La Nouvelle Musique! Music for viols from the court of Philip the Fair

The following post was written by David Hatcher to accompany the Linarol Consort’s recorded concert for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which will be premiered at 1pm on 12th February 2021.

The YouTube link will be on the Barber Concerts website.

The Burgundian court at the end of the 15th century

By the time Philip the Fair inherited the title of Duke of Burgundy in 1482, at the age of four, the Low Countries had risen to be one of the wealthiest mercantile powers of Europe, dominated and unified by powerful cities such as Bruges (Philip’s birthplace), Mechelen, Antwerp, Liège and Ghent. By the end of the 15th century, the entire region was known as Flanders, although the area with that name is only one of seventeen provinces over which Philip ruled. These spanned from Friesland and Groningen in the north, to Luxembourg in the south and as far west as Artois, thus taking in present day Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and a large swathe of northern France.

The Duchy had existed as the successor of the Kingdom of Burgundy with considerable autonomy since the granting of the title to Robert, the younger son of Robert the Pious of France in 1031. Considerable independence was granted to Robert when, in the following year, his brother, Henry I of France, awarded him the right to pass on the title to his heirs. By the end of the 15th century, despite intervening periods of considerable political upheaval, Flanders enjoyed a reputation as one of the chief producers of luxury goods such as high quality wool, tapestries and fine arts. Just at the time that artist Jacob van Eyck was creating momentous works such as the Ghent Altarpiece, the Arnolfini Wedding and the Madonna in the Church, through the patronage of successive Dukes the musical culture of the region had developed to the extent that many of the court musical establishments throughout Europe were dominated by Flemish composers and performers. This was especially true of Italy, where the towering figures of Heinrich Isaac, Alexander Agricola and Josquin des Pres spent considerable parts of their glittering careers.

The Burgundian court chapel, or Capilla Flamenca, drew on this pool of native genius, supported by centres of musical learning in the cathedral cities of the duchy, including Liège, Bruges, Ghent, Lille and Cambrai. The Capilla enjoyed substantial financial advantages due to the system of canonicates, awarded by the Pope, whereby canons of the chapel benefited from incomes raised from prebenda, payments made from local churches, often quite remote from the activities of the beneficiary. Indeed, many canons enjoyed prebenda from a plurality of churches without ever going to the locations themselves, clerical services being then delegated (for a small payment) to a local priest. Guillaume Dufay received incomes from Cambrai Cathedral, St. Donas in Bruges and St. Walburgis in Mons. A Canon was expected to celebrate mass daily, taking part in polyphonic settings on feast days. His duties would also include composition and the education of the younger choristers and could even extend to servile duties within the court. Secular activities at court required appropriate music, which was largely supplied by the same musicians, in addition to instrumentalists employed from outside the Capilla. The earliest evidence of viols being played at the Burgundian court dates from around 1504, when three musette players were appointed. Exactly what was meant by this term at that date is unclear, but shortly after, two of the players were described as viol players: Guillaume Terro, jouer de vyole du Roy in 1505 and Mathieu de Wildre, player upon lutes and veoldes in the employ of Henry VIII in 1506, the year of Philip the Fair’s death. As a child at the court of his aunt, Margaret of Austria in Mechelen, Philip’s son Charles (later Charles V) was taught viol by Henry Bredemers, who received payment …pour avoir fait mectre à point, gardé et entretenue les grandes violes…. When Cesare Borgia visited France and Burgundy on an important diplomatic mission in 1498, he wrote to Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, asking to borrow players of the viol, because they were so highly regarded in that region. Two Flemish viol players, Hans Highorne and Hans Hossenet, travelled with Philip to Spain in 1506, during which journey the entire court was blown onto the English south coast by the Great Storm. Both players survived and from the early 1520s entered the service of Henry VIII, two decades later becoming known as The king’s olde violes. Tinctoris, in his treatise De inventione et usu musicae of the last quarter of the 15th century, describes the duetting of the brothers Jean and Charles Fernandes:

…nor must I pass over a recent event, the performance of two blind Flemings, the brothers Charles and Jean, who are no less learned in letters than skilled in music. At Bruges, I heard Charles take the treble and Jean the tenor in many songs, playing the viol so expertly and with such charm that the viol has never pleased me so well.”

