Chansons d'amour francaises et italiennes des XIVe et XVe siecles - French and Italian love songs of the 14th and 15th centuries - Franzosiche und italienische Liebeslieder des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts
Recording site and date:
Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud [02/1999]
All Music Guide
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D'Amours Loial Servant
Secular music in the fourteenth century was primarily concerned with expressing the joys and sorrows experienced by those dedicated to the God of Love. This was not a new theme, for it had also been central to the art of the troubadours and trouveres. However, the fourteenth century was the era of the Ars Nova, the 'new art' whose theoretical basis was elaborated in about 1320 and which was to hold sway until the first decades of the fifteenth century. The new elements introduced by this system undoubtedly affected every area of musical technique: notation, rhythm, harmony and form. These innovations also paved the way for the development of polyphony, especially in the realm of secular music.
Non-liturgical music consisted either of the long-established genre of the polytextual motet or of the newer form of the polyphonic chanson. While the former was to die out in the next century, the latter, which grew out of the monodic song of the troubadours and trouveres, was destined to flourish until the end of the sixteenth century.
The motet The motet, which had first emerged in the thirteenth century, allowed for the simultaneous performance of more than one text. Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377) continued to write motets in French at a time when his contemporaries and successors were switching over to Latin texts. The motets included here offer a good example of Machaut's use of different texts to provide a many-voiced commentary on a basic poetic idea. In Qui es promesses / Ha! Fortune, for instance, the two upper voices discourse at great length on the fickleness of Fortune, while the lower voice intones the Latin maxim 'Et non est qui adjuvet' (There is no one who might help me). The anonymous virelai-motet Ma tre dol rosignol joly / Aluette / Rosignolin has a similar unity of concept; written a century and a half before the descriptive chansons of Janequin, this whimsically playful and virtuoso piece uses onomatopoeia ('oci, oci', 'liry', 'tantiny') to suggest birdsong.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the motet, even when set to a Latin text, was still a secular genre, and was often used to mark a historic event or to pay homage to an important figure. Johannes Ciconia (c1370?-1412), a highly original composer and native of Liege who became the first of his compatriots to settle in Italy, addressed his patron Francesco Zabarella in extremely flattering terms in the motet Doctorum principem / Melodia suavissima / Vir mitis. On 3 January 1406, Zabarella, in his capacity as Archpriest of Padua Cathedral, was given the task of presenting the emblems of the city to the Doge of Venice in front of Saint Mark's Basilica after Padua's annexation by Venice. In Ciconia's motet, which pays tribute to Zabarella's role in the negotiations with Venice, the transparent writing ensures that both the texts sung by the upper voices are clearly heard. The work features descending melodic sequences, contrasts between rapid syllabic writing and long melismas, passages of hocket, and brief points of imitation as well as their stylistic opposite: homophonic chordal passages (as in the two exclamations 'O Franscisce Zabarelle').
The polyphonic texture of the motet was the result of the superimposition of newly-composed melodies on a pre-existing musical fragment (often derived from a sacred work) sung by the lowest voice, which was known as the 'tenor' irrespective of its actual register. The tenor part consisted of the repetition of a rhythmic unit (the talea) which lasted for several bars and which, although it might not be apparent to the ear, served to define the various sections of the piece. The strict isorhythmic construction of the tenor enabled the composers of the Ars Nova to develop the motet into a genre of some significance. The two upper voices (the duplum and the triplum) were written in a free style, though often the return of the talea was heralded by a repeated rhythmic motif, which with Machaut could take the form of an extended syncopated passage. An even more remarkable preparation for the return of the talea occurs in the anonymous motet Uamoureuse flour d'este / En l'estat d'amere tristour / Sicut fenum ami, where the triplum part consists of a sequence of repeated notes moving in descending thirds (this can be heard at the words 'tres virtueusement', 'dougour, colour et biaute', 'la tres puissant virtu d'amours', 'de toute sainte prive', 'fait souffrir tel torment' and 'humilite'). In the hybrid genre of the virelai-motet, the fundamental role of the tenor in the polyphonic construction is more clearly discernible. In Ma tre dol rosignol, the lower voice has a thrice-repeated refrain consisting of an ostinato probably derived from the folksong known as Rosignolin.
