Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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The Music of Agincourt

Drawing of the Battle of Agincourt from a French manuscript of the late 1400s

Last week, I was off doing what I call “saturation genealogy.”  That’s where I immerse myself in research until I can’t absorb any more names, dates, places, lineages..lots of work, but fun too as new discoveries are made.

I know, fun summer vacation, right?

Anyway, somewhere along the way I found a family tree that someone else had created that would seem to indicate that an ancestor of my spouse was at the Battle of Agincourt (on the French side).  That will have to be investigated further, but it got me to thinking about what sort of secular music those folks might have been listening to.

1415 would have been rich in chansons, and the first name that sprung to mind was Guillaume de Machaut.  Here is his Douce Dame Jolie.

A song of the 14th century that might still have been making the rounds is Je Voy Mon Cuer.  You can see it here, played on a cool modern reproduction of a portative organ.

A little later, survivors would have recounted the battle to their rapt listeners while the music of Guillaume Dufay sounded through the hall. Here is the lovely Vergine bella, che di sol vestita .

Sadly, the supposed ancestor was one of the casualties.  By that time, poet Christine De Pizan had written the heart-wrenching Deuill Angoisseux, written in 1390 on the death of her husband.  Gilles Binchois set it to music in the mid-1400s.  The French and English words can be found here.  An extended version filmed at Chateau de Germolles, a residence of the dukes of Burgundy, can be seen at the link.

I guess the account would not be complete without the Agincourt Carol, written in England in celebration of the English victory.  The instrument at the very beginning is a crumhorn, in case you’re wondering.  You can see manuscripts containing the carol here.

If you’re in the mood for more Medieval music, there are a number of extended playlists available online, including the interestingly-named “Medieval Music – ‘Hardcore’ Party Mix” full of lively dance tunes.


Image attribution:  Battle of Agincourt, from the Chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,  Original manuscript Biblioteque National de France.



Parody in Church? When the Sacred and Secular Meet

Painting, Angels singing, detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

When you hear the word parody, you may think of a satirical treatment of serious material.  That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one might hear in a church.

But in the case of a parody mass, it’s ok (most of the time—I’ll tell you about the exception in a bit).  A parody mass is one which uses a secular song as the musical theme for the setting of the words of the mass.  It has nothing to do with a satirical parody.  It was a technique that was widely used in the 16th century.  It is sometimes called an imitation mass.

Some of the more well-known parody masses are the Westron Wynde masses of John Taverner, Christopher Tye, and John Sheppard, and masses based on the tune L’homme armé, some of the most well known being the settings by Josquin Des Pres, Johannes Ockeghem, and Guillaume Dufay.  You can see an article on L’homme armé, called the “most borrowed tune ever” here.

Here’s the original Westron Wynde.

Here’s a sample of Taverner’s Westron Wynde Mass.

And here’s the original L’homme armé and Dufay’s adaptation.

Of course one should probably be selective in one’s choices for mass themes.

Orlando di Lasso (Orlande de Lassus) wrote a mass now known as the Missa Entre vous filles.  Here’s the problem.  In the song Entre vous filles de quinze ans (written by Jacobus Clemens non Papa), fifteen-year-old girls are advised not to go to the fountains because they are distracting.  Clemens non Papa is rather specific about what is distracting about them.  You can imagine that some people were not too happy when they found out where the mass theme came from.

Here is Clemens non Papa’s song

Here is Orlando di Lasso’s adaptation

The use of the parody mass dwindled, but the musical intermingling of sacred and secular has continued.  Martin Luther used folk tunes for chorales.  Classical themes have been used for hymn tunes and given new words.

Here’s an unexpected mixing of sacred and secular.  See if you can hear Bach’s O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden [O Sacred Head, Now Wounded] from the St. Matthew Passion in Paul Simon’s American Tune.


Image attribution

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,