Straight from the Heart – The Chansonnier Cordiforme
Ensemble Leones (Els Janssens-Vanmunster (voice), Raitis Gringalis (voice), Matias Spoerry (voice), Elizabeth Rumsey (viola d’arco), Baptiste Romain (vielle, lira de braccio))/Marc Lewon (viola d’arco, gittern, plectrum lute)
rec. Heilig-Kreuz-kirche, Binningen, Switzerland, 6-9 October, 2014
French, Italian and Spanish sung texts, along with German and English translations, can be accessed at the Naxos website.
NAXOS 8.573325 [70:20]

Anyone who knows anything of the history of the Church or who watched the TV series The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End will not be surprised at how dissolute and downright ungodly priests could be or how ready they were to feather their own nests. One such priest, Jean de Monchenu, was the person responsible for having The Chansonnier Cordiforme produced in or around 1475. Despite being an obvious lover of music, considerably knowledgeable about it and with sophisticated tastes, he was described by a chronicler of the time as “an especially treacherous individual, shameful of conduct, unchaste, detestable, dissolute and full of all the vices”. Even excommunicated at one point, he nevertheless became Bishop of Agen and his coat of arms is displayed on the first page of this most remarkable velvet covered heart-shaped manuscript. It gathers together 43 songs of which this disc features 17 (the other two, though contemporary, do not come from the Cordiforme). There is much debate about how these songs were performed—whether unaccompanied or accompanied—and the degree of emphasis upon words over music, so Ensemble Leones felt that it would be best to put the greatest emphasis upon the texts but provide minimum accompaniment to a few to give an example of how they might have sounded that way.

Any rendition of music from so long ago will always give rise to discussion and no amount of research appears to be able to provide definitive answers to exactly how it was played or sung and which and how many instruments were involved where they were included in performance. What is without doubt is that this is a remarkable and exciting disc. It helps give us an insight into what our ancestors in the 15th century were listening to. While it would undoubtedly have added to the cost of production, it is nevertheless a shame that the only way to read the texts is online so that it is impractical to be able to follow the texts while listening. Looking them up online, however, gives rise to an even more astonishing fact, namely that Naxos devotes 7 pages to reproducing them. Even when you take into account that they are printed in three languages, their written form within a page which includes much decoration would have made the Cordiforme with its 43 songs a pretty thick tome, given that it was on parchment, albeit thin. One of the outstanding features of the collection is the quality of the parchment, as well as the incredible feat of producing a heart-shaped book that opens out to reveal four round bends and two sharp angles, something that the expert commissioned to create a reproduction found astoundingly difficult despite all the 21st century aides at his disposal; how unbelievably talented the Cordiforme’s original creators must have been to have produced such a work of art nearly 700 years ago!

The songs are largely concerned with love, loss and chivalry. There are also some other contemporary themes that only serve to prove that there is literally nothing new under the sun. Ben lo sa Dio se sum vergine e pura (The Lord knows well that I am a pure maid) is by a girl lamenting the fact that her natural beauty has given rise to tales being told about her being “of easy virtue”. She sings If nature and God have made me fair that raises the proud suspicion that I may have lost the honour of my inheritance but she insists The Lord knows well that I am a pure maid who hopes to do good since false slander does not change the truth.

All the songs provide a fascinating insight into the concerns of 15th century men and women and into the fact that unsurprisingly they had the same fears, aspirations and troubles as we do today. Naturally, to our modern ears there is a similarity in these songs. Most listeners will find it best to dip into them rather than attempting to listen to the entire disc in one go, which—I venture to suggest—would only be something the particular aficionado would enjoy. That should in no way dissuade the enquiring music lover from giving the disc an opportunity to weave its spell upon them, which it surely does.

Steve Arloff

Track Listing
1. L’autre jour, par ung matin (The other day, on a morning) [4:01]
2. Helas, n’aray je jamais mieulx (Alas, shall I see no improvement?) [3:19]
3. Terriblement suis fortune (I have been most unlucky) [1:57]
Hayne VAN GHIZEGHEM (c. 1445-1476/97)
4. De tous biens plaine est ma masitresse (My mistress has every quality) [7:12]
Gilles BINCHOIS (c. 1400-1460)
5. Comme femme desconfortee (Like a hapless woman) [5:40]
VINCENET (c. 1430-before 1479)
6. Fortune, par ta cruaulté (Fortune, by your cruelty) [3:59]
7. Adieu vous dy l’espoir de ma joneses (I bid you farewell, the hope of my youth) [4:31]
Johannes TINCTORIS (c. 1430/35-1511)
8. Le souvenir (The memory) [1:07]
9. Ben lo sa Dio se sum vergine e pura (The Lord knows well that I am a pure maid) [5:30]
10. Chiara Fontana de belli costume (Limpid fountain of courtly graces) [1:22]
Robert MORTON (c. 1430-1483)
11. N’aray je jamais mieulx que j’ay (Shall I never improve my lot?) [3:32]
Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474)
12. Dona gentile he bella come l’oro (Noble lady and lovely as gold) [4:01]
Johannes TINCTORIS (c. 1430/35-1511)
13. De tous bien playne (Every quality) [1:20]
14. O pelegrina, o luce, o ciara stella (O wonder, o light, o bright star) [1:56]
Johannes OCKEGHEM (c. 1410-1497)
15. Ma bouche rit et ma pensee pleure (My mouth laughs and my mind weeps) [5:52]
16. Ma bouche plaint les pleurs de ma pensee (My mouth laments the tears of my thoughts) [1:56]
17. La gratia de vos, donsella (Your grace, lady) [2:01]
18. Comme ung homme desconforté (Like a dispirited man) [3:22]
19. Perla mya cara, o dulce amore (My dear pearl, o sweet love) [7:44]

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