Essay on Death’s influence on the Music of the Fourteenth Century

The following is the English text of a general essay recently published in Dutch in the Laus Polyphoniae 2016 festival program booklet. It names several compositions that featured in the festival program. I am posting it here for the benefit of readers less comfortable with the Dutch version.

Death‘s Influence on the Music of the Fourteenth Century

Rituals of death permeated the culture of late medieval Europe. The Gregorian chant Media vita in morte sumus (“In the midst of life we are in death”), for example, set a sombre tone at beginning of Lent, its text reminding sinners to look to the Lord for their salvation. The Eucharistic liturgy upheld Christ’s resurrection after a violent death as the proof of humanity’s redemption. The cult of saints celebrated the deaths of martyrs whose treasured bodily relics were displayed in churches or processed through the streets to the sound of chant. Memorials to the faithful had become a part of the daily routine of cathedrals at the heart of every city. Generous endowments filled the pockets of singers, who were increasingly required to be well trained in polyphonic music performance. Yet, these ritualised tokens of death paled in comparison to ever-present reminders of the fragility of life.

No age felt the everyday realities of death more than the fourteenth century when disease, famine, war, and disaster felled the young, strong, and old. The first serious blow to Europe’s booming population was the widespread famine of 1315–17. All but the rich, who could afford to buy bread at highly inflated prices, starved. The worst was yet to come for a weakened population. Towards the end of 1347, Genoese galleys from the Black Sea port of Caffà brought to Sicily and then Pisa crewmembers afflicted by the deadly bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). Now easily prevented by penicillins, the ensuing pandemic wiped out half of Europe’s population in the following months. The horror of terrified survivors can be scarcely comprehended.

The effect of the Black Death was immediate. In the prologue of his Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300–1377) recalled how the plague had carried off “tens of hundreds of thousands”. Like many of his day, he blamed the inauspicious alignment of the stars. Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) took it all very hard, also blamed the stars, and wished that he had never been born or had already lived. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) provided one of the most vivid descriptions of the plague at the beginning of his Decameron. He describes the swelling of lymph glands (known as buboes, hence the name of this disease), large areas of sub-dermal haemorrhaging, the spitting of blood, and the rapid deaths of humans and even domestic animals. Society threatened to disintegrate as parents abandoned their children, the unscrupulous profited from the dying, and morals slipped. Still, the rest of the Decameron highlights one of the most perplexing aspects of the fourteenth-century. Secluded in a palace outside Florence, the band of men and women at the centre of the Decameron‘s narrative entertained themselves with stories, music and dancing that explore the themes of the living: love, sex, friendship, society and religion. In the long run, the Black Death’s horrors were obscured and replaced by a more melancholic, personal and emotional tone in art, sometimes descending into decadence.

Composers who survived the Black Death looked back to models of the previous decades in the quest to create what might be called a classic style of musical expression. Machaut’s motets and ballades assumed an unprecedented scale. Long introductory duets and detailed attention to architectural design are exemplified by his Tu qui gregem tuum ducis/ Plange regni respublica/ Apprehende arma. Anne Walters Robertson proposed that Machaut composed this motet to goad the Archbishop of Reims into fixing the fortifications of his cathedral’s city. Though it could date from as early as 1355, when hostilities in the so-called Hundred Years War resumed, Machaut probably issued his plea shortly after he had taken up residence in Reims before the start of the English siege in December 1359. Machaut’s motet thus represents a personal response to an immanent threat to the lives and livelihoods of his townsfolk.

Elsewhere in his music, Machaut’s attention was increasingly turned to his mortality and last things. In his Ma fin est mon commencement—which only appears in later manuscripts—Machaut encodes musical symbols for the cycle of being and Christian redemption. Only one part of the composition is fully notated; a second voice is half as long as the first. Subtle clues point to this rondeau being a polyphonic composition. One musician must perform the fully written out part from beginning to end. Another must perform the same part backwards, and a third part performs the short voice forwards and then backwards as a counterpoint to the two upper voices. Together, all three parts form an elaborate but musically delightful network of interlocked syncopations and layered rhythms.

