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Saturday morning quotes 2.6: 15th century music

June 30, 2012

“Fifteenth-century composers apparently conceived their music without regard for certain important elements that have since become an integral part of the the compositional process.  Thus, they left to the imagination of performers the tasks of fitting each syllable of poetry to the music, of adding accidentals, and of creating a specific sonority by selecting appropriate combinations of voices and instruments.”

“How the composer’s intentions were realized in actual sound would have depended on the intelligence and musicality of the performers—on how well they understood the “meaning” of the music—to a much greater extent than today, and any one version of a piece would have varied according to the forces available and the acoustical environment in which the performance took place.”

– Howard Mayer Brown, “Instruments and Voices in the Fifteenth-Century Chanson.” Current Thought in Musicology, ed. John W. Grubbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976) p. 90

Today, we share a few quotes excerpted from an article by Howard Mayer Brown (1930 – 1993), a musicologist and renaissance specialist whose work brought to light many important aspects of performance of old music.  We have mentioned his work previously in connection with a series of posts (#35 – #37) on the interpretation of medieval music, as an advocate for a more flexible interpretation of music for which no performance indications survive.

Brown makes a case for the use of the lute accompanying a solo voice by playing the lower parts of  the typical three-part 15th-century chanson, based on iconography, good common sense, and surviving evidence:

A fragmentary manuscript discovered some years ago in Bologna by Hans David contains an arrangement of Vincinet’s Fortune par tu cruaulté for solo voice and lute, in which the lute plays the lowest two voices…The manuscript is bound with a mathematical treatise printed in 1484, and so the music may date from the last quarter of the fifteenth century. [p. 103]

Our recording La Rota Fortuna has several examples of this format, to which we add a video of our unique version of ‘Myn hertis lust’, by John Bedyngham (fl.1450) from a 2009 performance of our program, “The Tudors”,  a four-part lecture/recital series exploring the musical, social, religious, and political developments of the turbulent 118-year Tudor reign.

‘Myn hertis lust’ is a rhythmically nuanced musical setting by Bedyngham of a rhyme royal text. Arriving at a convincing performance edition of this piece was a challenge, since the text of the original found in the Mellon Chansonnier (c. 1476, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) was quite corrupt. The piece was apparently copied into the continental manuscript by a person with a vague understanding of the English text, creating an interesting problem in text underlay for the editor.

Myn hertis lust, sterre of my confort
Which is the guide unto my parfaite liffe,
Cherti, that welle of plesance and disport,
Whom that y serve with herte atentiffe,
And sithe for you is my care and striffe,
Off womanhede so have upon me routhe,
Sithe y, pray you, mene veray and trouthe.

There are several other recorded interpretations of ‘Myn hertis lust’, most of which employ a vocalized rendering of the untexted lower parts.  We feel that our version (for its faults as a live recording) is a example of using Brown’s advice by employing our “intelligence and musicality” to communicate the text and rhythmic subtlety in a more transparent and accessible manner.  After all, it’s a song that was meant to be heard and understood, rather than an oddment that belongs in a museum.

For those who would like to try their own interpretation, a printed facsimile of the Mellon Chansonnier with transcriptions is available: The Mellon Chansonnier by Leeman L. Perkins and Howard Garey, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1979 ISBN 0300014163 (0-300-01416-3)

  1. Response to a comment from a My Face reader, posted here for organizational purposes:

    That “Howard Mayer Brown’s views on this matter are not widely shared” is really the crux of the matter. Page and his adherents to the ‘a cappella heresy’, which we have mentioned several times in previous blog posts (where the reference you mentioned is cited as well), really invented an interpretive style and advanced it in a manner that rather thumbs its nose at the surviving evidence and has done so in a dismissive and, yes, with a puritanical self-righteousness reminiscent of other dogmatic types we hear about in the political realm today. Vocalization of untexted parts in secular chansons of the 15th century is no more than a theoretical approach to interpretation. Unfortunately, this theory has been advanced for commercial reasons by the Oxbridge types with the full cooperation of record labels.

    The upshot is vocalization works, sometimes. Assigning the lower parts of untexted secular chansons to the lute also works, sometimes. There is scant evidence to support either approach, or one approach over the other. Taste dictates which should prevail for a given historically-informed performance today, and we have heard quite a few unconvincing recordings of both all-vocal and instrumentally assisted approaches, particularly with inappropriate instrumentation and also with unconvincing vocalization delivered with indifferent tuning and blend.

    The final word is that even Page and Leech-Wilkinson agree with Howard Mayer Brown; that the lute playing the lower parts of a secular chanson is an entirely convincing and historically defensible solution.

  2. And another response to a comment from the lute list:

    The same idea (of performing some three-part vocal music as voice +
    lute) presumably applies to the textless (some say, ‘instrumental’ )
    chansons too? I.e.: two lutes or high-pitched instrument and lute.
    It’s an obvious question: but what about when the two lower parts cross
    (frequently)? And when a complicated phrase is repeated in both lower
    voices and is physically impossible to play on the lute?

    These three-part pieces – as they exist – are three weaving,
    independent, lines. But as lute+solo they become something quite

    Looking through (for example) lots of Dufay three-part songs, the two
    lower parts really don’t easily fit on a lute (and retain their

    So: do you think that ALL three-part songs from this time are possible
    candidates for solo+accompaniment – or just those where the lower lines
    don’t cross much and, even if simplified for the lute, still are two
    independent lines played on one instrument? Stuart

    Pertaining to a successful arrangement, or intabulation for solo voice and lute, I think answers to your questions depend upon your approach to the music and on your goals, and I’m fairly certain these same questions arose when the music was new. For instance, the music you choose to arrange should have an interesting and shapely superius that conveys the poetry and is musically worth highlighting as the most important independent line. Chansons with densely interwoven lines that occupy the same register and cross frequently are probably best left for a cappella or other independent instrumental performance. Minimal part crossing can usually be handled on the lute by paying careful attention to the lines and giving them their due.

    Really, we need look no further than the examples left by Spinacino, Dalza and those found in the Capirola ms. Much of this music consisted of hits from the late 15th-century. And there is quite a bit of compositional variety, and music by some composers is more forward-looking texturally. For instance, Ockeghem’s chansons generally work well in arrangement for solo voice and lute, with a lighter texture, more tuneful independence in the part-writing and quite manageable (though strict) imitation when it occurs. Music by Binchois, on the other hand, is characterized by slower ‘harmonic’ movement and denser textures, and is best left for either fanciful decoration and divisions or for a cappella performance. The chansons of Robert Morton, Busnoys and Hayne von Ghizeghem all work remarkably well arranged for solo voice and lute. Chansons by DuFay, sometimes yes and sometimes no.

    Again, if you are approaching the music as some sort of holy relic that will be defiled by performance treatment possibly not condoned by the Oxbridge authorities, then you had probably better learn to sing. If you want to follow the line of development undoubtedly initiated by our fellow lutenists of the 15th century, you will choose the repertory carefully, observe the part-writing as faithfully as possible for the instrument, and make music that would likely have pleased Tinctoris and the rest of us as well.

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