THE COMPOSITIONS OF THE CHANTILLY CODEX AND THE MUSIC AROUND 1400:
AT THE LIMIT OF WHAT IS POSSIBLE
Among the great innovations in music of the 14th c. belongs the “musica mensurabilis”, “measurable music” which was invented “out of the blue” at the end of the 13th c. and was definitively transformed during the second decade of the 14th. The foundation of this “musica mensurabilis”, which was a reaction against the “unmeasured” Gregorian chant, was a new graphical system, a new kind of musical notation which essentially measured long and short values.
The crucial novelty therefore was the possibility to assign not only a relatively exact pitch (by its position on the five or six lines) to a single graphical sign, i.e. a note, but also a precise duration (by its shape). Thus the note could be read in two senses. In this way, polyphonic compositional processes could be individually structured for the first time in musical history and were no longer dependent on predetermined patterns. The composers immediately jumped on this possibility, especially in the realm of the motet, and with such fervour that they had already shortly after 1300 more or less exhausted the limits of the system. For this reason the system was once again fundamentally revised after 1310, in a certain way it was rationalized and stabilized. The main problem here consisted in the division of the central note value, the Brevis, which could in the period shortly after 1300 be divided in up to 7 or even 9 equal parts. The subsequent rationalization provided, on the other hand, only for a (perfect) division in 3 and an (imperfect) division in 2, and this starting from the Brevis down all the levels of hierarchy. These newly created possibilities were immediately applied, not only to the genre of the motet, but also to the new and upcoming secular song (with Ballade, Rondeau and Virelay). The use of plainsong in this new style of polyphonic motet was nevertheless so controversial that pope John XXII intervened in this development in the mid 1320’s and tried to veto this form of polyphony.
However, the created system, which was called “novus” by its inventors and thereby gave its name to the whole epoch (“Ars Nova”) was, albeit with regional differences, spread all over medieval Europe and remarkably consistent, even though the transmission through manuscripts in the entire 14th century, and especially in its second half, is not particularly assertive. The number of surviving manuscripts is in fact quite scanty, even if we have proof of the existence at the time of a non-negligible quantity of other mss. from library catalogues for example. Nevertheless:, the source situation is precarious, which makes any more generalized assertion difficult. At least, however, we can recognize a certain tendency: towards 1400, in fact, composers once again demonstrated a propensity to exhaust the possibilities of the notational system, within the limits irreversibly imposed on it. Its focus consisted in a new fascination for the most complex rhythmical articulation in polyphonic musical composition. As opposed to 1300, this was not as it were an unorganized and unregulated creative explosion, but precisely the contrary: in the motets as well as in the secular works, we see the controlled refinement of an already intensively tested potential related to a precise stylistic imagination that was intimately linked to the texts set to music. What was, time and again, described by contemporaries as the “subtilitas” of these compositions, led to the christening of this period with the not quite unproblematic term “Ars subtilior”.
Again, few manuscripts document this phase. The most significant among them is the codex which today lies in the Musée Condé in Chantilly. It arrived there only in 1861, however, as part of the famous art collections of the Duke Henri d’Orléans, Duc d’Aumale (1822-1897). The Duke inherited the Renaissance castle Chantilly from the Condé family in 1830, in which he accommodated his collections and which he ultimately donated to the “Institut de France”. To his most precious acquisitions belong the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, originated in the 15th century.
The Duke had a sumptuous new binding made for the music manuscript in 1880 and it is possible that through that important characteristics went lost. He bought it in Florence, where, according to a remark on one of the first pages, it had been since 1461. Apart from the apparently Tuscan copyist, also the 6-line system, typical for Italian trecento repertoire, which is used throughout the manuscript points at an origin in Italy, even maybe in Florence. The contents – 13 Latin motets in addition to 97 almost exclusively French songs – do not contradict these origins: French music was still widely spread in northern Italy, even as far as Rome or Naples.
The precious parchment manuscript supposedly was written around 1400 with the exception of the two pieces that became famous for their “graphical” notation (in the form of a heart and a circle, respectively) which were completed a little later. Whether the codex was somehow connected to an Italian court (such as Milan or Pavia) or not, must remain open, though it is not unlikely. The assembled repertoire excels specifically in the way that notational complexities are pushed to the extreme, a fact that for many decades left scholars in a state of perplexity. They could not agree on the sense of this impossible technique or even considered it only a mental exercise. Now, after some decades of experience in the performance practice of music of the 14th and early 15th century, the opinions have seriously changed. Not only have the greatest notational and rhythmical difficulties become playable and singable, but even more importantly it has become slowly clear that the “subtlety” in this music consists in its refined relationship to the text/lyrics/poetry. In other words, we are dealing with text-expression, albeit in a different form than we know it from the “Klavierlied” in the 19th century.
