The Laborde Chansonnier contains 106 pieces, though that number may once have been 110, as four songs listed in the index are now missing. Research has shown that it was copied out by five different scribes, some of whose work is also to be found in other manuscripts from the same period, such as the Dijon Chansonnier. There are many unanswered questions, not least among them being the matter of who were the original owners of this magnificent collection. But what is in no doubt is that the pieces of music to be found within this volume present a wonderful overview of the supremely elegant and beautiful songs that provided enchanting courtly entertainment in 15th- century high society. For all the refinement of the poetry and the technical sophistication of the music, the overall impression is overwhelmingly one of irresistible melodies and luscious harmonies that reach out and charm the listener.
Walter Frye’s early career may have been spent at Ely Cathedral in the East of England, but he found longer term employment in the 1460s in the service of Anne of Exeter, sister of King Edward IV and Margaret of York. It was through these royal connections that Frye came into contact with Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and this may give a clue as to why so much of his music was transmitted to Europe in contrast to that of many other fine English composers. Frye’s Ave regina celorum was one of the most famous antiphons of the fifteenth century. It appears in at least ten 15th- century manuscripts in three parts, in three others in four parts, and its music is featured in three paintings of the period; there is also a keyboard transcription in the Buxheim Book. Many of these sources consist primarily of secular music, and in fact the style of the work is closer to that of contemporary chansons than that of most liturgical music; unlike some other antiphons of the period it does not use any plainsong.
Although of English origins, Robert Morton would not have been an unusual figure at the Court of Burgundy as musicians travelled there from all over Europe. Arriving in 1457, his career progressed slowly—he occupied the lowly position of clerc for 15 years—but on his return to England he assumed roles at Salisbury and St. Paul’s Cathedral before attaining the post of Bishop of Worcester. N’aray je jamais mieulx was an exceptionally popular song, appearing in 16 musical sources and serving as the inspiration for a motet and three Mass cycles by other composers. The reputation of this piece and others led the venerated theorist Johannes Tinctoris to declare Morton to be ‘world-famous’.
Hayne van Ghizeghem
Frustratingly little is known about the life of Hayne van Ghizeghem. A Franco-Flemish composer, he was born sometime around 1445, and it is known that he was at the Burgundian court from at least 1457 until 1477, but it is most likely that he lived at least until 1490. Only 17 songs are definitely attributable to him, yet they were well known in his own time and were widely disseminated. His two best-known songs are Allez regretz (which is to be found in 27 different manuscripts or printed sources) and De tous biens plaine. Both songs became popular models for pieces by other composers.
As is often the case with composers of this era, Caron’s biographical information has to be assembled indirectly. His origins are unknown, but testimony to his reputation comes from the inclusion of his name in Compère’s motet tribute to musicians (Omnium bonorum plena) and in the writings of authorities such as Gaffurius, Tinctoris, and Hothby. The combinative song Corps contre corps, with two texts being sung simultaneously, is his only surviving work for four voices.
Johannes Ockeghem dominates any account of 15th-century polyphony. Little is known of his early years and musical training and much of what we know about his later life is in his capacity as a trusted diplomat. Unlike many composers of his time, Ockeghem did not travel much, possibly a direct consequence of his stable employment as treasurer of the church of St. Martin in Tours, a post awarded to him by Charles VII of France in 1459. The travels that he did make, such as to Bruges and Dammes in 1484, may have been for diplomatic or musical reasons. It is possible that he visited Italy, though his contact with the musical style of that country, as with his experience of other countries, may well have been simply gleaned from extant manuscripts. A visit to Spain in 1470 was certainly made primarily for diplomatic reasons and thus his musical experience is remarkably circumscribed compared to that of his contemporaries.
The initial picture of Ockeghem which emerges, then, is that of an eminently successful courtier, adept in the ways of diplomacy and possessing additional valuable talents as a singer and composer. The image is confirmed by the fulsome praise of Francesco Florio writing in Tours in the 1470s:
“I am sure you could not dislike this man, so pleasing is the beauty of his person, so noteworthy the sobriety of his speech and of his morals and of his grace. He alone of all singers is free from all vice and abounds in all virtues.”
His Ave Maria is a simple but highly effective setting of the Marian text. It is an intimate and heartfelt composition, a telling contrast to his more grandiose (and more famous) five part motets such as Intermerata Dei Mater and the lost 36 voice canon.
We know nothing for certain about Busnois’s date or place of birth, but he presumably hailed from the hamlet of Busnes in northern France. The earliest known record of his career concerns a rather ignominious incident that occured sometime before 1461. Busnois, then a chaplain in the cathedral of St. Gatien in Tours, together with a number of cohorts, allegedly beat up a priest on five separate occasions to the point of bloodshed, actions for which he was subsequently excommunicated. Apparently later absolved of his crime, he went on to hold other positions in Tours and Poitiers before being employed in 1467 by Charles, Count of Charolais and heir to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. Busnois officially joined the ranks of the Burgundian court chapel in 1471, and his name appears thereafter as a member of the ducal chapel on the parchment rolls (escroes) itemizing the personnel that accompanied the ducal entourage in its daily travels from 1471 to 1475. Perhaps the most unexpected revelation of the escroes is that Busnois spent much of his decade of service to Charles the Bold accompanying him on military campaigns, thus involving him in sieges that lasted up to a year. Upon the untimely death of Duke Charles on the battlefield at Nancy in 1477, Busnois remained at the court in the service of Charles’s daughter Mary, and then entered the service of her consort Maximilian I of Austria. He served there sporadically until 1483, when his name disappears definitively from the court records. His name, qualified with the adjective ‘deceased’, appears in an entry dated November 6, 1492 in a now lost register of chapter acts of the collegiate church of St. Sauveur in Bruges, where he evidently held the post of cantor.
Loyset Compère is a name that is not as familiar as those of Dufay and Josquin, but deserves his place in this program as a representative of an extraordinary group of composers that emerged in the last years of the 15th century. His music displays a flawless technical ability, yet the ear is drawn to the sheer beauty of the music rather than its ‘cleverness’. His first name is just a diminutive of ‘Louis’, pronounced in three syllables ‘Lo-y-set’ (King Louis XI always signed his letters ‘Loys’), and his surname translates as ‘godfather,’ though it also meant ‘gossip.’ Which is to say that this may well not have been his baptismal name: many composers at this time had professional sobriquets, and this looks like one. So it is hard to trace his early life: conflicting early reports give his birthplace as St. Omer, Arras, and somewhere in the nearby county of Hainault. Whichever is true, however, he came from that area on the present Belgian-French border in which most of the leading composers of the 15th century grew up. There are good reasons for thinking that he may have studied in Paris in the years around 1460, but it appears that towards the end of the decade he too had joined the court circle in Burgundy. Soon after that Compère was in Milan, where he sang in the chapel of Galeazzo Maria Sforza from July 1474 until that Duke was assassinated at the end of 1476. During those mere eighteen months Compère appears to have been unusually productive; and it was almost certainly in Milan that he composed his three surviving cycles or ‘motetti missales’— motets to be performed in place of the movements of the Mass— since there is no other place where this genre is known to have been cultivated. The next decade of Compère’s life is a blank, though there is a very good chance that he was in Moulins, at the court of Duke Jean II de Bourbon, who had retreated to his home town during those years to keep away from the increasingly unsympathetic court of Louis XI. From 1486, Compère is documented as a singer at the royal court of Charles VIII, and he accompanied Charles on the Italian campaign of 1494. The years from 1498 show Compère in administrative posts, as Dean of St. Gery in Cambrai, provost of St. Pierre in Douai, and latterly as a canon of St. Quentin, where he died in 1518.
