“The Return of the Pipers” Program Notes

October 18-20, 2013

Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, and Wilmington

“During that triumvirate of Kings, Henry VIII of England, François I of France and Charles V, Emperor, there was such a watch kept, that none of the three could win a palm of ground, but the other two would straightways balance it either by confederation, or, if need were, by war; and would not in any wise take up peace at  interest.” –  Sir Francis Bacon

Three monarchs, three kingdoms, three unique socio-political climates surrounding the waters of the English Channel, a triangle of power whose constantly shifting interactions, uneasy alliances and recurring conflicts largely shaped the history of western Europe throughout the first half of the 16th century as far east as modern day Poland, south as the Italian Peninsula and west as the fabled lands of the New World.  The history of the political machinations and maneuverings of these three rulers among themselves is a fascinating and telling tale of intrigue, ingenuity and ingratiation, including such famous events as the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.  Henry and François attempted to build a lasting peace between their two nations – to swing the balance of power against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – with an extravagant gathering near Calais which nearly depleted both the English and French treasuries for its lavish display, each man trying to outdo the other in pomp and circumstance. The meeting failed to produce its intended results and within two weeks Henry made overtures to Charles V, who, emboldened by the alliance with England, within a month declared war on France.  Such were the vagaries of international relations among these three powers, princes and realms at the time.

But, the tale told by this program is one of music, not politics or empire, and in this regard the three princes vied no less vigorously. Each was a strong supporter of the arts and maintained a substantial court musical establishment.  Music was for each a valued ornament of empire, a potent symbol of the power and prestige of sovereignty. Each, too, through generous patronage cultivated cutting edge composers whose works might reflect the uniqueness and individuality of their own national identity. All three had their favorites. For Henry VIII, it was the Flemish-born Philip van Wilder, who moved to the English court by age 20. For François I, it was the celebrated Claudin de Sermisy, and for Charles V, there were numerous, with the justly famous Thomas Crecquillon among the favored elite.

These three composers, one representing each monarch and the stylistic traditions of each national musical language, i.e. Flemish, English and French, then, take center stage from their respective patrons in this program.  Of course, there were other composers prominent in each court and some appear here as well. Even Henry VIII throws in a few compositions of his own, besting François and Charles at least in this one aspect. However, these three composers will provide the bulk of the ammunition in this friendly competition, which attempts to compare and contrast the three national styles that dominated European musical composition during the first few decades of the 16th century.

In order to keep tabs on the three styles, it will be necessary to know the national identity of each composer or publisher/arranger on the program. Here is a list:

Flemish – Thomas Crequillon,  Pierre Alamire, Jean Richafort, Tylman Susato

English – Henry VIII, Philip van Wilder, John Lloyd

French – Claudin de Sermisy,  Antoine Brumel, Claude Gervaise

It must be said at the start, however, that communication across the Channel lead to a blending of styles, to borrowings and emulation, blurring the lines that might otherwise have distinguished one nation’s style from the others. None of the three chief composers worked in a nationalistic vacuum. Nevertheless, idiosyncratic characteristics resisted complete absorption into a nondescript melting pot, so that distinctions do remain and can be observed.  You, the audience, will be the judge. Who will emerge the victor, England, France or Flanders? Henry VIII and Philip van Wilder, François I and Claudin de Sermisy, or Charles V and Thomas Crecquillon?

A few words about each of our three main composers would be useful to set the stage for the competition. Philip van Wilder was born probably in Millam near the town of Wylder (Wilder in Dutch) around 1500. He was resident in England already by 1520 and by 1529 he was a member of the privy chamber, the select group of musicians who played to the king in private. He was also active as a merchant, being given a license to import Toulouse wood and Gascon wine, and in purchasing instruments for the court. Highly regarded as a fine “lewtenist”, he taught the lute to Princess (later Queen) Mary, who rewarded him with a gift on the occasion of his marriage to a woman named Frances in 1537. Later he also taught Prince Edward (later Edward VI), who wrote a letter to his father in 1546 thanking him for ‘sending me your servant Philip, as excellent in music as he is noble … that I might become more excellent in striking the lute’. An elegy in the poetry anthology known as Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) praises van Wilder’s skill as a lutenist:

Bewaile with me all ye that have profest

Of musicke thart by touch of courde or winde

Laye downe your lutes and let your gitterns rest

Phillips is dead whose like you can not finde . . .

