The singer is an ass

The newly recognized relevance to musicology of a short article from 1905 about words for driving beasts of burden.Ass

Among other databases, JSTOR has made it possible to make new and surprising scholarly connections, often to much older material whose relevance would never have been noticed without the possibility of full-text searching. I have ended up citing from journals I didn’t even know existed just because articles in them turned up in a particular search. The quality of research in the humanities today is radically inflected by the individual’s scholar’s ability to conduct online searches in a productive way: too specific and you miss stuff; too open-ended and you can’t deal with it all. On the other hand, sometimes serendipity is just as valuable (and just as possible online as in a physical library!). A search for one thing can often turn up something else as well.

One search I’m particularly pleased by is the one that turned up an article from 1905 that has a surprising relevant for musicologiusts of late-medieval song. This is the article (now freely available because it’s so old):

Holbrook, Richard (1905), ‘Hez! Hay! Hay Avant! and Other Old and Middle French Locutions Used for Driving Beasts of Burden’, Modern Language Notes, 20 (8), 232-35. 

Little about its title would suggest it is at all relevant to medieval music, but for my book on music and birdsong I was eager to find out how far back composers notated animal noises. I turned Holbrook’s article up when I was trying to ascertain whether, as some have suggested, the polyphonic song of the ass from Beauvais makes a noise imitating braying in its chorus ‘Hez, hez, sire asne, hez!’.  Holbrook’s short article makes it clear that ‘hez, hez’ is not the sound of braying, but rather a goading cry of a handler to the beast, so I concluded that the Beauvais piece notates human shouts but not animal noises.Harping ass

So much for the song of the ass. But my eye was caught by one of the other expressions for goading an ass that Holbrook’s title gives — ‘Hay avant!’ — which is a cry that occurs in a fourteenth-century song by Matheus de Sancto Johanne, Science n’a nul annemi, and has always, it now seems, been misunderstood. Matheus’s song laments the ignorance of bad singers and has a two line refrain: ‘Qui plus haut crie “Hay avant!” / C’est trop bien fait disons ainsy’. The cry itself is aurally prominent in the three-voice musical setting because the two lower voices, which don’t ordinarily carry any text and would have been played or sung wordlessly, have the words ‘Hay avant!’ copied underneath their musical imitation of the little motif that these same words have in the cantus part. Thus all three parts sing ‘Hay avant!’ in musical imitation in the refrain.

In an article in Early Music 2003 these lines are translated as ‘Whoever shouts loudest “Me first!” / Let’s just say, it’s very well done’ with a short note on the text saying, ‘This expression might also be translated as “Forward march!”; the sense seems to be that the ignorant are pushing themselves into the limelight’. However, unless one reads the idea that this is ‘very well done’ with heavy sarcasm, that reading makes no sense given that the rest of the text castigates these ignorant people. Holbrook’s article allows a much better reading of the refrain as: ‘Whoever shouts “Go away, [ass]!” the loudest is doing very well, so say all of us!’. This is the refrain of the entire singing body, the three people singing this song, all of whom shout ‘Hay avant!’ in imitation — and each presumably trying to be the one who shouts it the loudest — in the refrain, which they (the first person plural subjects of ‘disons’, i.e. the singers of the song) direct against the bad singers described by the first person singular ‘je’ in the rest of the text, song only by the singer of the cantus part.Diane Trapp ass head mask

It’s a small gain, perhaps, but it is significant for our understanding of this particular song. Implying that an ignorant singer is an ass, often by saying what Guido of Arezzo said (which was that an ignorant singer would prefer the loud, tuneless braying of an ass to the well-tuned pitches of a nightingale), accords with a long tradition in the Middle Ages.


  1. Lisa Colton says:

    Fascinating stuff. It reminds me of the 14th-century English motet “Herodis in pretorio / Herodis in atrio / Hey hure lure, Mettez moi iuse, accoler moy’’, found in a mid-to-late 14th-century collection of sacred vocal music from Durham Cathedral (Durham Cathedral Library, MS C. I.20, f. 1r). Various attempts to translate the tenor, and I wonder if there might be a corruption of something similar to the beasts of burden words involved in your French examples. I have offered a different interpretation in a forthcoming chapter, but thought it might be worth consideration.

    1. That sounds quite likely given the initial ‘Hey’. Perhaps ‘lure lure’ should really be ‘hure, hure’? Look forward to the chapter — where’s it going to be published?

      1. Lisa Colton says:

        Yes, as it stands it’s likely to be a bit garbled I think.
        Here’s the full citation of my chapter. It’s been nearly published for ages, so no chance to change it now to include these thoughts (not a big part of what I’m saying), but perhaps worth thinking about at some point.
        Colton, L. (forthcoming for 2014) ‘“Sowndys and melodiis”: Perceptions of Sound and Music in the Later Middle Ages’. In: Noise, Audition, Aurality: Histories of the Sonic Worlds of Europe c.1500–1918, Ian Biddle and Kirsten Gibson eds. Aldershot: Ashgate.

  2. Bernhard says:

    Could you please give a translation of this passage? I am interested in the song.

    Science n’a nul annemi
    Se non ceulz qui sont ignorant.
    Envieuz sont, je le vous di,
    Souvent sur ceulz qui sont sachant
    Et vont melodie abatant
    Tout voulentiers per leur haut cry.
    Qui plus haut crie: ‘Hay avant’.
    C’est trop bien fait, disons ainsy.

    How would you translate Hay avant?

    Thanks a lot.

    1. There are some published translations for this text (for example, Yolanda Plumley, ‘Playing the Citation Game in the Late 14th-Century Chanson’, Early Music, 31 (2003), 20-40, figure 3). They don’t translate ‘Hay avant’ correctly, in my view, since it is just the phrase used to get an animal to move forward. I would suggest ‘walk on!’ or ‘gee up’, but these sorts of phrases can be quite local.

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