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Mignarda Concert Sets: “Fortuna desperata”

August 8, 2020

Medieval lute and singers2

“Chansons, polyphonic settings of elegant but highly formalized and stereotyped French poems, constituted the principal sort of secular music in western Europe during the fifteenth century…Some of the later fifteenth-century composers began to control and manipulate their free-flowing melodic lines by means of a network of motives and by imitation among all the voices, but the basic stylistic conventions were not overthrown until the advent of the equal-voiced imitative chanson a 4 by Josquin Des Pres and his near contemporaries… ”

– Howard Mayer Brown, “Instruments and Voices in the Fifteenth-Century Chanson,” Current Thought in Musicology, Edited by John W. Grubbs, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1976, p. 89.

Music on our Concert Set is drawn from the later 15th century, a time when the conventions of formalized poetry were giving way to more accessible and expressive forms.  We include a few chansons that were very popular for their time, and we perform them with the directness we believe was intended.  The more interesting chansons of the 15th century are quiet and transparent, and richly complex in terms of the counterpoint, phrase structure and rhythmical organization, with strict canon among the parts the norm rather than an exception.  Except for the later chansons of Josquin, music is fitted to complex poetical forms of the time; the formes fixes such as the ballade, virelai, and the rondeau, all of which follow a highly formalized repeat structure.

Popular imagery typically associates medieval music with unicorns and dragons, knights and castles, ladies with scoliosis wearing pointy hats. Performances frequently include costumes, ethereal atmospheric effects, unusual-sounding wind instruments, drones, miniature lutes, and all this performed in highly-reverberant recording space. These received modes of performance are really a modern invention that has more to do with Hollywood than with hard fact. Fanciful imagery and detatched performances more appropriate to sacred music create a false impression of secular chansons, since surviving historical remarks describing performances always comment on the intensity of passionate delivery. The purpose of all the intricate compositional detail is to convey the highly-charged emotional content of the poetry, which is not possible with the dispassionate, detached, and affected performances.

Our interpretations are probably quite unusual in that we tend to involve ourselves in the music and poetry as though it were current; treating it as we think real performers would have done rather than as fragile objets d’art on display in a museum. Listening to a recording in the intimate comfort of home is probably appropriate for the music, and so you get to enjoy what is probably a more authentic experience of music from more than 500 years ago.  A unique feature of our program is that, with the exception of the lute solo from a German source, all of the chansons on the program were intabulated for lute by Francesco Spinacino and published in the very first book of printed instrumental music, Spinacino’s Intabolatura de lauto libro primo and Intabolatura de lauto libro secondo, 1507.

We are presenting this program free to all for the time being.  Please scroll to the top of this page and donate if you can.

Our program opens with “Fortuna desperata”, a musical setting of an Italian poem that was enormously popular during the last quarter of the 15th century, with no fewer than five cantus firmus Masses based upon the melody by the likes of Obrecht, Josquin, and possibly La Rue.  For our purposes, the text of “Fortuna desperata” is drawn from the manuscript London 16439 (circa 1470s), where it is labeled a canzonetta intonata antica, indicating the poem was intended for a musical setting. Our version is based on the earliest form, ms Paris 4379.

Fortuna desperata, by Antoine Busnoys? (c. 1430 – 1492)

Fortuna desperata
Iniquita et maledecta
Che di tal donna electa
La fama hai denigrata,
Fortuna desperata.

Sempre sia bestemmiata
La tua perfida fede,
Che in te non ha merzede

O morte dispietata
Inimica et crudele,
Che d’alto piu che stelle
L’hai cusi abasata,
Fortuna desperata.

Desperate fortune,
Unjust and cruel,
Who has blackened the good name
Of a woman beyond compare,
Desperate Fortune.

May your treacherous faith
Always be cursed,
For there is no mercy in you.

O pitiless death,
Hostile and cruel
That abased her
Who stood higher than the stars,
Desperate Fortune.

“Je ne fay plus, je ne dis ne escrips” is a starkly emotional chanson that is attributed to Antoine Busnoys in two of its eighteen sources, but Danish musicologist Peter Woetmann Christoffersen has more securely ascribed it to the little-known Gilles Mureau (c. 1450 – 1512).  The poem has a complex and appealing rhyme scheme and is in the form of a rondeau tercet layé with only five lines in its refrain.  According to Christophersen, “Mureau shows an ability to make the upper voice seemingly ‘float’ upon the web of the lower voices. ‘Je ne fais plus’ is a particularly successful example of this, and it may be one of the reasons for the song’s lasting popularity.” Mignarda’s performance is based upon an intabulation of the tenor and contratenor lines found in the late 15th-century Thibault manuscript in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Res. Vmd MS 27, f. 54.

Je ne fay plus, by Gilles Mureau (c. 1450 – 1512)

Je ne fay plus,
Je ne dis, n’escrips,
En mains escrips
L’on trouvera me regrets et mes plains.