Surprisingly, only one work written for lute survives from his oeuvre, the Fantasia on this program, with another, Philip’s Dumpe, attributed to him, both played on this program by lute and harp together, a popular English combination. Comfortably fluent in both sacred (e.g. Aspice, Domine, quia facta est) and secular (e.g. O dulks regard and Cest vester bruten) idioms, his music showed a thorough grounding in the Flemish international style coupled with a sensitivity to English idioms.

Claudin de Sermisy’s origins, both date and location, are somewhat obscure. However, in 1508 the young Sermisy was appointed as a singer in the Royal Chapel of Louis XII, where he was also a cleric. His birth date is inferred from the moment he joined the royal chapel; 18 was about the right age for such an appointment. In 1515, he went to Italy with François I, and in 1520 he was part of the musical festivities at the Field of the Cloth of Gold where he was almost certainly a singer. He may have been a composer of some of the music there as well. Though he wrote both sacred (e.g. Da pacem, Domine) and secular works, by far his most famous contribution to music literature is his output of chansons (e.g. Dont vient cela), of which there are approximately 175. His style in these works has been described as graceful and polished. Typically, Sermisy’s chansons are chordal and syllabic, shunning the more ostentatious polyphony of composers from the Netherlands, striving for lightness and grace instead. Sermisy was fond of quick repeated notes, which give the texture an overall lightness and dance-like quality. Another stylistic trait seen in many of Sermisy’s chansons is an initial rhythmic figure consisting of long-short-short (half-quarter-quarter in musical terms, equivalent to the metron called “dactyl” in Graeco-Roman prosody), a figure which was to become the defining characteristic of the canzona later in the century.

Less is known about the personal life of Thomas Crecquillon than the previous two, especially his early years. He was, it is clear, a member of the musical establishment of Charles V as a singer and quite possibly as maître de chapelle, and a personal favorite of the emperor. He traveled little and preferred to stay in his home country, the Netherlands of today, Flemish territory in the 16th century. Crecquillon’s music was highly regarded by his contemporaries. The printers Pierre Phalèse (of Leuven) and Tylman Susato (of Antwerp) published more music by him than by any other composer, which shows the extent of his reputation at the time. His style shows a harmonic and melodic smoothness within the overall context of imitative polyphony. He wrote twelve masses, over 100 motets (e.g. Sancta Maria) and almost 200 chansons (e.g. Dont  vient cela). Stylistically, he uses points of imitation in almost all of his sacred works, following the contemporary trend towards pervading imitation and polyphonic complexity of his Flemish precedessors. His secular chansons, unlike most of those by other composers of the same time, e.g. Sermisy, also use pervading imitation. Because of this, it was Crecquillon’s chansons that provided some of the best models for the later development of the instrumental canzona.

But, on to the music. The program begins with one of the most famous of Flemish melodies, both then and now, the T’Andernaken op den Rijn. In its own day it underwent about as many title spellings as it did instrumental treatments, three of which appear on this program. The text of the tale allied to this melody tells the sad account of two young maids in conversation, one newly pregnant out of wedlock and forsaken by her lover, the other sadly forlorn for being separated from her lover by her intransigent mother.  A morality tale of sorts, it’s a mystery why this tune emerged as a vehicle for virtuosic instrumental display. Most likely the surviving compositions arose during the 15th century from an improvisational tradition of elaborating in florid display over a tenor melody in long note values. Some scholars see in these composed T’Andernaken renderings the very beginnings of instrumental chamber music meant simply to be played and listened to, without any other functional or ritual purpose. The settings by Henry VIII, Anroine Brumel and Pierre Alamire provide three different stylistic treatments, one each from an English, French and Flemish pen. The tunes that follow the T’Andernaken, though not inspiring composed instrumental flights of fancy, nevertheless exemplify the Flemish penchant in the late 15th century for a good tune, here treated in signature Piffaro fashion.

