Songs in Fixed Forms
by Margaret P. Hasselman
(Last updated on 26 November 2001)
Fourteenth century France saw the development of several well-defined
song structures. In contrast to the earlier troubadours and trouveres,
the 14th-century songwriters established standardized patterns
drawn from dance forms. These patterns then set up definite expectations
in the listeners. The three forms which became standard, which
are known today by the French term "formes fixes" (fixed
forms), were the virelai, ballade and rondeau,
although those terms were rarely used in that sense before the
middle of the 14th century. (An older fixed form, the lai,
was used in the Roman de Fauvel (c. 1316), and during
the rest of the century primarily by Guillaume de Machaut.)
All three forms make use of certain basic structural principles:
repetition and contrast of music; correspondence of music with
poetic form (syllable count and rhyme); couplets, in which two
similar phrases or sections end differently, with the second
ending more final or "closed" than the first; and refrains,
where repetition of both words and music create an emphatic reference
The three structures can be summarized using the conventional
letters of the alphabet for repeated sections. Upper-case letters
indicate that both text and music are identical. Lower-case letters
indicate that a section of music is repeated with different words,
which necessarily follow the same poetic form and rhyme-scheme.
The virelai consists of a refrain; a contrasting
verse section, beginning with a couplet (two halves with
endings), and continuing with
a section which uses the music and the poetic form of the refrain;
and finally a reiteration of the refrain. There may be
up to three verse sections; Machaut usually uses three, but many
of the repertory manuscripts only include 1 or 2. The virelai
begins and ends with its refrain. In short,
Virelai form: A bb' a A bb' a A bb' a A
The ballade may be the oldest of the fixed forms, as something
resembling it appears often in the troubadour repertoire. In
the 14th century, and especially in the hands of Machaut, its
tonal structure was clarified by the use of
endings. The refrain comes at
the end of each stanza, and may be set off by a dramatic rhythmic
or tonal gesture. There are commonly three stanzas:
Ballade form: aa' b C aa' b C aa' b C
The rondeau is at once the smallest and the most intricate
of the three forms, as all the complex formal procedures take
place within a single stanza. While each section within the virelai
and ballade consists of several lines of poetry and music, in
the rondeau a section may contain only a single line (though
more are possible, especially in the later part of the century.)
Since the refrain contains two parts, and only the first part
is repeated internally, the poetic and musical effect may be
playful, ironic, or otherwise expressive.
Rondeau form (single stanza): A B a A a b A B
Like the virelai, the rondeau begins and ends with its refrain.
The three forms were not clearly distinguished at the beginning
of the fourteenth century. The manuscript Douce 308, copied
early in the century, has a category called "ballettes",
some of which look like ballades and some like virelais. (There
is even one which can be regarded as either virelai or rondeau.)
So, although the three forms are readily distinguishable in hindsight,
we may well ask when the poet-composers themselves began to think
in terms of separate genres. Manuscript fragments and insertions
dating from the middle of the fourteenth century seem to select
songs by genre. Thus, Ivrea contains only rondeax and
virelais among its chansons, but does not label them; and one
of the three distinct manuscript fragments in Cambrai B,
another mid-century source, contains all three forms without
any indication of genre labels. But in each case, scribal practice
(such as the use of abbreviations for the refrains) indicates
that the forms were well understood.
Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) was credited with having contributed
to the development of the fixed forms ("
la maniere des motes et des balades et des lais et des simples
[he] discovered the style of motets, ballades,
lais and simple rondeaux]), and yet we have no songs that can
clearly be attributed to him. Rather, the earliest examples of
ballades, rondeaux and virelais are actually transmitted anonymously
in Ivrea and Cambrai B. The first exemplar of Guillaume
de Machaut's collected works ("Ms. C", Paris Bib. Nat.
1586) dates from around the same period (1350-56.)
Clearly, by the time of Machaut's first collected works the
three genres were well established in his mind. He grouped and
labeled his songs as ballade, rondeau or chanson baladee (his
preferred term for the virelai.) A little later, the surviving
index to the lost manuscript Tremoille, dated 1376, specifies
ballades and rondeaux, but does not sort them by genre.
