Peter Abelard


Born: 1079; Pallet, Breton   Died: April 21, 1142; Chalon-sur-Saône  
Peter Abelard, known as Pierre de Abaelardus in his time, was the most famous and controversial figure in the Western church of the first half of the twelfth century. A fierce debater with radical views (heretical to some of his peers), Abelard also was an outstanding and influential composer of monophonic hymns, sequences, and lamentations known as Planctus.

Abelard was born Pierre du Pallet to a military family, but he abandoned this
Read more legacy in favor of theology. Educated in Paris, Abelard undertook his trade "out of town" and did not establish himself as a teacher of Philosophy in the Gallic capital until 1111 A.D. Afterward, Abelard gained celebrity through his constant skirmishes with the church over such matters as nominalism and the Trinity. In 1117, Abelard met and fell in love with one of his students, Héloise, ward of her uncle the Canon Fulbert. Abelard and Héloise's love affair resulted in pregnancy and Abelard, still a layman, subsequently married her. However, Héloise's uncle punished Abelard through sending a gang of hoodlums to, in Abelard's words, "deprive me of that part of my anatomy which had offended him."

Afterward, Héloise was sent away to a convent, and Abelard likewise was obliged to join the monastery at St. Denis. It wasn't long before he began to quarrel with his fellow monks, and Abelard left St. Denis in the early 1120s to found his own order, The Paraclete. Later Héloise would join him there as Abbess. The love letters Abelard and Héloise exchanged over the years form part of the backbone of early Western love literature. Abelard wrote his most famous literary work, Historia calamitum (The Story of My Misfortunes) in 1130. A surprising number of Abelard's theological treatises survive, including Sic et Non, Ethica, and even his notorious tract on the trinity, burned before his own eyes at the command of the church fathers in 1121. In the later 1130s Abelard made something of a comeback in Paris, but soon ran afoul of the powerful St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and once again had to flee in order to save his neck. This time Abelard's friend Peter the Venerable offered him safe haven in Cluny. Afterward, Abelard finally resigned himself to entrust the theology of the future to the work of future theologians, and spent his last years in relative quiet.

As to the extant record of Abelard's musical activities, seven of his compositions exist with full text and melody. About a dozen others are known only in manuscripts rendered in staff-less neumes, unreadable to modern eyes. However, these may yet be recovered if the overall direction of the neumes can be reconciled to a melody recorded in another source bearing staff lines. Yet more hymns and songs are known only in manuscripts where the texts are preserved without the music.

By far the best known musical work of Abelard is the hymn O quanta qualia. Written for the nuns of Héloise's order at the Paraclete, this hymn is preserved in dozens of manuscripts and was quite well known in its era and afterward. Of his lamentations, Abelard's De profundis was adopted into the breviary for regular church usage, and others are notable for their colorful and imaginative texts on biblical subjects. Abelard's use of repetitive sequences, strophic patterns, and limited melodic ideas were considerably in advance of the day, where long, uninterrupted melody was the rule rather than the exception. Abelard's mastery of this technique is well exemplified in his lamentation Virgines caste. Read less

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