Guillaume Dufay is one of the key representatives of the French musical genius. His masterful work is a comprehensive and brilliant apotheosis of the middle ages.
During his long career, the master from Cambrai gave us not only an impressive series of motets and masses, but also more than 80 profane songs, jems of melodic, rhythmic and poetic creativity.
These small masterpieces show extreme refinement and an extraordinary command of counterpoint. Whatever the form, ballad, rondeau, bergerette or motet-song, the expression remains surprisingly natural and exquisitely simple.
Most of these songs hail lightness of mind, joy, optimism, modestly restrained amorous pleasure, though some are melancholic or dwell on more austere feelings.
As lovely a program of the secular songs of the great French Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay as there has ever been, this 2007 disc by the delightfully named Diabolus in Musica gives first-time listeners an attractive introduction to his art and long-time listeners a wonderfully new set of performances to cherish. Of Dufay's 80 songs, the French ensemble led by Antoine Guerber has chosen 19 and grouped them according to topic: Songs of Sorrow and Grief, Songs in Praise of Noblemen, Love Songs, and Songs of Joy and Celebration. Within each set, Guerber mixes various song types from rondeau to bergerette, various groups of singers from solo to trio, and even interpolates the occasional instrumental solo. Balanced between four singers - a soprano, two altos, and a tenor - and four instrumentalists - a guitar, two violins, and a clavicytherium (a sort of vertical harpsichord) - Diabolus in Musica performs these songs as if the musicians had been born performing them. One never senses artificiality or superficiality, but rather a naturalness and authenticity that defy time and space. While the seeming austerity of the music may at first dissuade fans of later songs by, say, Schubert or Gershwin, the intrinsic beauty of the music and the universality of the emotions may ultimately win over even the most recalcitrant.
Recorded in La Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin - a fine-sounding name for a converted barn with surprisingly splendid acoustics - the sound here is clear and true.
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The corpus of secular songs by Du Fay comprises over eighty pieces, mostly for three voices, but with some for four. Nearly all of them are cast in one of the formes fixes, poetic and musical structures that had been very popular since the thirteenth or fourteenth century: almost two-thirds of them are rondeaux and there are also ballades (a genre that was to become obsolete after the 1430s) and a few bergerettes (which are in fact virelais containing only a single stanza; the true virelai, a favourite of Guillaume de Machaut, was no longer in vogue at the beginning of the fifteenth century). The three voices habitually used for each song are the tenor (the fundamental voice-part), the superius (the main voice, which always carries the text and is shown to advantage by the tenor) and the contratenor (which adds colour to the counterpoint and frequently boosts the rhythm). This song repertoire clearly breaks with the intellectual complexities of the Ars Subtilior that had still been in vogue at the end of the fourteenth century. Guillaume Du Fay and his contemporaries decided to clarify and simplify the melodic and rhythmic structures of the songs. Du Fay showed extraordinary skill in doing so, as well as a marvellous flair for variety. In the most natural way he used every means at his disposal - imitation, canon, rhythm, vocal range, different melodic styles, cadences, voice crossing - to serve his infallible contrapuntal instinct. In the whole of his impressive output, Du Fay never repeats himself; each song shows a different aspect of his accomplishment; he found a solution to every compositional problem that presented itself to his fertile mind. His use of rhythm in particular is fascinating in its combination of naturalness, variety and flexibility.
The themes approached are very diverse and they differ clearly according to the period when the songs were written. His early works are usually cheerful, joyous optimistic and delightfully convivial. Many songs celebrate the New Year or the arrival of spring (May Day), which was something quite new in those early years of the fifteenth century. The works of the first period are expressive, accessible, with a great deal of melodic and rhythmic variety, and they show an openly happy attitude that contrasts with the more traditional introspection of most of Du Fay's contemporaries, including his friend Gilles Binchois. It is easy to understand why his songs were such an immediate success, causing noble patrons to open wide their doors to him. His later secular works, on the other hand, although they are just as brilliant, are more serious, less demonstrative, and most of them adopt a more traditional courtly atmosphere. Du Fay shows his accomplishment with very limited means and with supreme refinement: a sort of fifteenth-centiiry 'classicism'. Alejandro Planchart puts the seriousness of Du Fay's later works down to his feelings of bitterness as he grew older, his impression that his clerical career had not brought him the success that he felt his musical talents deserved. Indeed, although he was rich and famous by the time he died, he had been granted few prebends or benefices; moreover, his imbroglio with the chapter of St Donatien in Bruges had been both tiresome and frustrating to him.
