MEI encoding and analysis of “airs connus” across multiple genres

Authors: Day, David A.

Date: Friday, 8 September 2023, 11:15am to 12:45pm

Location: Main Campus, L 1.202 <campus:note>


The term air connu may have multiple interpretations in different contexts of 19th-century French music. In its strictest sense it can refer to known melodies that were easily recognizable to audiences of dramatic music including, opera-comique, ballet-pantomime, and comédie-vaudeville. These melodies may have originated in the popular vernacular or could have achieved recognition as an aria in a successful opera. These airs connus were subsequently reintroduced in different genres to recall the original text or meaning to help convey a dramatic plot (as in the case of ballet-pantomime where there are no lyrics) or order to establish elements of parody and satire by juxtaposing the original meaning in an altered dramatic context. The term is also used in the context of numerous anthologies that codify the most most popular tunes that were regularly reintroduced in multiple musical-dramatical contexts. Furthermore, the term appears frequently in the context of adaptations of popular melodies arranged for various instruments for amateur consumption.

A better understanding of the extent of air connu use across multiple genres will enable a revised assessment of the importance of popular music in 19th-century France. The interconnectivity between the canon of French opera and the more ephemeral productions of the Parisian boulevard theaters is a popular theme in current research. The air connu is an essential aspect of this relationship. Furthermore, the use of these same tunes in the vast repertory of amateur arrangements for salon performances is key to understanding the interdependence of all these genres. Arrangement’s intended for domestic consumption were no doubt driven by the popularity of successful operas, but also helped reinforce the broad recognition of the same tunes when they appeared in contexts of parody.

The current project aims to build an extensive corpus of MEI encoded airs connus and adapt the analytical tools of the CRIM Intervals project ( to identify uses of these melodies across multiple genres including opera, ballet, French vaudeville, amateur arrangements, and recueil of popular airs. The corpus is being developed through MuseScore input and conversion to MEI. OMR using SmartScore is also being tested. The initial production focus is the sixth edition of the La clé du caveau and aria melodies found in the répétiteur or chant parts from the ballet-pantomime and comédie-vaudeville repertoire of the Théâtre de la Monnaie housed at the Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles. A project to photograph all of the orchestral material for comédie-vaudeville (including répétiteur and chant parts) from this important collection was completed July 2023. Melodic incipits for the most important opéra-comique found in RISM are also being exported as MEI files. To these corpora will be added an existing substantial body of more than 5,000 MEI encoded melodies from popular tunes arranged for the harp and drawn from BYU’s extensive International Harp Archives.

This presentation will review the methodology and goals of the project. A report on the current number of files created and use of the CRIM Intervals analysis tools will also be provided. Future work on the texts of airs connus using TEI will be assessed.

About the author

David A. Day has worked as Curator of Music Special Collections at Brigham Young University since 1986. He is an adjunct professor and teaches the graduate research methodology course at the BYU School of Music. He was awarded the PhD in musicology from New York University in 2008. He is currently building a MEI corpus of French airs connus or known melodies.

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