Throughout the later Middle Ages, the alpine passes represented a crucial element for a civilisation which, though not yet equipped with means of communication comparable to ours, was already based on intensive exchanges between the great regions that made up the Europe of the time – France, the Low Countries, Italy, Germany, and the British Isles.
The key to these then dreaded and still little-known Alps lay in the hands of the Counts of Savoy. From the late fourteenth century onwards, they controlled the majority of the passes, from the Valais region to Nice. Until the new developments in navigation in the sixteenth century, no one could go from France to Italy without crossing their lands. Hence, though the country possessed no special natural riches, though its soil was barren and its crafts poorly developed, the tolls at the Mont Cenis, Little and Great St Bernard and Montgenèvre passes were to make its fortune.
At this period, in addition to the economy, law-giving, diplomacy and indeed war, cultivation of the arts was among the prerogatives of the great princely families. The rulers of Savoy were no exception to the rule. Art Chillon, they created one of the finest examples of civil architecture of their era. They also had their accredited painters, such as the celebrated Konrad Witz whose Miraculous Draught of Fishes (mid-fifteenth century) is now in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire at Geneva, and their sculptors, for instance the creators of the tombs at Brou commissioned by Duchess Margaret of Austria (early sixteenth century). Yet, as the chroniclers of the period remind us, it was music that had their preference. Alas, the notes they heard have for the most part vanished without leaving any visible traces. However, some idea of them can be gleaned from a number of extant manuscripts which are fascinating to explore, for they allow us to glimpse a world where the most unexpected influences intersect.
Although troubadours, minstrels and jongleurs are attested in the archives of the county from the thirteenth century onwards, we have to wait until the fifteenth century for the picture to become precise enough for us to associate specific works of music with the court of Savoy. Having been raised to ducal status in 1416, the ruling family was duty bound to complete with its prestigious neighbours, foremost among whom were of course the Dukes of Burgundy. In this respect we owe a great deal to Amadeus VIII, the first Duke of Savoy. In 1434, for the marriage of his son Louis to Anne de Lusignan, daughter of King Janus of Cyprus, Amadeus VIII called on the most eminent musician of the day, Guillaume Dufay, to add lustre to the ceremonies. At the ducal capital of Cambéry, Dufay made te acquaintance of Gilles Binchois, the other great composer of the age, who had come to attend the wedding with his employer, the Duke of Burgundy Philippe, the Good, accompanied by a retinue two hundred strong. The master among masters of the fifteenth century, Guillaume Dufay was to remain in the service of Amadeus VIII and Louis until 1458, actually residing in Savoy for around ten years in all. He followed the court in its many peregrinations, to Morges, Turin, Geneva, Chambéry or Thonon.
The Franco-Cypriot Manuscript
Far from the alpine snows, the island of Cyprus was from the twelfth century the advance base of the Crusaders en route to the Holy Land. Today we may still admire the churches in the Gothic style built there in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by architects from France. The Lusignan family, originally from Poitou, purchsed the island and became its kings; there they held court sumptuously, practising the arts and literature of their distant homeland. The Franco-Cypriot style of music, inspired by the French Ars Nova bu also possessing its own specific features of great interest, is now known to us from a single manuscript, preserved in Turin, which contains a wide selection of secular and sacred works from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. It was Duchess Anne of Savoy, Louis’s bride, born a Lusignan princess, who brought it in her trousseau in 1434; the book was certainly used at her court, which cultivated music and the other arts with fervour – Anne and Louis both played the harp, the most fashionable instrument at the court of Savoy since the fourteenth century. Courtly songs, love songs, spring songs: the secular pieces in this Franco-Cypriot anthology have a charm all their own, and must more than once have soothed the nostalgia of the duchess, whose beauty was proverbial.
The ‘Contenance Angloise’
Martin le Franc, secretary to Amadeus VIII of Savoy, now quite forgotten by literay historians, has nevertheless remained famous among musicians. This is because, in his allegorical romance Le Champion des Dames written around 1440, he asserts that music has very recently undergone an unprecedented renewal. Naming Dufay and Binchois as the masters of the new art, he also tells us that these composers took their inspiration from their English colleagues, chief among whom was John Dunstable. This English style (or ‘contenance angloise’ to use Martin le Franc’s own term), through the agency of Dufay and Binchois, was to give birth to the classical polyphonic style of the Renaissance as exemplified by such composers as Ockeghem, Josquin Desprez, and Orlande de Lassus.
The British composers of the early fifteenth century are known to us essentially from continental manuscripts. One of the most significant of these, now preserved in the north Italian city of Aosta, may originally have been a choirbook from the Sainte Chapelle of the ducal castle at Chambéry. This illustrates the artistic importance of Savoy, a crossrads and centre for exchanges which, far from restricting itself to a peripheral and anecdotic role, was genuinely one of the Meccas of European musical history.
John Dunstable and Leonel Power were the two most important of these British artists. English music of this period is particularly notable for the purity of its sonorities, but also for melodic lines that are brimming with imagination, unexpected touches and variety, while always remaining delicately balanced in their fundamental asymmetry. This refined repertory, often setting Marian texts or exerpts from the Song of Songs, calls to mind the richly ornate Gothic architecture still to be seen in Canterbury and Salisbury Cathedrals or St George’s Chapel, Windsor, with their rib vaults, liernes and tiercerons.