Machaut’s sense of his own identity and posterity signals a departure from the anonymity of past composers. This is most clearly heard in his Plourez, dames, plourez vostre servant. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson proposed that Machaut composed this grand ballade in the years 1361–62 during a long period of convalescence from a serious illness. In Plourez, Machaut on his deathbed bids unnamed ladies to weep for him, to attend to his funeral rites, and to pray for his immortal soul. The ladies whom he serves could be the Muses or they might be women of fine sensibility. Beyond the poignancy of a text in which the author speaks plainly of his own mortality and legacy, the music of Plourez offers an exceptional insight into the composer’s musical identity. Pauses on long unresolved chords punctuate the apparent sincerity of his words. Upon a musical structure of utmost clarity, a distinctive upper voice (representing the voice of Guillaume himself) sings undulating melodies woven from melodic steps and descending small leaps (thirds). Machaut seems to have become especially fond of this motivic “signature” the last fifteen to twenty years of his life.

Machaut’s self-proclaimed student Eustache Morel (a.k.a. Eustache Deschamps) wrote a touching déploration or lament for his teacher in which commentators have recognised textual reverberations with the dead poet’s ballades, including Plourez. François Andrieu’s setting of Morel’s Armes, amours, dames, chivalrie/ O flour des flours de toute melodie seems at times to reference Machaut’s late melodic style. Andrieu’s musical setting also pays tribute to the music of a younger generation. Sustained, unstable chords on “the death” and “Machaut” are reminiscent of ballades composed in the 1370s or 1380s for Gaston Febus, Count of Foix. A young Guillaume Du Fay was still using the same musical devices in his songs and motets composed in Italy during the 1420s. In the wake of Plourez, Armes/ O flour marks the birth of a new type of musical identity, not one formed by the composer himself, but by those who inherited and cherished his legacy. Although it remains doubtful that Armes/ O flour provided a model for some of the better-known late fifteenth-century déplorations for Gilles Binchois, Antoine Busnoys or Johannes Ockeghem, it nonetheless signals a shift in the status of the composer in the late fourteenth century and heralds a greater emphasis on individual musical expression and identity.

It suffices to mention four more examples in which composers active in the decades after Machaut’s death responded in profound and unprecedented ways to death’s tribulations. These laments afford insights into the personal experiences of their composers, real or fictional. Antonio “Zacara” di Berardo da Teramo, who hailed from a family of distinguished illuminators and scribes from the Abruzzi region, left to posterity his raw testament of personal tragedy. His macaronic Plorans, ploravi perché la Fortuna—mixing Latin and Italian—seems at first to be a complaint against Lady Fortune, in the same vain as his predecessors. Latin phrases weave a web of textual allusion to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the liturgy of the Last Supper and Saint Matthew’s description of the Slaughter of the Innocents. The last four lines of Plorans reveal the personal nature of this song: the poet-composer has made it to mourn his son, who had a French name and died in his father’s arms while still a child.

In ulnis patris expiro cum pianto
per rinovar le pen’ fi questo canto.
Martiro fo ne la sua puericia
Quel che per nome avea quel de Galicia.

Francesco Zimei, Zacara’s biographer, has concluded that the dead boy can only be Zacara’s son, Giacomo.

In Plorans, Zacara makes abundant use of points of melodic imitation at the interval of a fifth between the two voices of his composition. These achieve a great degree of clarity since each voice repeats the same text. These points of imitation stand in contrast to spans of freer composition in which texts are declaimed almost simultaneously. Although the rhythmic language of Plorans recalls the innovations of the late fourteenth century, its style of text setting points to new trends.

Zacara’s setting shares several stylistic features with the music of another composer whom he had met in Rome, Johannes Ciconia (c.1370–1412). A northerner by birth, but thoroughly imbued with new musical trends on the Italian peninsula, Ciconia spent the last eleven years of his life as a singer at Padua cathedral. Among his numerous compositions of outstanding quality and clarity of design, he left a musical setting of a lament, Con lagreme bagnandome el viso, whose text was penned by the young Leonardo Giustinian. The phrase “Weeping, she hath wept in the night and her tears are on her cheeks” (Plorans ploravit in nocte et lacrymae eius in maxillis eius) from the second verse of the Lamentations of Jeremiah serves as a type of hypertext linking Zacara’s Plorans and Ciconia’s Con lagreme, the latter’s opening line refers to tears bathing the poet’s cheeks. Although the identity of “my lord” eulogised in Con lagreme is not explicitly stated, an annotation in one of the sources of this madrigal explains that it refers to one of the two last lords of Padua, both named Francesco da Carrara. Significantly, Ciconia was in Padua in 1405 when the city’s last lord, Francesco “Il Novello” was defeated in a war against Venice and secretly murdered by his Venetian gaolers. Giustinian’s text seems to refer to the injustice of this last cowardly act.

