were developed. These keys were much more practical in faster music and easier to handle and eventually completely replaced keys pulled up from above. Medieval depictions of the symphonia show both types of keys.

During the Renaissance, the hurdy gurdy was a very popular instrument, along with the bagpipe, and a characteristic form with a short neck and a boxy body with a curved tail end developed. It was about this time that buzzing bridges first appear in depictions of the instrument. The buzzing bridge (commonly called the dog) is an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts up from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from the tromba marina (monochord), a bowed string instrument.

During the late Renaissance, two characteristic shapes of hurdy gurdies developed. The first was guitar-shaped and the second had a rounded lute-type body made of staves. The lute body is especially characteristic of French instruments.

Detail of

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, showing the first known depiction of a buzzing bridge on a hurdy gurdy [and check out the crucified nude harpist!, etc., etc....]

By the end of the 17th century changing musical tastes that demanded greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy gurdy could offer had pushed the instrument to the lowest social classes; as a result it acquired names like the German Bauernleier ‘peasant’s lyre’ and Bettlerleier ‘beggar’s lyre.’ During the 18th century, however, French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for the hurdy gurdy (the most famous of which is Vivaldi’s Il pastor Fido). At this time the most common style of hurdy gurdy developed, the six-string vielle à roue. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones tuned such that by turning drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys (e.g., C and G or G and D).

During this time the hurdy gurdy also spread further east, where further variations developed in western Slavic countries, German-speaking areas and Hungary (see the list of types below for more information on these). Most types of hurdy gurdy were essentially extinct by the early twentieth century, but a few sorts have survived to the present day, the best-known of which are the French vielle à roue, the Hungarian tekerőlant, and the Spanish zanfona. In Ukraine, a variety called the lira was widely used by blind street musicians, most of whom were purged by Stalin in the 1930s. Revivals have been underway for many years in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Portugal. The revival of hurdy gurdies has resulted in the instrument’s use in a variety of styles of music (see the list of recordings that use hurdy gurdy), including contemporary forms not typically associated with the hurdy gurdy.

In the eighteenth century the term hurdy gurdy was also applied to a small, portable "barrel organ" (a cranked box instrument with a number of organ pipes, a bellows and a barrel with pins that rotated and programmed the tunes) that was frequently played by poor buskers (street musicians). Barrel organs require only the turning of the crank, and the music is played automatically by pinned barrels, perforated paper rolls, and more recently by electronic modules.

This confusion over what the name hurdy gurdy means is particular to English, although similar confusion over other terms for the instrument occurs in German and Hungarian due to unfamiliarity with the hurdy gurdy. The French call the barrel organ the Orgue de Barbarie ("Barbary organ"), and the Germans Drehorgel ("turned organ"), instead of Drehleier ("turning lyre").

The hurdy-gurdy has a well developed tradition in Eastern Europe, in particular in Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. In Ukraine it is known as the lira or relia was played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their repertoire was primarily para-religious in theme, although it included many historic epics known as Dumy and folk dances.

A person who plays the hurdy gurdy is called a hurdy gurdyist, hurdy gurdy player, or (particularly for players of French instruments) viellist.

Due to the prominence of the French tradition, many instrument and performance terms used in English are commonly taken from the French, and players generally need to know these terms to read relevant literature. Such common terms include the following:

trompette: the highest-pitched drone string that features the buzzing bridge
mouche: the drone string pitched a fourth or fifth below the trompette
petit bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the trompette
gros bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the mouche
chanterelle(s): melody string(s), also called chanters or chanter strings in English
chien: (literally "dog"), the buzzing bridge
tirant: a small peg set in the instrument’s tailpiece that is used to control the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the term hurdy gurdy is onomatopoetic in origin, after the repetitive warble in pitch that characterizes instruments with solid wooden wheels that have warped due to changes in humidity or after the sound of the buzzing-bridge.

Some have suggested other origins for the term, including the following folk etymology:
hurdy = a person's backside + gurdy = a reel with a crank, used to reel in fishing nets on a boat. This pejorative name was applied to the French instrument in England, during the eighteenth century.

(There are a number of problems with this putative etymology. Among them are (1) hurdy is not known as an English term, and (2) the term for the crank (hurdy gurdy, not gurdy) was first recorded in 1883, based on the term for the instrument.)