Nicolas de Merques
Not content with having affirmed the importance of his duchy, Amadeus VIII, a shrewd politician, began to nourish wider ambitions. Now a widowerm he won the Council of Basel over to his cause and had himself elected Pope in1439, taking the name Felix V. However, this bold stroke proved to be an error, for he was unable to obtain recognition from the French and Burgundian nobility and went down in history as an antipope. If Guillaume Dufay was the favourite musician of his son Louis, we also know the identity of Felix V’s court composer, a certain Nicolas de Merques from the diocese of Arras. His Pange lingua is a delicate hymn written in a fauxbourdon technique imitated from the English and also used by Binchois for his Veni creator. Even though he was a priest, Nicolas de Merques also distinguished himself in the secular genres, as indeed did his colleagues Dufay and Binchois. So much can be seen from his exquisite chanson Vous soyez la tres bien venue, which reveals him as one of the most talented creators of his generation.
The ‘Chansonnier Cordiforme’
Alongside music, illumination is certainly the art form to which the Savoy court contributed most. For at this period, quite as much as on the walls of castles or wooden panels, painting were to be found in books. The miniature was one of the great specialities of Savoyard artists. The school of the illuminators Jean Bapteur and Perronnet Lamy, based at Thonon, produced the most precious manuscripts for Duke Amadeus VIII or Duchess Yolanda. Some of these MSS were music books. Notable among them is the celebrated Chansonnier cordiforme or ‘heart-shaped songbook’, now held by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This unique masterpiece, copied in Savoy around 1470, is partly composed of fashionable pieces by Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem or Busnois. But also contains some fifteenth anonymous chansons which appear in no other manuscript of the period, and which may be attributed to a school of Savoyard composers whose names are now lost. Some of these compositions, which are settings of French or Italian texts, present extremely interesting features, as in the case of the trio Finir voglo la vita mya, a piece that appears to foreshadow the spirit of the madrigal, which only emerged a good half-century later. Others seem to echo the teaching of Guillaume Dufay, who wrote many secular works for the court of Savoy in the 1450s, including his most famous chanson, Par le regard. […]
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, advances in maritime commerce neant that the alpine passes gradually began to lose their importance. However, with the onset of the ferocious Italian Wars, Savoy took on strategic significance for the troops of Francis I of France, which ended up purely and simply occupying the duchy in 1536. Taking refuge in Nice, then in Vercelli, Duke Charles III, intelligent but irresolute, reigned over what was no more than a fictitious state, whose resources constantly diminished. In the end only a few scattered remnants of the once-brilliant musical establishment were left. And when Charles’s son Emmanuel Philibert set out to reconstruct the duchy after 1550, he had practically to start from scratch. However, forestalling the intentions of his French ‘big brother’ and realising that his dynasty must look towards Italy for its destiny, he set up court in Turin. Having become the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1713, what had once been the Savoyard state played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 1850s and 1860s. From until 1946 the descendants of Peter II of Savoy, the builder of Chillon, were Kings of Italy.
Before the collapse of the regime in Chambéry, the court of Savoy enjoyed a particularly radiant autumn. In the years around 1500, Duke Philibert and above all his wife Margaret of Austria attracted such highly prestigious artists as Antoine Brumel, one of the most important contemporaries of Josquin Desprez. This flowering was short-lived, for Duke Philibert, known as Philibert the Fair, died young; Margaret, who subsequently became regent of the Netherlands and succeeded shortly thereafter in having her nephew Charles V elected to the imperial throne, was never to forget the happy period of her life when she had been Duchess of Savoy. She build the church of Brou, near Bourg-en-Bresse, in memory of Philibert. The final blazing glory of Gothic art, the tombs at Brou are like a lacework of architecture and fabrics sculpted in stone. Penitent monks draped in their severe cowls, sibyls outlining a graceful gesture, calmly gazing Madonnas: a whole colourful life thrives on the stone surfaces. We find this paradoxical union of the monolithic and the elegant of Brumel’s Requiem. The work sets along spells of static chords – by turns wan and poignant in effect – against other passages where the delicately ornamented melodic line recalls the singular grace of Brou, that dream become stone.
Antoine de Longueval
When Brumel left in 1502, Margaret engaged as His successor Antoine de Longueval, later to pursue a glittering career in the service of King Francis I, whose maître de chapelle he became. Despite the fame he enjoyed in his own time, Longueval is nowadays known almost exclusively for his musical setting of the narrative of Christ’s Passion, the oldest surviving polyphonic version of this text. At a time when opera did not yet exist, Longueval shows extraordinary imagination, notably when he places cries of hatred, unprecedented in their violence, in the mouths of the mob. The work’s conclusion by contrast, seeks out tone-colours of moving sobriety and tenderness. As the great last great musician in the service of the House of Savoy before its departure from Turin, Longueval was thus the final heir to an exceptionally rich tradition. After this a page was turned, and the musical patronage of the descendants of Peter II was to quit Savoy and Romandy for centuries to come.
Translation: Charles Johnston
Translation: Charles Johnston