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Hyperion Records

CDA67715 - Dufay: The Court of Savoy
Christmas Mass in the ducal chapel (Sainte-Chapelle), Chambéry (Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, fol. 158r) by Jean Colombe (c1430/35-c1493)
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67715

Recording details: February 2008
Chapel of All Souls College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: January 2009
Total duration: 71 minutes 58 seconds

'Se la face ay pale remains Dufay's most approchable mass … this is easy, effortless musicianship  … the balance is superb, and all lines are presented in a free and supple manner that projects the music very well' (Gramophone)

'Dufay was one of the greatest composers of the 15th century … half a dozen recordings of Dufay's Missa Se la face are available but Kirkman's sweeps the board … performances of great clarity, pliancy and historical value … a confirming display of excellence and insight' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Dufay's Missa Se la face ay pale provides the backbone for this gloriously performed disc from the eight male voices of the pure-toned Binchois Consort. Contrasting motets and mass propers, works of sublime clarity, are rewardingly interspersed … the results are mesmerising' (The Observer)

'The singers more than adequately realise their stated aim of bringing the opulent Court of Savoy to life … the singing on the CD is mellifluous and animated, the pronunciation authentic … and both the liturgical context and the confidence of the performance make this a valuable addition to our understanding of Dufay's output' (Early Music Review)

'This ensemble has now recorded five masses credited to Dufay, an achievement of considerable stature … as well as giving a fine rendition of the music, Kirkman's Dufay disc also adds relevant music to broaden our understanding of the period' (Fanfare, USA)

The Court of Savoy
Kyrie  [3'36] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [9'27] LatinEnglish
Credo  [9'14] LatinEnglish

The Binchois Consort’s first recordings of Dufay for Hyperion achieved iconic status, winning a Gramophone award along the way. Despite the proliferation of early music groups recording Dufay in their wake, the Binchois remain the ultimate musical authority on this great composer.

Their latest recording contains what many consider to be Dufay’s masterpiece. His Missa Se la face ay pale is one of the best known, and perhaps most revered, of all polyphonic masses. Indeed, it is a work of such renown that it enjoys a special kind of status among Renaissance mass cycles. Along with a handful of other such works, it has become a touchstone for the idea and structural design of the unified cantus firmus mass, a classic exemplification of the musical style and achievement of an era. The work is presented here, however, not as a five-movement sequence but in a more differentiated and perhaps more appropriate dramatic fashion, interspersed with music in a contrasting style for the Proper of the Mass (also five movements: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion). The programme is completed by two motets and the ballade on which the Mass is based.

This recording evokes in sound something of the cultural achievement and brilliance of the Court of Savoy at its first peak of maturity, during the middle decades of the fifteenth century. The musical works performed here complement and enrich the historical picture of the late-medieval and Renaissance duchy that can be gleaned from the archives, libraries and museums. Live sound vividly extends and deepens the scope of such a picture, just as does an appreciation of the geographical and architectural settings which are the physical stage for such cultural developments.


Other recommended albums
'Dufay: Music for St James the Greater' (CDH55272)
Dufay: Music for St James the Greater
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55272  Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Last few CD copies remaining  
'Lancaster and Valois' (CDH55294)
Lancaster and Valois
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55294  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This recording evokes in sound something of the cultural achievement and brilliance of the Court of Savoy at its first peak of maturity, during the middle decades of the fifteenth century. The musical works performed here complement and enrich the historical picture of the late-medieval and Renaissance Duchy that can be gleaned from the archives, libraries and museums which conserve whatever remains of this heritage. Live sound vividly extends and deepens the scope of such a picture, as does an appreciation of the geographical and architectural settings which are the physical stage for such cultural developments. The fifteenth century saw a notable rise in Savoyard fortunes, politically and territorially, but also artistically. And the musical transformation of the Court and its performing resources, in both a purely artistic and a more formal ceremonial sense, was part and parcel of this evolution. Dufay’s is the first, but not the only famous musical name to be associated with the place and institutions of Savoy. He contributed to their profile and prestige, even as he profited from the Dukes’ patronage and the cultural environment they had created.

