The birth of the Renaissance?

by David Fallows

Obviously ‘Renaissance’ is a hard word to use. It is had so many different meanings over the years, over the centuries. It can mean one thing in art history, another in the history of philosophy, another in politics; and it has gathered so much additional baggage that many people have tried not to use it. For a time, ‘early modern era’ was favoured; but that too carries its baggage.

One of the problems is that there have been many rebirths in each of the arts; and that is the case with music. Do we put the transition at that astonishing moment when Perotinus quite suddenly produced his towering four-voice organa in the years around 1200? or when Philippe de Vitry created a new kind of crystalline clarity with the new notational techniques around 1300? or when Josquin and his contemporaries created masses and motets of an expressive power that truly challenges the visual art of Raphael and Leonardo in the years around 1500? or when Monteverdi and his contemporaries created a musical theatre in the years around 1600? All those cases could easily be made.

For many, though, one of the richest moments in musical history is in the second decade of the 15th century, when a new kind of declamation, a new kind of elegance and a new kind of metrical structure came with the late works of Johannes Ciconia (d. 1412) and Antonio Zachara da Teramo (d. 1416) in Italy and with the early works of Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles Binchois in Flanders. This was a time of much international travel: art historians talk about an ‘international gothic’; and there is a deal of exchange between musicians, as an increasing number of composers and singers from the Low Countries travelled to Italy, where there were more and more secular courts hungry for these northern-trained musicians.

Among the key events that fuelled this change was the Council of Constance in 1414–1418. This was the largest of the various councils of the church that happened in the 15th century, and by a considerable margin the most successful. Over eighteen thousand clerics attended – a staggering figure, particularly when compared with the population of Constance at the time, estimated at less than eight thousand. In addition, the chronicler Ulrich von Richental mentions that seventeen hundred instrumentalists were present at one time or another.

In 1416 two major English contingents arrived, with the bishops of Lichfield and Norwich. Two weeks earlier they had stopped at Cologne Cathedral where they sang for the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, and a local chronicler reported that ‘here the English sang as well as had been heard in the cathedral for thirty years’. Having arrived at Constance, they sang for the feat of St Thomas of Canterbury, drawing this report from Richental:
“And in the morning the [English] celebrated the feast beautifully with a great noise, with great burning candles, and with angelically sweet singing at Vespers, with organs and prosunen, above which were tenor, discant and medius.”

The word prosunen, as used by Richental, can mean any brass instrument. But here it probably means some kind of slide trumpet capable of performing polyphony, for elsewhere Richental describes the instrumentalists of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, present during the first few weeks of the council:
“They played with the slide trumpets together (Prusonettend überainander) in three parts, in the way that one normally sings.”

Taken together, these comments – and several others in Richental’s chronicle – lead to two important conclusions. First, slide trumpets were used already at this date in sacred polyphony, at least by English musicians. Second, English musicians were heard at Constance and made a significant impression.

A quarter of a century later Martin le France wrong in his long poem Le champion des dames what are perhaps the most famous lines commenting on the history of music in the 15th century. They describe the sudden change in style since the days of Carmen, Tapissier and Cesaris – all of whom had almost certainly written most of what survives of them by 1410 – and the new generation of Du Fay and Binchois, attributing the change to the influence of the contenance angloise and particularly Dunstaple. Quite what this “English countenance” was has been much discussed without any clear answers. But what is agreed is that, as Martin le Franc says, the impact of this music was mainly on the work of Du Fay and Binchois, the two most prolific and multi-faceted composers in the first half of the century. There has also been much discussion of when exactly this impact took place, but it seems clear enough that it was at the Council of Constance, when Du Fay and Binchois – both probably born slightly before 1400 – were at their most impressionable.

A search for something new and striking in English music of those years leads us straight to the English carol. This is a repertory of about 120 surviving works, now known almost entirely from four English manuscripts, the music all composed between about 1415 and 1435. It is music with a stronger metrical impact than anything composed earlier. Mostly it is in just two voices, with clear simultaneous declamation. It is music with a stronger sense of tonal direction than heard previously.

Until recently there was much confusion about the dates of this music, and in general it was thought to be rather later than I am now proposing. But the research of the past thirty years has brought a far clearer picture of the surrounding music and manuscripts, pieces for which precise dates can be established, sources and stylistic developments that can be traced with more confidence. At one point it was thought that the famous “Agincourt carol”, celebrating King Henry V’s famous victory of 1415, was composed long after the event; recent study makes it almost certain that the carol indeed dates from 1415. And it even seems likely that the direct and outgoing style of this and other carols arises precisely from the euphoria in England resulting from that battle and from the growing sense of national consciousness that came with the brilliant reign of Henry V. I suggest that it was this new music, a new style, a new “countenance”, that the English musicians brought with them to the Council of Constance. This is what jump-started Du Fay and Binchois.