Thursday, March 06, 2008

Adam De La Halle and French Comic Opera

A request for caution on making causal connections. The example seems petty, but its egregiousness sharpens the point.

Just because a 13th Century trouvère happened to write a play that included music does not make his work a forerunner of 19th Century French comic opera. He is not an Offenbach avant la lettre.

Now I understand the impulse to make the connection. Adam spent some of his life on what is now French soil, and happened to write something about Robin and Marion in a language that eventually became part of the Langue Française.

In a related tangent, that Robin isn't the Robin you're thinking about, but there's a chance that the Marion is.

This is the tricky thing about causality. Kripke's moment of baptism plays a role here, and as far as anyone can tell, the earliest composers of French opera derived their ideas not from dear old Adam, but the turn of the 17th Century Italians who invented opera, who, as far as anyone can tell, did not get their ideas from a local troupe doing a revival of Robin and Marion, but skipped all the way back to the Greeks (and it turns out they got it wrong - uh, God bless conceptual confusion).

So although it is nice to say that he was a forerunner to French comic opera, he was no more a forerunner of French Comic Opera than his Le jeu de la feuillee was a forerunner of Waiting for Godot.

These causal chains are very important, and we musicians and musicologists tend to make them ather casually. We shouldn't, in the same way that we shouldn't really assume that the French play French music better than any German would, because to do so is part of a mass forgetting of the sheer cosmopolitanism of western music over the past 900 years.

Does French comic opera really need this kind of pedigree? I'm not so sure, but it does beg the question - why is there this kind of free association in musical circle between the redisovered music of the past and music of the more recent present?

Why do we often look at Adam de la Halle, or Gesualdo, or Matteo de Perugia as heralds of the future, instead of orphans of the past? What does this say about how we talk about music?

And then bigger questions loom, ones that take us out of musicology and into aesthetics - what ensures a style's continuity, and what causes a style to be orphaned?

I think buried these questions is an aesthetics that is nominalist in inclination, but realist in practice. The case of Adam de la Halle is a negative example, which is why it can be taken care of in a blog post, but this, I hope, is only the beginning.

No comments: