Guillaume de Machaut is arguably the most important poet and composer of the fourteenth century. As a poet, Machaut was responsible for developing and shaping the formes fixes of medieval poetry (the ballade, the virelai and the rondeau); as a composer, he built upon the foundations of the Ars Nova, developing the motet and chanson, as well as composing the first through-composed, cyclic setting of the Ordinary of the Mass.
Born sometime between 1300 and 1302, Machaut was to spend most of his life in the service of rich patrons, enjoying an itinerant lifestyle before finally returning to live in Reims in 1340. The first surviving documentary evidence from 1330 lists him as a clerk in the household of John of Bohemia and suggests that he had been in service since 1323. In 1337 he was instated as a canon of Reims Cathedral. During his later years he enjoyed the patronage of a number of French nobles, including the wife and son of Jean II. In the last decade of his life he spent a great deal of time redacting and completing his oeuvre. He died in Reims in 1377.
The focus of the first half of the concert is the music contained in his long narrative poem, Le Voir Dit. Written between 1363 and 1365, the text has proved a challenge to scholars; its perplexing chronology is the consequence of considerable reworking according to poetic forms and the conventions of courtly love. It tells the “true story” of Machaut’s relationship with one Peronne. The composer-poet was in his sixties, stricken with gout, blind in one eye, while Peronne was a young noblewoman. Whether the courtship involved any physical component is unknown. The work takes the form of lyrics and letters, interspersed with chansons, for a which the Machaut scholar Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has usefully provided a guide, a précis of which the listener may wish to consult (see the following section, Texts and Translations).
For the second half of the concert, The Orlando Consort offers a celebration of the singer-composers of the fifteenth century. We have developed a particularly close bond with these figures, devoting entire CDs to their music (in the case of Dunstaple, Ockeghem, Compère, and Josquin) and featuring others regularly in our concerts. Many of these men were singers themselves, which has always forcibly struck us when we have performed this music; they understood the demands of the individual lines that they write and appreciated the sweet pleasure of consonance and carefully modulated dissonance, balancing intense melodic lines with harmonic development. And, above all, they recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, the defining characteristic of any collective enterprise such as choral singing. We have always felt reassured to be in their hands and, at the risk of sounding too fanciful, their music has encouraged our exploration of the past.
It has been suggested that John Dunstaple was the most influential English composer before Lennon and McCartney. Certainly he was an inspiration to composers like Dufay and Binchois. Dunstaple (the ‘p’ has become corrupted to ‘b’, with the result that he is often knows as Dunstable, the modern name of his home town) enjoyed a long association with John, Duke of Bedford (a younger brother of King Henry V). He was also employed by the widow of King Henry IV (d.1413). After her death and that of King Henry V (d.1422) and John, Duke of Bedford, Dunstaple passed into the service of her last remaining son, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester.
Descendi in ortum meum is a sonorous motet with words from the Song of Songs, a source of inspiration to many composers of this era (evinced by the motets of Brumel, Clemens, and Gombert that feature later in the program). It is a perfect example of the contenance angloise, the term applied by the Continentals to the persuasive use of consonance, particularly thirds and sixths.
Guillaume Dufay was probably born around Cambrai around 1400 and was a chorister at the Cathedral there from 1409-1412. His life in many ways forms the blueprint for Franco-Flemish composers of the fifteenth century. Educated as a choirboy in Cambrai, he lived and worked in Italy for most of his adult life, returning finally to his home city in 1440, where he was a canon at the Cathedral. His various positions saw him in the service of the Malatesta family in Pesaro, as a singer in the papal choir (the most famous musical establishment in Europe), in Savoy and Florence. A prolific writer of chansons, he was also a master of the motet. These two forms come together in the Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae, an early example of the hybrid form known as the motet-chanson. It was written to commemorate the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, though Dufay may not have written it till 1455.
Johannes Ockeghem was one of the most important composers of the generation before Josquin. Unlike Dufay, Ockeghem didn’t travel much, possibly a direct consequence of his stable employment as Treasurer of St. Martin in Tours, a post awarded to him by Charles VII of France in 1459. 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, an image 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.”
