A new composition by Denis Le Grant?

A new colour digitisation of a fascinating musical fragment from the last quarter of the 14th century has provided new evidence for assigning another composition to one of that century’s most famous, but today little known, composers. The fragment is found in the the western manuscripts collection in Bibliothèque Nationale de France (hereafter BNF), under the shelf number NAF 23190. Music historians often refer to this manuscript as the Trémoïlle manuscript—reflecting the fact that it was owned by the Duchess of Trémoïlle prior to its donation to the the BNF—or simply Trém. BNF staff uploaded Trém’s digitisation on the Gallica website on Monday, 9 January 2012. All that remains of what must have been a grand music manuscript is a bifolium, a two-page leaf that contains an index of the lost manuscript’s content and the notation of four motets (some incomplete). While the notated compositions are important, what has interested researchers most is the index that seems to name some motets, liturgical music and songs still known today and also contains several unknown works (see Droz & Thibault 1926; Bent 1990). One of the interesting things (there are several more discussed in Bent 1990) about the index is that two different names were added in front of two settings of the Credo from the Mass. For the second Credo the name “sortes” appears. It has been generally assumed that this is a reference to the same composer (whose name is sometimes given as “sortis”) and his popular Credo “de Rege” that was used in both the so-called Toulouse and Barcelona polyphonic settings of the Mass. It was previously thought that the name given for the first Credo was “decus”. However, the BNF’s splendid online colour reproduction has revealed that the name is in fact “denis”.

Who could Denis be? One candidate immediately comes to mind. Denis Le Grant was a contemporary of that other well-known 14th-century composer Philippe de Vitry. (Vitry’s music seems to have been so well known in the 14th century that no one ever bothered to write his name at the top of copies of his motets to indicate his authorship!) Denis’s musical career in the French court appears to have been a long one. He was already a clerk in the chapel of Philippe of Valois in 1328. Apparently he rose in the royal chapel ranks over the next 20 years, since in 1348 he refers to himself as the “first chaplain of Our King”. Two “musicians motets” (motets which name several contemporary musicians)—Sciencie laudabili/Musicalis scientia and Apollinis eclipsatur/Zodiacum signis—attest to Denis’s fame as a singer if we take that “Denis Le Grant” is synonymous with the “Dionysius Magnus” and “Dionysius Normannus” named respectively in each. In 1349 or 1350, Denis was appointed as Bishop of Senlis, then an important cathedral town north of Paris in lower Picardy. He died shortly afterward in 1352.

Around twenty years after the singing prelates’s death, the poet Gace de la Bigne records in his Le Roman de Deduis that Denis had “made a chace [a type of musical round] on [the subject of] falcons”. Karl Kügle brilliantly suggested that this “falconry chace” might be the anonymously transmitted Se je chant. It does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that Denis also composed liturgical music for the French royal chapel, including a Credo that was copied into Trém for the chapel of Philip the Good sometime after 1376. Unfortunately this Credo is lost along with the bulk of Trém, but it raises the tantalising possibility that just as Se je chant might be Denis’s, so too in one of the famous manuscripts now at Apt or Ivrea, there is an anonymous Credo that belongs to our singing prelate who like Vitry was so well known that there was no need for music scribes to write his name at the top of his compositions.

Selected References

Bent, Margaret. 1990. A Note on the Dating of the Trémoïlle Manuscript. In Beyond the Moon: Festscrift Luther Dittmer, edited by B. Gillingham and P. Merkley. Ottawa: Institute of Medieval Music.

Droz, E., and G. Thibault. 1926. Un chansonnier de Philippe le Bon. Revue de Musicologie 7 (17):1-8.

Hoppin, Richard H., and Suzanne Clercx. 1955. Notes biographiques sur quelques musiciens français du XIV siecle. In Les Colloques de Wegimont II. Paris: Society d’Editions “le Belles Lettres”.

Kügle, Karl. 1997. The Manuscript Ivrea, Biblioteca Capitolare 115: Studies in the Transmission and Composition of Ars Nova Polyphony, Musicological Studies LXIX. Ottawa: The Institute of Medieval Music.

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. 2007. Sung Birds: Music, Nature and Poetry in the later Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stone, Anne. 2003. Music writing and poetic voice in Machaut: Some remarks on B12 and R14. In Machaut’s Music: New Interpretations, edited by E. E. Leach. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

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