The language of the court was French, Flemish being considered largely the language of the vulgar people and of commerce. Throughout the 15th century the dominant secular vocal form was the Burgundian chanson, in which some of the finest French verse is set, predominantly for three voices. Instrumental performance of this repertoire is testified to by the huge number of chansons in un-texted copies in collections, both published and private, that made their way across Europe. Ottaviano Petrucci’s 1501 publication, Odhecaton, was not only the first printed book of music, but also a conduit for largely Burgundian chansons entirely without text. It was hugely popular and widely disseminated in the Italian peninsular.

A notable characteristic of these Franco-Flemish composers and performers was their mobility. Once educated, huge numbers of them travelled the length and breadth of Europe, becoming the dominant influence in the development of music through the latter half of the 15th century. Guillaume Dufay, one of the most important composers of the pre-Josquin generation, was born and educated in Cambrai, but then lived and worked in Pesaro, Rimini, Laon, Rome, Ferrara, Savoy, Florence and Bologna, before returning to live in Cambrai. During his last years at Cambrai he visited Savoy, Turin, Geneva and Besançon.

The Sources

As discussed above, much of the instrumental consort repertoire of the Franco-Flemish composers survives in collections from across Europe. From the time of Petrucci’s ground-breaking Venetian publication Harmonice Musices Odhecaton in 1501, printed music became more and more available to a wider public. Until then, the repertoire was disseminated through individually copied collections, or chansonniers, many of which were small in size and modest in nature, but some were lavishly and professionally illuminated manuscripts. The Songbook of Zeghere van Male was compiled in or around the year 1542 in Bruges
for a prominent merchant of the city. It actually consists of four bulky part books containing 229 compositions. All of the principle musical forms of the early 16th century are represented: the French chanson, mass movements and Latin motets, as well as Dutch songs and instrumental works. Every page in each book is lavishly decorated with illuminations of extraordinary quality, often depicting scenes of everyday life in Bruges.

Image from The Songbook of Zeghere van Male

The Songbook of Hieronymus Lauweryn van Watervliet, now in the British Library, bears the inscription Hieronymus Laurinus est meus herus. Lauweryn was a prominent court official who served during the reigns of Maximilian I, Philip the Fair and Margaret of Austria. He died in 1509 having amassed a considerable fortune, collecting taxes and other revenues from the Flemish provinces as Philip’s counsellor and treasurer. He was rewarded by Philip with the fief of Watervliet, amongst others, and he founded the town of that name, now on the Belgian-Dutch border. The manuscript lacks the elaborate ornamentation of that found in the van Male songbook, but contains a wide-ranging repertoire, including a considerable collection of songs in Middle Dutch. La plus grant chiere, from the Dijon Chansonnier is an example of the text of a chanson describing a musical encounter, this time between the Englishman Robert
and the Flemish composer Hayne van Ghizeghem. Morton and
Hayne, we are told, are chief players in the greatest merrymaking ever seen that occurred in Cambrai. Their singing and playing was so loud that they could be heard near Metz, a town some 175 miles southeast of Cambrai. The chansonnier, one of a number from the Loire Valley dating from the end of the century, contains decorated initials typical of many such manuscripts of the sort that Hieronimus Bosch served his apprenticeship creating.

Image from The Dijon Chansonnier

Not all the sources are lavishly decorated. The Cancionero de Segovia is clearly a book primarily designed to be used rather than admired, and judging by its contents, by professional singers and players. It was compiled predominantly from the works of Flemish composers, in Spain around 1500, just at the time that Philip was visiting with his chapel in attendance. It contains a number of instrumental duets by Flemish composers that require not only considerable dexterity to play, but a fluent familiarity with the extremes of the mensural notation of the time, including the extended stave that is used for Roelkin’s setting of De tous biens playne, illustrated below.

Image from The Cancionero de Segovia

Below is the programme for the Barber concert, recorded on 7th December 2021 in the Elgar Concert Hall, Birmingham University and premiered at 1pm on 12th February 2021. For more information click here

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