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Saturday morning quotes 5.16: Two by Sermisy

September 5, 2015

prodigalAs a duo specializing in polyphonic music of the 16th century our primary focus has been performance of surviving repertory for solo voice and lute. While there is an ample supply of historical music that survives in this format, there also exists a vast amount of 16th-century vocal polyphony that not only adapts well to arrangement for a solo voice and lute but is improved upon when performed with this appealing combination.  In many cases the meaning of the text is brought to the fore and made clear without the competing distraction of vocalization of the lower parts which can, insensitively rendered, devolve into a shouting match.  The lute solves the problem by proffering a sensitive and transparent filigree of wordless dialogue.

We have added many new arrangements to the canon by following instructions of historical figures including Adrian Le Roy (A Briefe and Easye Instrution…, 1568, 1574), and Vincenzo Galilei (Fronimo Dialogo di Vincentio Galilei, 1568, 1584).  The historically-appropriate process of arrangement, or intabulation, has been a truly enlightening experience and has given us as performers important insights and a way to become intimate with the compositional style, devices and musical personalities of several sixteenth-century composers of vocal polyphony.

Today we share a snapshot of our process with a short description of two pieces by one of the best known proponents of what we have come to call the sixteenth-century Parisian chanson, Claudin de Sermisy (c. 1490 – 1562).

“During the first half of the sixteenth century the music publishing industry created a market among ever-widening circles of amateur performers.  Not every circle could muster the forces or the sophistication to cope with the courtly chanson in its original part-song guise.  Arrangements for keyboard and intabulations for lute and other fretted instruments helped many amateurs—the professional musician could improvise or arrange his own versions, of course, without such aids.”

– Daniel Heartz, “Au pres de vous”, Claudin’s Chanson and the Commerce of Publishers’ Arrangements”, Journal of the American Musicological Society , Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1971), p 209.

Au pres de Vous

Au pres de vous secretement demeure
Mon povre cueur sans que nul le conforte
Et si languist pour la douleur qu’il porte
Puis que voulez qu’en ce tourment il meure.

Beside you secretly dwells
My poor heart with none to comfort it,
Thus languishing for the pain it bears
Since you will that in this torment it die.

Our inspiration for arranging this chanson for solo voice and lute was the illustration above and a descriptive article by Daniel Heartz, who examined the painting known as “Prodigal Son among the courtesans,” (Franco-Flemish School, 16th century: Paris, Musee Carnavalet, P619).  Upon close inspection Heartz discovered on the table a visible musical fragment of Sermisy’s chanson, notation and a scroll of lute tablature from which a singer, lutenist and flautist are playing.

The four-voice chanson, Au pres de vous, appeared in Attaignant’s first publication, Chansons nouvelles en musique a quatre parties, 1527-8, with a few subsequent reprints.  We consulted copies of the original and carefully matched the music to surviving intabulations for solo lute, including a Bavarian lute manuscript where it is attributed to Marco Dall’ Aquila (c.1480 – 1538) and in the print, Des chansons reduictz en tablature de luc à trois et quatre parties, published in 1545 Louvain by Pierre Phalèse.

Our performance of Au pres de vous may be heard here.

Las je m’y plains

Las! Je m’y plains, mauldicte soit fortune,
quant pour aimer je n’ai que desplaisir.
Venez, regretz, venez mon coeur saisir,
et le monstrez a ma dame importune.

Alas! I bewail my evil fortune
As for love, I credit that displeasure
Come regrets, come seize my heart
And remonstrate my importunate lady.

Las je me plains is Sermisy’s setting of the poetry of Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585), a simple, wistful and melancholy text with a transparent musical character that seems to look ahead to a more flowing and sensuous melodic style.  The four-part setting appears in Attaignant’s Trente et sept chansons musicales a quatre parties, Paris,1531.

An intabulation for solo lute appears in the very earliest prints of lute tablatures by Francesco da Milano, including the undated Intabolatura da leuto del divino Francisco da Milano novamente stanpata, printed from engraved copper plates, an unusual practice in 16th-century music printing and rarely seen again until the early 17th-century prints of Nicolas Vallet. A single copy of this unique print survives in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Our performance of Las je m’y plains may be heard here.

The 16th century intabulations for solo lute served as a useful guide for pitch and decoration but they also revealed other important interpretive clues. Like most music that is or was popular, the poetry communicates to much better effect when the part music is transposed downward and pitched in the same range as the versions for solo lute, imparting a greater warmth and offering further evidence of an entirely flexible and adjustable historical pitch standard.

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