The Gothic Voices

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Program: #94-12   Air Date: Mar 30, 1994

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from the ensemble The Gothic Voices directed by our guest on the program, Christopher Page.

Preservation of this program is made possible by a generous grant from Paul Bechter.

These are performances from the Holland Festival of Early Music at Utrecht 1993.

These broadcasts are are supported in part by Radio Nederland and the
Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I. Ars Subtilior. Much of the music on this program is also included in the recording by the Gothic Voices The Medieval Romantics on Hyperion (re-released on Helios as CDH55295).

Image result for Gothic Voices Christopher Page The Medieval Romance
There is a famous book which interprets the fourteenth century as the time when the Middle Ages finally went to seed like the crops in Autumn. Another describes it as ‘the calamitous fourteenth century’. Small wonder, therefore, if the music composed in France during the century of Guillaume de Machaut (d1377) has often been described as ‘mannerist’ and ‘precious’: terms that suggest decadence and escapism.


The performances recorded here spring from a different view of French music during the fourteenth century, for we believe that French song of the later Ars Nova can be described by a term that is both positive and evocative: Romantic. To be sure, these songs have been called Romantic before, but it may still seem rash to speak of ‘The Medieval Romantics’. Devotees of nineteenth-century music will object that there was no cult of genius in the fourteenth century, no passion for the wildness of Nature and no such nationalism as we associate with the 1800s. And yet if Romanticism implies a taste for beauty touched by strangeness, and if it is associated with a desire to expand the resources of musical language (and especially of harmony) with sheer profligacy of invention, then the second half of the fourteenth century in France was truly a period of Romantic composition.

This is not to say that every composer of the period was a Romantic artist. Most of the polyphonic songs produced in France between c1340 and c1400 are light and melodious, being neither ‘wayward’ (a term often used of this repertory) nor Romantic. The virelai Mais qu’il vous viengne a plaisance is a representative example of this style at its best. Nonetheless, in addition to these plainer songs we find others, many of them attributed to named composers, which reveal different priorities.

With the Romanticism of the fourteenth century—as with that of the nineteenth—a major priority is the sheer scale of what is attempted. To hear a thirteenth-century motet such as Quant voi le douz tans/En Mai/[Immo]LATUS, followed immediately by the four-part motet Alma polis religio/Axe poli/Tenor/Contratenor of the next century, is to sense that there has been a great expansion in the musical territory colonized for composition. The later work is longer, its harmonic language more studied but also more diversified, and its compass much wider (reaching two octaves, the limit of the human voice according to contemporary theorists). With its complex isorhythmic scheme, it is altogether a more grandiose and intellectually ambitious work than its thirteenth-century counterpart.

In the chanson repertoire of rondeaux, virelais and ballades, where the Romanticism of the later Ars Nova is principally to be found, the desire for expansive musical conceptions was closely allied (as it was to be five hundred years later) to an enlarged conception of melody. As early as the twelfth century, of course, some monophonic songs of the trouvères (not to mention some Latin songs) had been supplied with expansive, melismatic melodies, but the desire to stretch a long, measured melody over a large polyphonic frame was new in the fourteenth century. Among French composers of the Ars Nova this produced compositions going far beyond what could be accomplished in a thirteenth-century piece such as the motet just mentioned, Quant voi le douz tans/En Mai/[Immo]LATUS. In that piece, as it is performed on this recording, we hear first a monophonic song with its roots in the trouvère tradition, and then the same song as it was given mensural rhythm and placed above a vocalized tenor to make a motet, perhaps around 1240. As far as we can discern—for the origins of the polyphonic chanson in the fourteenth century are still obscure—this is one of the textures which passed to the fourteenth century and which helped to form the basis of chansons such as Guillaume de Machaut’s Tant doucement me sens emprisonnes, here performed as a duet comprising the Cantus and (vocalized) Tenor to display the mastery of Machaut’s two-part technique. The comparison with the thirteenth-century motet shows that the musical scope of Machaut’s piece is much greater than the Triplum–Tenor duet of the motet, largely because Machaut’s Cantus is so vast and needs so little support from the text. The thirteenth-century composer works syllable by syllable, but Machaut’s melismatic melody is directed, in particular, by a rhythmic elasticity which is entirely new to the fourteenth century and which merits comparison with some of the freedoms that were also ‘new’ in the nineteenth.

