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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

It seems no accident, then, that Du Fay and Binchois (fig. 11-6), the two most prolific masters of fauxbourdon were also the leading song composers of their generation. Nor is it a coincidence that the liturgical genre most characteristically treated in the fauxbourdon manner was the hymn, the most songlike of chant types.

Du Fay and Binchois

fig. 11-6 Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles Binchois, French followers of Dunstable and the contenance angloise, as depicted in a manuscript of Martin le Franc’s epic Le champion des dames copied in Arras in 1451.

Du Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-23 Gilles Binchois, Veni Creator Spiritus

Gilles de Bins, called Binchois (d. 1460) spent virtually his entire career as a court and chapel musician to Philip the Good, the long-reigning Duke of Burgundy, whose court was widely acknowledged to be the most magnificent in Western Europe at a time when art consumption was a prime measure of courtly magnificence. His fauxbourdon setting of Veni Creator Spiritus (Ex. 11-23) was written for Philip’s chapel. Compare it with Ex. 11-21 to see how fauxbourdon and faburden relate to one another. It is not just that the settings are pitched differently because of the differing placement of the cantus firmus. Binchois’s cantus part, while modest as such things go, is nevertheless an elegant paraphrase of the transposed chant melody. The embellishments occur mainly at cadences, where they invoke the typical formulas of the chanson style: the 7–6 suspension at the end of the first phrase (on Creator), the “Landini sixth” at the end of the second (on spiritus), and so on.

This is definitely an “art” setting, if a relatively unshowy one, and literate through and through, worlds away from the bald, nonfigural “sight” harmonization in Ex. 11-21. The artfulness is most apparent in the rhythmic design, which has been calculated with great subtlety both as to declamation and as to variety. The basic mensuration is that of tempus perfectum—semibreves grouped by threes into perfect breves. But Binchois applies hemiola at two levels, one above the basic mensuration (at the level of modus) and one below (at the level of prolatio). For an example of the latter, see the setting of the word gratia, where the cantus breaks momentarily into a trochaic pattern of semibreves and minims (quarters and eighths in transcription) that implies a grouping of three minims into perfect semibreves. And for the former, see what the tenor does immediately afterward (on quae tu creasti), where a series of imperfect breves (half notes in transcription) implies a grouping of three breves into perfect longs. That sort of supple, “natural” artfulness—artfulness within apparent simplicity—is the mark of a really successful assimilation of the “English sound” into the continental literate tradition.

We have already met Guillaume Du Fay (d. 1474) in chapter 8, and know from his extraordinary motet Nuper rosarum flores that he was an extremely ambitious composer. He had a brilliant international career, with phases in Italy (including a stint in the papal choir) and at the court of Savoy, a duchy in the Alpine region of what is now eastern France and western Switzerland, before returning to his native region as a canon at the cathedral of Cambrai, near the present-day border of France and Belgium. His setting of the Marian hymn Ave maris stella (previously encountered as Ex. 2-7a), while also fairly modest as befits the genre, is more ornate than Binchois’s and assimilates the chant melody much more thoroughly to the style of the courtly chanson (Ex. 11-24). As befits Du Fay’s glamorous career and his comprehensive stylistic range, even his hymn settings are unmistakably the work of the most enterprising composer of the age.

This greater assimilation is accomplished in two ways. First, Du Fay’s chant paraphrase is far more decorative than Binchois’s; there is nothing in the Binchois setting like the first measure of Du Fay’s, in which the plainchant’s opening leap of a fifth is filled in with what amounts to an original melody. The cadential structure of Du Fay’s setting is also much freer from that of the plainchant than Binchois’s—and quite purposefully so. The first cadence, for example, joins the finishing note of maris to the first note of stella, creating a stopping point on C, a note to which no cadence is made in the original chant. The alternation of cadences on C and D thus obtained in the first half of the setting is then replayed in the second half (C on virgo, D on porta), creating a bipartite structural symmetry not at all typical of plainchant melodies but very typical of courtly songs, whose “fixed forms” always comprised two main sections.