Given the way he was acknowledged by other composers, using his chansons as models for their masses, and, in the case of Josquin, De La Rue, Obrecht, and Lupus, composing laments for his death, it’s clear that Ockeghem must have written considerably more than history has bequeathed us. His Ave Maria is a simple but highly effective setting of the Marian text. Intimate and heartfelt, it displays the sometimes abstract Ockeghemian traits of long, interweaving, meditative lines.
Loyset Compère is a name that is not as familiar as those of Dufay and Josquin, partly because it was long thought that he was the more famous Josquin des Prez’s junior. It’s now clear that he was older than his colleague and that it was he who influenced Josquin and not the other way around.
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 had joined the court circle in Burgundy. Soon after, 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. 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.
The Ave Maria dates from the 1470’s. A litany motet based on a Marian text, it cites the names of several Saints associated with France and interpolates a Kyrie Eleison.
In stylistic terms, the music of Antoine Brumel is most immediately reminiscent of the group of composers who worked at the courts of successive Burgundian dukes towards the end of the fifteenth century, but there is no evidence that he ever worked for these particular employers. After early years spent in Chartres, Geneva and Paris, he arrived at the court of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in 1506, thus following in the footsteps of two of the greatest composers of the period, Josquin Desprez and Jacob Obrecht.
Sicut lilium would have been sung as the first antiphon of first vespers for the Feast of the Purity of the Virgin Mary. It is devastatingly simple, a miniature masterpiece.
Josquin des Prez is the undoubted star of his generation, his name used as a kind of designer label, so much so that a great deal of recent scholarship has been devoted to sifting through the works that bear his name to ascertain if he actually wrote them or not. Either way, the body of work that he left – masses, chansons, motets – represent the apogee of late medieval music. His biography is occasionally and frustratingly incomplete. We know that he came from the region near Condé in Northern France and we can assume that he, like so many of his contemporaries, received his training as a choirboy. Subsequently, he was to take up posts for Rene d’Anjou in Aix-en-Provence, in Milan (for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza), in Rome as a member of the Papal Chapel, and in Ferrara, before returning to France to live out his later years as provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l’Escaut. As Martin Luther said, “[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.”
O bone et dulcis Domine Jesu is a small-scale motet, probably an early work, that reveals the fascination that the composer and many of his peers had for patterns and musical architecture. The two lower lines form a double cantus firmus – the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster – while the two top lines declaim a more florid and passionate duet. His In te, Domine, speravi, by contrast, is a contrafactum of a frottola (a forerunner of the madrigal), probably written during his time in Milan.
The final two pieces of the concert are both settings of texts from the Song of Songs. Rich, dense yet with notably economic forces, the closely imitative, euphonious styles represent the fully mature Franco-Flemish motet style. Clemens non Papa (or “Jacobus Clemens who is not the Pope”, as it’s translated) was born around 1510 in the South Netherlands. Best known for his sacred music, he was associated with several institutions, including Bruges Cathedral and the Marian Brotherhood in ’s-Hertogenbosch. He also lived for a while in Leiden, Dordrecht, and Ypres, where he met a violent death in 1555 or 1556. His three-voice Ego flos campi is an extraordinary achievement, a suave and elegant prefiguring of his more famous seven-voice setting using only three voices.
Clemens’ contemporary, Nicolas Gombert, was a pupil of Josquin (for whom he wrote a lament on his master’s death) and is perhaps best known for his disgrace in violating a choirboy and being consigned to row the galleys on the high seas. (He was ultimately pardoned by the Emperor Charles V, when he composed a set of eight Magnificats.) Quam pulchra es is a typically lush arrangement of imitative parts, each section spun out in short, singable phrases, giving way to new points with a logical and yet emotional charge. As Hermann Finck put it, writing in his Practica musica of 1556: “Nicolas Gombert…shows all musicians the path, nay more, the exact way to refinement and the requisite imitative style. [H]is work is rich with full harmonies and imitative counterpoint.”