Du Fay always set texts with great care, paying particular heed to their poetic structure. The medieval idea that the music did not necessarily have to follow the accentuation of the text very closely was still prevalent at that time, but Du Fay was clearly very aware of the poetic and prosodic qualities of the texts he set, and also of their expressive qualities and musical potential. So their subjects, whether happy or sad, humorous or laudatory, influenced his music, which is another feature that distinguishes him from his predecessors and contemporaries. Only eight of his songs are in Italian, and they date from the beginning of his career; he preferred to use French texts (French was probably his mother tongue). French of that time was no longer the langue d'oil of the trouveres, but rather what philologists refer to as Middle French. Some of the poems he set as songs were written by authors who were well known at that time - Petrarch, Le Rousselet, Le Cadet d'Albret, Perinet - but it is very likely that he wrote many of them himself; indeed, he is known to have been very interested in poetry. And Martin Le Franc, author of the poem Champion des Dames and of Les Eglogues, a work now lost, of which Du Fay possessed a copy, may have been asked to make a contribution when the two artists met. Nevertheless the texts still pose a problem, especially since most of them have come down to us through manuscripts copied in Italy, where some of the scribes were either unfamiliar with the subtleties of the French language or had no understanding at all of the text they were copying.
In the fifteenth century the great courts of France and Italy employed two distinct groups of musicians. The chaplains (Fr. chapelains) were highly trained singers, and often composers, and some of them were famed throughout Europe; they enjoyed a much higher income than their colleagues who were employed by the great cathedrals. The chaplains were important figures, sometimes members of the regular entourage of the nobleman and his family; they performed during the services that were given in his private chapel. The minstrels (Fr. menestrels), on the other hand, were performers of secular music, virtuoso instrumentalists, who generally came from a much more modest background than the chaplains, and they were unable to sight-read; their extraordinary talents earned them more consideration and a higher salary than other servants working for the nobleman's household. At the courts of Savoy or Burgundy, the minstrels received new livery each year, bearing the ducal coat-of-arms in gold and silver. Both the chaplains and the minstrels were free to move from one employment to another anywhere between Flanders and Italy, but at the most important courts, - Burgundy, Savoy, the royal court in the Loire valley, the papal Curia, and so on - there were few openings, so the musicians who worked there had to be truly exceptional. As the records show, every nationality was represented at the courts of Burgundy and Savoy. Apart from those two groups, the chaplains and the minstrels, which remained stable and distinct, there was also a whole host of wandering minstrels and ones who were employed by the towns and cities, and they never missed an opportunity to earn payment by playing before the duke and his court. Itinerant courts were the rule in the fifteenth century and Philip the Good, like other dukes, was always pleased to hear and reward the minstrels of the places he travelled through - even if that meant having to besiege their city!