We hear this freedom again in the highly flexible melodic line of the anonymous virelai Je languis d’amere mort, or in the Cantus of Paolo da Firenze’s Sofrir m’estuet et plus non puis durer. Paolo’s piece demonstrates that the supposedly wayward rhythms of fourteenth-century song can be lyrical, even lilting, in their effect upon the ear, however strange they may look to the eye. In a similar way, the phrase-lengths in the Cantus of Quiconques veut d’amors joïr, a superb piece by an anonymous master, are so supple that they resist ‘the tyranny of the bar line’ at every turn.

There were many experiments with harmony among the medieval Romantics. As we leave the thirteenth century and enter the fourteenth century we become more confident that unusual harmonic effects may be tokens of a colouristic interest in harmony rather than the by-products of a compositional method. That kind of interest in harmony could coexist with the cerebral and calculating tendencies of all medieval composing, and indeed it could be advanced by them. The composer of Alma polis religio/Axe poli/Tenor/Contratenor, for example, is fascinated by a chord of Bb–G–D–G, and he exploits his isorhythmic scheme in such a way that the top three notes sound alone—so that the ear processes a simple chord of G—and then the low B flat enters in the Contratenor to tint the sonority in a most unexpected way. Many other examples could be cited from the pieces recorded here, but the master in this art is Solage, a composer who has left only ten securely attributed works, all of them experimental in various ways, and a high proportion of them in four parts (relatively rare in the chanson repertoire of the Ars Nova). His virelai Joieux de cuer en seumellant estoye, in four parts, is perhaps the summit of fourteenth-century Romanticism. The Cantus—the only part bearing the text—is a vast melody both in terms of its length and its width; it regularly spans a tenth or an eleventh within a few measures, a distance acknowledged by fourteenth-century theorists such as Jacques de Liège to represent the workable (if not the absolute) limit of the human voice. The other three parts are highly vocal in character, or in contemporary terminology, dicibilis (literally ‘pronouncable’). It is the essence of Solage’s achievement in this piece that the textless parts seem to strain towards the beauty and sufficiency of Cantus-style melody.

What signs are there that medieval composers recognized that the later fourteenth century had produced composers of profligate inventiveness—musicians who had lent a touch of strangeness to beauty? The surest indication that composers of the fifteenth century recognized that something very striking had happened in the recent past is to be found in the kinds of pieces that they chose to produce themselves. The highly controlled scale and harmonic language of chansons such as Dufay’s Je requier a tous amoureux, the same composer’s Las, que feray? Ne que je devenray? or Gilet Velut’s Je voel servir plus c’onques mais, are characteristic of much early fifteenth-century secular music and may be interpreted as a reaction against the luxuriance of later fourteenth-century composers such as Solage. When we turn to a mature composition of the mid-1430s, Johannes de Lymburgia’s Tota pulcra es, amica mea, we find a four-part technique completely unlike that of Solage. Lymburgia’s harmony is rigorously controlled so that almost every vertical sonority is a consonance, thirds and sixths are crucial building blocks of the music and fleeting rests are inserted in the texture to avoid dissonant colours that the ‘Medieval Romantics’ would have prized.

Christopher Page 


Quiconques veut d'amors joïr


Anonymous - Medieval


Je languis d'amere mort


Anonymous - Medieval


Joieux de cuer en seumellant estoye


Solage (fl1370-1390)


Quant voi le douz tans / En mai /  [Immo]LATUS


Anonymous - Medieval


Alma polis religio / Axe poli cum artica / Tenor / Contratenor


J de Porta (?-?)


C'est force, faire le weil


Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377)


Andrew Tusa (tenor)




Sofrir m'estuet et plus non puis durer


Paolo da Firenze (d1419)


Plus bele que flors / Quant revient / L'autrier jouer / FLOS FILIUS EIUS


Anonymous - Medieval


Tant doucement me sens emprisonnes


Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377)


Degentis vita / Cum vix artidici / Tenor / Contratenor


Anonymous - Medieval


Mais qu'il vous viengne a plaisance


Anonymous - Medieval


En ce gracieux tamps joli


Jacob de Senleches (fl1378-1395)


Comment qu'a moy lonteinne


Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377)


Margaret Philpot (alto)




Je requier a tous amoureux


Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474)


Las, que feray? Ne que je devenray?

Andrew Lawrence-King (harp)Christopher Page (lute)


Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474)


Je voel servir plus c'onques mais


Gilet Velut (fl early 15th century-?)


