Fleurs de vertus / Ferrara Ensemble
Chansons subtiles à la fin du XIVe siècle


"The interpretation is marvelous, but maybe this is Ars Subtilior, something a bit pedantic and attracting only clever spirits. If you dont't listen carefully, it may even appear a little boring. Anyway another success for the Ferrara Ensemble, although a value of 10 in the February Diapason may be excessive."

Arcana B 40
enero de 1996
Église S. Germanus de Seewen (Soleure)

01 - Johannes SUZOY. Pictagoras Jabol et Orpheüs      [7:24]
alto, baryton, ténor

02 - SOLAGE. S'aincy estoit que ne feust la noblesce      [11:04]
alto, viola d'arco, luth

03 - Bobik blazen      [1:42]
psalterion, harpe, luth

04 - Gacian RAYNEAU. Va t'en mon cuer, aveuc mes yeux     [4:17]
soprano, baryton, ténor

05 - Johan ROBERT. Se July Cesar, Rolant et roy Artus     [10:49]
soprano, ténor, viola d'arco

06 - Johan ROBERT. En seumeillant m'avint une vision     [8:09]
ténor, baryton, viola d'arco

07 - Johannes ALANUS. Sub Arturo plebs vallata     [4:44]
2 dolce melos, luth

08 - Philipoctus de CASERTA. Par les bons Gedeon et Sanson delivré     [7:05]
alto, ténor, viola d'arco

09 - En Albion de fluns environée     [3:36]
soprano, alto, baryton, ténor, viola d'arco

10 - SOLAGE. Tres gentil cuer     [3:54]

11 - Philipoctus de CASERTA. Il est nulz homs en ce monde vivant     [11:04]
baryton, ténor, luth

#1-2, 4-6, 8-11:   F-CH 564 (Chantilly, Musée Condé), f. 30v - f.36, f.56v - f.43 - f21v, f.45v - f.47v - f. 18 - f. 38v -
#3:   D-Nst 9
#7:   I-Bc Q 15, f. 225v-226, 342v

Crawford Young

Lena Susanne Norin, alto
Kathleen Dineen, soprano, harpe
Eric Mentzel, ténor
Stephen Grant, baritone

Karl Heinz Schickhaus, dolce melos
Randall Cook, viola d'arco
Norihisa Sugawara, luth
Raplh Mattes, psalterion, dolce melos
Crawford Young, luth et guitare

· · ·


About 'subtle' late-fourteenth-century song:

"Here begins the treatise on note shapes through which, in various ways, lines are discanted that do not follow the order of the tenor but of another tempus. Granted that our venerable masters held a most excellent musical understanding... yet they themselves, after considering a manner to be a more subtle manner, abandoned the earlier manner and created an art more subtly. Since those who come later hold and understand things that the earlier masters leave behind, greater subtleties are accomplished through earnest striving so that what left imperfect by our predecessors may be reformed by their followers." [Tractatus figurarum]

Discussions concerning musical taste are as universal as music itself. In the fourteenth century, ars vetus versus ars nova was the central subject of an on-going debate, a record of which we have in the form of treatises and compositions. While a composer's works themselves immediately betray his stance in the argument, a few works have texts which address the subject directly. Johannes Suzoy's ballade 'Pictagoras Jabol et Orpheus' is a superb example of such a work, composed in the 'subtle' (= skilful, artistic, inventive) musical style described above. The text is a tribute to the 'venerable masters' of music: Pythagoras, inventor musicæ, Jubal, named in Genesis as the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe, and Orpheus, whose music moveverything animate and inanimate. Texts like Suzoy's ballade and the note-shapes-treatise shared a common intellectual background that was often quoted and interpreted, and these citations must have "vibrated in the minds" of fourteenth-century listeners as part of the "vast network of mythological and classical citation" that was the cultural heritage of the medieval Western world.

An educated fourteenth-century listener might have associated subtilitas less with note shapes and more with historical master craftsmen-artists such as Pygmalion, Daedalus, or perhaps St. Luke (see cover miniature). In creating marvellous objects of beauty and skill, these men were seen not as 'artists' in the modern sense but rather as masters of a science. Every object was regarded as a creation of God, or of Nature as God's agent, or of an artificer such as Pygmalion imitating Nature. Froissart tells us that Pygmalion's artistry paled when compared to Nature's handiwork; indeed, in the Roman de la Rose we are reminded that only the gods themselves could verily bring his sculpture to life.

What exactly makes this repertoire so 'subtle'? The term ars subtilior that is often applied to this kind of music is actually a creation of our time, yet the word subtilitas itself was often used during the Middle Ages to describe works of art. One should not understand the word in its restricted modern sense, but rather as an attribute of skilfulness and highest mastery in the artists craft. As such, not only music and texts but also paintings and sculptures can be created with subtilitas. The music heard on this recording was not called 'ars subtilior' in its day, yet this stylistically rather uniform repertoire clearly reveals the 'subtle' art of its composers. Most striking to the modern musician and audience are the complex rhythms notated in a highly complicated notational system, the refined counterpoint - often used to exhibit important words or lines of the song's text - and lyrics that have multiple meanings, symbols and references to other songs as well as mythological lore.

