Renaissance love songs

After four weeks of abstract discussion, this seems like a good time to turn to a more concrete subject. Among the early music repertories which have attained a measure of success and recognition in the late 20th century, one conspicuous absence is the French secular song of the mid-15th century. This is both one of the most historically significant and achingly beautiful bodies of work in Western music. There is a sizeable volume of surviving sources, as well as ample contemporary commentary, yet this fine music is rarely put before the modern audience. Perhaps this failure can be attributed to both the relative success of the sacred works from the period, and the inherently contradictory nature of the musical material. I would like to describe these phenomena in more detail, as well as hopefully interest the reader in the songs themselves.

The impetus for the topic comes from the recent Vous ou la mort CD conducted by Erik Van Nevel on the Spanish label, Cantus 9607. This is one of a small handful of surveys centered on the Franco-Flemish chanson in the later 15th century, and the first by a front rank international ensemble in several years. The focus is on the music of Josquin Desprez, which occupies the final third of the program, and which is given quite a lead-in by the songs of contemporaries and earlier composers beginning with Dufay & Binchois. That earliest layer of Renaissance songs continues to receive some attention, most recently from the Hilliard Ensemble and Gothic Voices. The next generation of songs is still most thoroughly represented in sets from the early 1980s, by the Consort of Musicke and Medieval Ensemble of London, while Josquin himself has dedicated secular programs from Ensemble Clément Janequin and most recently a more obscure Australian all-vocal ensemble. My intention here is not to survey the discography, but some orientation does seem desirable. Although emphasizing Josquin, and including a few German works by related Franco-Flemish composers, the new Currende Consort disc is one of the most well-balanced introductory programs available for this repertory. The accompanying essay by David Fallows is one of the best short orientations I've seen, and valuable by itself. While having distinct merits, and displaying an indisputable technical prowess, the performances themselves often seem lugubrious, making this fine program somewhat less compelling than it might have been.

These songs display two major stylistic divisions, undergone in the span of about fifty years, and helping to show the clear double ramification of moving from the Medieval to the Renaissance. The program begins with Dufay & Binchois, who were the major figures around 1420 to make the major technical switch toward the third as a structural interval. This was arguably one of the most significant developments in Western music, and had the direct effect of allowing a more compact structure than had been used in the previous Ars Subtilior styles. However, the formalized themes and abstract melodic conceptions retained some continuity, and these were not displaced until new forms and styles began to assert themselves slowly in the 1470s, leading to the "full" Renaissance style of around 1500 in which music is intended to illuminate text. In many ways, Ockeghem was central to this break, because his songs are among the most formally sublimated, yet he also hinted at some later styles in conspicuous examples. Composers such as Compère were also important to the new "rustic" chanson which was to form a major influence for the declamatory style, of which Josquin wrote some of the most flamboyant early examples. The intervening period saw songs which might best be called technically Renaissance, but stylistically Medieval, and in many ways more "mannered" than the late 14th century songs to which this term is sometimes applied. Perhaps the most significant expression of this indirection was the degree to which songs were linked by mutual allusion, frequently reusing thematic material of all kinds. The analogy is close between this technique and the contemporary manuscript miniature with its interior vision and fine detailing. These practices spread from the chanson to the mass cycle, where they have become more famous in our time, but where they would have progressed far more slowly due to the relative scarcity of performance opportunities. Perhaps the apogee of this web of allusion comes with Busnoys, whose sophisticated songs have been largely ignored on record to date, in spite of a massive historical reputation.

In our increasingly secular world, the clear dominance of popular consciousness by the mass cycles from this era is perhaps surprising. I regard this as a foremost example of the masterpiece phenomenon in which later ideas have forced the cyclic mass into the mold of the symphony. Further, the greater duration provides listeners with a longer period in which to find bearings before a change, something which usually comes much faster in the related songs or motets. This lack of stasis in freely contrapuntal music can be a major problem for the listener accustomed to formal harmonic relationships, and indeed the same amount of material can be stretched into the much longer mass form without the impression of tedium. Later, the "problem" was solved by increased imitation between voices, effectively restricting the use of new material. The earlier songs can be fast moving in their melodic invention, and I have known more than one person to report a feeling akin to seasickness! Further, while the sacred texts are perhaps less directly expressive to the modern listener than they might be, it can be even more difficult to relate to the usual themes of courtly love. The topics can recall those of modern popular ballads, something against which the listener interested in this music is often reacting, and the grandeur associated with such an expression is a difficult sell compared to that evident in faith, even if it is not one's own. One factor which I have not seen remarked upon is that this style of poetry has its roots in the classical Latin of such masters as Ovid. The major composers would have typically learned these works in school, and the weight of fifteen hundred years is something I hear in this music, evaporating only with the modern romps of Josquin and others. Well, that is something to think about, and certainly increases the sense of awe for a vernacular poet such as Machaut, considering the historical centrality of his work.

This sort of historical lobbying would be inconsequential were it not for the superb quality of the songs themselves. Dufay & Binchois present a fine contrast, between the scope and striking originality of Dufay, who was surely the greater genius given his breadth and such jewels as Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys, and the direct expression of Binchois in masterpieces such as Comme femme desconfortée & Amoreux suy. The early harmony in thirds comes off rather turgidly in the present disc, and I find the aching languid character best conveyed by a more spacious presentation of clear texture, such as that used by Ensemble Gilles Binchois for their work on the early end of this repertory. Generally, the lugubrious style here is typical of groups which specialize primarily in sacred music, and surely an attempt to attract some of that audience by a more ceremonial pace. Likewise, the blunted tones & rhythms of the latest layer of repertory are effectively replaced by a more aggressive angular approach, such as Ensemble Clément Janequin have perfected in their Rabelais program. These discs make good comparisons, because they use a similar percentage of instrumental accompaniment, and overlap the present program at its beginning & end. The German works are perhaps more idiomatic, and the transition from one end of the repertory to the other is handled nicely by the unity of expression, but the frequently hazy diction can be a problem. Altogether, the renditions have been thought-provoking and illustrative for me, even if I do continue to prefer others.

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Todd M. McComb