Program: #19-25, Air Date: 06/10/19
This time founding member Don Greig takes us to the 15th century master and their latest recording.
NOTE: All of the music on this program is features the Orlando Consort and our guest Don Greig. The recordings are on the Hyperion label and is CD number CDA68236. For more information:
The reason is that the Orlandos are so experienced in this repertory that, nearly always, the choice of tempo and tone is spot-on (and tempo is perhaps the most important decision, given that absolute tempos are never indicated), which maximises the music’s communicative potential and more than compensates for the occasional vocal blemish (that this is fiendishly exposed singing cannot be overstated). The programme takes a while to get going: the choice of O tres piteulx as an opener is curiously muted and downbeat, and thereafter En triumphant de Cruel Dueil, which seems to me a touch slow given the voices involved. I imagine some may find the Orlandos’ overall approach corseted and overly cautious, as though hearing Dufay through the prism of their recent Machaut recordings. I can understand this, but in singing of such insight there is so much to learn. And as to the music – did I mention it earlier? – Dufay is simply astonishing.
For almost two hundred years now Dufay has counted as the most immediately accessible composer of the years before 1500. Of some 250 works now thought to be by him, around 90 are songs; and most of these positively jump off the page, so full are they of fresh ideas, both textually and musically. They mark him out as one of the world’s truly great song composers.
We don’t know exactly when he was born (the 1397 given in some sources is an unsupported guess: c1400 is the best we can do). But his early career was as a choirboy in Cambrai, now near the Belgian border of France; and at a fairly early age he was plainly in Italy, where most of his career between 1420 and 1439 unfolded. For political reasons he spent most of the 1440s back in Cambrai; he then spent much of the 1450s in Savoy (now shared between France, Switzerland and Italy) before returning for the last years of his life again to Cambrai, dying as a highly distinguished citizen in 1474.
When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Dufay composed four Lamentations, which he considered ‘assez bonnes’ according to a letter he wrote three years later. Only one, O tres piteulx, survives. That the other three works of his high maturity should have disappeared may just hint at how much else may be lost. We should be thankful for this one. It has two statements of the Latin tenor from the Book of Lamentations above which the discantus (top voice) text is of two stanzas with the highly unusual rhyme-scheme aba aab / bcc dcd. Perhaps a second pair of stanzas was originally present; but as it stands the form here is unique. It was conceivably addressed to the papal court of the Neapolitan Calixtus III, elected in 1455.
Je vous pri also runs different texts simultaneously, but in an entirely different manner. The tunes in the lower voices are evidently popular songs; above them the discantus has a perfectly standard rondeau stanza, in the more courtly tone of most of Dufay’s songs. Although there are a fair number of such ‘combinative chansons’, particularly from the 1460s and 1470s, this is the only example by Dufay. It differs from the others, as indeed from the remainder of Dufay’s output: there must be some question as to whether it is really his, as it is credited to him in only one of its six known manuscript sources.
La dolce vista must be an early work. Its text-repetition recalls the style of the last songs of Ciconia (d1413), who was also the major influence on the form of Dufay’s early motet Vasilissa ergo gaude (1420). Unfortunately its only source lacks four lines of text, but the style encouraged us to take replacement lines from the very similar poetry of Leonardo Giustinian (c1383-1446), also set several times by Ciconia.
Je me complains is a ballade and therefore perhaps originally had two further stanzas. But its truly remarkable feature is that the three voices occupy the same range, and in the melismatic parts of the song they wind around one another on a triad figure. This is the only time Dufay used that technique: it has its roots in the fourteenth century and with Guillaume de Machaut (d1377), but was very rare in the fifteenth century until the generation after Dufay took it up again. The song is dated 12 July 1425 in its only known manuscript.
Mon chier amy is also a ballade, this time with its full three stanzas plus an ‘envoi’ at the end. The text is a condolence to a friend, perhaps occasioned by the death of Pandolfo Malatesta in 1427. Or perhaps the reference in the third stanza to ‘Ces trois chapiaux’ is to the papal triple tiara, in which case the song could be addressed to Pope Eugenius IV at the death in 1431 of Pope Martin V: Dufay was employed by both. Either way, its lovely melodies are more of comfort than of regret, as is the text.
Malheureulx cueur is a virelai to a text credited to a certain ‘Le Rousselet’ (from whom we have six other poems): it addresses the poet’s wayward heart, which has caused its owner so much distress. The music, like the poem, is almost certainly from the 1450s and may be one of the last songs we have from Dufay. Its Phrygian mode (characterized by the cadences with a flattened second degree) adds enormously to the pathos of the song, as does the extraordinary economy of its means.
Ma belle dame, je vous pri is the first full-form rondeau on this recording, and it may repay the listener to understand this form, which was by far the most often used by composers in the fifteenth century. Basically, they have four stanzas, the first and last identical, the third having the same music but a different text; and the second stanza opens with the first half of the music but with new text and then continues with the first half of the music with the original text. One result is that in the form AB aA ab AB, the ‘a’ section of the music is heard three times in the middle of the song and only after the third of these does the music burst through to the ‘b’ section. The music here is characterized by the constant alternating between flattened and natural versions of the same note—something Dufay particularly favoured in the early 1430s.
Pouray je avoir vostre mercy?, also a rondeau, is one of several cases in which Dufay refers to a particular day in the courtly calendar: here New Year’s Day, on which the lover begs his lady to accept his approaches. Given that in these years Dufay’s only known association with a secular court was with that of the Malatesta, it is worth recalling that most northern Italian courts at the time seem to have favoured French as the language of their secular music.
