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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

The musical literati from whom Tinctoris drew his didactic examples are the very ones whose works are found in practical sources throughout Europe irrespective of provenance. In the same preface to his book on mensural proportions in which he called Dunstable the fountainhead of contemporary music and consigned everything earlier to oblivion, Tinctoris cited an honor roll of his great coevals—a sort of musical peerage. Pride of place went to Johannes Ockeghem and Antoine Busnoys, who in their joint pre-eminence have, much like Du Fay and Binchois, haunted historical memory as a pair.

Ockeghem (d. 1497), the older of the two, came not from the East Flemish town of the same name, but from St. Ghislain, near the large town of Mons in the French-speaking Belgian province of Hainaut to the south. By 1443 he was a singer at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Antwerp, the leading church of Flanders. A déploration or chanson-lament Ockeghem composed on the death of Binchois in 1460 suggests a master-pupil relationship with the leading composer to the Burgundian court. It was at the court and chapel of the French king, however, that Ockeghem made his real mark, beginning in 1451. He became a great favorite of Charles VII, who elevated him to high church rank as treasurer of the royal collegiate church of St. Martin of Tours in the valley of the Loire, where the king had his winter palace. Under Charles’s successor, Louis XI, Ockeghem became concurrently a canon of Notre Dame de Paris. By the time of his death he was surely the most socially exalted musician in Europe, and the richest as well: he was a major rentier or urban property-owner, and rented out houses to many persons of means and even eminence, including Jean Fouquet, the great miniaturist and portrait-painter, Ockeghem’s court counterpart among artists.

The “Tinctoris Generation”

fig. 12-2 Ockeghem and his choir, depicted ca. 1523 in a manuscript from Rouen (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, Fonds Francais 1537, fol. 58v).

A famous manuscript illumination from around 1523 (Fig. 12-2) perhaps fancifully depicts Ockeghem (by then dead a quarter century) and his chapel choir. The great composer—famous for his deep voice and so advanced in age when he died that his official court eulogist, the poet GuillaumeCrétin, lamented his not reaching a round hundred years—must surely be the burly, bespectacled figure in the right foreground. The most valuable historical evidence in this picture is the placement of the choristers’ hands, visibly on the music rack and palpably on one another’s shoulders. The singers are not touching one another out of camaraderie alone: as contemporary writers confirm, their hands were busily employed in physically transmitting the tactus beat. As we will see, Ockeghem wrote some music that kept his singers’ hands quite full.

Busnoys (d. 1492), whose name suggests that he may have come from the town of Busnes in northern France, was Ockeghem’s counterpart (and Binchois’s successor) at the court of Burgundy, where he served as “first singer” to Charles the Bold (d. 1477), the last of the Burgundian dukes. As Ockeghem may have been a pupil of Binchois, so Busnoys may have received instruction from Ockeghem at Tours, where Busnoys served briefly during the 1460s, before joining the household of the future Duke of Burgundy. (Charles the Bold and Louis XI, Ockeghem’s patron, were bitter enemies; between 1467 and 1477, one may say with confidence, the two composers had few opportunities to meet.) After Charles’s death, Busnoys remained in service to his patron’s daughter Mary of Burgundy (who was also the niece of the English King Edward IV). Her death in 1484 extinguished the Burgundian dynasty. There is evidence that Busnoys now retired to the Belgian city of Bruges, becoming cantor at a parish church that was occasionally patronized by the Archduke (later Holy Roman Emperor) Maximilian, Mary’s widower.

Busnoys is perhaps the earliest major composer from whom autograph manuscripts survive, so that we know how he personally spelled his surname (often routinely modernized in the scholarly literature to Busnois). In a motet to his patron saint and namesake, the fourth-century Egyptian recluse St. Anthony Abbot, Busnoys worked his name into an elaborate multilingual pun that depends on the spelling with y to make (Greek) sense (see Fig. 12-3). Having received a master’s degree (possibly at the University of Paris), Busnoys loved to show off his erudition—in particular, his familiarity with Greek—in little ways like this. And he was by no means exceptional in this quirk; the fifteenth century was one of those times when intellectual attainments and cerebral virtuosity were considered appropriate in an artist.

The “Tinctoris Generation”

fig. 12-3 Autograph copy of Busnoys’s self-referential motet Anthoni usque limina (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royal Albert I, MS 5557, fol. 48v). The first pair of words in the first line of the text (ANTHONI USque limina …—“Anthony, you who to the furthest bounds …”)—and the last pair of words in the last line (Fiat in omniBUS NOYS—“that understanding may come to all”) contain a rebus of the composer’s name.

Busnoys also put his formidable linguistic, musical, and architectonic skills to work in praise of his great contemporary and mentor. The motet In hydraulis (“On the Water organs”), written sometime between his stay at Tours and his patron’s accession to the ducal throne in 1467, compares Ockeghem with Pythagoras and Orpheus, musicians of mythological stature. The motet is built over a pes, a repetitive tenor phrase in three notes (OC-KE-GHEM?) that is put through a series of transpositions that collectively sum up all the Pythagorean consonances (Ex. 12-1a). This whole complex of repetitions, moreover, which may be regarded as the color of the motet, is put through four complete repetitions, each of them under a different mensuration sign; the resulting speeds are calibrated to reproduce the same Pythagorean proportions—in another musical dimension, so to speak.

