About this Recording
8.573325 - STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART - The Chansonnier Cordiforme (Ensemble Leones, Lewon)
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Straight from the Heart – The Chansonnier Cordiforme

 

Probably copied in about 1475, the heart-shaped songbook was created for a priest named Jean de Montchenu, then living in Geneva. The style of the decorations points to the Savoy court circles, and Jean de Montchenu was in those circles during the early 1470s, as the mignon of the Bishop of Geneva, to be supplanted in that role early in 1476. Since 1460 he had been a papal protonotary and in 1477 he was named bishop of Agen, at which point his coat of arms, on the first page of the songbook, would have given a clear sign of his promotion.

Jean de Montchenu was plainly a rogue. A chronicler of the time described him as ‘an especially treacherous individual, shameful of conduct, unchaste, detestable, dissolute and full of all the vices’ (vir sceleratissimus, et inter omnes turpissimus, inverecundus, detestabilis, dissolutus, et omnium vitiorum plenus). All those features are well described elsewhere; during his time as bishop of Viviers, he brought some outrageous law-suits, many of them apparently motivated by sheer greed. He was also at one point excommunicated. Evidently, though, he had a highly cultivated taste in music.

Few music manuscripts are lovelier. It is not so much the decorations on every page, because they rather dwindle as the manuscript progresses (as though prepared to a deadline with time running out: plainly the decorations would be the last thing to be entered in a manuscript of this kind). What counts more is the quality of the parchment, the quality of the stave-ruling, the quality of the music-copying and—to a lesser extent—the quality of the texts. This is a beautifully prepared manuscript.

But its really stunning feature is of course its heart shape. So far as anybody knows, this is unique. There are a few surviving examples of books that are the shape of a clove of garlic, opening up to take the shape of a heart; there are also two fifteenth-century paintings with such books—both, incidentally, by the Brussels painter known as the Master of the View of Ste Gudule. But there seems to be no other example that is already in the shape of a heart when it is closed, opening up to become a slightly different-looking heart.

It is easy to underestimate the difficulty creating a book that looks like a heart both when it is closed and also when it is open. And even more difficult is covering the binding with velvet. Any covering for a book becomes complicated the moment that the cover is not rectangular. But the Chansonnier Cordiforme has four round bends and two sharp angles. Certainly Fernando Grau Orellano, the publisher of the beautiful modern facsimile of the manuscript, viewed this as his greatest challenge, despite all the facilities offered by modern binding methods. (Valencia: Vicent García Editores. The facsimile costs €3000, but is eminently worth it if you have the money to spare: when I compared the facsimile with the original in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the custodians put aside a considerable length of time to assure themselves that I had returned the original, not the astonishingly precise facsimile.)

Like many decorated manuscripts of its time, the Chansonnier Cordiforme is on very thin parchment, with the stave-lines ruled precisely back-to-back to aid the clarity of the image; similarly, the decorations are precisely back-to-back, so that a figure with a bow and arrow facing to the left on fol. 3r will be matched by one facing right on fol. 3v.

One further unusual feature of the Chansonnier is worth mentioning here, namely the quantity of text added to the lower voices. In the most famous chansonniers of the time—particularly a group apparently copied in the Loire Valley—text is applied only to the top voice, except in the very rare cases of ‘combinative chansons’, where there are different texts to the lower voices. And there has been some dispute as to whether the songs were devised to be performed with just one singing voice and two accompanying instruments or whether the texts were confined to the top voice purely as an economy and in order to make the pages look elegant. Cordiforme is the largest collection with fuller texting in the lower voices: most of the other examples are either tiny or fragmentary. But it does look now very much as though all voices could be sung and texted; in almost all chansonniers only one line of text is underlaid, so for the later stanzas the singers would in any case need to align the text to the music without a visual aid; and a second glance at the Loire- Valley chansonniers tells us that the upper voices are not texted with any precision—that is to say that the text underlay that happens to be present gives very little clue as to the appropriate texting, and in some ways it is easier to add text appropriately to the untexted lower voices. In any case, within the last twenty years there has been an increasing belief that the lower voices of the fifteenthcentury song repertory are suitable to be sung and to carry text. And it is therefore very good to hear this being done with so many of the songs on the present recording.