Tota pulcra es, amica mea


Johannes de Lymburgia (fl1400-1440)


II. The Voice in the Garden: Spanish Songs and Motets, 1480-1550 (re-released on Helios as CDH55298).

‘History is the essence of innumerable biographies’, wrote Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), while Schlegel (1772–1829) commented that ‘A historian is a prophet in reverse’. These are precisely the problems that beset any study of early music: much of the surviving music is anonymous, and because so little of it, comparatively speaking, has survived, the retrospective prophecies of music historians are based on fragmentary evidence. Consider the history of Spanish polyphonic song: no songbooks of Castilian-texted songs survive from before the end of the fifteenth century. Between them, these songbooks contain some five hundred songs; that is a fair number, one might think, but it is only the tip of the cancionero iceberg, to judge by the quantity of lyric verse dating from the period 1450–1530, the time when the first flowering of Spanish polyphonic song apparently occurred. However, these songs represent a notated repertory: there is plenty of extra-musical evidence to suggest that an improvised (or at least unwritten) song tradition existed much earlier in Spain. Any prophecies in reverse about developments in song forms, styles or themes must therefore take account of a practice we cannot hope to explore or describe.


The songbooks preserved in Madrid (the ‘Palace Songbook’), in Seville, Barcelona, Segovia and Elvas, present many unresolved mysteries, not least because they contain so many anonymous pieces. The attributions which are to be found in the songbooks explain why these manuscripts have long been associated with the households of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Most of the composers named there were singers who served at various times in either the Aragonese or the Castilian court chapels. Of these royal singers, Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470–1528) was undoubtedly the leading light, yet we know surprisingly little about his life. The bare facts are that he entered the Aragonese chapel in 1498, served there until the death of King Ferdinand in 1516 and subsequently joined the papal chapel in Rome before returning to Seville, where he held a canonry. There he passed his final years. It is immediately apparent from his cantus firmus Mass settings, which closely follow Franco-Netherlandish models in their subtle deployment of borrowed melodies, both sacred and secular, that he was a composer of considerable technical skill. Indeed, this is a technique that he extends, with a flourish of ingenuity, to one of his songs in the Palace Songbook. In Por las sierras de Madrid he combines four popular melodies, all well-known refrains, adding a fifth borrowing in the bass, a Latin gloss taken from the Acts of the Apostles, which punningly alludes to the polytextuality of the upper voices: ‘They tell out in many languages the mighty deeds of God’.

In his motets, Peñalosa is less concerned with artifice than with an expressive projection of the texts. These are generally devotional in nature, with Marian (Sancta Maria) and penitential (Ne reminiscaris) themes predominant. Peñalosa’s approach to text-setting in his motets—surely influenced by his studies with the Sicilian humanist Lucas Marineus who taught Latin to the members of the Aragonese chapel—is largely syllabic, with due attention to the correct accentuation of the words and melismas largely restricted to the penultimate syllable of a phrase. Often entirely free of borrowed material, these motets use the phrase structure of the text as the basis for the musical framework. Peñalosa exploited this expressive freedom to the full, notably in the four-voice Precor te, Domine, a meditation on the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Here the declamatory, homophonic sections intensify the affective character of certain passages in the text, the effect being rendered still more dramatic by the use of rests to offset these words.

Humanist tendencies are also apparent in the works of the poet, playwright and composer Juan del Encina (1468–1529/30). A little more is known of his life—his training at Salamanca, his period of service at the court of the Duke of Alba in the 1490s, and his subsequent sojourn in Rome—yet he appears never to have served in the royal chapels of Ferdinand and Isabella, even though he is the best represented composer in the Palace Songbook. This might suggest that the Songbook originated outside court circles, and it has recently been proposed that it was compiled in Salamanca as a student anthology, not a courtly collection. The high profile accorded to Encina in the Palace Songbook need not, however, tie the manuscript to Salamanca, especially in view of Encina’s penchant for dedicating his works to members of the royal family, notably the heir to the throne, Prince Juan, himself a keen amateur musician.

Most of Encina’s songs were written before he left Spain in 1499, and they represent a marked stylistic shift away from earlier pieces in the Palace Songbook (examples of which are to be found in Enrique’s Mi querer tanto vos quiere and the anonymous Harto de tanta porfía). The Encinian musical idiom, as epitomised in the love ballad Mi libertad, is essentially homophonic, the voices moving independently only in anticipation of the cadence point that clearly marks the end of each text phrase. This style was not, however, confined to the ballad, whose narrative function undoubtedly called for a simple, declamatory idiom, but was applied to the refrain song forms as in Los sospiros no sosiegan, a canción firmly in the courtly lyric tradition.