This programme presents one of the best known, and perhaps most revered, of all polyphonic Masses. Dufay’s Missa Se la face ay pale, composed, apparently for Savoy, some time in the early 1450s, is deservedly one of his most widely appreciated compositions. Indeed, it is a work of such renown that it enjoys a special kind of status among Renaissance Mass cycles. Along with a handful of other such works, it has become a touchstone for the idea and structural design of the unified cantus firmus Mass, a classic exemplification of the musical style and achievement of an era. The work is presented here, however, not as a sequentially unfolding five-movement structure but in a more differentiated and perhaps more dramatic fashion, interspersed with music in a contrasting style for the Proper of the Mass (also five movements: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion). These Propers are designed to be sung in honour of the soldier-martyr St Maurice, chief among the Savoyard saints and patron of the order of chivalry founded in 1434 at the Château de Ripaille, just outside Thonon on the southern shores of Lake Geneva, by Duke Amédée VIII. Surviving as part of a group of polyphonic Mass Propers found, among much else, in a manuscript of the late 1450s or a little later (Trent 88, preserved in the collections of the Museo Provinciale d’Arte), they are now recognized as the work of Dufay writing maybe towards the end of the 1440s.

The programme is completed by two motets and a song. The setting of the celebrated ballade Se la face ay pale, the tenor of which supplied Dufay with the cantus firmus for his Mass, is not the three-part one commonly performed but a later one in four voices, in which the original discantus and tenor melodies are retained and then clothed brilliantly in a scintillating new contrapuntal garb. (Whether or not this process of elaboration might have been Dufay’s own work remains an open question.) Each of the motets has links to Savoy, and both are datable—one precisely, the other with a degree of close approximation. The three-voice isorhythmic motet Magnanime gentis was composed, in the manner typical of the earlier fifteenth century, to celebrate a specific occasion: that of a family peace treaty concluded between Louis of Savoy and his brother Philippe in May 1438. The motet O très piteulx was written, as we learn from a letter of Dufay to the Medici brothers Piero and Giovanni, in order to commemorate in suitably plangent mode the catastrophic fall of the Christian metropolis in the East, Constantinople, in May 1453, being composed a couple of years or so after the event.

In this way, the programme offers a varied sequence of skilfully wrought pieces of seemingly limitless musical invention and expressive power, always clear and communicative even when complex and intricate. Yet, as was suggested at the outset, it also serves to capture and project in sound something of the richness and vitality of the culture fostered in this extraordinary mountain Duchy, set astride the Alps, during the central period of the fifteenth century—a glittering forum for courtly and artistic display, serious and extravagant at the same time, in which Guillaume Dufay took a leading role.

Dufay and the Dukes of Savoy
By the time the kingdom of Italy came to an end in 1946, the House of Savoy had been a ruling gens for a very long time indeed. Like all such dynasties, it had had to reinvent and reorientate itself over time, and had relied as much on intelligent and forceful adaptation to changing circumstances as on sheer weight of rule. No doubt the most dramatic instance, historically and regionally speaking, was the great shift of the Savoyard capital city from the French to the Italian side of the Alps that occurred in the sixteenth century. But there were also periods of active consolidation and growth that went well beyond such adaptational needs—and the fifteenth century was one such energetic period of expansion and development. It was an era in which the cultural prowess of the Dukes of Savoy and the brilliance of their patronage more than matched their political ambition, as could be vividly seen by any visitor to the sumptuous exhibition organized in Turin in 2006: Corti e Città: arte del Quattrocento nelle Alpi occidentali. This, then, was a true flowering: the cultural rise of Savoy during this period was not slow and gradual, but active and intensive. The foundations for such a phase of cultural development, marking a high plateau in Savoyard fortunes, were laid during the later fourteenth century. But it was under the long rule of Duke Amédée VIII (reigned 1391–1439, died 1451), when Savoy went from being a county to a Duchy and was able to extend its territories, that it began to be counted a significant player on the European stage.