Where, then, did the songs in the three fixed forms characteristic
of the French 14th century come from? They had at least a double
ancestry: the traditional chanson courtois of the trouvères,
and the largely unwritten dance tradition. In addition, a third
stream came from the motet and chace of the late thirteenth century.
The trouvere tradition of fin'amor, or "courtly
love," still supplied the content for the majority of poetry
for the 14thc chanson. Thus, the lover is depicted as suffering
and ill, perhaps crazy ("De ce que fol pense"); he
venerates the lady in almost religious terms ("Rose sans
per"); and he laments her cruel disregard, which is often
due to the intervention of malignant bystanders ("Besier
e acoler"). 
Machaut's poetry exemplifies and fully develops all these themes.
Structurally, however, the older songs tend to follow their
own individualistic patterns, rather than a recognized and predictable
repeat-pattern. Antecedent and consequent phrases, with open
and closed endings, appear in a variety of contexts. A common
structural pattern which opens with an antecedent-consequent
pair suggests the later ballade.
Though dances were popular all through the Middle Ages, they
were usually improvised by instrumentalists, who were not trained
in the literate courtly or churchly traditions, and may not have
been able (or cared) to read music. A few instrumental dances
do survive from the 13th century.
There were also songs for dancing, some of which had refrains
and were called ballette or rondel. Unfortunately,
most of the music for these dance-songs has been lost except
for the refrains, which were often quoted in literary works or
Some experiments with dance-songs using polyphonic texture
took place in the late 13th century: the songs of Adam de la
Halle, for instance, which are in simple note-against-note style
and are notated in score; and one three-part, homophonic rondeau
 by Jehan de Lescurel.
The polyphonic texture of the mid-14th century songs, however,
owed more to the complex motet and chace than to Adam and Jehan.
Many songs have multiple texts, like the motet; the parts are
notated separately, not in score; and non-texted parts are labeled
Triplum, Tenor, or Contratenor , as in the motet. Imitative texture
is often used, as in the chace. Also like the chace is the popular
technique of mimesis, or imitating sounds such as bird-calls
or musical instruments, which was often used in virelais ("Or
sus vous dormes trop," from Ivrea; Pykini's "Or
tost aeuz vous assembles," from Cambrai B). Machaut
used similar techniques in his songs. His concept of mimesis,
however, was extremely subtle: for example, in "Ma fin est
mon commencement" (Rondeau 14) he develops a theological
concept along with literal self-reference and a clever trick
The song-writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries put
a high value on innovation in poetic form, i.e. rhyme scheme
and versification. It is interesting to speculate on why the
fourteenth century saw a change, to put greater value on work
within a set form. Did the political instability of fourteenth-century
Europe lead courtly artists and audiences to prefer the fixed-form
convention? Whatever the reason, a conventional form creates
a different kind of tension within the work, as expectations
are delayed or fulfilled.
In music, especially, tonal structures can be expanded in
such a context. When the audience has become accustomed to a
certain type of cadential progression, say for example a sixth
on D followed by an octave on C, then a composer can set up a
very effective "open ending" by pausing on D, the penultimate
sonority, knowing that the audience will expect the final "closed"
resolution on C. Machaut was particularly skilled at exploiting
this kind of tension, often pausing on the penultimate sonority
before proceeding to the refrain of a ballade, as in #31, De
toutes flours. An analogous technique is used in the period
structure of the Classical Period, where the dominant-to-tonic
(V-I) cadence is so strongly expected that a half-cadence on
V is immediately recognized for what it is.
