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Rediscovering Compère

The Orlando Consort first turned its attention to the music of Loyset Compère nearly twenty five years ago, recording the first CD to be dedicated entirely to his music. In the intervening years there has been a major upheaval in our understanding of musical history in the second half of the 15th century. Mainly this concerns the birth date of the most famous composer of the time, Josquin des Prez, once thought to have been born in about 1440 and now believed to be at least ten years younger since it has been discovered that most of the earlier documentation concerned another man entirely who happened to be called ‘Josquin.’ But the same has happened to two other major composers of those years: a gorgeous portrait of Jacob Obrecht suddenly came to light, from the school of Memling (it has been in private hands all these years and there was no information even to suspect its existence), clearly stating his age and thus giving him a birth date in the late 1450s; and a recently discovered payment account in Cambrai makes it clear that Alexander Agricola was born in the late 1450s, not the mid-1440s.

Those ten years half a millennium ago may seem of little significance; but they have their impact on the chronology and comparative chronology of almost all music in those years. Compère, described in earlier history books and dictionaries as a ‘lesser contemporary’ of Josquin, now seems a substantially earlier composer. He certainly appears long before Josquin and Obrecht in the manuscripts that we now have; but whereas that was once considered just an erratic feature of their survival, it now looks like a fair reflection of the historical picture. The upshot, then, is that Compère now seems to be the true originator of the fully imitative style that was continued and perhaps perfected by Josquin. Nobody much likes talking about ‘originators’ these days: it doesn’t necessarily increase his importance. But it does help to create a perspective from which to hear his music. He was a man fascinated by the way motivic materials can be combined, recombined, and shifted around; but he was also a composer who took more risks than many.

Loyset Compère (his first name is a diminutive of ‘Louis’ and therefore has three syllables) was born in about 1445, somewhere near today’s French-Belgian border; but he is first explicitly recorded at the enormous and distinguished Sforza court chapel in Milan from 1474 to 1477. With the public murder of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza on December 26, 1476, the chapel was drastically reduced, and we lose track of Compère for a few years.

But the concluding piece in this concert, the gloriously detailed  Magnificat in the first tone, appears in the first of the ‘Gaffuri codices’ at Milan cathedral alongside several other works of Compère. Even though the manuscript may have been copied ten years later, it must represent works that he composed in his three years at Milan; if so, a fairly high proportion of his known sacred music was composed in those three years. Particularly significant here are the motet cycles that he and Gaspar van Weerbeke wrote, as though arising from a need to compose major musical canvases without relying on the text of the Mass Ordinary.

For the next decade, until he turns up as a singer at the French royal court, we have no direct information about Compère. But three of his songs have texts credited to ‘Bourbon,’ who seems to have been Duke Jean II of Bourbon (1427–1488), himself a substantial patron of music and resident mostly in Moulins, where he was well away from the baleful influence of his brother-in-law, King Louis XI. Documentation of the music at his court is confined to a chapel-list from the late 1440s (with Johannes Ockeghem among its members); but there are very good grounds for believing that in the 1480s he included not only Compère but also Hayne van Ghizeghem among his musicians. One ‘Bourbon’ poem is to be found in Compère’s rondeau setting Ne doibt on prendre quant on donne. The similar style of the rondeau settings Dictes moy toutes voz pensées and Mes pensées ne me lessent une heure suggests that they too may be from the same years.

Those three songs all witness a composer endlessly and resourcefully exploring the possibilities of imitation and motivic manipulation. All are in three voices, occupying three different ranges but with little sense of any one voice being more important than the others. All have passages of considerable floridity in all three voices. All have moments that seem not entirely to work, as though the composer’s contrapuntal ambition was a little beyond his technique (one respect, perhaps, in which he was an innovator, pushing the boundaries). And all are examples of the late flowering of the formes fixes in French song, with music that is almost strophic but has irregular details that make for a far broader musical design: these formes fixes dominated French song for almost two hundred years but began to lose favor in the years around 1480, being almost entirely ignored by Josquin and Obrecht: Compère and Agricola seem to have been their last serious exponents.

The entirely different style of his four-voice songs, with homophonic declamation and freer musical forms, must belong to the following years. As far as the manuscripts allow us to judge, the strophic Ung franc archier would be from the late 1480s. But its basic structure occupies a new world: the top two voices are in canon at the fifth, though the interval after which the lower voice enters changes; and the two lower voices use the same material in a less rigorous way. And its text is also of an entirely different kind—strophic, telling a story that is folksy and more or less incomprehensible, though concerning the activities of a peasant soldier.

Une plaisant fillette ung matin se leva would be from the 1490s, when Compère was apparently at the French royal court. It is part of a genre that arose around that time: again in four voices, and setting a strophic text but through-composed with new music for each stanza. As before, though, the writing shows the fascination with motivic materials that was present in his earlier works. What is different here is that the text is entirely comprehensible and explicit, describing how the scantily clothed young girl meets a man ‘at arms,’ and happily reflects on whether the result will be a girl or a boy: that kind of poem, which became very popular in the 16th century, is almost unknown in the forme fixe generations, when the emphasis was always on propriety. Sometime around 1480, the whole nature of European music changed; and Une plaisant fillette ung matin se leva and the similarly audacious Alons fere nos barbes are in many ways examples of music that simply could not have happened earlier.

The beautiful setting of Ave Maria, with its gradual evolution from a single-note tenor in the early sections to increasing movement and a closing triple-time section, also appears to have likely been composed at the French royal court. The compositional pattern is repeated in the motet Sile fragor, though a study of the text reveals that this piece is not quite as spiritual as might appear at first glance: the concluding triple-time is in fact a fervent call to a post-service glass of wine.

It is harder to date other songs included here. The mysterious Au travail suis sans espoir de confort could well be the earliest of them all, since its two lower voices occupy the same range, in a manner that is very rare after 1470. Its text, and to some extent its music, quotes from three songs by Ockeghem, two by Dufay, and one by Hayne van Ghizeghem—this last probably composed in the 1460s. Presumably this was a jeu d’esprit and hardly intended to be taken seriously; but the various disparate musical materials are—as elsewhere in Compère—united by the use of motivic tricks.

The motet–chanson Plaine d’ennuy – Anima mea combines a sad love-song in the upper voices with a text from the Song of Songs in the bassus. The virelai form of the upper-voice text, the way the chant is used, and many further musical details align it with Josquin’s Que vous ma dame / In pace, very likely dating from the 1470s.

Those proposed datings for Compère’s music lead to an interesting conclusion. For Compère, as for so many other composers of the 15th century, there are far more datable manuscripts for the songs than for the sacred music, and it becomes much easier to trace a composer’s musical career by looking at the songs. Although Compère lived until 1518 there is nothing in his known secular music that is likely to date from after 1505. But that should surprise nobody: if he was indeed born in about 1445 he was in his mid-fifties by the turn of the century. Josquin seems to have continued composing until almost the end of his life in 1521 but, as the newly emerging picture seems to show, he was younger than Compère. Compère’s musical output must have come mainly from the years 1465–1500.


Program notes by David Fallows