'I don't know a finer record of such fascinating material. Beautifully done' (BBC Record Review)
'I believe this is the finest record of medieval polyphonic song yet produced' (Gramophone)
Medieval love-poets had only to mention the name of Zephirus, the god of the West Wind, to evoke the keenest desires of courtly society: the passion for clean colours, clear sounds and fresh odours; the longing to ride into the fields bearing a hawk or to sit by a castle window-seat and muse in the breeze. Above all Zephirus was associated with Springtime and youth—so much so that the fifteenth-century Le Jardin des nobles makes Zephirus the husband of ‘Youth … the goddess of flowers’.
It is this freshness and candour which pervades so much of the music composed and performed during the period covered by this record: the decades from c1400–c1440. It is certainly there in the poetry. Several of the songs recorded here celebrate that quality of youth, or jeunesse, which the fifteenth century understood as a mixture of joyfulness, candour, amorous bearing and precocious wisdom—a combination so perfectly embodied in our pictures of a courtier carrying green branches and of an elegant young herald. In Mon cuer me fait tous dis penser, a rondeau set by the outstanding composer of the fifteenth century Guillaume Dufay (c1400– 1474), a lover praises his lady who is ‘young, fair, white as fleece, loving and wise in speech’—a ringing catalogue of the ideals of jeunesse, while the speaker in Francus de Insula’s Amours n’ont cure de tristresse laments that to be unlucky in love is, in effect, to be old and an exile from courtly festivities: ‘there is no mirth or amusement’, he bemoans, ‘except amongst glad-hearted young people’.
This jeunesse is also there in the music. There is an ebullient gaiety in Briquet’s Ma seul amour et ma belle maistresse and in the anonymous Je la remire, la belle which we do not often find in the more precious and self-conscious works of the fourteenth century. Yet fifteenth-century composers excel in capturing the candour and freshness which were so much admired by the courtiers of their day, and they are caught to perfection in Mon cuer me fait tous dis penser. It is impossible to imagine a fourteenth-century composer writing such a piece, not only because of the ‘modernity’ of the counterpoint (instantly familiar to any modern Western ear in a way that French counterpoint of the fourteenth century rarely is), but also because of the sheer candour of the work: each voice has a melody of simple yet ingratiating beauty; nothing is allowed to darken the harmony; nothing is extravagant or flamboyant.
In accordance with this ideal of jeunesse, songs were sometimes performed at court by the jeunes gens (especially the younger squires and pages) who were expected to entertain their princes. Once they arrived at court to receive their education these youthful attendants, constantly looking for presents and favours, soon learned that the first step to preferment was to make themselves noticed in the throng of the court. What better way to attract attention than a conspicuous display of musical talent? No doubt they performed with feeling, for it was their role as attendants upon a great lord which underpinned the literary convention of the lover beseeching his lady for favour:
J’use mon temps et passe ma jonesse
The earliest French pieces on this record, Fortune, faulce, parverse by Matheus de Sancto Johanne, and Va t’en, mon cuer, avent mes yeux by Gacien Reyneau, are from the celebrated Chantilly Codex, probably copied by an Italian scribe (though not necessarily in Italy) during the last years of the fourteenth century. These songs have a distinctively French and fourteenth-century sound with their busy textures and pungent dissonances. Yet both of them prepare us for the fifteenth century: Fortune, faulce with its remarkably rich harmonies, and Va t’en, mon cuer with its declamatory style and placement of text in all parts; compare Dufay’s J’atendray tant qu’il vous playra or Brollo’s Qui le sien vuelt bien maintenir. Full texting of this kind is a prominent feature of some important fourteenth-century Italian styles, as in Francesco Landini’s Nessun ponga sperança, a ballata whose poem offers a counterbalance to the courtly cult of jeunesse. This song, like the other work by Landini recorded here, Giunta vaga biltà, appears in the celebrated Squarcialupi Codex of the early fifteenth century.
Another Italian manuscript, MS Canonici misc. 213 in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, compiled a few decades after Chantilly, is the source of several of the later items recorded here. These pieces convey some of the most characteristic sounds of the French chanson in the 1420s and ’30s: a consonant texture, more euphonious than is usual in fourteenth-century styles (in harmonic and contrapuntal terms the distance between Reyneau’s Va t’en, mon cuer and Dufay’s J’atendray tant is enormous); a marked fondness for a diatonic, Dorian harmony in which C sharp is a keenly expressive note used near the beginning of a piece and most selectively thereafter (hear, for example, Brollo’s Qui le sien vuelt bien maintenir or Francus de Insula’s Amours n’ont cure de tristresse). There is a mood of plangency and introversion in these last two pieces which appears to its fullest advantage in what is surely one of the finest of all fifteenth-century songs, Dufay’s Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys, written in the composer’s mid-twenties. Yet Dufay generally avoided this plangent tone in his early songs; their characteristic voice is heard in J’atendray tant, a light, airy rondeau which is a perfect embodiment of jeunesse de cuer.
Christopher Page © 1985