Adam de la Halle Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: One of the few medieval musicians who composed both monophonic and polyphonic music, Adam de la Halle produced musical and literary works in virtually every genre of the thirteenth century.

Early Life

With almost no documentary evidence—save a few bits of information here and there in his works—any account of Adam de la Halle’s life must be based on educated guesses. More than likely, he was born in the prosperous town of Arras; his name appears variously as Adam d’Arras and Adam le Boscu d’Arras. His name appears most commonly as Adam le Bossu (meaning “Adam the Hunchback”), although in Le Roi de Secile (written after 1285), Adam protests that while he might be called a hunchback, he is not one at all. No records reveal the origin of the name; his family may have adopted it to distinguish itself from the other Halle families in Arras. Possibly an illustrious ancestor was a hunchback, and the family retained the appellation.

In another of Adam’s works—Jeu d’Adam ou de la feuillée (c. 1276-1277)—Adam de la Halle’s father is named as a Maistre Henri de la Hale. In Nécrologe de la Confrérie des jongleurs et de bourgeois d’Arras, the death of Henri de la Hale’s wife was recorded as 1282; the death of a Maistre Henri Bochu was recorded as eight years later, in 1290. Whether these are the composer’s parents is unknown. Nécrologe also contains references to two women, either of whom could have been Adam’s wife: Maroie li Hallee is mentioned in 1274; Maroie Hale in 1287. Given the possibilities for variation in an age when spelling had not been standardized, it would be difficult to choose between these two. Some scholars refer to Jeu d’Adam as evidence supporting Maroie Hale; in this work, Adam refers to his wife as still living.

Life’s Work

About the rest of Adam’s life, most of the clues exist in his work or in commentary about his work. There is circumstantial evidence that he studied in Paris: In Jeu d’Adam, he expresses his longing for his student days in Paris; furthermore, his contemporaries often described him as “maistre,” indicating that he completed a more rigorous course of study than he might have received in a provincial town. Adam probably returned from Paris sometime around 1270, a date suggested by two facts: He wrote sixteen jeux-partis with Jehan Bretel of Arras, who died in 1272, and Bretel referred to him in the contemporaneous Adan, a moi respondés as well educated, suggesting that the younger trouvère had already undertaken a major part of his training. The jeux-partis on which he collaborated with other trouvrès of Arras—he also wrote one with Jehan de Grivilier—indicate that Adam was a member of the Arras pui, a trouvère fraternity. As for his marriage, it more than likely took place in the early 1270’s. In several poems, Adam speaks of having given up school and friends in order to marry his young wife, to whom he was deeply devoted.

Of Adam’s fifty-four monophonic (for one voice only) works, eighteen are jeux-partis, on the majority of which he collaborated with other trouvères. The form of the jeu-parti involves a “questioner” who sings the first musical phrase (and therefore composes the melody) and a “respondent.” Adam is the respondent in thirteen of the sixteen jeux-partis on which he worked with Jehan Bretel, indicating that the melodies were composed by the older man. This early collaboration was to be an important influence on Adam’s musical style. Scholars have noted the strong stylistic similarities between the melody of Adan, a moi respondés and the melody composed by Adam for two of his chansons, and between other jeux-partis and Adam’s chanson, De cuer pensieu. Adam’s work shares tonality and range and phrasing with Bretel’s, but Adam’s melodies are more formal and sophisticated. Adam’s other monophonic works, the chansons, for the most part remain close to the older courtly tradition of French monophonic song.

Adam de la Halle remained in Arras for only a few years after his return from Paris, and again the evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive. His Jeu d’Adam and his congé, written at about the same time (c. 1276-1277), are both farewells in which Adam declares his intention to return to Paris to continue his studies. There is some evidence that he intended to leave his adored wife in his father’s care, indicating that the absence was not to be a long one; in fact, two later lyrical pieces describe his return and the joy he feels at coming back to his own land.

Jeu d’Adam is a peculiar combination of topical humor and sheer fantasy, written to amuse Adam’s friends just before his departure for Paris. Lacking a fully realized plot, the rambunctious play (jeu means “game”) involves a meeting between certain townsfolk of Arras and a group of fairies on the eve of Pentecost when, traditionally, the shrine of Notre Dame is displayed beneath a feuillée, or canopy of green leaves. Much of the play is devoted to humorous allusions to real persons: gluttons, alcoholics, scolding wives, uxorious husbands, a loose woman and her lovers, unethical government clerks (called “bigames”) who married more than one woman for financial gain. Even Adam’s own family comes in for its share of the burlesque. His father is described as a fat, stingy bigamist who loves alcohol more than anything else. Adam even pretends to be bored with his wife, thus gaining an excuse to detail her charms, which no longer excite him. Buried not too deeply in the songs and games of the play is Adam’s occasionally bitter criticism of the class warfare that was destroying the social fabric of Arras.

Structurally the play consists of spoken dialogue, exchanges of songs, dances, games, jokes, and horseplay. Probably written only for the amusement of a select group of friends and acquaintances, the play may have had only one complete performance in Arras....

(The entire section is 2545 words.)