De larmes plains,
Le moins mal que je puis les des crips

Toute ma joye est de soupirs escrips,
En dueil et cris
Il est a naistre
A qui je m’en plains.

Je ne fay plus, etc…

Sil mes sens
Ont aucuns doulx motz rescriptz,
Ils sont parscriptz,
Je passe temps pars desers et mes plainss,

Et la me plains d’aulcunes
Gens plus traistres quant escris.

Je ne fay plus, etc…

I do no more,
I say no more, nor do I write
In many a writing
You will find my regrets and complaints.

Full of tears,
that is the least I can say about it.

All my joy is written in sighs,
in sorrow and weeping,
he has yet to be born,
he to whom I can complain.

I do no more, etc…

If my feelings
gave rise to any sweet words,
they are now no more.
I spend my time in regrets & complaints,

And I lament
For I am betrayed

I do no more, etc…

Our lute solo is an example of a written-down improvisation on the hexachord from the German Buxheimer Orgelbuch, a large collection of music in keyboard tablature that dates from between 1450 and 1470.  Some of the music in the collection is attributed to Conrad Paumann (c. 1410 – 1473), an organist and lutenist who is credited with the invention of tablature as a means of scoring polyphonic part-music that is otherwise only available in separate part-books.  Happily, Paumann’s keyboard music translates well to the lute, which is likely no accident.

Mi ut re ut – Venise (Buxheimer Orgelbuch)

“Mon mari m’a diffamée” is classified as a Pastourelle jolie:

“A pastourelle, in short, is a poem about social encounter and evasion.  It may rely on the coordination of a wide range of themes and devices, from narrative landscapes to amorous dialogues, drawn from courtly and popular lyrics.”

– Richard Freedman, “‘Pastourelle jolie’: The Chanson at the Court of Lorraine, c.1500,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 1991, Vol. 116, No. 2 (1991), pp. 162.


The music, very questionably attributed to Josquin, is rhythmically active and quite intricately contrapuntal, a fact that is disguised by the rustic (if anachronistic) theme of the poetry.  This chanson is an early example of the use of popular forms of poetry and music by the nobility, a fad that endured with the later French kings who enjoyed dressing as peasants and shepherds (without the poverty and privation), in a hidden corner of the palace at Versailles.  Mignarda’s performance accentuates the intended playful character of the piece.  Unique to our performance, additional verses were texted and added as found in the essential resource by Brian Jeffery, Chanson Verse of the Early Renaissance, London, 1971.

Mon mari ma diffamée, Anonymous/Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507)

Mon mari m’a diffamée
Pour l’amour de mon amy,
Pour la longue demourée
Que j’ay faicte avecque luy.

En dépit de mon mary,
Qui me va toujours batant,
J’en feray pis que devant.

J’ay veu quant j’estoie couchée
Entre les bras de mon amy,
Je n’estoie pas si fachée
Comme je suis au jourd’huy.

En dépit de mon mary,
Qui me va toujours batant,
J’en feray pis que devant.

J’ay esté mainte nuytée
Courir avec mon amy,
Que l’on me cuydoit couchée
En mon lict avec mon mary.

En dépit de mon mary,
Qui me va toujours batant,
J’en feray pis que devant.

My husband has slandered me
Because of my love for another.
Because of the long time
I have spent with him.

To spite my husband,
Who is always beating me,
I shall do worse than before!

When I was sleeping
In the arms of my beloved
I was not as cross
As I am today.

To spite my husband.

Many nights,
I have been with my lover
When everyone thought I was sleeping
In bed with my husband.

To spite my husband.

We complete our Concert Set with a setting of “Adieu mes amours” by Josquin Des Pres.  Unlike his contemporaries, Josquin refrained from setting forms like the rondeau and, while adhering to the mathematical musical intricacy of the time, he indulged in expressive melodic lines and was at the vanguard of what became the Parisian chanson.  “Adieu mes amours” was intabulated for solo lute by Spinacino (1507), Gerle (1533), twice by Hans Newsidler (1536) and by Benedict Drusina (1556).  Mignarda’s performance borrows bits from these intabulations to reconstruct our evocative version for solo voice and lute.

Adieu mes amours, by Josquin? (c.1450-1521) /Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507)

Adieu, mes amours, m’attend
Ma boursse ne’enffle ne n’entend,
Et brief, je suis en desarroy,
Jusquez a ce qu’il plaise au roy
Me faire avancer de content.

Farewell, my love, they are awaiting me.
My purse is not swelling or expanding
and, in short, I am in disarray,
until it pleases the king
to advance my dispute.

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Fortuna desperata…

*We close with a special note.  With the exception of “Fortuna desperata” all of the music on this program was performed on a bass lute from the workshop of Sandi Harris and Stephen Barber, who are currently facing very difficult health issues.  Lynda Sayce is constructing a web campaign to help ease the financial burden borne by another couple who have dedicated their lives to enriching the world with their art.  We will be providing links when the campaign is up and running.

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