Still more tellingly for this project, Savoy also became a friendly rival to Burgundy, its ‘cousin state’ to the northwest. Princely display and self-image went hand-in-hand with emulation—embracing the civic and the ecclesiastical, as well as the courtly realm. Burgundy was the more established and illustrious state, both politically and culturally, and Savoy sought to emulate its status and achievement. Dufay, as an eminent musician of European renown, became in the first place an ornament of the Court, bringing with him a reputation and a talent that did honour to the ruler whose servant and advisor he had now become. His artistry proclaimed the Duke’s magnificence and prestige. Dufay was first engaged as chapelmaster in late 1433 or early 1434 in order, so it would seem, that the Court machine would be able to celebrate in appropriately splendid fashion the big dynastic wedding that was to take place in the second week of February. The ceremony was held in Chambéry, then the main Ducal residence; and the princely couple—Louis, Prince of Piedmont, Amédée’s eldest surviving son and heir, and Anne de Lusignan, Princess of Cyprus—were married in the recently constructed ‘chapelle neuve’ within the château precincts. (This space, when it was later used to house the famed relic of the Holy Shroud, became known as the Sainte-Chapelle: the building still survives, now with a monumental baroque facade and its early sixteenth-century stained glass newly restored.) Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was in attendance at the wedding with a large and important retinue, including his singers and chaplains. And so this occasion must be counted as a striking moment of cultural emulation, with Dufay and Binchois prominent at the head of their respective ensembles: two Dukes, two noble families and retinues, two chapels headed by two iconic musical figures. What music was actually performed, and what might have transpired between these two musicians, twin beacons of their age (as a famous picture shows them), we can expect to hardly know. But this sumptuous aristocratic wedding was without doubt one of the great cultural moments of its time: a meeting of minds, a place of emulation, but also of exchange.

This was how Dufay first came into the orbit of the Savoyard Dukes. It was Amédée who first brought him there, though Louis was perhaps a still more assiduous and congenial patron. And there can be little doubt that Dufay found Savoy an attractive and professionally worthwhile place to live and work: so much so, indeed, that he maintained a good relationship with the Court not only during his periods of residence there, which numbered no fewer than three (1434–5, 1437–9, 1452–8), but also, so it would seem, by correspondence during the years he spent in the north, as a canon at Cambrai Cathedral.

In all his dealings, as well as in his musical activities and composing, Dufay appears to have been driven, self-possessed, and many-sided—with a clear and sophisticated grasp of large-scale ideas, yet also with a keen eye for detail. He was forceful and decisive at times (as in his politically astute decision to leave Savoy in 1439, on the eve of the schism which resulted from the Council of Basel), dedicated and patient at others (as in the long years of work on the cathedral liturgy at Cambrai during the 1440s). And if his intellectual and artistic stature was evident to most, it seems that he could very easily be urbane and difficult by turns. Above all, though, even given the great range of his duties and interests, he remained faithful to his artistic vocation and all that it entailed—both intellectually, on the larger scale, and in his focused, at times maybe obsessive care for those detailed practicalities by means of which alone music can come to exist at the highest level.

In all these pieces, of whatever genre and written with whatever sacred, social or ceremonial function in prospect, there is evidence of the way Dufay was able to set and solve technical problems with mastery and ease, in accordance with his understanding of ars and inventio, in pursuit of the particular compositional task he had in view in each case. It is surely not difficult to hear why the extraordinary beauty of the sound-world of Dufay’s music from all periods of his career should have earned him his great reputation, as has happened for only a few others of his time. Nor is it hard to see why he himself, in his last years, should have placed such trust not merely in what he had written per se, as craft, and as a monument to his place in the tradition of which he felt himself to be part, but also in its matchless evocative, and invocatory, power—what a later age would call its ‘power to move’.

Philip Weller © 2009

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