Helas, et quant vous veray? is also a rondeau, but lacking any text beyond the first stanza. In this case we have not reconstructed anything, partly because its poetic metre (alternating lines of seven and three syllables) is not otherwise recorded in the fifteenth century.
But, as though to demonstrate the range of techniques possible within the rondeau form, Je ne suy plus tel que souloye sets the light-hearted poem of a man who has lost his sexual powers but delights at the confusion that would arise if they should return. Earlier commentators thought that this must have been autobiographical, composed when Dufay was an old man; but the manuscript survival puts the song well before 1430.
Je vueil chanter de cuer joyeux celebrates May Day, another popular event in the courtly calendar, and was also apparently composed in the 1420s for the Malatesta court. One clue to its origin could be in the acrostic, created by the first letter of each line, spelling out the name of ‘Jehan de Dinant’—presumably the poet but just possibly the dedicatee. Sadly, he has not yet been identified.
And we have the same unsolved identity problem in Ce moys de may, also a rondeau and also celebrating May Day. Here, a line in the third stanza appears to read ‘Carissime, Dufay vous en prye’, which led the great historian Kiesewetter in 1841 to conclude that the song was addressed to Dufay. Then fifty years later the Oxford chansonnier was discovered, giving Dufay as the composer. So scholars emended ‘Carissime’ to ‘Carissimi’, with Dufay thereby addressing the listeners. And of course attention then focused on ‘Perinet’ in the next line, apparently the poet. Sadly, he too remains unidentified.
Belle, que vous ay je mesfait? is fascinating enough for us to have reconstructed the six missing lines of text (borrowed from a rondeau in the text manuscript known as the Chansonnier de Rohan, No 478, where it appears close to several others poems known from musical settings). Its fascination lies in each voice being written in a different mensuration, as had happened in earlier songs by Machaut and Antonello da Caserta. This may be a purely notational matter, but it does have its impact in creating an added smoothness to the musical texture.
We conclude with five rondeau settings from Dufay’s mature years, perhaps composed in the 1450s. It was a memorable day in my life when I recognized that the poem En triumphant de Cruel Dueil (in the Chansonnier de Rohan, just mentioned) was the correct text of the Dufay song that appeared in its only musical source with a garbled text opening ‘Je triumphe de crudel duel’. It was not just that we thereby had another fully singable Dufay song, but that it was one of the most elaborate and florid of his mature songs. At the time I proposed that it had been composed in memory of Binchois (d1460) because its text includes the words ‘Dueil Angoisseux’ and ‘Triste Plaisir’, both famous from settings by Binchois, and the mid-point cadence reflects a passage in his Comme femme desconfortee. Others have convinced me that the song is a bit earlier than 1460, but I still think that the association with Binchois is present; and the bold style still suggests a special occasion.
Par le regard de vos beaux yeux survives in fifteen manuscripts, more than any other Dufay song apart from Le serviteur (seventeen). So it is all the more astonishing that it was not noticed or published before Heinrich Besseler’s complete edition of the Dufay songs in 1964. And the reason may well be part of the secret of this entire repertory: many of the best songs of these years are characterized by the lack of show, by the restraint of their expression. Its text is in some ways absolutely middle-of-the-road for love poetry from these years: total devotion to the lady, and apparently total confidence that she will respond to his entreaties. And the music, perhaps the most perfect of the songs that survive from Dufay’s mature years, is in all respects beautifully balanced and immaculately judged.
Vostre bruit et vostre grant fame is exceptionally formal in that the two texted voices have extremely literal imitation at the octave in each line, with the tenor leading in lines one, three and five, and the discantus leading in the other two lines.
But this recording had to include Le serviteur, not just because it was the most widely distributed of Dufay’s songs, but because of its extraordinary range of techniques, with lines three, four and five all opening with unison imitation in all three voices, with the melodic peak held back until the last line of the stanza, and with the astonishing downward curl of the discantus at the end of that line. This is the song of a man who has found his true love and celebrates accordingly.
By contrast, Puisque vous estez campieur is a drinking song, with the two texted voices in pure canon at the octave. One slightly curious feature of this repertory is that pure drinking songs are rare, just as obscenity is rare, though both were to be very common in the next century. But all the same Dufay gives the music a special colour: like Je vous pri, it stands out from the rest by virtue of its cheerful humour.
David Fallows © 2019
- O tres piteulx, cantilena motet for 4 voices ("Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae")
- Je vous pri, mon tres doulx ami, chanson for 4 voices
- La dolce vista del tuo viso pio, ballata for 3 voices
- Je me complains piteusement, ballade for 3 voices
- Mon chier amy, qu'aves vous empensé, ballade for 3 voices
- Malheureulx cueur, que vieulx tu faire? virelai for 3 voices
- Ma belle dame, je vous pri, rondeau for 3 voices
- Pouray je avoir vostre mercy? rondeau for 3 voices
- Helas, et quant vous veray, rondeau for 3 voices
- Je ne suy plus tel que souloye, rondeau for 3 voices
- Je veuil chanter de cuer joyeux, rondeau for 3 voices
- Ce moys de may, rondeau for 3 voices
- Belle, que vous ay je meffait, rondeau for 3 voices
- En triumphant de Cruel Dueil, rondeau for 3 voices
- Par le regard de vos beaux yeux, rondeau for 3 voices
- Puisque vous estez campieur, rondeau for 3 voices
- Le serviteur hault guerdonné, rondeau for 3 voices
- Vostre bruit et vostre grant fame, rondeau for 3 voices