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Figures of Harmony - Songs of Codex Chantilly c.1390
Ferrara Ensemble/Crawford Young
rec. Church of St. Germanus, Seewen (Soleure), 1994-2009
ARCANA A382 [4 CDs: 4:19:41]

These four discs, originally released separately on the Arcana label, cover about forty of the pieces found in the Codex Chantilly compiled c.1390 -1400. The full Codex as it now stands comprises 13 Latin motets and 97 songs almost exclusively French. They are in a musical style that has come to be known as the ‘ars subtilior’ for which David Munrow coined the phrase ‘the 14th century avant-garde’. It offers some of the most complex music ever penned which, one hundred ago, was thought unperformable. There are even two pieces in famous graphic notation. Alongside the majority of French composers we find a few from Northern Italy who had connections with French culture.

The generation after Machaut took that composer's burgeoning rhythmical experiments to great extremes. However, by c.1420, about the time of Dufay’s early maturity, musical language had simplified and melody and lyrical lines took precedence over rhythmic experimentation. This had been the period of the papal schism and many of the composers are associated with Avignon where no expense was spared in securing the best and most up to date composers, performers and fashions.

CD 1 Balades A III Chans [58.20]
TREBOR Helas pitié enviers moy dort si fort [5.58]; Si Alexandre et Hector fussent en vie [12.52]
Baude CORDIER Tout par compas suy composés [2.05]
Matteo da PERUGIA Rondeau-Refrain (instrumental) [1.46]; Pres du soloil deduissant s’esbanoye [9.54]
Antonio da CIVIDALE Io vegio per stasone (instrumental) [2.26]
GRIMACE Se Zephirus, Phebus et leur lignie [4.41]
ANON Adieu vous di, tres doulce compaynie [3.20]; Lamech Judith et Rachel de plourer [3.12]; Le mont Aon de Thrace, doulz pals [11.02]

This first came out in 1995. The original cover advertised the work of one Johan Robert, which puzzled me at first, but he is otherwise known as Trebor. This is the sort of game these men played, hiding their identity behind homonyms or palindromes. Anyway for this re-issue ‘Trebor’ has been re-instated and two of his pieces are offered here including the extraordinary Se Alixandre et Hector - words alluding to the Burgundian Court and the Count of Foix-Gaston Phebus “If Alexander and Hector were still alive with all their courage and daring ... Pray for him who peacefully guards the land and crops of Foix …”

Froissart says that the Duke de Berry was ‘rapacious and … spent much of his money on petty things’, perhaps, by implication, music and the arts. I actually have a fine reproduction in book form of the Duke’s famously lavish ‘Book of Hours’, which I found in a stuffy Caen bookshop. There's not just Phebus. One should not forget the French Royal court of Charles VI, nephew of the Duke and the Avignon papacy, much praised in many a ballade.

It was the fixed form of the Ballade cultivated by Machaut which then took centre-stage. As can be heard this added further to the intellectual atmosphere of the (anonymous) texts. These often allegorised stories and characters from Roman and Greek mythology or the Old Testament or Arthurian Romance. This will become even more apparent as we look at each disc. However all of the figures referred to fit into the ‘amour courtois’ theory of loving from a distance or even loving one who has died. All of these facets are represented on this first disc - for example in Grimace’s Se Zephirus “Thus I beg love and ask for kindness/that she persuade pity”.

When recorded in the 1970s and for that matter at times during the 1980s this repertoire rarely sounded easy. However, with these performances and especially in the contralto Lena Susanne Norin a wilful strangeness comes across with astonishing naturalness. Norin's singing can be described as luscious. The tempi are pitched just right so that the extraordinary harmonies have time to breathe but not to jar or dwell for too long. On the page the music looks fierce but this ensemble tame it and make it beautiful, warm and glowing. The instruments include viola d’arco, lute and harp and for two un-texted pieces these instruments take centre-stage.

Another point about this CD and the next three is that instead of just recording a verse or two of a chanson or ballade, to give us ‘a taste’, the Ferrara Ensemble recorded the entire song with all verses. This restores the ballade’s proper length, weight and complexity. That is why there are only ten pieces on this CD supplemented by some shorter items.

This disc made an impressive start to my own knowledge of what the Ferrara Ensemble could achieve and they continued at this level across the remaining discs in this set.

