Binchois’s four-voice Nove cantum melodie
was written for a grand ceremonial event, the baptism of a new male heir to the duchy of Burgundy in January 1431. It was therefore conceived as an appropriately festive adornment to the occasion, and would perhaps have been sung by the full complement of Philip the Good’s chapel singers, all of whom are named in its text – though it is equally possible that, as here, it would have been sung by a group of soloists. Either way, Binchois would have been at the very centre of the performance, as singer and surely also as director. The child was to be baptized Antoine, whence the association with the ‘guardian’ figure of St Anthony Abbot (and with St Anthony of Padua, who, as a further namesake, is also addressed within the text). The motet is based on a repeating isorhythmic tenor pattern which underpins the whole edifice, serving to ground and structure the music across the dynamic shifts of metre that help to propel the composition through its three linked, continuously unfolding sections. Full performance of this work has hitherto been precluded by the absence of two voices from the first section. These have now been reconstructed and it is in this newly completed form that the work is recorded here. Its overall proportions are controlled by the segmentation and layout of the tenor melody. Binchois’s manipulation not only of the notes themselves and of their individual durations, but also of their division into extended rhythmic groups separated by carefully planned and measured gaps, sets up the whole temporal framework of the piece. And in doing so he also sketches in the harmonic (that is, cadential) background against which the polyphony is composed. The fifteen pitches of this ‘stretched cantus firmus’ are taken from the first part of the Kyrie ‘in simplici die’, though quite why Binchois should have selected a Kyrie for this purpose remains a mystery. But whatever his precise motivation may have been, the musical pattern derived from the (presumed) chant original is miraculously well-shaped and ideally suited to its structural and expressive function within the finished composition. In the performing edition prepared for this recording, the wordless motet tenor has been supplied with a short, freely invented Latin dictum of fifteen syllables, one to a note, in praise of St Anthony.
Drawing on both the northern Franco-Flemish and, more importantly, the English tradition of motet-writing (in contrast to the strongly Italianate character of most of Dufay’s grand motet output at this period), Nove cantum nevertheless goes beyond its models in adopting three-part texture, in place of the more usual duos, for the polyphonic sections between the tenor entries. This in itself would make the motet striking and original, but Binchois’s inventiveness goes further. In the reduced-voice sections – which though melodically free are also controlled by isorhythm – he writes music that, in almost virtuosic defiance of the rhythmic schemes to which they are bound, is fluid and propulsive, and so provides a striking foil to the more solid, even monumental cast of the full four-voice sections structured around the sustained tenor notes. This fundamental contrast serves to energize and drive the whole composition, and shows how a skilled composer, while working in a craftsmanlike way to fulfil his professional functions and tasks, and drawing on the full range of received techniques and approaches available to him, might arrive at artistic solutions of astonishing subtlety and complexity without obscuring the brilliant simplicity of the basic idea.
from notes by Philip Weller © 2005