Medieval Cutting Contests

One of the important genres of the troubadours was the tenso, a competitive form that allowed – indeed, encouraged – musicians to show off their most virtuosic poetic technique. Among the trouvéres of northern France, this same practice was known as jeu-parti, or “mock-debate.” In these contests,  judges crowned the winner as the “Prince” of jeu-parti, and we can assume the appellation came complete with bragging rights and vows from challengers to oust the reigning prince in the next contest. The great mock-debater of the day was a trouvére named Jehan Bretel. (The same phenomenon of competitive song-writing occurred with the Meistersingers of Germany.)

This is quite a departure from the liturgical tradition, where music served only the purpose of glorifying God. In fact, these early musical jousts might be the first documented case of music as sport. There’s a wonderful (and distinctly masculine) energy in the act of trying to out-technique an opponent in front of an audience. It sublimates something as abstract as aesthetic value and artistic merit to the whims of judges and audiences, in essence turning creativity into a kind of game.

This “competitive game” aspect of music making is alive and well. One only has to turn on the TV to see our own version of the Meistersinger contests, “American Idol.” In school music programs, especially marching bands (some of which are treated just like any sports team), young musicians go head to head in regional, state, and national contests to determine the “Prince” of high school bands/orchestras/choirs. Sometimes emotions run hot in our gladiatorial musical slug-fests (“Yo Taylor. I’m really happy for you. I’ma let you finish but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”)

To me, the best (or at least most fun) parallel to the terso contests in modern society are rap battles, where two MC’s get on stage together and face off with freestyle lyrical flows. A man with a timer is present to make sure each rapper is given an equal amount of time at the mic, and events are judged either by adjudicators or by audience reaction. Battle rappers improvise rhymes with the intent not only of showing superior verbal skill, but also demolishing the other rapper with ribald trash-talk. As a cultural practice, it bears many similarities to the African-American concept of “playing the dozens,” where young men face off in a good-natured way to dis the other guy to shame (“Your momma’s so …”). The two clips below feature master battle rappers Jin and Immortal Technique practicing the irreverent craft (and it does get irreverent, faint-hearted readers!):

So, who’s the Jehan Bretel of the 21st century?

6 Comments

  1. This reminds me also of the practice of gamelan gong kebyar in Bali in the 20th century. Two kebyar groups compete in a sort of battle of the bands to decide which is the better. Meanwhile, the audience (which knows every note of the music themselves, and are sharp critics of the playing) cheers or denigrates the players depending on what side their on and the quality of performance.

    Music as sport—not on Plato’s or Boethius’s taxonomy of music, but an important function of music throughout history.

    1. Didn’t know about the kebyar contests – very cool. It’s interesting the different varieties of musical sport. In this case it sounds like the winner is simply the better performer with more mastery over the material. This would be the same sort of rubric as “American Idol” – he who wows the audience most with renditions of pop warhorses wins. Other music contests, however, are technique-oriented (folk fiddling contests, organ contests in the day of Bach, stride piano cutting contests, etc.). Still others, like the tenso or rap battles, are focused on verbal dexterity and how complex rhymes can be set to music. I’m curious what other situations out there in music history pit two musicians against each other in as personal a way as the rap battle. The entire content of a battle rapper’s arsenal is aimed like a weapon at the opponent. (Music as weapon – another interesting topic that I’m sure will come up again.)

      1. Since you brought up music as weapon, I have to mention a reference to this in mainstream television. I have been watching Malcolm in the Middle reruns (a brilliant and hilarious show), and in one of the very early episodes, Lois is trying to extract information from her three boys about who destroyed her beloved red dress. She resorts to various interrogation techniques, and when they fail she ups the ante: she locks the boys in their room, and turns on blaring music. The song is They Might Be Giants singing “Nice is good, mean is bad” in a quirky, repetitive, somewhat obnoxious, TMBG way. The torture technique begins to have the desired effect—insanity through repetition and psychological delirium from the noise level— as Lois sips her hot tea with a contented smirk, and the boys come almost to the breaking point. It’s a hilarious postulation of what can be a serious issue, as the AMS has recently acknowledged. (www.ams-net.org/AMS-torture-resolution.pdf)

  2. Regarding music as weapon, several other examples come quickly to mind. “A Clockwork Orange,” in which Beethoven’s setting of “Ode to Joy” is used to destroy a young man’s will; “Apocalypse Now,” in which Wagner’s “Ride” is used to demoralize victims of U.S. military aggression in the Vietnam war; and again for the same purpose, the use of heavy metal by the U.S. military in Iraq. Cf. “Sound Targets: Music and the War in Iraq.” The Journal of Musicological Research 26/2–3 (2007): 123–50 by Jonathan Pieslak.

  3. I am doing research on these debate songs and looked at them in exactly the way you describe. Do you know where I could actually hear some? What would you recommend I read?

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