Clus or Clar?

Like Zach, I was intrigued by the genre of the tenso, which is fascinating not just as a social practice, but also for the content of the songs. These mock-debate songs addressed, among other things, whether a poet should adopt as his style of choice trobar clus or trobar clar. The former is a “closed” style, dense in construction and esoteric. The latter represents the opposite: a “clear” style that is by its nature simple, direct in communication, and exoteric. For instance, in one of these mock debates between Guiraut de Bornelh (the author of the verses and pro clar) and a colleague (dit.) Linhaure (pro clus), the arguments go something like this (in my own paraphrase):

Linhaure: There is prestige in artifice. If everything is accessible, then there would be no way to determine what is valuable and what is base. Don’t blame me; if someone doesn’t understand my poetry, it’s not my fault! “Provided that I produce what is best at all times, I care not if it be not so widespread […].” (I, 116)

Guiraut: But a song that reaches more people is loved by more people. And don’t equate simplicity with laziness; I labor more in crafting elegant simplicity than obfuscation, light than darkness. “Why compose if you do not want all to understand? Songs bring no other advantage.” (ibid.)

As Taruskin acknowledges, this conflict is an eternal one.* It touches all eras of music history, not the least of which is the 20th century, the history of which contains plenty of analogous battles: academic music vs. popular music, American art vs. Soviet socialist realism. On the trobar clus side, I think first of Schoenberg: “Because if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” (qtd. in Style and Idea) On the trobar clar side, I think of Shostakovich, who had to write music that was accessible to the soviet worker (or at least perceived as such) in order to keep his head.

A question to the collective wisdom: in your own research/experience, what are some other places where this debate has materialized?

* Of course the debate, in its polarization, is vastly oversimplified, and many composers (trouvères included) wrote in both styles.


  1. Zach Wallmark says:

    Wow, this is a huge topic. Isn’t it amazing how clearly these tenso poets from the 12th/13th century articulated this nagging and still vital question? It’s fascinating to me how genres and musical subcultures that crystallize as “clar art” make the migration to “clus art,” and vice versa (although that seems less common). Actually, clar turning into clus isn’t quite accurate: clar bifurcating into two separate camps is more like it.

    I think of the twentieth century in popular music: Jazz (originally clar) bifurcates at some point, retaining its more pop elements in some formats (smooth jazz, fusion) and losing them in others (free jazz, post-bop). Same with rock (compare the Rolling Stones to Rush or Yes). Same with hip-hop (compare T-Pain to Talib Kweli). It seems that most popular musics in the era of media saturation and lighting quick maturity will eventually split into “clar” and “clus” factions.

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