Love and Chivalry in Music: Analyzing the Meaning Behind Lyrics Over Time

Love. It’s talked about everywhere: in the hallways, in novels, on TV, on Facebook, and on Instagram. But, little do people realize that love, especially that which is unrequited, has a deeply rooted history in all genres and time periods of music.

It began in France in the Middle Ages. Individuals who composed music (orally and aurally, of course, as people of this time period did not yet have the means to write music down graphically) commonly came up with the lyrics for the pieces they wrote. These poet-musicians were known as troubadours (in the case of Southern France) and trouvères (in the case of Northern France). Troubadours and trouvères infused the concept of fine amour, or courtly love, into the poetry of their compositions. Courtly love, as we think of it today, usually involves chivalry, or the idea of a knight in shining armor sweeping a princess off of her feet and lifting her up onto his horse only to ride off with her into the sunset. Yet, courtly love in this era had more to it than just manners and respect for women. The lyrics discussing courtly love entailed a romance that never went both ways, usually involving a man of a merchant class doting over an aristocratic woman he could not attain for reasons of social class conflict. Because troubadours and trouvères came from all social classes, it was even possible for a man to sing lovingly and longingly about a woman from his same social class who was married, knowing that his love would not be reciprocated.

Fast-forward multiple centuries later and you see the same exaggerated love themes in vocal pieces of the Romantic era (not that love themes and lyricism weren’t present in other musical periods; they were just not as prevalent as were virtuosity and musical form or structure)…kind of expected when you look at the name of the time period itself. French and German composers set the lyrics of art songs, or solo vocal and piano pieces, to texts by such poets as Goethe and Heine. Interestingly enough, these poets often turned to Medieval mythology and poetry as inspiration for their own works. This means that if Romantic composers and poets turned to Medieval poetry and if Medieval poetry was filled with hints of courtly love, then, hints of courtly love must inevitably have been present within Romantic music. If we were to look at the translation of Schumann’s song cycle (a large work consisting of numerous art songs set to a theme), Dichterliebe, for example, we could trace a “…story of love’s awakening, rapture, disillusionment, betrayal, and final renunciation” (Abraham, 660). Ok, so you probably see the parallel between the lyrics of Romantic songs and the lyrics of Medieval songs, but, you are probably also thinking that there had to have been some change over time in the way that people expressed their feelings of affection toward others musically. If this was your assumption, then, congratulations, you are correct! Whereas troubadours and trouvères in the Middle Ages focused on the pit of despair they fell into as a result of unrequited love, Romantic era texts did not always have to end in tragedy. Some songs described the passion which existed between the two characters involved in the piece, or even reflected love between family members. There was also a large observance of the sublime in this era. A person’s feelings were likely to be metaphorically compared to something grand in nature, such as an ocean or a forest, whether or not his or her love was returned. It may then be argued that although love lyrics were present during both the Middle Ages and the Romantic era, the intensity of emotion sung about was expanded during the latter era.

That brings us to today where love lyrics still dominate songs, but, are presented in radically different ways. Whereas people living in previous eras would never have acted off of their unreturned feelings, pop, rock, hip-hop, and R&B artists in this decade sing about how it doesn’t matter whether a person they love or find attractive is in a relationship. They elaborate on this thought by implementing innuendos into their songs, such as inviting the person they are singing about to a hotel room or handing them a drink at a club. Furthermore, there are several break-up songs on the radio (which are semi-similar to the unrequited love theme) in which the singer bashes his or her ex-lover and either talks about finding someone new or about how he or she is better off alone. These themes are visible in such songs as “Hotel Room Service” by Pitbull and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift. Some may claim that there are still elements of chivalry in the popular music of today. Yet, sometimes, this respect is offset by body image. For example, John Legend’s “All of Me” talks about all of the wonderful qualities he finds in his lover, though the first verse in the chorus says, “Love your curves and all your edges.”

Do you think that there are elements of courtly love in music today, or has love in music has become all about body image and or the reputation one gains from “one-upping” someone else? Do you think that people today are more bold to act upon their emotions because of the media and what it promotes, or are they simply venting their emotions through music? Have people always maintained the same vengeful emotions toward unrequited love, but, just buried them earlier on because there were stricter moral and social codes in place? Below you will find a clip of “All of Me” by John Legend and a clip of Schumann’s “Widmung” with a translation below the video. Do you find any similarities between the two pieces with regards to their poetry or even with regards to the way that the music sounds? Scroll to the VERY, VERY bottom of the page (past the Works Cited, until you can’t scroll anymore) or go to the “Thoughts on Love and Chivalry in Music…” section to leave your comments. Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!


You my soul, you my heart,
you my bliss, O you my pain,
you my world in which I live,
my heaven you, to which I float,
O you my grave, into which
my grief forever I’ve consigned.

You are repose, you are peace,
you are bestowed on me from Heaven.
Your love for me gives me my worth,
your eyes transfigure me in mine,
lovingly you raise me above myself,
my good spirit, my better self!

