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The Burgundian school

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 9

BinchoisJoye: Les plaintes de Gilles de Bins dit Binchois”. Graindelavoix/Björn Schmelzer. Glossa (link)

Although the dukes of Burgundy were nominally vassals of the French king, in the late 14th and 15th centuries they grew in power thanks to useful marriages and land acquisitions, taking advantage also of France’s difficulties during the Hundred Years War. When Philip the Good became duke in 1419 he inherited not just part of northeastern France but also Flanders and its important commercial centers; over the course of his reign, he added much of the rest of the Low Countries and brought Burgundy to the height of its power. Philip was a great patron of the arts: he appointed the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to his court, and his chapel of musicians was among the finest in Europe. Because Philip lived mostly in his northern possessions rather than in Dijon, most of his musicians came from Flanders and the Low Countries. One such musician was Gilles de Bins, known as Gilles Binchois, born probably in Mons around 1400, who joined Philip’s chapel in the 1420s, remaining there until 1453 (he died in 1460). He’s best known today for his secular French chansons; the dukes of Burgundy were carrying on the medieval courtly tradition, and Binchois’s chansons are on the continuum stretching back through Machaut to the trouvères. Binchois seems to have been particularly keen on composing by conventional rules: most of his chansons are in rondeau form, with four- or five-line stanzas and two-line refrains, most have lines of eight syllables, and almost all are in triple metre. What made Binchois stand out among his contemporaries were his graceful melodies, combined with a lack of rhythmic complexity. This simple and elegant music seems to lend itself to melancholic expression, as exemplified by Graindelavoix’s collection of plaintes, or laments. It seems odd to title such an album “Joye”—which comes from Johannes Ockeghem’s description of Binchois as “the father of joy” in his lament on the death of Binchois, included on the disc—but Björn Schmelzer explains that the “joy” in question is a more profound emotion that relates to “singing out one’s sadness”: a 15th-century form of the blues, if you like.

Dufay O gemma luxDufay: “O gemma, lux”. Huelgas-Ensemble/Paul van Nevel. Harmonia Mundi (link)

Guillaume Dufay is widely regarded as the greatest composer of the Burgundian school. Born around 1397, he became a choirboy at the cathedral of Cambrai, where he received both musical and religious training. Dufay had several periods of employment in Italy: he appears to have worked under the Malatesta family in Rimini and/or Pesaro between 1420 and 1426, and he was a singer in the papal choir in Rome from 1428 to 1433; he was also associated with the dukes of Savoy and the Este family in Ferrara. This was yet another troubled time for the papacy: when Dufay returned to the service of Pope Eugene IV in 1435, the pope was in Florence, having fled Rome due to political turbulence; then in 1439, Eugene was formally deposed and replaced by Dufay’s previous employer, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy (whom history now calls an anti-pope). It’s not surprising that Dufay left the scene and returned to Cambrai, having already been made a canon of the cathedral in 1436; he returned to Savoy in the 1450s, after the papal crisis had ended, and retired back to Cambrai in 1458, by now an eminent figure occasionally visited by other composers. He died in 1474. Some of Dufay’s travels can be traced in the Huelgas-Ensemble’s collection of all 13 of his extant isorhythmic motets. Motets of this now long-established style had become associated with ceremonial occasions, as is clear from some examples: Vasilissa ergo gaude was composed in 1420 for a feast in honour of Cleofe Malatesta before her marriage to the brother of the Byzantine emperor; Supremum est mortalibus bonum marks a treaty of 1433 between Pope Eugene and the Holy Roman Emperor; and Nuper rosarum flores was sung at the consecration of the cathedral in Florence in 1436, when Brunelleschi’s dome was completed.

Dufay Flos FlorumDufay: “Flos florum”. Ensemble Musica Nova. Zig-Zag Territoires (link)

Dufay’s isorhythmic motets represent the last such works, and the move away from isorhythm represents a major shift in composition. In an isorhythmic motet, the composer was creating a complex musical structure based on the durations of the different sections and on their relationships. These structures themselves could be highly symbolic; for example, Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores possesses certain durational ratios that correspond to the biblically reported dimensions of the temple of Solomon. In short, isorhythm is all about numbers. In Italy, however, composers had not been especially interested in isorhythmic motets, preferring non-isorhythmic polyphonic forms such as madrigals. With Dufay and various northern contemporaries spending many years in Italy, it’s unsurprising that they should make use of local styles, and in the evolution of the motet we see not just the disappearance of isorhythm but also a decline in the importance of the tenor voice (upon which the isorhythmic motet depended for its structual foundation), the use of single rather than multiple texts, the use of imitation among voices, and an important role for melody in the creation of the structure. In short, what we see in the first half of the 15th century is a shift from numbers to melody. There was also at the time a reconsideration of the purpose of the motet. The form had originally developed as sacred music to be sung in particular liturgical contexts, but over the years it had drifted somewhat from this purpose. Now, perhaps influenced by practices in England, where there seems to have been less drift, composers were returning the motet to devotional use, with particular emphasis on texts relating to the Virgin Mary. Examples of such pieces can be heard on Ensemble Musica Nova’s album, along with some hymns and antiphons, genres which generally involved the fairly straightforward harmonisation of an existing chant. A form of harmonisation known as fauxbourdon begins to be seen in some works of Dufay from the 1430s, where the chant is sung in the uppermost voice, doubled a fourth below, and with a third voice singing mostly in parallel sixths (which, we saw in the last chapter, was a stylistic feature of English polyphony). Although fauxbourdon tended to be confined to simpler chant settings, its general features were a major part of the overall Burgundian style of three-part composition, with the two higher voices coupled together in terms of melody and rhythm, producing a more homogenous texture.