Character and provenance; selected examples
While all three fixed forms were used for elaborate poetry
on themes of courtly love, certain special styles were sometimes
associated with each one. The virelai was more likely to resemble
the motet and chace. It sometimes had two or more texts sung
at the same time, like the motet. Like the chace, it sometimes
used onomatopoetic bird calls, with a hocket-like texture, or
with snatches of musical imitation. Even in the context of courtly
love, it was likely to have a light-hearted character, using
many short lines and frequent rhymes. Polytextual and imitative
virelais are especially prevalent in the North French manuscript
Cambrai 1328, section B2. The Italian compiler of Codex Reina
was also fond of this genre. One of the best examples is Pykini's
Or tost aeux (published as #86 in Apel,
The ballade, on the other hand, tended to be more elegant
and leisurely. It was the closest in form to the earlier chanson
courtois. Though sometimes polytextual, ballades tended to
be formal and elaborate, like Machaut's Ballade 31, De toutes
flours. Towards the end of the century some composers gave
the ballade some of the features of the grand dedicatory motet,
as in Philipoctus de Caserta's Par les bons Gedeons (#82
in Apel, 1970.)
The poetic form of the rondeau was the most compact of the
three. It was equally ingenious, however, as the refrain had
to make sense in three different contexts., i.e. as a beginning,
middle and end. Rondeau texts often have a sense of play and
delight in puzzle-solving, which occasionally is expressed in
the music by a puzzle notation. Machaut's Rondeau 14, Ma fin
est mon commencement, is a famous example, with a double
sense to the text: it is at once both a theological statement
and a self-referential instruction for performance:
My end is my beginning,
And my beginning, my end
And tenor, truly;
My end is my beginning.
My third [part] sings only three times,
Reverses itself, and so end;
My end is my beginning,
And my beginning, my end.
The tenor is notated with the text, and when read backward
and upside-down, it gives the cantus. At the same time, only
half the contratenor part is given; the second half is derived
by reading it backward. As a result, the complete rondeau has
a second half which is the exact reverse of the first.
There is also the less polite Il vient bien sans apeler
in the Codex Reina (Paris, n.a.fr. 6771). In this piece, like
Machaut's, the second half is the exact retrograde of the first,
but only half of each part is written. Unlike Machaut's text,
this one has a sexual meaning.
But Machaut and others also wrote straightforward and elegant
rondeau texts, as in the beautifully expressive Machaut Rondeau
10, Rose, liz, printemps, verdure, which can be found
in modern edition in several standard textbooks including the
Norton Anthology of Western Music, vol. 1, ed. Claude
Palisca (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).
Examples of all three forms, as well as a few others, were
included by Machaut in his Remede de Fortune. This long
narrative poem explores the psychology of love with great sensitivity,
and (not incidentally) links successful musical/ poetic composition
with success in love. In the course of the poem Machaut presents
an exemplar of : lai, complainte, chanson royale, baladelle,
ballade, virelai and rondeau. The whole work, with
performance, translation and somewhat abridged narrative, is
available on CD-ROM, (Switten, 2001).
- 1. Chace: a piece in imitative texture,
where each voice follows or "chases" the one before
it with identical music and words. Normally only voice is written
out, and a rule or canon instructs the performer how to realize
the piece. Some of these instructions are cryptic or humorous.
The texts of the late 13th-early 14th century chaces often dealt
with hunting, bird-calls, or serenades, inviting onomatopoetic
effects. (return to text)
- 2. These songs are transcribed and discussed
in Hasselman, 1970.(return to text)
- 3. Published in McGee, 1989.(return
- 4. As pointed out in Earp, 1991, Jehan's
melodic and rhythmic style are too elaborate to be comfortable
for actual dancing. But with respect to texture, his style hardly
differs from Adam's. (return to text)
- 5. For a fuller discussion, see Crocker,
1966, pp. 116-19 and 123-29, and Hasselman, 1970. A slightly
different interpretation is found in Earp, 1991.(return
- 6. See Gunther, 1983 for a full discussion
and edition. (return to text)
Apel, Willi. French Secular Compositions
of the Fourteenth Century. In Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae
Vol. 53. American Institute of Musicology, 1970.
Crocker, Richard L. A History of Musical Style. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1966 and reprint: Dover, 1986.
Earp, Lawrence. Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research.