CD 2 Fleurs de Vertus [73.20]
Refinement in Songs of the Late Gothic

Johannes SUZOY Pictagoras Jabol et Orpheus [7.16]
SOLAGE S’aincy estoit que ne feust la noblesce [10.57]; Très gentil cuer (instrumental) [3.51]
Gacian REYNEAU Va t’en mon cuer aveuc mes yeux [4.11]
TREBOR Se July Cesar, Rolant et roy Artus [10.44]; En seumeillant m’avint une vesion [8.03]
Johannes ALANUS Sub Arturo plebs vallata/Fons citharizancium/In omnen terram exivit (instrumental) [4.40]
Philipoctus de CASERTA Par les bons Gedeon et Sanson delivré [7.00]
ANON En Albion da fluns environée [3.33]; Bobik blazen (instrumental) [1.39]

This disc came out the year after the first. Again we encounter Trebor but this time there's an introduction to Johannes Alanus (or Aleyn) who was probably a minor canon at St. Paul’s who died in 1419. He was an Englishman and his piece Sub Arturo plebs is from the ‘Old Hall Manuscript’. Here it is played instrumentally but it has a text listing the leading musicians of the day. The other great figure from this period was Philipoctus de Caserta, eight of whose pieces are extant. He was one of the most extreme composers in the Chantilly Codex.

The Ferrara Ensemble subtitled this disc ‘A Refinement in songs of the late Gothic’ and the most refined pieces are probably those by Solage who has since had a CD devoted completely to his work by Gothic Voices (The Unknown Lover Avie AV2089).

For this, their second recording, a few changes have been made. The group now consists of nine musicians as opposed to seven. Also a fourth voice, that of the tenor Eric Mentzel has been added. The CD has a longer playing time. Lena Susanne Norin, still on top form is less high profile and the instrumental works (three pieces) seem to have more direction and clarity. These include the curious little Bobik blazen, which may originate from Slovakia.

It's interesting that the opening ballade Pictagoras, Jabol et Orpheus by Suzoy — known only for three pieces — is a song about the intellectual growth of music’s origins. It is here recorded in full. When I first encountered it on a recording by The Medieval Ensemble of London (Ce Diabolic Chant, Decca 475 9119) it was half this length. Again now we have the full work and more especially the full text which makes more complete sense.

One of the curiosities of the Chantilly manuscript is Gacien Reyneau’s Va t’en, mon cuer. It has also been recorded, but with a little more vitality, by Gothic Voices on Hyperion ‘The Garden of Zephirus’ (CDA66144 now CDH55289). The music in this case is homophonic and removes most rhythmic challenges in favour of a memorable and attractive melody. It feels to me to be of a date around 1420 — the composer lived on until 1429 — and indeed dating the codex is not as cut and dried as I have implied. Perhaps, like the Old Hall manuscript it was compiled over a much longer period than originally thought.

Again, as with the first disc, there is a song in praise of Gaston Phebus (d.1391) with the insignia built in Phebus avaunt, comparing him with three great men of the past. This time it's by Trebol: Se July Cesar, Rolant et roy Artus. For me this is rather an expressionless and dull performance. There is a ballade in praise of Pope Clement VII of Avignon (1378-94) by Philipoctus: Par les bons Gedeon et Samson. This exclaims that the schism is causing ‘rage and division” and that the way “of truth lies only with the pope who is called Clement”.

It can be seen that the Codex, as represented on this disc, could well have pieces from as early as 1380 right into the early years of the 15th century.

CD 3 En Doulz Chastel De Pavia [60.35]
Music at the court of Gian Galeazzo Visconti c.1400
Philipoctus de CASERTA De ma doulour [8.41]; En remirant [10.54]; Et attendant souffrir [9.11]
Johannes CICONIA La fiamma del to amor (instrumental) [2.32]; Le ray au soleyl [1.30]; Sus une fontayne [8.16]
Jacob SENLECHES La harpe de mélodie [4.12]
ANON Istanpitta Isabella (instrumental) [7.19]; Chanconeta tedescha tenor (instrumental) [2.26]; Constantia [3.18]; Chanconeta tedescha tenor (instrumental) [2.21]

As you look through the list of composers associated with Gian Visconti you may well be struck by their shared association with Avignon and Gaston Febus, Count of Foix. These pieces are also to be found in the Chantilly manuscript.

The Visconti family lived in Pavia and allowed the Italian composers in the family's circle of influence to indulge in musical language that is post-Machaut. The notes tell us that it is “assumed that Philipoctus de Caserta resided there during the 1370s and 80s”. The first line of his ballade Et attendant souffrir mestuet contains the motto of Gian Galeazzo’s uncle, Bernabo Visconti: ‘suffrir mestuet’ (I must suffer). It's interesting that Ciconia, also Italian, knew the song. Ciconia's ballade Sus une fontayne is build around it and also uses some of its melodic material.

This third recording by the Ferrara Ensemble came out in 1998. I missed it first time around and am delighted to be acquainted with it now. It varies in that the instrumentalists, instead of simply being given vocal works are also to be heard in what one might almost call “proper “instrumental pieces. Examples include the Istanpitta Isabella (a dance form) and Constantia - the latter an untexted variant of a now lost original found in the Faenza manuscript. The viola d’arco, played with grace and elegance by Randall Cook, carries the melodic interest in two of these pieces.