In Con lagreme, Ciconia has put aside his and his older contemporaries’ interests in rhythmic proportionality. Instead, he devised a novel model of repeating musical motifs with and independent of textual repetition. His approach to text setting was motivated by humanist trends in Padua, especially those of Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370–1445), who almost singlehandedly revived the classical style of funeral oration. Ciconia and Vergerio undoubtedly knew each other: Vergerio witnessed Ciconia’s first benefice and was a long-time friend of Ciconia’s patron, the jurist and churchman Francesco Zabarella (1360–1417). Vergerio’s funeral orations bristle with classical figures of speech similar to those found in the speeches of the ancient Roman orator Cicero. In Con lagreme, Ciconia emulates rhetorical figures of pathos, especially those relying on repetition, through both textual and musical repetition. The same level of expressiveness is found in several of Ciconia’s other songs, including his Merçe o morte, whose text represents a more conventional trope of a lover’s plea for his lady’s “pity”.

At first glance, the text of Bartolomeo da Bologna’s Morir desìo seems closer to Merçe o morte in its substance. Like many fourteenth century models, the poet blames Lady Fortune for his wretched state. Upon closer inspection, Morir desìo reveals itself to be a lament for a noble woman. Tellingly, the last couplet reads “It’s better to die than see other ladies / instead of you whom I loved more than my own life” (Meglio è morire che altri veder signore / de Lei che più che la mia vita amay). Bartolomeo’s career as Benedictine prior and much-loved organist in the cathedral of Este-ruled Ferrara might suggest that his lament was composed for Gigliola da Carrara (1379–1416), marchesa of Ferrara and first wife of Niccolò III d’Este (1383–1441). Even if this is not the case, Morir desìo belongs to the late medieval tradition of polyphonic laments for prominent court women, which included Jacob de Senleches’s Fuions de ci, a grand ballade mourning the post-parturient death of Eleanor of Aragòn, queen of Castile, in 1382.

As we step beyond the long fourteenth century to the next generation of composers, one cannot fail to mention Gilles Binchois’s setting of Christine de Pizan’s Dueil engoisseux, rage desmesurée. In Dueil, Christine expressed her heartfelt grief over the death of her husband, Etienne du Castel, from the plague in 1390. Finding herself alone, with two children, and no other family to support her (her father Tommaso had also died around the same time as Etienne), Christine plumbs the depths of a widow’s despair and hopelessness. Binchois set Dueil to music several years later, possibly as a lament for Anne of Burgundy who likewise died of the plague in Paris in 1432. Liane Curtis has observed that Binchois’s setting “conveys this ballade as a special work, marked with a singular intensity.” Its appeal to listeners of the fifteenth century can be gauged by its widespread survival in music manuscripts and its reuse in the popular devotional lauda Donna pietosa nel ciel exaltata. Ciconia’s Con lagreme shared a similar fate in the fifteenth century. The independent musical life of Dueil is further suggested by its survival in two arrangements for organ, and a reference to its performance on the organ by Bianca de’ Medici in 1460.

Selected References

Curtis, L. “Christine de Pizan and ‘Dueil angoisseux’.” In Gender, Sexuality, and Early Music. Ed. M.T. Borgerding. New York, 2001. 265–82.

Robertson, A. W. Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in His Musical Works. Cambridge, 2002.

Zimei, F., ed. Antonio Zacara Da Teramo E Il Suo Tempo. Lucca, 2004.

This work by Jason Stoessel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Originally published as:

Stoessel, Jason. 2016. “De invloed van de dood op de muziek van de 14de eeuw [Death’s Influence on the Music of the Fourteenth Century].” In Laus Polyphoniae 2016: MORS | De eeuw van de zwarte dood [The Century of the Black Death], 113–119. Antwerp: AMUZ [Festival van Vlaanderen-Antwerpen]. Available on

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