One of the great events of the 14th century was the fact that it was now possible to compose secular song polyphonically. A new, fresh musical genre saw the light. It drew its formal criteria from the fixed structures of lyrical poetry, known as “formes fixes”. Among these, the emphasis was laid on the Ballade, whereas the Rondeau and Virelay played at that point in time a relatively minor role. All these forms are Refrain forms, but in the Ballade this is most clear and manifest: in principle there are two identical musical verses (characterized by an “ouvert” and “clos” ending) and a concluding part of which the ending in its turn is mostly identical with the “clos” (A1A2BC). Usually there are three rhymed strophes, sometimes more, sometimes less. Thematically the Ballade can sweep over many subjects and is, – unlike the Rondeau and Virelay, – not exclusively concerned with love poetry.
The works on this recording belong to the most beautiful, and complex Ballades of the repertoire.
Some of these feature themes from antiquity: In Andrieu’s De Narcissus the story of Narcissus, in love with his own mirrored image, is told allegorically in an unusual musical setting, and characterized by sweeping vocal melismas. The many stylistic similarities with another Chantilly composition by F.Andrieu, “Armes, amours”, a lament on the death of Machaut, lead us to believe that Magister Franciscus is identical with the composer Franciscus Andrieu.
In Médée fu on the other hand, the couple of lovers is compared to famous mythological couples like Jason and Medea, Helena and Paris. Poems which quote ancient heroes and lovers to compare them with contemporary people were extremely fashionable at the time. In this Ballade the comparison is used against the lady: She is less faithful even than Medea, Helen and Bryseida, none of whom is particularly famous for her virtue. The affective confusion is expressed through a tense, ultra-sensitive setting, in which no notational complication is left out. Time and again we find peculiar harmonic turns that highlight certain text lines, if not single words. After all we observe clear traces of Italian music here. The closing line (refrain) of the poem “Ma dame n’a pas ainsy fait a-my” can be read two ways: “This way my lady did not make a friend” and “This is not how my lady behaved towards me”, a typical pun on the word amy. Chantilly contains six compositions by Philipot/Philipoctus, and stylistic similarities as well as the serious quality of the writing might suggest him as the author of this magnicent Ballade.
The Italian influence is also visible in De quan qu’on peut, a work that in its eccentricity could easily have been written by Matteo da Perugia, or at least have been influenced by his style. The flavour of the musical refrain at the end of the A and B sections and the persistent polyrhythmical setup of this piece very strongly remind us of this extraordinary subtilior composer. There is no other ascribed composition by him in the Chantilly Ms., although several Chantilly pieces were copied in the Modena Ms., the main source for Matteo’s works. The incipit of the text – De quan qu’on peut – Of all one could give – becomes as it were its own compositional program, by the fact that indeed it unfolds a kind of rhythmical compendium, with only a certain calming down at the beginning of the second part. Both upper voices, although clearly differing in tessitura, are melodically so similar that they create the type of setting that a little later was favoured by Johannens Ciconia, although completely without rhythmical complications. One can hear this particularly well in the instrumental version of the piece recorded here.
Through these intensifications the polyphonic song ultimately strove to equal the ambitions of the motet. That the latter in the background was still considered the “touchstone of perfection” is shown in several works.An outstanding example is the Ballade Je me merveil by Senleches in which, just like in a motet, two text are simultaniously sung in the upper voices. It is striking, however, that the composer ignores the usual hierarchy between motetus and triplum and treats all three voices equally, or both higher ones as a kind of duo, the lower one as “harmony carrier” (though not rhythmically separated). The Ballade fulminates against musical dilettantism, a favourite subject among 14th century composers, Italian or French. To illustrate the subject, the notation and “subtilitas” of this composition are stretched to the limit, culminating in the canonic refrain which is however not notated as a canon:. Senleches writes down the same identical music with two completely different notational systems.
Similarly, also the only Virelay on this recording, Un crible plein d’eaue – A Dieu vos comant, owes much to the motet. This very clever composition uses apparently a simple folk song as a kind of isorhythmic tenor, with a slightly histerical cantus, that fulminates against the traps of marriage. The particularly angular contratenor in syncopated binary rhythms exemplifies the terrible conflicts of which the text speaks.
The little Rondeau-like Se vos ne voles lacks its full text, although the musical composition is apparently complete. It appears on the same page that contains another full-sized Rondeau by Galiot, hence the ascription.
Solage’s Ballade S’aincy estoit on the other hand shows itself a grandiose eulogy to Jean, Duc de Berry, a possible commissioner of the Chantilly Ms. It was probably composed in 1389. 15 years later the same Duke commissioned another famous manuscript, the Très riches heures…
Solage employs extreme harmonical and rhythmical means to underline his subject matter, which at times create serious difficulties in judging his ultimate intentions. The proposed text underlay produces highly illustrative instrumental interludes and comments.
translation Kees Boeke, Robert Claire