Voice and Voicelessness
“Singing sanz note“
Animals don’t talk—that much is a given. Though humans can emit inarticulate groans, and animals can sometimes make pleasing sounds —such as birdsong—the popular medieval distinction between the vox confusa of animals and the vox articulata of rational beings keep us from confusing animal noises with mindful utterances. But what of metaphorical horses? Symbolic sheep? This paper takes as its point of departure a passage from the Roman de Fauvel—a satirical poem from c. 1314—which likens the French people to a neglected flock of sheep shorn too close to the skin by the greedy clergy. Freezing in the winter months without their warm coats, they voice their dejection through two antiphons from the Office of the dead, singing Placebo Domino loudly, but Dirige Domine “without a sound”—“sanz note.” In the illustrated and interpolated version of Fauvel preserved in BnF fr. 146, the music scribes chose this moment to interpolate a motet, Ex corruptis arboribus. Its words summarize the complaints of the faithful but all three of its voices remain literally “sans note”—there are only blank staves.
A careful examination of paleographic details in the work in question can show that the notes of this motet are not simply missing—they were intentionally left off. As such, Ex corruptis arboribus serves as a particularly effective instance of depicting silence musically. It invites comparison with the expressively mute animals of the contemporary Ovide moralisé—a work related to Fauvel in a number of ways. Here and in Ovid’s original, as much attention is paid to the muteness of the metamorphosed characters—of Io and Ochyroe, for example—as to their bodily transformations. On the other hand we can compare Ex corruptis arboribus with less extreme cases in which music attempts to depict a failure of voice, whether animal or human. This emerges in those songs exploiting the paradoxical courtly topos of singing about being unable to sing, or in a work like the canon Se je chante mains que ne seuilh, which, in addition to playing with this same topos, includes a description of hunters whose calls make them sound like the dogs to whom they call out.
Finally, we can read Ex corruptis arboribus against the neighboring motet Je voi/Fauvel/Autant m’est. Here, the text of the tenor is placed in the mouth of Fauvel, the story’s equine antihero, and its message (“It’s the same to me forwards and backwards”) serves as the basis for the motet’s broader form, which is palindromic. Since it defines the work’s form, it can be argued that Fauvel’s voice is the most articulate one. In contrast, the upper-voice texts, which depict points of view adverse to Fauvel, must still conform to him formally. When compared with the unsuccessful sheepsong of a few folios prior, Fauvel’s first utterance unmistakably links voice and power while at the same time threatening the boundaries between real self-expression and slavish repetition.