'Another superlatively beautiful recording from Gothic Voices' (Hi Fi News)
'It's a treasure' (Fanfare, USA)
'The music is fascinating. Readers interested in trying medieval repertoire could hardly do better than start here' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
One afternoon in August, 1350, the view from the Sussex downs was even more splendid than usual. The king of England, Edward III, had mustered a fleet to engage the Spanish, and now his galleons lay basking in the summer haze off Winchelsea. Edward stood on the prow of his ship, wearing a hat of beaver fur ‘which suited him very well’. At hand were several knights of the Garter, a new company of chivalry with its home at Windsor, where King Arthur had once reigned in majesty (or so it was believed). The foundation of the Order gave a special exhilaration to Edward’s wars, and as he paced the deck with the sun high in the sky and a battle on the sparkling water before him, he was in good spirits; indeed he wanted music. He commanded his minstrels to pipe a certain ‘German dance’ that one of the knights, Sir John Chandos, had newly brought, and to add to the merriment he bade Sir John to sing it, ‘taking great delight therefrom’.
Edward and Chandos were not the only Garter knights with a taste for music. Henry of Lancaster had sung meynt chanceon amerouse according to his own admission in 1354, and he often enjoyed a delicious chaunt fait d’omme ou de femme … ou estrumentz. What has become of these delicious songs? They have perished, and the music which English kings and magnates enjoyed in their great households has all the mystery of a secret room. There were minstrels to pipe ‘with crakkyng of trumpes’ when a roast appeared, and to conduct the lord to his chamber, but minstrel music was never written down and now it lies buried with the men who made it. Sometimes, no doubt, the task of performing secular music was entrusted to clerks of the chapel within the household, but there is no firm evidence (as yet) that men like John Chandos or Henry of Lancaster had a taste for elaborate polyphony of the kind produced in France by Guillaume de Machaut. For the most part, their chaplains sang plainchant with the occasional polyphonic supplement when the liturgical context required, and a wealth of Mass-music survives from the reign of Edward III. Unfortunately, however, it is a horde of copper coins for the most part, not of silver, and few of the pieces bear anything which we can recognize as the stamp of a royal or aristocratic chapel.
Nonetheless, there is a good deal of fine music that can be tentatively associated with several of the English kings or with their lords, and some of it is recorded here for the first time. The conflicts of the Hundred Years War, for example, inspired several pieces in praise of English monarchs and their wars in France. Singularis laudis digna begins in praise of the Virgin, but the last stanza trumpets the name of King Edward; he has blazoned his claim to the throne of France by quartering the leopard of England with the French fleur-de-lis. Our second item in praise of an English king, The Agincourt Carol, needs no introduction.
By c1400 the Garter knights were hearing some of the best polyphony while listening to their chapel clerks at Mass. The knights were not ‘patrons’ of music in any deliberate or systematic way, of course; they paid for some very good music in the sense that their households included a chapel establishment where, now and then, some good music was made, but it would be anachronistic to present them as renaissance connoisseurs using their will and power to gratify their aesthetic tastes. Nonetheless, some of the music provided for them was of very high quality. The celebrated Old Hall manuscript, now Additional MS 57950 in the British Library, brings a handful of truly exceptional composers to light. One of the most accomplished, the Frenchman Pycard, was a clerk in John of Gaunt’s chapel c1390, and may still have been there in 1399. Pycard would have known the domestic routines so lovingly described in a poem that may have been associated with Gaunt’s household, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
When the dinner was done and the dear man was risen
Leonel Power, another composer of the front rank, was chaplain and instructor of choristers in the chapel of Thomas, Duke of Clarence. John Pyamour bn was a member of the Chapel Royal, while Soursby is recorded as having been a chaplain in the service of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, in ?c1436. Finally, John Dunstable, the leading English composer of his generation, served both Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and John, Duke of Bedford.