Each generation of medieval musicians naturally took pride in its compositions, however the works from the second half of the fourteenth century convey to the modern listener an especially strong feeling of the composer's awareness of his mas
tery. Important here is the element of display, making a show of talent and refinement.

This style of composition did not come as a revolution. It rather follows the musical language established by Guillaume de Machaut, the dominating composer of the earlier half of the century, but with a certain predilection for testing and extending the limits of rhythm and notation. It is important to be aware that some of the rhythmic displacement (and in most cases the syncopated compositions can be reduced to a rhythmically simple version) might have been used by performers to add an extra layer of expression to the music long before it appeared in musical notation. Indeed, the Tractatus Figurarum clearly tells us that one of the reasons for the development of new note shapes was the wish to notate what singers were already doing in performance (this is a unique source of fourteenth-century performance practice). A second reason for the refinement of notation might have been the composer's desire to gain control over all rhythmic aspects of his work without leaving ornaments up to the singer.

In addition to experimenting with the rhythmic language of the music, composers also tried new forms of counterpoint and voicing. Some of the pieces are written in an extremely low register, creating a warm and rich sonority that, to a fourteen-thcentury audience, must have seemed extraordinary (modern listeners will perhaps agree). Thus, while still rooted in the older traditions, these pieces exploit the limits of the art; in so doing they may be called 'Ars subtilior'.

About specific pieces:

Manuscript sources: MS Chantilly (Ch) for all pieces except 'Bobik blazeri (see program list); Ch's 'Sub arturo plebs vallata' has concordances in I-Bc Q 15 (Bent edition) and GB-YOX.

Pictagoras Jabol et Orpheüs furent premier pere de melodie - This work generates a kind of tension by combining a didactic, apparently old-fashioned text with a very modern musical treatment. Rhythmically complex as it may sound, the'numbers' work out in the end correctly; Pythagoras, Boethius relates, "abandoned the judgement of hearing and turned to the weights of rules" (= mathematics). The text justifies the new by accepting and praising the old. Traditional rules are stretched in a way that makes the text's reliance upon the ancient authorities both necessary and ironic.

S'aincy estoit que ne feust la noblesce is one of the jewels of Ch, written for that famous patron of arts, Jean, Duc de Berry (d. 1416), of the fabled house of Valois. Solage is the best-represented composer in Ch with ten works (some very reminiscent of Machaut), but his presumed activity at the Duke's court remains without archival documentation. Jean's sister Isabella married Giangaleazzo Visconti, whose Milan-Pavia court complex heard many performances of subtilitas in musica. It is interesting to speculate about the role of competition between the courts in regard to the very high standards set by pieces such as this one.

Sub arturo plebs vallata/Fons citharizancium/In onmem terram; Bobik blazen - Courts such as the Duke of Berry's engaged instrumentalists and spent large sums on acquiring instruments, yet records specify neither which pieces these players performed nor how they performed them. A few fourteenth-century instrumental arrangements of motets have survived however, and so the present recording includes a typical example of a so-called 'musicians motet', Sub arturo plebs vallata. In the text of this 'subtle', mathematically-constructed work, 'Tubal' (= Jubal) is mentioned as inventor of instrumental music, Pythagoras as the discoverer of proportion and harmony, and further authorities Boethius, Gregory, Guido of Arezzo and Franco of Cologne are mentioned as well. Against this background of historical and mythological musicians the names of contemporary composers are mentioned, likening them to their precessors. Bobïk blazen is a textless piece (the incipit is possibly Czech) that can be found in two manuscript fragments in Nuremberg and Munich, each having a different contratenor part. Considering the few surviving sources of late fourteenth century music, it is hard to decide whether this piece was originally composed in Central Europe or is a contrafacted French work.

Va t'en mon cuer, with its homorhythmic, chordal style, jumps out of Ch as being stylistically very different from any other piece in the collection. The presence of this single piece (out of a total of one-hundred-and-twelve works) has led some researchers to question the otherwise generally accepted 1390 s as the time of compilation for the manuscript: is it perhaps considerably later than 1400?


Modern editions of this music in general are less than reliable, understandably so given the partially-damaged state of the manuscript as well as its notational complexities, lack of concordances, problematic spellings, incomplete / obscure texts, and anonymous or otherwise unknown composers, not to mention the usual questions of ficta, tempo, instrumentation, etc. We have not been able to examine the manuscript first-hand, but have used microfilm and color slide facsimiles kindly made available by the Musikwissenschaftliches Institut at the University of Basel to learn the pieces heard in this recording. Our interpretations have often
been close to those of Gordon Greene in his edition (Greene, Gordon, ed., The Manuscript Chantilly, Musée Condé 564, (Monaco: L'Oiseau-Lyre, 1981-2, in Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century, Vol. 18 and 19), and listeners following his scores will readily hear where our versions differ. For the only non-Ch piece, Bobik blazen, we have followed the unpublished edition of Ralf Mattes, and for Sub arturo plebs vallata we chose the edition of Margaret Bent (Two 14th- Century Motets in Praise of Music, Devon: Antico Edition 15, Monaco 1986). Tres gentil cuer is a lute arrangement of the Solage virelai by Crawford Young.