Singing in French at Constance

Last week (19-22 June 2014) I had the pleasure of attending a symposium organised by Stefan Morent, Silke Leopald and Joachim Steinheuer to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Council of Constance. Entitled the Internationales und interdisziplinäres wissenschaftliches Symposion Europäische Musikkultur im Kontext des Konstanzer Konzils, it was held where else but in Constance on the shores of the lovely Bodensee.

The rather buxom Imperia holds caricatures of Baldasarre Cossa (a pope at the time of the council) and King Sigismund
The rather buxom but confident Imperia holds caricatures of Baldasarre Cossa (a pope at the time of the council) and King Sigismund. Photo © J. Stoessel

My invited paper considered what French-texted polyphonic songs might have been heard during the Council, and some of the individuals or groups who might have been responsible for bringing this music to Constance, and even taking it away. (I wondered what monophonic French songs might have been sung at the conference at one point of time, but didn’t discuss this.) The conference was interdisciplinary so a range of approaches were on show that in many respects complemented each another. Discussions of church politics at the council provided an excellent introduction to my paper “French-texted Songs at the Council of Constance: Influences, Paths of Transmission, and Trends”, which was predominantly concerned with certain types of politically oriented texts being sung before, at and after the council.  Anyway, the abstract of my paper was this:

During the Great Schism of the Western Church (1378–1417) polemical French song texts asserted the claims of rival popes or praised princes who had thrown their support behind a particular pope. French and Italian composers regularly set these texts to the most astounding musical style of the day, the so-called ars subtilior. Understandably, sources that scholars associate with the Council of Constance contain few examples of these divisive political songs. They also lack examples of the ars subtilior style, at least in the register cultivated for these songs. On the face of it, this situation suggests that the Council of Constance fell at a significant juncture in European polyphonic song development that saw the demise of the ars subtilior style and French song as a vehicle for political statement. In this paper I outline some of my most recent thoughts on the role that French-texted songs played in Italian power politics after 1409, particularly in the Angevin struggle over Naples and Baldassare Cossa’s play for capturing Rome for the conciliar branch of the Schism. I argue that musical traces of this struggle, as well as a more widely transmitted “international” repertoire of French songs using stylised courtly texts, accompanied singers, like those in the large retinue of Cossa, to the Council of Constance, and can be indeed seen, upon closer inspection, in sources like the Strasbourg manuscript. The ornate political song did not immediately disappear after the Council of Constance, but the patterns of transmission of French-texted repertoire indicate that this genre did not travel well for reasons that will be outlined. I also ask whether prevailing historical narratives have caused scholarship to overlook other surviving early fifteenth-century sources of French-texted songs that might instead be connected with the Council of Constance.

It was a delight to have Katherine Hawnt, Marc Lewon and Uri Smilansky give a beautiful performance of the seldom recorded anonymous ballade Los, pris, honeur in the context of my discussion, and I take this opportunity once again to publicly thank them, especially Uri who suggested this in the first place. It has been long known that this song’s text contains an acrostic which refers to a Louis of France, and that the refrain (the last line of each strophe in a ballade) describe the escutcheon (heraldic arms) of the Valois-Anjou. Hence the prior conclusion that the text refers to Louis I of Anjou. Unfortunately the third strophe of the ballade was lost at some point of time, and various scholars have tried to guess what the remainder of the acrostic read. One thing is obvious: the acrostic does not include the first letter of the refrain in the two surviving strophes. This means that the acrostic must have read across all three eight-line strophes: LOYS DE F|RANCE DU|C D’ANJOU (where | indicates the beginning of a new strophe, and italic text shows the lost part of the acrostic). Based upon stylistic criteria, I concluded that the ballade may have been written for Louis I’s son, the more successful Louis II of Anjou who played an important role in the politics of the Italian peninsula between 1409 and 1411.

This and other little gems will appear in a fully-fledge publication at some point in the future.

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