Other pieces take us across the channel to France. Strictly speaking, the group of French items associated here with King Edward III should be placed under the name of his royal hostage, King John II of France. John, taken at the battle of Poitiers, passed much of his captivity in London at the Savoy palace, conveniently situated in the fields near Charing Cross and with pleasant gardens running down to the Thames. The French king saw much of the English royal family, and a didactic poem which one of his chaplains, Gace de la Buigne, began in 1359 when the king was moved to Hertford praises Edward III for his hunting skills, and also praises the motets of the great French composer, Philippe de Vitry. At various times John’s chaplains were proficient in polyphony, and Vitry’s works may have been among the pieces which they performed. Some of Vitry’s motets did indeed circulate in England, for one of his finest, Gratissima virginis / Vos qui admiramini/ Gaude gloriosa / Contratenor appears in an English manuscript now in Durham Cathedral library.
Secular polyphony in the French style may also have echoed through the corridors of the Savoy, for the composer P des Molins was one of King John’s chaplains during his captivity. The refrain of Molins’s ballade De ce que fol pense refers to languishing ‘in a strange country’ and may have been composed in England. It is represented here in both its vocal form and as it appears, intabulated for an instrument, in the Faenza codex; perhaps this is the kind of delicious soun d’insturment which the French king and his English host might have heard in their chambers at Windsor or London when John’s minstrels were summoned to perform.
Several French pieces are associated here with Henry V. Both Henry and his French wife, Catharine of Valois, are known to have owned harps; presumably they played them, for the harp was the leading instrument of the courtly amateur. What did the royal couple play? Henry may have performed French chansons adapted to English taste; Le grant pleyser may be near the mark, for it is a thoroughly Anglicized version of a French chanson, Le gay playsir. The case of Richard Loqueville, a French composer who taught the harp to the son of the Duke of Bar, suggests that polyphonic chansons sometimes provided repertory for noble harpists. Loqueville presumably played—and taught—the kind of music which he himself composed.
Then there are the carols. Lullay, lullay may approximate to the ‘coundutes of Krystmasse and carolez newe’ which figure at court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As for the other carol, one of the finest (Ther is no rose of swych virtu), I respectfully offer it to Thomas, Duke of Clarence.
These characteristics can be heard time and time again in the English pieces. Pycard’s Gloria, a double canon and one of the finest musical achievements of the Middle Ages, combines five singable parts in a rich texture full of triads with a powerful feeling for chord patterns of V–I. Its structure is beautifully clear. In the first section the singers declaim the text, one against another, producing a rush of vowel colours; next, a ‘bridge’ passage of hocket leads into the final Amen; by this time the singers have come together on the vowel ‘a’, adding enormously to the sonority of the final section in which a sequence of three chords, variously ornamented, is performed four times.
Power’s Sanctus combines the sonorous and pan-melodic quality of English writing with the rhythmic invention of the French; the result is an exhilarating style that is often found amongst the most interesting compositions of the Old Hall repertory: highly refined, yet retaining a candid and almost boyish energy. This Sanctus eclipses every continental composition of a comparable date (perhaps c1410). The carols reveal the suavity of part-writing for which English composers were famous in the first half of the fifteenth century, while Ther is no rose of swych virtu displays in prominent fashion the chains of six–three chords which have become famous as a hallmark of English musical style in the later Middle Ages.
The instrumental items, performed on a reproduction of a fifteenth-century harp strung throughout with gut, have been prepared in the simplest possible way. The intabulation of De ce que fol pense by P des Molins comes from the Faenza codex; as is customary in the repertory of that manuscript the tenor part of the original is retained very much as it stands in the vocal version, but the top part is encrusted with running ornamental figures. For the remaining pieces the harpist performs the three-part chansons as they stand, with such compromises (very few, as it happens) that the idiom of the instrument demands.
Here, then, is our collection of music for the Knights of the Garter. Honi soit qui mal y pense!
Christopher Page © 1987