Dufay was probably born in or near Cambrai around 1400 and was a chorister at the Cathedral there from 1409-1412. Some time before 1420, he must have entered the service of the Malatesta family in Pesaro, Italy, and there is evidence to suggest that he held positions in Cambrai and Laon between 1426-1427. In December 1428, Dufay became a singer in the papal choir, the most famous musical establishment in Europe. Whilst in Italy, he formed close associations with the d’Este family of Ferrara and with the Court of Savoy. It was possible at that time to hold positions in a number of different courts and churches without actually being in residence and this makes it difficult to be sure as to Dufay’s exact movements, but it would appear that from 1440 until his death in 1474, he was based in Cambrai, with the exception of the period 1451-58 which he spent once more in Savoy. He was soon regarded as one of the most famous persons of his day, honored and sought out by musicians and others. The composers Morton and Hayne van Ghizeghem came to Cambrai, perhaps to be with him. Tinctoris spent four months there in 1460, and Ockeghem was his guest in 1462. Dufay continued to compose even in his last few years, but sadly few of the works of his most mature years survive. He died in November 1474 after many weeks of illness.
It was Binchois who perhaps most firmly stamped the Burgundian court style on music all over Western Europe. Throughout his music there is an unforgettable grace, blended with tellingly economic harmonies and clearly defined phrase-structures which gave his songs an extraordinarily successful career across Europe. It is conceivable that he was Ockeghem’s tutor, and indeed the latter used Binchois’ song De plus en plus as the model for a setting of the Mass. Initially in the service of the Duke of Suffolk, Binchois subsequently became the star musician at the Court of Burgundy; indeed it was his song Je ne vis onques that was performed by a young boy seated on a deer in that most famous and extravagant of all medieval court events, the ‘Banquet du Voeu’ mounted by Duke Philip the Good in 1454 to raise funds for a new crusade to re-capture Constantinople from the Turks. A selection of Mass movements and some 30 sacred pieces and 60 songs by Binchois have survived, but sadly, as with most of the composers of this period, this is probably only a small proportion of the music he actually wrote.
Molinet was best known as a writer of poetry and of political treatises that espoused the authorized views of the Court of Burgundy. Yet he was in regular correspondence with composers such as Busnois and Compère, and he clearly also knew Ockeghem—one of his two epitaphs on Ockeghem’s death, Nymphes des bois— was set to music by Josquin Desprez. Tart ara mon cuer is the only surviving song that can definitively be attribute to Molinet, but its lively manner made it one of the most popular songs of the age.
Despite being the unchallenged pre- eminent French composer around 1500 and arguably the greatest single influence on composers throughout the 16th century, tantalizingly little is known of Josquin’s life. He appears to have been mainly in Milan from 1459-1479, was in the Papal chapel 1486-1495, was chapel-master to the Duke of Ferrara 1503-1504, and then spent his remaining years as provost of Notre Dame, Condé. As Martin Luther said of him, he is “the master of the notes, which must express what he desires; on the other hand, other composers must do what the notes dictate.”
Josquin used the most extraordinary array of devices in his music: the melodic use of liturgical chant; use of ‘cantus firmus’ for its symbolic significance; canonic doubling of the ‘tenor’ to give greater prominence and weight to the chant; and the quotation of secular melodies for reasons of associative significance. But it is in his treatment of words that his contribution was most radical—not only did he play a major part in focusing attention on the natural rhythm and inflection of a text, but he also stressed the importance of rhetoric. For example, dramatic changes of texture would automatically draw the listener’s attention to a new phrase and make it clearly audible. It is this submission of compositional procedures to the meaning and requirement of texts that is Josquin’s chief legacy to following generations.
A note on the poetry
Almost all the poems set to music in tonight’s concert use two of the long- established poetic forms of the Middle Ages, namely the Rondeau and the Virelai. In the interests of presenting the widest possible musical selection from the Chansonnier, the Orlando Consort has omitted verses from a few of the songs, but for guidance the characteristics of the poetic forms can be summarised as follows:
The rondeau contains 4 elements which were set in the following musical form: AB AA AB AB. In the poetic form, the first and last AB sections would be identical, while the third A would also repeat the first one. As an example of this, the full form will be heard in La plus grant chière.
The virelai employs a musical structure ABBAA, where the first and last A’s have the same text. As an example of this, the full form will be heard in Ja que li ne s’i attende.