The disc opens with a beautiful a cappella rendition of Philipoctus’ De ma doulour - a typical text of courtly love where the lady is beyond the poet's reach. However the performance of La harpe de mélodie does not ring true for me. The very flexible texted line is actually a canon and consequently I feel is better off with two voices over the lower line — normally played instrumentally on a harp (as here). Crawford Young has opted to play the canonic part on a lute. The edition also seems not to allow the rhythms enough energy. I still think that the version on the Decca CD ‘Ce Diabolic Chant’ mentioned above is unbeatable. This is a problematic piece having been notated, famously, within a drawing of a harp on no fewer than nine lines. The Burgundian Jacob de Senleches is credited with just three virelais and three ballades.

Perhaps the best represented composer of this period in various manuscripts is Johannes Ciconia. His Sus une fontayne and Le ray au soleyl aspire towards patronage of the Visconti family whose heraldic devices, fountain, radiant sun, turtledove and the motto ‘a bon droyt’, are referred to in the texts.

CD 4 Corps Femenin [67.46]
Duke John of Berry’s Lyrical Avant-Garde
RODERICUS Angelorum psalat tripudium [5.47]
ANON Principio di vertu [6.43]; Medee fu en amer veritable [6.16]; Passerose flours excellente [instrumental) [0.58]
Jacob de SENLECHES Fuions de ci fuions povre compaigne [9.13]; Tel me voit et me regarde [3.46]; Corps femenin par vertu du nature (instrumental) [3.04]
GUIDO Or voit tout en aventure (instrumental) [2.42]
TREBOR Passerose de beauté la noble flour [9.37]; Quant joyne cuer en may est amoureux [8.08]
SOLAGE Corps femenin par vertu du nature [3:04]; Calextone qui fut dame darouse [3.26]
Magister EGIDIUS AUGUSTINUS Roses et lis ay veu en une flour [8.06]

It too more than ten years for the fourth disc in this series to appear. It explores the Ars Subtilior with the Ferrara Ensemble concentrating on the figure of the Duke of Berry and bringing into focus his voracious musical obsessions. The group is much enlarged: there are now eleven musicians including four voices. It's interesting that during his more than fifty years of leadership Jean Duc de Berry promoted Machaut of whom he was admirer and friend. He then advocated the ars subtilior composers on which this disc concentrates on and finally the post-1400 composers who leaned towards the ‘new simplicity’.

The title of this disc comes from a piece by Solage; his name may mean joy and/or solace. Solage is the most represented composer in the Chantilly Manuscript and his music is here played instrumentally. The disc’s emphasis is on feminine beauty as represented in the poetry and in the illustration reproduced on the box: two naked young women who have just bathed. The original CD, recorded in 2000, had an even more lovely cover of naked dancing girls. It’s a pity that the text of Corps Feminin is not sung so is not printed: "The female body is a gift from nature so wondrously shaped and fashioned". This piece may have been composed for the wedding of Catherine sister of Charles VI of France (an especially beautiful woman) who married Jean de Berry in 1386. She was his second wife. The first letters of each line of text being C(orps), A (droit devis), T(ant), H(umble) and so on to spell out her name. I mention this because other songs on the CD seem also to be wedding gifts. The other contenders are Roses et lis ay veu en une flour by Magister Egidius and also Trebor’s Passerose de beauté la noble flour which includes the lines “in her well built body, straight as lace and arrow/whoever sees her is filled with joy”.

The fascinating booklet notes, again by Crawford Young, suggest ways in which many of these composers are interconnected and clearly knew each other. They even used similar notation. There are, in the manuscripts, different colourings and ligatures which make the realisation of these works an intellectual challenge. This also means that differing interpretations can be acceptable.

As for how the music was at first received, it must not be assumed that the original audience was completely in sympathy with the language. This was new music. Probably it was considered a good thing to be involved with but it would have seemed complex to them ... as it does to us. I first came to this music as a as a youngster who loved the most modern of 20th century music. I have found it fascinating ever since. Even so, the ease of performances here demonstrated, goes a long way towards aiding a feeling of natural flow with even phrasing and pure intonation.

As an introduction to this extraordinary music this box set is generally highly suitable. If you are new to it I would draw your attention to the Project Ars Nova and their 1989 disc (NA 021 CD) or the above discs by Gothic Voices and the Medieval Ensemble of London if you fancied a less demanding entry-point.

Documentation is excellent and all texts are given and well translated with photos and manuscript reproductions.

Gary Higginson


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