Ensemble Santenay

The ensemble draws its name from the castle of Santenay, in Burgundy, seigniorial residence from the XIth to the XVIth century, belonging in the XIVth century to Philippe le Hardi, son of the king of France Jean le Bon and first duke of Greater Burgundy. Thus this castle constitutes for us in a way a symbol of the apogee of the culture at the Burgundian court. Today the lands of the castle of Santenay are also known for their excellent wine production.

About us: we met in the spring of 2004 in the state academy of music in Trossingen, a small town which lies in the Black Forest in the south of Germany. Four musicians from four different nationalities: Germany, France, Transylvania and Israel. We soon found that we share a common language and a common fascination with the polyphonic music of the late Middle Ages. Music that manages to express the deepest human feelings in a delicate, poetic manner, in a way that, in our belief, has not been surpassed. Through playing together we have learnt to know each other, to develop our own language and our own approach to this wonderful music which, in all of its complexity, leaves much freedom to the performer.

In the spring of 2006 we met Kees Boeke, who leads the department of medieval and renaissance music at the Hochschule in Trossingen. Kees has been very supportive as a director, teacher and friend to the four of us.

The use of instruments reconstructed based on medieval iconography allows us to approach the original soundscape. We attach great importance to the understanding of the musical language of the period, now having become foreign to today’s classical musicians. Thus, a bit in the manner of a performer facing a contemporary work with a new language, it is a matter of decoding little by little the written page, to try to understand the essence of a piece, and to discover its meaning with our personal modern frames of mind.

This recording was made live in concert and its program displays different aspects of the secular music of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Poetry becoming Music

Before as in the present, the songs treat fundamental themes inherent in human nature. Love, happy or unhappy, the simple pleasures of life, such as the return of spring, society, but also the powerlessness of Man in the face of his destiny, his despondency sometimes, and all his emotions, touch us in the present as before. Choosing pieces which speak to us, we strive to give them a living interpretation, which projects the expressive power of the music, entirely symbiotic with the poetry of the text.

A guiding principle to us while working with this repertoire is the poetry: Whether the composer was the poet or not, the music is always there to serve the text. Therefore every decision we make is linked to the poetry. One example is the Virelai Mors sui by Guillaume de Machault. Amongst musicologists the Virelai is still considered a dance form, but hearing Machault in this dark, dramatic piece we could not ignore the fact that he himself was a great poet as well as a marvellous composer; thus we chose to approach this piece as a narrative form. We underlined the text, if you will, using an improvised lute part that reacts to the singer’s sorrowful declaration of love.
The Italian madrigals by Niccolò da Perugia reveal a world where nothing is what is seems to be. His compositions refuse to fall into the scheme and structure expected from them. Both O sommo specchio and La fiera testa are through-composed madrigals, the latter being a so-called caccia, which stands for the “hunt” or the “chase” between the two upper voices. As in other heraldic madrigals, this piece describes the coat of arms of the Visconti family. Niccolò’s compositional style is his own particular answer to the Italian as well as the French Ars nova.
Already in the Middle Ages it was common practice of instrumentalists to play diminutions upon a voice, most frequently the superius (the top part) of a chanson. In this recording we incorporated pieces in diminution from two of the main sources which reveal this technique, both from the early 15th century. Indescort stems from the codex Faenza and Adyen mes tres belle from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch. To the latter a contratenor (a lute part) was added to fill out the texture. Further diminution was added to the flute parts of Binchois’ Tristre Plaisir and the brilliant Belle que vous ay mesfait by Guillaume Dufay.

Ori Harmelin, Elodie Wiemer


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