Du Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-24a Guillaume Du Fay Ave mars stella in fauxbourdon

Du Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-24b Ave maris stella with “contratenor sine faulx bourdon”

Even more boldly, Du Fay writes an alternate third part, labeled “contratenor sine faulx bourdon,” that replaces the “derived” fauxbourdon voice with a full-fledged contrapuntal line that behaves exactly like the traditional chanson contratenor. It occupies the same register as the tenor, with which it frequently crosses. The first crossing is a marvelous joke, in fact. The first measure of the new contratenor coincides with—or rather, is disguised as—the beginning of the fauxbourdon realization, so that when the downbeat G replaces the expected F♯ in the second measure, it comes as an attention-grabbing surprise. T hat G forms a chord with the other voices—a chord that simply cannot occur in a fauxbourdon. The contratenor stays under the tenor all the way to the end of the fourth bar, completely changing the harmonization of the chant-derived part and converting the setting for all practical purposes into a chanson. Then the contratenor reverts to its initial position above the tenor by leaping an octave, which (as we will see in a moment) was a most typical sort of cadential behavior for a chanson contratenor at this time. All in all, Du Fay’s setting shows him to be a singularly self-conscious artist and one especially aware of the distinguishing features and requirements of genres. As we have observed before, that sort of awareness enables an artist to play upon, and fully engage, the expectations of an informed audience.

Du Fay and BinchoisDu Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-25 Guillaume Du Fay, Craindre vous vueil

As an example of the sort of contemporary courtly chanson Du Fay’s hymn setting parodies, let us consider one of his own (Ex. 11-25). What to call it is already a problem, since it exists in different manuscript sources with two different texts, one in Italian and the other in French. The source containing the Italian text, Quel fronte signorille (“That noble brow”), also contains the note “Rome composuit” (composed in Rome), which would date it to Du Fay’s period of papal employment, between 1428 and 1434. There seems to be good reason, though, for believing that only the text was composed in Rome, and perhaps not even by Du Fay.

The French version, Craindre vous vueil (“To fear you is my wish”), is in the standard rondeau cinquain form, with a five-line stanza and corresponding refrain, and this fits the shape and cadential structure of the music very ingeniously. The poem has the rhyme scheme A A B/B A, with the slash showing the division between the refrain (first part of the music) and the remainder of the stanza. The music associates cadences on C with the “A” lines and cadences on G with the “B” lines. (By contrast, the Italian text has a four-line stanza, and the music ends with the cadence in m. 25—off the final. That seems a sure sign of clumsy contrafactum.) In addition, the French text embodies an acrostic linking the names “Cateline” (whoever she may have been; some suggest the composer’s sister) and “Dufai.” The music was more likely fashioned to fit it than the other way around.

The octave leap noted earlier in Du Fay’s “contratenor sine faulx bourdon” for Ave maris stella occurs in the very first cadence of Craindre vous vueil. It was standard contratenor behavior at cadences, alongside (and fast replacing) the “doubled leading tone” variety that had been customary in the fourteenth century (compare the second cadence a couple of measures later). Notice, though, that the “new” cadence is just another way of filling the same frame: the “structural pair” of cantus and tenor still make the cadence by moving from imperfect consonance to perfect consonance (here, from third to unison) in contrary motion. Yet another way of accompanying the same structural pair can be seen at the “medial cadence” of the rondeau. The superius and tenor again approach a unison; the contratenor, this time, does not leap up an octave, which would put it out of range, but drops a fifth to double the superius and tenor’s pitch at the octave.

Thus there is now a choice of three possible contratenor moves (summed up in Ex. 11-26) to accompany the obligatory cadence-defining movement of superius and tenor. They will coexist throughout the century, with the second steadily gaining on the first, and (with the standardization of four-part textures, to be described in the next chapter) with the third finally displacing both of the others.

Du Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-26 Cadential motion in superius/tenor pair accompanied by three different contratenors, doubled leading tone

Du Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-26b Octave leap

Du Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-26c “V - I”

With more than sixty courtly chansons constituting more than half his surviving output, Binchois was his generation’s great specialist in the genre, famous as a melodist both in his own day and in ours. Like Du Fay, he composed mainly rondeaux cinquains, but his greatest achievements were ballades. By the early fifteenth century, the ballade, the oldest and most distinguished of the courtly song genres, had become a genre of special grandeur, reserved for special occasions, chiefly commemorative and public. One of the grandest Franco-Burgundian ballades of all was Deuil angoisseux by Christine de Pisane (or Pizan, 1364–ca.1430)—one of the outstanding poets of the day, remembered now (in the words of the historian Natalie Zemon Davis) as “France’s first professional literary woman”8 —as set to music by Binchois for performance at the court of Burgundy.

By the time he set it, Christine’s poem was already an old and famous one, composed on the death of her husband, Etienne Castel, a notary in service to the king of France, in 1390. Christine remained a quasi-official French court poet and a partisan commentator on the Hundred Years War. Her “Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life” (L’Espistre de la prison de vie humaine) was intended in the first instance as a consolation to the widows left behind by the fallen heros of France on the battlefield of Agincourt, and at the end of her life Christine wrote “The Tale of Joan of Arc” (Le Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc), the earliest encomium to the intrepid Maid of Orléans, and one of the most authoritative, since it was the only one that dated from its subject’s lifetime.