Missa CaputMissa Caput. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)

In terms of the type of music being composed, the most significant development during the Burgundian period was the appearance of the cyclic mass. We’ve already seen that Machaut and various anonymous composers of the 14th century had produced complete settings of the Mass Ordinary, but the Burgundians’ inspiration for masses in which all the movements were musically connected appears to have come from England. Complete mass settings in which the movements employ a tenor based on a particular pre-existing chant (referred to as the cantus firmus, or “fixed song”) were composed by Leonel Power and (possibly) John Dunstable, but the crucial work in the development of the cyclic mass is an anonymous composition from around 1440. The Missa Caput derives its name from the fact that in each of the five movements the tenor is based on the hundred-note-long melisma sung to the first syllable of the word caput (meaning “head”) in the antiphon Venit ad Petrum. This antiphon, part of the Sarum rite, pertains to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and was sung on the Thursday before Easter, though whether this is relevant to the circumstances of the mass’s composition is unknown. Importantly, the Missa Caput is written for four rather than three voices, the novelty here being the addition of another voice below the tenor, one that was freely composed rather than linked to the tenor, which, because of the way it could affect harmony, prompted a new way of thinking about chord progressions and cadences that ultimately led to the idea of tonality. This low fourth voice was termed the contratenor bassus, to distinguish from the contratenor voice above the tenor, which became the contratenor altus; meanwhile, the top voice, previously called the cantus or triplum, became the superius. You can easily see how we have ended up with the soprano – alto – tenor – bass nomenclature. The Missa Caput made its way around Europe in manuscript form and proved such an inspiration that two composers of different generations—Johannes Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht—created their own masses using the same cantus firmus (in fact, the original Missa Caput was long thought to be a composition by Dufay).

Busnois & DomartoBusnois: Missa L’homme armé; Domarto: Missa Spiritus almus. Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman. Hyperion (link)

It wasn’t long before cantus firmus masses moved away from reliance on plainchant and began to employ other sacred and secular tunes. In the latter category, the most popular source of a cantus firmus was the song L’homme armé (“The armed man”): more than forty masses that use its tune are known. It has just a single verse, translated as “The armed man must be feared / It has been proclaimed everywhere / That everyone should arm himself / In an iron shirt of mail”. The author of and inspiration for the song are unknown, though it might not be coincidence that it became popular in the period when Europe was shocked by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. That was in 1453; the following year, Philip the Good of Burgundy held the legendary Feast of the Pheasant to rally support for a crusade. Here, we’re told, the entertainment included an elephant carrying a woman who sang a lament for Constantinople, and a giant pie within which (uncooked) were 28 musicians. No crusade ever materialised. In 1467, Philip the Good was succeeded by his son Charles the Bold, who was particularly associated with L’homme armé: an anonymous set of six masses based on the song is dedicated to him, and the most popular Missa L’homme armé of the time was composed by Antoine Busnois (or Busnoys), who was employed in Charles’s chapel. On the Binchois Consort’s disc, Busnois’s mass is coupled with a mass by Petrus de Domarto, thought to be among the earliest cantus firmus masses produced in continental Europe. Despite an apparently high reputation in his lifetime, little is known of Domarto today—not the first time in this series where a patchy historical record might give us pause. As for Charles the Bold, he became embroiled in a series of conflicts and was killed at the Battle of Nancy in 1477; Busnois and the other musicians of his chapel had accompanied him on previous campaigns, but they seem to have avoided this one. Charles’s death marked the end of Burgundy as a power, but the dominance of Flemish and French composers continued.

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères (8tracks mix)
Part 4. Troubadour influences (8tracks mix)
Part 5. The 13th-century motet (8tracks mix)
Part 6. Ars nova (8tracks mix)
Part 7. Trecento Italy (8tracks mix)
Part 8. Medieval England (8tracks mix)

Stephen J. Nereffid lives near Dublin, Ireland, and spends far too much time listening to classical music.
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