At the same time Encina, and his contemporaries serving in the royal chapels, cultivated the villancico, similar to the canción in its refrain structure (ABBA) but distinguished by themes (and probably melodies) of more popular origin. Songs such as the anonymous Passe el agoa or Dindirín, dindirín, both with curiously macaronic texts, have the character of popular melodies with simple accompaniments, perhaps reflecting older improvised traditions. Other villancicos, for example Gabriel’s La bella malmaridada, retain popular elements in the poetic refrain or estribillo (in this case the figure of the fair but unhappily married woman) and then elaborate them in courtly fashion in the subsequent coplas or verses, while retaining an essentially simple but not quite so basic musical idiom. Gabriel’s Yo creo que n’os dió Dios is altogether more refined, with its cascading scalic figures marking the end of the refrain. This mix of the popular and the courtly, of indigenous oral traditions and northern artifice, is characteristic of much of the songbook repertory, a musical equivalent of the blend of styles found in Isabelline architecture.

This blend is also apparent in the instrumental collections published during the sixteenth century in Spain. The Spanish kingdoms had long enjoyed a rich, improvised instrumental tradition, vestiges of which are to be found in the printed collections of vihuela music by Luys Milán (El maestro, 1536) and Luys de Narváez (Delphín de musica, 1538). Both were active in court circles, Narváez as a professional musician in the service of the Emperor Charles V, Milán as a courtier at the ducal court in Valencia. Their volumes are essentially tutors aimed at the wealthy amateur wishing to cultivate music, but not seeking to acquire the professional skills of improvisation. Other collections followed, including Venegas de Henestrosa’s Libro de cifra nueva (1557) in which the pieces by Fernández Palero and Julio da Modena are found. The fantasia and tiento are freely composed pieces with their roots firmly in the unnotated, improvised tradition; as the century advances these tend to draw increasingly on the compositional techniques of written vocal music in the manner of the Italian ricercar. Out of the art of improvising accompaniments to ballads, such as Paseávase el rey moro, grew another genre of supreme importance in Spanish music of the Renaissance: the variation.


Mi libertad en sosiego

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Juan del Encina (1468-1529/30)


A la villa voy

Andrew Lawrence-King (harp)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Passe el agoa

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Harto de tanta porfía

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Fantasia Tercer tono

Christopher Wilson (vihuela)


Luys de Narváez (fl1526-1549)


Por las sierras de Madrid

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470-1528)


Ne reminiscaris, Domine

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470-1528)


Dindirín, dindirín

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Fantasia Segundo tono

Christopher Wilson (vihuela)


Luys de Narváez (fl1526-1549)


Ave, virgo, gratia plena

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Yo creo que n'os dió Dios

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Gabriel de Texerana (?1480-1528)


Fantasia 10

Christopher Wilson (vihuela)


Luys Milán (c1500-after 1560)


Precor te, Domine Jesu Christe

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470-1528)



Andrew Lawrence-King (harp)


Julio Segni (1498-1561)


Los sospiros no sosiegan

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Juan del Encina (1468-1529/30)


Paseávase el rey moro

Andrew Lawrence-King (harp)


Luys de Narváez (fl1526-1549)Francisco Fernández Palero  (d1597)


Mi querer tanto vos quiere

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Enrique (d1488)


Fantasia 18

Christopher Wilson (vihuela)


Luys Milán (c1500-after 1560)


Dentro en el vergel moriré

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Entra Mayo y sale Abril

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Anonymous - Renaissance


Fantasia 12

Andrew Lawrence-King (harp)


Luys Milán (c1500-after 1560)


La bella malmaridada

Gothic VoicesChristopher Page (conductor)


Gabriel de Texerana (?1480-1528)


Sancta Maria


Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470-1528)


Composer Info

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377), Solage (fl1370-1390), J de Porta (?-?), Paolo da Firenze (d1419), Jacob de Senleches (fl1378-1395), Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), Gilet Velut (fl early 15th century-?), Johannes de Lymburgia (fl1400-1440), Juan del Encina (1468-1529/30), Luys de Narváez (fl1526-1549), Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470-1528), Gabriel de Texerana (?1480-1528), Luys Milán (c1500-after 1560), Julio Segni (1498-1561), Francisco Fernández Palero  (d1597), Enrique (d1488)

CD Info

Helios CDH55295, Helios CDH55298

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