With 43 songs, this is about the size of many chansonniers from those years. But we cannot strictly call this a chansonnier: certainly 30 of the songs are with French text, but 12 have text in poorly copied Italian and one has a Spanish (Castilian) text that the copyist seems to have thought was Italian. What is interesting is that the Italian and Spanish songs come at the start of the manuscript, despite the copyist’s evident difficulty with these languages. But these include some of the earliest songs in the manuscript, so perhaps they are pieces that Jean de Montchenu collected during his time at the papal court in about 1460.

Moreover, many of the Italian-texted songs—quite unlike the French-texted songs—betray signs of belonging to an unwritten or semi-written tradition. Ben lo sa Dio [9] does in fact exist in several different versions, all of them plainly having the same music at base. The same could be said of Perla mya cara [19], though the only other copy of that has music that is almost entirely different. And La gratia de vos [17] may well be one of the earliest surviving polyphonic songs with Castilian text: its oddly homophonic style seems to prefigure some of the pieces in the far later Cancionero de Palacio, but the harmonic style is definitely from the first half of the fifteenth century. This is why all three songs are interpreted rather more freely on this recording. On the other hand, the Italian songs also include Dufay’s Dona gentile [12], certainly the latest of his known songs with Italian text, probably from around 1450 and one of the most technically sophisticated of his late works.

When we turn to the thirty French-texted songs here we encounter yet another feature of the special character of the Chansonnier Cordiforme, namely the very high proportion of the most widely copied songs of that generation that are contained here. Judging the popularity, importance or influence of particular works can be a risky business. But there are various indications available to us: first of all the number of manuscripts that contain the song; second, the number of later compositions based on the song; third, the number of references to the song in other poetry of the time; and fourth, the number of ‘contrafact’ poems devised for the music. Using those criteria, it is easy to judge that several pieces here are absolutely among the favourites of their time—including, among the songs on this recording, Hayne van Ghizeghem’s De tous biens plaine [4], Binchois’ Comme femme desconfortee [5], Ockeghem’s Ma bouche rit [15], Morton’s N’aray je jamais [11] and Le souvenir [8] and Vincenet’s Fortune, par ta cruaulté [6].

And that is the context for the two pieces here that are not actually from the Chansonnier Cordiforme. Probably at about the same time as Cordiforme was being copied Johannes Tinctoris made several arrangements based on famous songs: in the two cases here he kept the original tenor but added a discantus voice that was vastly more florid, albeit keeping the melodic outlines of that voice. There are literally hundreds of such arrangements surviving from the later years of the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth, to some extent testifying to the continued popularity of these works.

Quite when that tradition fully took root, it is hard to say, but there are already a few examples in the Chansonnier Cordiforme: Chiara fontana [10] (the only twovoice piece in the collection) plainly parodies the everpopular J’ay pris amours; Ma bouche plaint [16] is based on the materials of Ockeghem’s Ma bouche rit; and Comme ung homme desconforté [18] paraphrases Binchois’ Comme femme desconfortee.

