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Two Great Songs

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Two Great Songs

As I may have mentioned here before, sometimes I think of some music as being like a time machine we can take into the expressive world of people of distant times. Of course this time machine only goes into the past. When we try to imagine the music of the far future, the results are usually hilarious:

But we can travel into the past--sort of. There are a few caveats: our knowledge of the past is fragmentary especially when it comes to performance practice. There are innumerable attempts at performing ancient Greek music, but they so often sound like they were recorded in a Bulgarian village in 1932:


You have to bear in mind that all the ancient notation reveals is a suggestion of the pitches--and they had no way of notating rhythms.

But by the 15th century all these notational problems had been ironed out (mind you, those useful devices of the tie and the barline were still to be invented) and we can have a fairly good idea of what music might have sounded like. There are still fierce arguments about things like what to do with a part that is fully notated, but with no text. Use instruments? Which ones? Use singers going "ah"?

In any case, some ensembles have been working with this repertoire for decades and have developed their own performing practices. So let's hear a couple of songs by the greatest songwriters of the middle of the 15th century, Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles de Binche, usually known as Binchois. I mentioned two great songs and the term is accurate. Both these composers wrote chansons which is simply the French word for "song" though the first one we are going to hear, by Du Fay, is technically a rondeau cinquain because of the structure of the poetic text. Here is the first stanza:

I wish to fear you sweet and precis
Love, honor, praise in acts and words
As long as I may live, wherever I may
And give to you my love and only joy
My heart for as long as I may live

The song has two texts, Italian and French. The French one begins

Craindre vous veuil, doulce dame de pris

And here is the song (sorry, Blogger doesn't want to embed the version I prefer):


This music is sounding more lush because of the more extensive use of thirds and sixths that were the specialty of English choirs and composers like John Dunstable.

Du Fay wrote in many genres but Binchois was more of a chanson specialist. One of his most famous songs is a setting of a text by Christine de Pisane (1364 - c. 1430) sometimes called France's first professional literary woman. The poem is a lament on the death of her husband and begins:

Anguished grief, immoderate fury,
grievous despair, full of madness,
endless langour and a life of misfortune
full of tears, anguish and torment

and in French:

Deuil angoisseux, rage desmesuree,
Grief desespoir, plein de forsennement,
Langour sanz fin et vie male, ree
Plein de plour, d'angoisse et de tourment

(I suspect some accents have been left out--I'm quoting from Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 1, p. 451.) Now let's hear it.


What is so remarkable aesthetically is that none of the kinds of devices we would expect are present, given the emotions described in the text. As Taruskin says:
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 frankly contradicts these assumptions with its bright F-majorish (English) tonality, and its very wide vocal ranges. [op. cit. p. 448]
By the way, the social context of both of these songs is the courts of the nobility in France and Italy.


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