The medieval and renaissance compositional world delighted, even luxuriated, in puzzles, canons and other playful musical games.  This was particularly true of Flemish composers, though the English competed in this practice admirably and became the masters later in the 16th century. John  Lloyd’s Puzzle Canon I, from the Henry VIII Songbook, provides three elaborate, composed lines together with a fourth line consisting simply of a four-note stepwise descending pattern and the rubric “tris”, requiring the performer to discover how that pattern should be distributed throughout the piece. Turns out, “tris” means “three x three” so that the pattern should be played nine times, each time with a note value one fraction of the beat shorter than the previous, so first 8 beats, then 7, then 6 ending with one half a beat just before the final cadence. Likewise, Philip van Wilder’s Fantasia con pause e senza pause is a truly ingenious work that can be played observing the written rests larger than a quarter note in value, or not, for that matter. Both renderings work miraculously well and produce a very successful and lovely polyphonic work. Again, Thomas Crecquillon’s sacred motet entitled Sancta Maria contains a line that could be played as the top of a four-part composition (si ascendero) or, a 12th lower in pitch, as the bottom of that same composition (si descendero), producing very different sounding versions, played in this program as the first and second parts of one work.

It’s often said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and this was especially true among medieval and renaissance composers. Such practices as borrowing material, embellishing an existing work with an additional line, even quoting others in one’s own composition were common. Flattery, perhaps; acknowledgment of a particularly successful work, most likely; but also probably also a bit of a game of oneupsmanship at the same time. The many different T’Andernaken settings must surely have at least in part been generated from this type of competitive spirit. One can imagine a playful interaction between Henry VIII and van Wilder in their renderings of the song, Helas Madame, the former’s a rambunctious, homophonic frolic, the latter’s a more restrained, intricate song, but both sharing melodic material. Such is also be the case between Richafort’s De mon triste et desplaisir and Henry’s ubiquitous Pastime with Good Company. Though the two works express completely opposite sentiments, nevertheless their top voices  show almost identical melodic stretches in their second halves. Most likely, Henry VIII borrowed from Richafort, though the path of imitation cannot be firmly established.

That path seems clear, however, with the various renderings of the chanson Dont vient cela, one of the many popular songs written by Claudin de Sermisy that were emulated, expanded and reworked by other composers. Claudin’s easy, fluid 4-part composition in the “Parisian” style is given a fifth line and a more “Flemish” texture by Crecquillon. In addition, Claudin’s melody serves to produce two distinct dances, a Bergerette in the collection of the Flemish Tylman Susato and a Gaillarde in that of the French Claude Gervaise. Interestingly, the Bergerette reflects the simplicity and straightforwardness of Claudin’s chanson, while the Gaillarde resembles the denser texture of the Crecquillon.

Speaking of dances, the competition would be gravely lacking without a good representation of this most important genre to English, French and Flemish societies and courts alike. However, it’s interesting to note that there is a relative dirth of composed dances from English sources representing practice at the Tudor court in the first half of the 16th century, when compared with the French and Flemish collections. Yet, history tells us Henry VIII loved to dance and was quite adept as well. Just what he was dancing to is the question. The King’s Pavan, La Bounette and La douncela that end the first half of the program are three of the few surviving examples. On the contrary, both the Flemish and the French traditions are well represented, the former by the collection of Tylman Susato and the latter by the numerous Attaingnant prints of collections by Clause Gervaise. The language of dance was, however, already by this time an international one, so that one suspects that Henry VIII was parading his finery to pavanes and leaping sprightly to gaillardes, just as were François I in France and Charles V at home in Flanders or wherever his many travels found him.

                                                              – Bob Wiemken