Which is why it seems worthwhile to say a few words about Hayne’s De tous biens plaine. With 30 sources currently known, it is by far the most often copied song of its generation. My own calculations yield 54 later pieces based on Hayne’s material; and all but seven of these look as though they were composed before the year 1500. Hayne’s piece is hard to date: he was described as a young boy in 1457, and it first appears in the sources in the years just before 1470. That almost 50 known pieces were based on it in those thirty years is astonishing. But even more astonishing—and worth stressing here because of the wonderful performance of it on this recording—is that this is a song with very few of the features you would associate with the best music of its generation. None of the striking and elegant melodies that characterize Ma bouche rit, Fortune, par ta cruaulté, Comme femme desconfortee or N’aray je jamais, none of the textural refinement of Dona gentile or Helas, n’aray je jamais mieulx 2, none of the startling harmonic turns of Fortune, par ta cruaulté. The discantus line is hardly memorable; the bassus suffers like so many such lines from that first generation of composers who decided to have a separate bottom voice in a register distinct from the others (starting a trend that would dominate almost all music until at least the early twentieth century), namely that it returns far too often to its tonal centre of G; only the tenor line has any claim to individuality. But there is worse: there are two terrible contrapuntal flaws near the end, which will strike the ear of anybody familiar with the repertory: one of them is in fact corrected in several manuscripts, but the Cordiforme reading is surely correct; the other appears in all sources. These are very rare flaws in a repertory where everything is calculated on control, on elegance, on restraint, and where the general texture of only three voices (at a time when motets and mass cycles were almost always in four voices) means that any contrapuntal problem strikes the ear all the more strongly. I hope this marvellous recording will pave the way for a new generation of listeners to understand the song’s qualities.

David Fallows

Notated Repertoire and Unwritten Practice

Despite several decades of research, passionate debate and practical experiment, the question of performance practice regarding chansons of the Burgundian Period has not been settled. Historical documents are largely silent on the subject of performance, but some seem to indicate that for these repertories voices were at least occasionally accompanied by instruments. However, whether or not these songs were sometimes played on instruments or if voices and instruments were commonly mixed in practice, these are essentially vocal pieces. We have, therefore, decided to not only give a representative cross-section of the manuscript’s repertoire (both Italian and French), but also to offer a portfolio of possible instrumentations in order to accommodate the different performance options while at the same time giving preference to the voices. The abundant texting of the tenor and contratenor in this manuscript encouraged us to take the texting for these voices even further, rather than having them sung as melismas (as might be suggested by most chansonniers of the time with their generally untexted lower voices). As a result, this recording presents a number of pure a cappella renditions [4] [10] [14] as well as versions with instruments doubling the singers [1] [9] [15] with a full texting of all voices. Another plausible option is the substitution of a subordinate voice (the contratenor) with an instrument, while the contrapuntal core of cantus and tenor is texted and sung—such as in [5] and [12]. The obvious choice when combining voices and instruments, however, is to have the cantus sung and the (usually) untexted voices of contratenor and tenor played on instruments—either with a maximum of tonal blend, using two bowed instruments [17], or by accentuating their individual functions, giving the contratenor to a plucked instrument [2] [11]. In some cases, the tenor displays such a strong and independent melody that it can easily be performed as the only sung voice, thus giving a new perspective to a piece [7]. Last but not least there is the documented possibility of a purely instrumental performance, either with instruments from the same family [6], or with a mixed ensemble [3] [16]. For instruments that could play polyphony soloistically, there is always the option of intabulating more than one voice, such as is presented in [18], where tenor and contratenor are combined on the plectrum lute. The musicians of the 15th century went even further than merely performing chansons on instruments, as is testified by a number of collections with instrumental diminutions of vocal pieces. A sample of such reworkings from a different source is given here with two diminuted versions of songs also found in the Chansonnier Cordiforme [8] [13].

Finally, there seem to be traces of an unwritten tradition especially in two of the Italian songs of the cordiform manuscript which point to a practice of accompanied monody typical of 15th century Italy. Ben lo sa Dio [9] and Perla mya cara [19] both could be remnants of this known practice, of which—due to its unwritten nature—we do not have any clearly notated examples. We have chosen to sacrifice parts of their written out counterpoint in our arrangements and attempted to trace back a possible monophonic version with an accompaniment on an early “Orpheus instrument”, the lira da braccio. The arrangements on the lira roughly follow the harmonic structure of the polyphonic chanson but also introduce idiomatic features of the instrument. In Ben lo sa Dio, only the strophes are performed as a monophonic song, while the refrains are sung in the polyphonic setting of the manuscript. For Perla mya cara we extended the three strophes of the manuscript to a six-strophe version by adding verses from the same Giustiniani poem. Interludes with diminutions for the plectrum lute create a link to the unwritten practice of the instrumentalists from this era.

Marc Lewon


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