Works Cited:

Abraham, Gerald. Romanticism (1830-1890). New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Grout, Donald Jay, and Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music. W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. Print.

Davis, Garold N. “Medievalism in the Romantic: Some Early Contributors.” The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 28.1 (1974): 34-39. Web.

JohnLegendVEVO. “John Legend-All of Me.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 October 2013. Web. 24 June 2015.

Lilith89ibc. “Widmung Op. 25 No. 1 (Schumann)-Diana Damrau.” YouTube. YouTube, 1 June 2008. Web. 24 June 2015.

“Widmung.” Classical Plus Works. Classical Plus, 1999-2001. Web. 24 June 2015.


4 thoughts on “Love and Chivalry in Music: Analyzing the Meaning Behind Lyrics Over Time

  1. There is definitely something to be said about modern songs focusing more on the carnal than the spiritual; what would have been repressed and shelved fifty years ago is now on iTunes for all to hear (and whether or not that is a good thing depends on one’s own personal taste).

    However, I still think courtly love is still somewhat present in (some) songs today albeit in a differently evolved form – namely, great sacrifices/promises made on behalf of someone one loves. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers is one example – I’m sure that walking 500 miles just to be next to someone you love counts as chivalry in someone’s book! A more recent song example of this would also be Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” (although the woman depicted in the song’s lyrics isn’t exactly appreciative). I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but performing some great sacrifice to win someone’s heart sounds like something that would be right at home in the days of the Middle Ages/Romantic Era.

    Bottom line: I don’t think courtly love/traditional chivalry in songs ever went away; it just evolved, and got overshadowed by concerns about body image and what not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, love has, and will always be a part of songs. It is a great foundation for a song. I think that in The Middle Ages, times were simpler. When troubadours wrote songs, one had to physically listen to him sing and then use his imagination to determine what the song meant and actually had to interpret on his own what love was. Now, we are technologically advanced i.e., social media etc. and the producer/artist shows and tells us what they want us to believe. There is little room for interpretation and little left for the imagination. The envelope has definitely been pushed where love is concerned in songs and will continue to be pushed. What we now see as racy, will probably be viewed as tame in the future, but the bottom line however, is that love will always be a part of music regardless of its origin or genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, everyone for all of your insightful commentary! I will try and address everyone’s points and questions in this response!

    R. G. Meehan: I haven’t completed much research on country music, although scholar, Astrid Franke in a Poetics Today article notes that the “broken heart” is a cliché found in songs throughout this genre. For example, “Rodeo” by Garth Brooks describes the pain a woman feels when her husband travels across the country without her to experience his second love, which is, not surprisingly, a rodeo. Yet, the author observes that the woman depicted in the song fears more than losing her man to a cowboy event; what she really worries about is losing her man to another woman. The woman’s doubt must be based on the implication that her husband is either untrustworthy and or capricious, if he would potentially act to replace her love with someone else’s. In a way, this circumstance may be indicative of unrequited love, as the passion the woman feels toward her lover is not mutually reflected. Also, if we consider the fact that art songs in the Romantic era were the “pop songs” of the day, and that country music has produced artists which top American music charts just as pop music today has, it is safe to conclude that country music as a whole follows roughly the same pattern that pop music has over time when it comes to themes of courtly love lyrics.

    I and Leothelion: I would like to group your sets of comments together in this discussion. Leothelion brings up a valid point that unduly sacrifice for a love interest in music today is comparable to the courtly love found in lyrics of the Middle Ages. I also raises an interesting point about how interpretation in love lyrics today may be limited to bodily pleasures due to media portrayal of these love lyrics, whereas in the Middle Ages, love didn’t necessarily have to be confined to physicality depending upon individual discretion of listeners. We all seem to agree that the use of bodily exploitation in music videos has contributed to the degradation of, or at least to the concealment of, chivalry in song lyrics. Yet, by watching John Legend’s “All of Me” video, which consists of sentimental memories of the singer and his wife together (eating, swimming in the pool, and, eventually, getting married) and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” video, as mentioned by Leothelion (which involves the singer pushing a piano across a highway to demonstrate the distance he would go to please his girlfriend), it appears as though music producers and artists tend to also go to the other extreme in trying to make romantic love apparent. In other words, isn’t it enough to tell someone how much you love them simply through words attributing to their positive qualities, as is the case with Schumann’s “Widmung” seen above? Why does the media make it so that one has to demonstrate proof of his or her affection toward another, just as one must show proof of citizenship at the DMV? Is this to gain a reaction out of the person targeted in the lyrics? Is it an entertainment tool meant to gain more viewers, if people see an outrageous stunt that has never been pulled before, or see something that they wish their lover would do for them in real life to contribute to a Cinderella moment? Is this a step in the right direction because people are beginning to be selfless toward one another, rather than passively letting the other person go so easily?


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