The “Tinctoris Generation”

ex. 12-1a Antoine Busnoys, In hydraulis, tenor layout

The “Tinctoris Generation”

ex. 12-1b Antoine Busnoys, In hydraulis, beginning of secunda pars (point of imitation on “haec Ockeghem”)

Ockeghem is actually named at the beginning of the second major section of the motet, and the phrase containing his name is turned into a musical emblem through a series of canonic entries (Ex. 12-1b). With its pes and its significant use of imitation and voice exchange, In hydraulis might be looked upon as a distant, university-educated descendant of the old Sumer Canon.

Ockeghem returned the compliment in the form of an even more elaborate motet called Ut heremita solus (“Lonely as a hermit”), of which the text has been lost, but whose incipit seems to combine a reference to Busnoys’s hermit patron saint with an encomium, loneliness often being a trope for eminence (as in “it’s lonely at the top”). The tenor of Ockeghem’s motet is based on a six-note pes (AN-THO-NI-US BUS-NOYS?), to realize which requires solving an immensely difficult puzzle. (Compliments, at this rarefied, snooty level, are often hard to distinguish from challenges.) Most telling of all, its opening puts a variant of the same phrase that had carried Ockeghem’s name in Busnoys’s motet through another series of imitative voice exchanges (Ex. 12-1c).

The “Tinctoris Generation”

ex. 12-1c Johannes Ockeghem returns the compliment to Busnoys in Ut heremita solus

Besides Tinctoris’s encomia to them, and their encomia to one another, there is further evidence in the surviving musical sources of the fantastic prestige that these composers achieved, and the veneration in which Ockeghem particularly was held. By all odds the most beautiful musical manuscript of the fifteenth century is a priceless presentation volume that contains Ockeghem’s virtually complete collected sacred works and some of Busnoys’s as well. It was commissioned in 1498 from the foremost scriptorium in Europe—the Flanders workshop of Pieter van den Hove, known as Petrus Alamire (“Peter A-above-or-below-middle-C”)—as a memorial to the just-deceased Ockeghem by a courtier to the French king Charles VIII, the son and grandson of the composer’s chief patrons. The intended recipient was possibly Philip I (the Handsome) of Spain, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian by Mary of Burgundy, Busnoys’s former employer. It was purchased by Agostino Chigi (KEE-jee), a great arts patron, for the collection of the rapacious Spanish pontiff, Pope Alexander VI (father of the notorious Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia). From there it went into the Vatican library, of which it is now one of the prize holdings. Fig. 12-4 shows a typically lavish opening from this manuscript, now called the Chigi Codex. The music shown is by Ockeghem, whose name appears at the upper left.

In addition to the superstars Ockeghem and Busnoys, Tinctoris’s cast of characters included several other important contemporary Franco-Burgundian or Franco-Flemish composers. Johannes Regis (d. 1496) served as Du Fay’s secretary at Cambrai during the last decade of the older man’s life. Caron, whose first name is never given in the musical sources and is consequently uncertain (Tinctoris calls him Firminus, but there are archival references to a Philippe Caron as well), most likely trained at Cambrai under Du Fay and served the Burgundian court alongside Busnoys. Guillaume Faugues is known mainly by his works and by Tinctoris’s references to him. Documents suggest that he received his early training at the cathedral of Bourges, France’s second city under Charles VII and Louis XI, in the early 1460s.

The “Tinctoris Generation”

fig. 12-4 Opening of Ockeghem’s Missa caput from the so-called Chigi Codex (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Chigi C.VIII.234, fols. 64v-65).

The composers named thus far are not known to have visited Italy, but only Ockeghem’s career is well enough documented to preclude the possibility of an Italian sojourn. Even in their physical absence, though, their music was widely circulated and performed in southern Europe, as Tinctoris’s wide and deep knowledge of it already attests. Their works, and the works of many lesser French and Flemish masters, make up the bulk of the repertory preserved in the massive choirbooks that were copied during the reign of Pope Sixtus IV (1471 - 84) for use at his newly built and consecrated personal worship hall, the celebrated Sistine Chapel. These choirbooks survive to this day in the Vatican library. In 1472, Ockeghem received a personal communication from Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza in Milan requesting help in recruiting French singers for his chapel. Several important composers of the early sixteenth century (among them Loyset Compère) who were too young to be noticed by Tinctoris, and who will therefore figure in a later chapter of this book, had their professional start in the Milanese court chapel choir around this time, possibly at Ockeghem’s recommendation.

Beginning with the generation after that of Ockeghem and Busnoys—the generation Tinctoris called “younger composers,” who were reaching maturity in the 1470s and lived into the next century—residence at the high-paying Italian courts became the rule. Their outstanding representative was Jacobus Hobrecht (better known as Obrecht, as habitually given in Italian sources), who after a distinguished career in Dutch and Belgian cities such as Antwerp, Utrecht, Bergen op Zoom, and Bruges was summoned to the magnificent court of Ercole I, the Duke of Ferrara, where he died of plague in 1505.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012002.xml