The polyphonic chanson
During the fourteenth century, the lyrical tradition in the western world underwent a radical transformation: amorous sentiments, which are by their very nature individual in origin, could from now on be expressed by more than one voice simultaneously. The invention of the polyphonic chanson in France is generally attributed to Guillaume de Machaut, who as the last of the trouveres succeeded in maintaining a balance between the demands of poetry and a polyphonic musical texture. He placed the text in the upper voice (the cantus) and provided it with an accompaniment for two lower parts in the same register (the tenor and contratenor); this accompaniment could either be played by instruments or 'vocalised' - sung without words, on vowel sounds. This new style of writing was peculiar to the chanson and was taken up by Machaut's contemporaries (such as Pierre des Molins in his De ce quefoulpense souvent remaynt) and his successors.
In fact, a whole generation of French and Italian composers who reached artistic maturity between 1380 and 1415 was influenced by the music of Machaut, even if in their own works these composers tended towards the mannerist style normally referred to as the Ars Subtilior (the 'more subtle art'). An ever-increasing complexity, one which exploited to the full the possibilities of musical notation - frequent changes of metre, the superimposition of duplets and triplets, syncopations, hockets - brought about the rhythmic independence of the voices. This autonomy can be seen at its best in the anonymous ballade Se vrai secours, in which the cantus part (here performed by flute and voice), tenor (vihuela) and contratenor (harp) are written in different metres from the very outset. Elsewhere, for example in the works of the Italian Anthonello de Caserta (Amour m'a le cuer mis), the presentation of the text is broken up by long melismas on certain syllables. The quest for a subtle equilibrium can also be heard in the canonic virelai La harpe de melodie by Jacob de Senleches (fl. 1378-1395); here, two virtuoso cantus parts unfold in strict imitation over an even-paced tenor.
The Florentine organist Francesco Landini (c 1325-1397) was the best-known and most prolific Italian composer of the Ars Nova. His secular output consists of more than 150 pieces, of which 141 are ballate. This simple genre, which takes the form of refrain-couplet-refrain, is the equivalent of the French virelai; as with the virelai, the main function of the ballata was to accompany dancing. Boccaccio tells of how two young girls performed a dance to the accompaniment of a ballata by Landini at the end of one of the evenings described in the Decameron (1353). The practical origins of the form are clearly apparent in its melodic simplicity and emphasis on a strict beat (as can be heard in Amor c'al tuo sugetto); these characteristics stand in stark contrast to the extreme refinement of the French ballade.
Similarly, while the French chanson preferred to highlight the upper voice, the ideal for the trecento Italian chanson consisted of a vocal duo - cantus and tenor - in which each part is a free setting of the text; these two voices might occasionally be joined by a third part, the contratenor (as in Questa fanciull' amor). The contratenor did not have to be composed at the same time as the other parts, and could be added later - or replaced - by another composer; thus Matteo da Perugia (died c1418) wrote a new contratenor for the two-part ballata Ligiadra donna by his contemporary Johannes Ciconia.
Judging from the iconographic and literary sources of the Middle Ages, instruments were ubiquitous in secular music. They were never indicated in musical notation, for the players (who always performed from memory) would simply double or replace the vocal parts. Musicians would use so-called 'bas' (soft-sounding) instruments to accompany the singing of chansons: string instruments such as the harp, cittern, vihuela, psaltery and rebec, and the gentler wind instruments, mainly those belonging to the extensive flute family.
Sources specifying the use of instruments are rare and tend to date from a later period. The repertory contained in them confirms the extent to which instrumental music grew out of vocal music. The Faenza codex,2 which was copied in northern Italy round about the second decade of the fifteenth century, is made up of a series of keyboard intabulations of French and Italian polyphonic music. It was very rare for the copyist to give the titles of the original works or their composers, but those vocal models which have been identified come from a wide cross-section of French and Italian music stretching from Guillaume de Machaut to Antonio Zacara (fl c1390-c1415). The principle of 'diminution' (the virtuoso ornamentation of the cantus part), was applied to some of the best-known chansons (represented here by the anonymous ballade A discort and by Machaut's Honte, paour); these belong to the few examples to have survived in writing and are an invaluable guide to contemporary practices in the art of improvisation.
-Isabelle Ragnard (translation: Paula Kennedy)