New York and London: Garland, 1995
_________. "Lyrics for Reading and Lyrics for Singing
in Late Medieval France: The Development of the Dance Lyric from
Adam de la Halle to Guillaume de Machaut." In Baltzer, Rebecca
et al. (ed.) The Union of Words and Music in Medieval Poetry.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Gunther, Ursula. "Fourteenth-century music with texts
revealing performance practice." In Boorman, Stanley, ed.,
Studies in the Performance of Late Medieval Music. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Hasselman, Margaret Paine. "The French Chanson in the
Fourteenth Century." PhD. Dissertation, University of California,
Berkeley, 1970. 2 vols. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, order
Hoppin, Richard, ed. Anthology of Medieval Music. New
York: Norton, 1978.
McGee, Timothy J. Medieval Instrumental Dances. Bloomington
and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Palisca, Claude. Norton Anthology of Western Music,
vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2001.
Reaney, Gilbert. "Concerning the Origins of the Rondeau,
Virelai and Ballade Forms." Musica Disciplina 6:
________. "The Development of the Rondeau, Virelai and
Ballde Forms from Adam de la Halle to Guillaume de Machaut."
In Festgabe Karl Gustav Felerer zum sechzigsten Geburtstag
am 7. Juli 1962, ed. Heinrich Hueschen, 421-27. Regensburg:
Switten, Margaret L. Teaching Medieval
Lyric with Modern Technology: New Windows on the Medieval World,
a project supported by The National Endowment for the Humanities
and Mount Holyoke College. South Hadley, Mass: The Medieval Lyric,
Margaret Switten, Director, 2001.
Stevens, John. Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song,
Narrative, Dance and Drama, 1050-1350. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986.
Wilkins, Nigel. The Lyric Art of Medieval France. Fulbourn:
New Press, 1988, rev. ed. 1989.
The French Fixed Forms (repertory listed here in rough chronological
The Mirror of Narcissus: Songs by Guillaume de Machaut
(1300-1377). Gothic Voices, Christopher Page, Director. Hyperion
CDA 66087, 1987. [A seminal recording of Machaut's music.]
For other Machaut recordings, see listings at: http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/composers/machaut.html.
The Spirits of England and France: Music for Court and
Church from the Later Middle Ages. Gothic Voices, Christopher
Page, Director. Hyperion CDA 66739.
Ars Subtilior. New London Consort, Philip Pickett,
Director. Linn Records CKD 039.
The Garden of Zephirus: Courtly songs of the early fifteenth
century. Gothic Voices, Christopher Page, director. Hyperion
The Castle of Fair Welcome: Courtly songs of the later
fifteenth century. Gothic Voices, Christopher Page, director.
Hyperion CDA 66194, 1986. [Includes Binchois' wrenching setting
of Christine de Pizan's "Deuil angoisseux"]
Sweet Love, Sweet Hope. The Hilliard Ensemble. Isis
records, CD030, 1996. [Songs from Oxford 213, by Dufay, Johannes
Rezon, Jo. Hasprois, Bartolomeus Brollo, Paullet, Guillaume Malbecque,
Prepositus Brixiensis and Anon.]
Guillaume Dufay, Complete Secular Music. The Medieval
Ensemble of London,
directed by Peter Davies and Timothy Davies. L'Oiseau-Lyre (Decca),
5 CD set: 452 557-2, 1981/1997.
Works from the Italian Trecento:
A Song for Francesca: Music in Italy, 1330-1430. Gothic
Voices, Christopher Page, Director. Hyperion CDA 66286, 1988.
Decameron: Ballate monodiques de l'Ars Nova Florentine.
Esther Lamandier, voice and portative organ, harp, vielle
and lute. Astree E 7706, 1986. [A French performer who taught
at the Scola Cantorum in Basel performs music from the Rossi
codex and the Squarcialupi manuscript.]
Ecco la Primavera. Early Music Consort of London, dir.
David Munrow. Decca 436 219-2,1970/1993. [Particularly nice recordings
of Landini's "Questa fanciull'amor" and the caccias
"Con dolce brama" by Magister Piero and "Chon
brachi assai" by Giovanni da Firenza.]
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