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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.

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