It is a bit ironic, then, to find in Binchois’s setting of Christine’s early ballade (Ex. 11-27) a gorgeous epitome of the contenance angloise, the English-influenced style that testified so eloquently, if obliquely, to the ascendancy of France’s enemy. It is a veritable orgy of F-major “euphony,” opening with arpeggiations of the F-major triad in both cantus and tenor, sonorously supported by a pair of droning contratenors on the final and the fifth above. When the tenor reaches its high A at the end of the word angoisseux, the harmony sounding is the most brilliant possible spacing of an F-major triad: over the final.

This ravishing four-voice texture is the “big band” sound of the day, achieved by replacing the contratenor in a three-part version of the song (itself achieved by providing a contratenor to add harmonious sonority to a self-sufficient structural pair)with a pair of complementary contratenors to amplify the sonority. The lowest voice in the transcription could still function correctly as a contratenor by itself. It regularly makes its cadences by octave leap: see mm. 11–12, 21–22, 25–26, 28, 34–35, 44–45 (= 11–12), 53–54(= 21–22), the final pair of cadences recapitulating the first pair since this is a “rhymed” or “rounded” ballade, in which the ending of the “B” section quotes the ending of the “A.” The presence of the fourth voice makes it possible to complete the triad at each cadence by adding a third to the obligatory octave of cantus and tenor and the obligatory fifth of the contratenor.

Du Fay and Binchois

fig. 11-7 Christine de Pisane at her writing desk (London, British Library, MS Harley 4431, fol. 4).

Binchois’s Deuil angoisseux can tell us an enormous amount about the esthetics of fifteenth-century courtly art. It is a marvelously effective, even hair-raising outpouring of emotion, and yet it scarcely conforms to our own conventional notions of what makes music sound “sad.” Our present-day musical “instincts” demand that laments be set to extra slow, extra low music, harmonically dark (“minor”) or dissonant. (We also expect such music to be sung and played with covered timbre and a greater than ordinary range of dynamic and tempo fluctuation.) Binchois’s setting flatly contradicts these assumptions with its bright F-majorish (English) tonality, its high tessitura (especially in the tenor), and its very wide vocal ranges. Even the tempo contradicts our normal assumptions: the time signature carries a slash through it comparable to the slash in our familiar “cut time,” which places the tactus on the breve, not the semibreve, causing all the note values to be shorter (hence, to go by quicker) than normal.

Du Fay and BinchoisDu Fay and BinchoisDu Fay and Binchois

ex. 11-27 Gilles Binchois, Deuil angoisseux

What is conveyed, in short, is not private anguish but a public proclamation of grief, as suggested in the poem itself with an envoi addressed to an assembled audience of “princes.” The mood is one of elevation (hauteur in French): elevation in tone, in diction, in delivery, all reflecting the elevated social setting in which the performance took place. Hauteur had two specifically musical meanings as well, which relate metaphorically to the general concept: highness of pitch and loudness of sonority, both of which are exaggerated in Binchois’s setting of Christine’s lament. And rightly so, for fifteenth-century musicians still quoted Isidore of Seville, Pope Gregory’s contemporary, on the qualities of a good singing voice: “high, sweet and loud.”

Even “sweetness” comes in many varieties. To us it may connote a highly nuanced sort of tone production suitable for the subjectively expressive music of more recent centuries. The formal, conventionalized public rhetoric of the court called for a different sort of sweetness, the sort achieved by the “English” euphony of clear, uncomplicated, well-matched timbres, true tuning of harmonies, and sensitivity to the flexibly shifting rhythmic groupings we have already observed. Many scholars and performers have become convinced that the most desirable performing ensemble for a court ballade was one of voices unaccompanied by instruments, despite the absence of text in the tenor and the contratenors.9 The singers of these parts may have vocalized or ad-libbed textual abridgments.

Again we are reminded that music in performance is something different from music on the page, and that even the most literately conceived music (and no music was ever more literary than the fifteenth-century court chanson) must be mediated through oral practices and traditions in order to become sound. That is why the study of “performance practice,” which is precisely the collection and interpretation of evidence about the oral and unwritten, is and will always be one of the liveliest areas of “early music” research.


(8) Natalie Zemon Davis, foreword to Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea Books, 1998), p. xi.

(9) The strongest exponent of this view, both in scholarship and (with his ensemble, Gothic Voices) in performance, has been Christopher Page. See his Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (London: Dent, 1986). For a stimulating and wide-ranging critique of the attendant debate, see Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011014.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Island and Mainland. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011014.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011014.xml