The group of minstrels attached to a court was in two distinct parts. The larger of the two was composed of players of the long trompettes de guerre (war trumpets), which were ideal for ceremonial music, in which they made a splendid impression on the ear, and for providing a blaze of sound at the beginning of battles to show the prestige and glory of their master. The second part of the group, which is the one we are concerned with here, was surprisingly small. It comprised those minstrels who played the haut and bas instruments. The haut instruments were the wind instruments such as the shawm, sackbut, bombarde and slide trumpet, or trompette des menestrels (minstrels' trumpet), which was different from the long, straight trompette de guerre. The bas instruments were the lute, gittern, fiddle, rebec, harp, organetto, flute and eschaquier, a mysterious keyboard instrument, which could be our clavicytherium (upright harpsichord). Such musicians must have performed secular songs, both of the 'art' type written by Du Fay and of the 'folk' or even monodic type - since examples of that simpler repertoire have also come down to us through a number of manuscripts - as well as dance music, which was very popular in the fifteenth century (when people danced basses-danses and morisques to song accompaniment). Indeed the virtuoso talents of the minstrels - Jehan de Cordoval and Jehan Ferrandez, for example, two blind Portuguese viele-players who came to Burgundy in the retinue of Isabella of Portugal, the wife of Philip the Good - could be very impressive. Virtuosity is not the most obvious feature of the art songs of Guillaume Du Fay, however, which require absolute accuracy in both the melody and the rhythm, mastery of the vocal line and a keen sense of contrapuntal phrasing. So who can have performed such songs? The composers themselves must obviously have sung their own works. They were above all cantors, often better known for their vocal qualities than for their capacities as musicians. At a large court the canons i of the duke's private chapel possessed the range of voices required for secular works, but a contemporary Italian text, making a distinction between the techniques required for the voce da cappella (the church voice, used for sacred works) and the voce da camera (the chamber voice, used for secular music at the courts), points out the fact that it was difficult to be a good singer of both genres. The children who belonged to those same choirs might also have been called upon to take part in secular performances. One thing is certain, however: that preference in the performance of secular songs at court went to the noble families who lived there; moreover, those songs were sometimes written specially for them. There do not appear to have been any professional singers of secular songs in fifteenth-century France, unlike Italy, where the frottole were performed by professionals and some female singers were already famous at the courts at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Fifteenth-century song manuscripts present us with a major difficulty. Although the text is sometimes clearly written beneath each of the three voices, in most cases only the superius is given with the text, which means that we are left without any indication of the vocal or instrumental distribution for the other voices. Paintings of that time, pictures of angel musicians, for example, often show large groups of instrumentalists, but such heterogeneous gatherings have a symbolical function and they by no means represent a medieval orchestra, for such a thing never existed at the great French courts of the fifteenth century. Literature is much more helpful, but frustrating. The few descriptions given by chroniclers - those of the musical intermedes in the famous Banquet du Voeu of 1453, for instance - are vague. Some musicologists have recently suggested that strictly a cappella (unaccompanied) performances of these songs must therefore have been much more frequent than was originally supposed. It is true that descriptions of mixed vocal and instrumental ensembles do not appear until the end of the century, but one does come across descriptions of a cappella performances of songs. Nevertheless the information available is too fragmentary for there to be any certainty in the matter. In an important study of the texts of Du Fay's songs, in which he shows moreover the composer's absolute respect for the poetic and prosodic rhythms (number of syllables per line, rhyme, caesura, stressed and unstressed syllables, scansion), Graeme Boone comes to a different conclusion. For him, Du Fay clearly favoured some voices rather than others for carrying the text. The feasibility of a purely vocal performance is not the only criterion: aesthetics and prosodic relevance are also deciding factors. Placing the text, a posteriori, since it does not appear in the manuscript, beneath the contratenor part in Mon chier amy, played here on the gittern, would thus be completely contrary to all the usual practices attested in Du Fay: in order to place certain syllables, ties would be broken, long values would be divided and final syllables would occur on off-beats. For Graeme Boone, the fact that there is or is not a text beneath the second or the third voice in a song depends above all on the personal practices of the scribe, and when there is no indication, flexibility must have been the rule!2 The voices presented without the text may have been vocalised on a vowel, but we preferred to use a combination of voices and instruments, employing the viele (medieval fiddle) in the tenor, since it is well suited to the playing of long values, and the gittern in the contratenor, since it is well adapted to boosting the rhythm which is the role of that voice; but without being systematic. We use two singers when the text is clearly indicated in the manuscript beneath the two staffs. The forces chosen for this recording do not enable us to approach the few songs by Du Fay that are clearly intended for three or four singers; these will be presented later on, in a future programme. Finally, since the delicate sounds of the clavicytherium are lost if it is included in a large instrumental ensemble, it is played here alone, notably in pieces taken from a superb German collection of works for keyboard instruments, the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, which contains keyboard versions of several songs by Du Fay and also of pieces by the famous blind German composer and virtuoso organist Conrad Paumann, who played before Philip the Good in 1454.
- Antoine Guerber (translation: Marv Pardoe)