This recording completes a three-part series featuring the songs and motets of the French Ars Nova, initiated by The Medieval Romantics (Helios CDH55293), and continued by Lancaster and Valois (Helios CDH55294). The title of this third recording is the most pertinent of all, for the poets and composers of fourteenth-century France did indeed regard love as a study. Our cover illustration is a reminder that the narrative poets of the period often present themselves as retiring individuals who have learned all they know of love from books. When the poet of La grant biauté speaks of ‘Nature’, for example, he uses a personification enriched by several centuries of thought and imagination in both Latin and vernacular (Chaucer’s Parlement of Fowles provides a fine example in Middle English), while figures such as ‘Envie’, ‘Desir’ and ‘Amours’, ubiquitous in these poems, evoke the tradition of the narrative romances whose authors were expected to share their knowledge of Biblical and classical story with their readers. If the scholar shown on our cover were not St Jerome, one might imagine him to be a poet checking his knowledge of Marticius (for Marticius qui fu), the basilisk (for Le basile), Euclid and Pygmalion (for Fist on, dame) or the labyrinth that Daedalus made for Minos (for En la maison Dedalus).
The musical resources displayed in these pieces are extensive. Puis que l’aloe ne fine has the kind of sinuous melody, with musical phrases of unpredictable length and momentary flashes of musica ficta colour, that French composers of the Ars Nova always loved; we find similar qualities in La grant biauté, Combien que j’aye and Renouveler me feïst, this last being one of the earliest ‘New Year’ songs in the repertory. Several pieces in four parts, particularly the anonymous Jour a jour (a popular work to judge by the number of surviving copies) and Le basile, by Solage, reveal the desire for sweet and consonant harmony, occasionally embittered by moments of dissonance, which characterizes a good deal of fourteenth-century French writing in four parts. Particularly striking, perhaps, are the two pieces in the ‘B flat’ tonality (that is to say with a double flat signature) that was especially favoured by composers in the decades around 1400. Of these two songs, Marticius qui fu and Fist on, dame, the first owes something to the mature style of Machaut in the rhythmic gestures of its texted voice. Both are robust compositions with almost swaggering melodies.
Guillaume de Machaut is featured on all three recordings of this series. Trop plus / Biauté paree / Je ne suis is a three-part motet that welcomes a very sprightly performance. Many years ago, David Munrow recorded the piece at a very slow tempo; this brings out the dissonances but may sometimes deprive the cross-rhythms and fragmented musical phrases of their excitement. Dame, je vueil endurer and Se mesdisans are drawn from Machaut’s collection of monophonic virelais, a variety of music which only Machaut chose to produce and notate in the fourteenth century and which invariably, as here, reveals his distinctive musical voice. In a similar way, Tres bonne et belle could not be the work of any other Ars Nova composer; its palette of dissonant colours, with prominent fourths and sevenths, seems distinctively Mascaudian.
Il me convient guerpir is one of the latest pieces. Probably dating from the early fifteenth century, it is a distinguished member of a small group of songs composed for two equal voices. Finally, there is the Gloria by Pycard. It belongs here in that Pycard was apparently a Frenchman, although his music is only known from the English Old Hall Manuscript, and his rhythmic intricacies recall the French Ars subtilior. In rhythmic terms, this Gloria is one of the most complex mass compositions in the entire medieval repertory; at times, the upper voices travel so far away from the basic tactus or ‘beat’, and the lower voices, holding sustained notes, do so little to assert it, that all sense of metrical organization is lost. I hope that the pieces by Pycard recorded for this series will help to establish the reputation of this extraordinary artist as one of the leading composers of his generation.
Christopher Page © 1992