The instrument is sometimes more descriptively called a wheel fiddle in English, but this term is not in general use among players of the instrument. The Hungarian name tekerőlant and the alternate forgólant both mean "turning lute." An alternate German name, Bauernleier, means "peasant's lyre."


A virelai is a form of medieval French verse used often in poetry and music. It is one of the three formes fixes (the others were the ballade and the rondeau), and was one of the most common verse forms set to music in Europe from the late 13th to the 15th centuries.
A virelai is similar to a rondeau. Each stanza has two rhymes, the end rhyme recurring as the first rhyme of the following stanza. The overall musical structure is almost invariably ABbaA, with the first and last sections having the same lyrics; this is the same form as the Italian ballata. The first stanza is known as the estribillo, the next two as mudanzas, and the fourth as the vuelta.

One of the most famous composers of virelai is Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), who also wrote his own verse; 33 separate compositions in the form survive by him. Other composers of virelai include Jehannot de l'Escurel, one of the earliest (d. 1304), and Guillaume Dufay (c.1400–1474), one of the last.

By the mid-15th century, the form had become largely divorced from music, and numerous examples of this form (as well as the ballade and the rondeau) were written, which were either not intended to be set to music, or for which the music has not survived.


A poetic rondeau (plural rondeaux) is a form of French poetry with 15 lines written on two rhymes, as well as a corresponding musical form developed to set this characteristic verse structure. It was one of the three formes fixes (the other two were the ballade and the virelai), and one of the verse forms in France most commonly set to music between the late 13th and the 15th centuries. Variant forms may have 10 or 13 lines. The English variant called Roundel was devised by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The rondeau is a form of verse also used in English language poetry. It makes use of refrains, repeated according to a certain stylized pattern. It was customarily regarded as a challenge to arrange for these refrains to contribute to the meaning of the poem in as succinct and poignant a manner as possible. The rondeau consists of thirteen lines of eight syllables, plus two refrains (which are half lines, each of four syllables), employing, altogether, only three rhymes. It has three stanzas (of 5, 4, and 6 lines) and its rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) A A B B A (2) A A B with refrain: C (3) A A B B A with concluding refrain C. The refrain must be identical with the beginning of the first line.

An example is We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

We wear the mask that grins and lies, (A)
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— (A)
This debt we pay to human guile; (B)
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, (B)
And mouth with myriad subtleties. (A)

Why should the world be over-wise, (A)
In counting all our tears and sighs? (A)
Nay, let them only see us, while (B)
We wear the mask. (C)

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries (A)
To thee from tortured souls arise. (A)
We sing, but oh the clay is vile (B)
Beneath our feet, and long the mile; (B)
But let the world dream otherwise, (A)
We wear the mask! (C)

Perhaps the best-known rondeau is the following World War I poem, In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


The musical rondeau (French; plural form rondeaux) was a Medieval and early Renaissance musical form, based on a popular contemporary poetic form (see rondeau (poetry)). It is distinct from the 18th century rondo, though the terms are likely related. With the virelai and the ballade, it is one of the three formes fixes of French music and poetry in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The rondeau form calls for a rigid pattern of repetition of verse and refrain, following the evolving rhyme-scheme of the poetic form, ranging from eight lines to as many as 21. The most commonly used form is ABaAabAB, where capital letters refer to repetition of the (two-part) refrain text and music while lowercase letters refer to repetition of music alone with a new text. Early rondeaux are usually found as interpolations in longer narrative poems, and separate monophonic musical settings survive. While early poetic rondeaux are often in mixed meter, this is rare in later rondeaux set to music.

The earliest surviving polyphonic rondeaux are by the trouvère Adam de la Halle. Later, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay and other prominent composers were prolific in the form.

Although far rarer than the French usage, the Italian equivalent, the rondello was occasionally composed and listed among the Italian forms of poetry for music. A single rondello appears in the Rossi Codex. In addition, several rondeaux in French appear entirely in sources originating in Italy, the Low Countries, and Germany, suggesting that these works (including Esperance, qui en mon cuer) may not have a purely French provenance.

Later, in the Baroque era, the label rondeau (or the adjectival phrase en rendeau) was applied to dance movements in simple refrain form by such composers as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Louis Couperin.

Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire sets 21 poems by Albert Giraud, each of which is a 13-lined poetic rondeau.

[8280 Sumer / 8274 Jehan de l'Escurel Formes Fixes / 8270 Worcester]