Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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The Chantilly Codex (c1375)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

The Chantilly Codex is a collection of music from Southern France in the late 14 th century, or possibly an early 15 th century Italian copy. It shows how fluid the chanson repertory of the time was, and it’s a marvelous look at the notation of the time. The songs contained in it seem interconnected, and there are many indications of personal contact among the composers. The songs within the Chantilly Codex are a proper introduction to Ars subtilior. This musical style conquered Paris, Avignon, and Northern Spain at the end of the 14 th century, and was a huge contrast to the Ars nova, the preceding style. Ars subtilior is complex—especially rhythmically—almost entirely secular, and innovative both musically and in its notation. The Chantilly collection once belonged to Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, known as Le Grand Condé (1621-1686), a great general and the most famous of the Condé branch of the House of Bourbon. It was written entirely in French (other codices have mixes). It had some lovely examples of notation, like this one. (This photo is from Parrish, plate LXII) The music dates from c1350-95, including Ars subtilior pieces of 1375-95 by papal singers from Avignon and musicians at the Foix and Aragon courts (during the schism). There were two main scribes and the manuscript is famous for the complexity and beauty of its notation. It resided in Florence for a long time and it’s now at the Musée Condé, in Chantilly, north of Paris.


The poet-composer most closely associated with the Chantilly Codex was called Solage, and his dates and other particulars were unrecorded. All ten of his surviving works are found there. Seven pieces are ballades (three make reference to someone named Jean). Solage’s best known work is a rondeau called Fumeux fume (smoky smoke), which stands out from the Ars subtilior repertory because of the chromatic harmonies (called musica ficta causa pulchritudinis). This same chromatic drama was a legacy from Machaut, whom Solage seems to have copied in several works. Even the smoke reference is about Machaut, a reference to The Fumeux, a waggish literary guild presided over by Eustache Deschamps, Machaut’s self-designated poetic heir. The group met between 1366-1381, trying to outdo one another in smoky, or far-out fantasies. The notation is a good example, especially in samples like the heart-shaped piece, of coloration in notation. In many cases, the coloration (red, generally) was used to indicate a different rhythm or indicated that notes were of shorter duration than others. It also uses ficta, defining them as enduring until the end of the staff (not the measure, as in modern notation, nor the word, as in Gregorian neumes).


There are 64 folios containing 112 polyphonic works, of which 13 are motets and the rest ballades, rondeaux, and virelais. Most date from c1350-1400. It contains popular courtly dance styles, such as ballades, rondeaus, virelais, and isorhythmic motets. Some of the motets are rhythmically complex and are written in exacting musical notation. Two pieces by Baude Cordier were added slightly later than the date at the front of the manuscript. They use unusual shapes to reflect their musical contents. The piece Belle, Bonne, Sage” is a play on the word “Cor” (heart) in “Cordier.” (It’s shown above.) There are pieces in honor of Gaston Fébus and Jean, the Duke of Berry, whose court in Bourges rivaled Gaston’s in magnificence. Jean is also the one whose fantastically sumptuous breviary or prayer book known as the “Tres riches heures” is probably the most famous of the species of Books of Hours.


The collection opens with two rondeaux by Baude Cordier that were added at a later date than most of the balance of the collection. One of the pieces, Belle, bonne, sage is notated in that unique heart shape, and Tout par compas is in a circle. There’s a little note in the corner saying that the composer comes from Rheims and that his music has been performed as far away as Rome. He was probably active in the 15 th century when mannerism was on its way out. The notation itself is charming, but it sure is hard to play! The motet collection at the end of the Chantilly Codex include nine motets in four parts and four in three, and are rhythmically simpler than many of the other songs. Despite their Latin texts, they’re all secular, which was, by this time, a dying form. A piece by Jean Vaillant, Par maintes foys, has charming imitation of birdsong. It’s predominantly French repertory, but with contributions from other regions. Ars subtilior used a large combination of neumes indicating duration, including notes with stems and seraphs (flags), that divided the primary note, the minim, in half. Colored notation (like in the Roman de Fauvel), is commonly featured. Red notes are meant to indicate a change in rhythm, reducing the same note in black ink by half or a third. The collection contains pieces by Johannes Symonis, Jehan Suzay, Pierre de Molins, Goscalch, Solage, Baude Cordier, Grimace, Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan Vaillant, Franciscus Andrieu, Johannes Cuvelier, Trebor, and Jacob Senleches.


I know your curiosity is piqued, so here a few things to go hear: Ensemble Organum: Codex Chanilly: Airs de cour du XIVe siècle. Harmonia Mundi, 1987. Ensemble P.A.N.: Ars Magis Subtiliter: Secular Music of the Chantilly Codex. New Albion, 1989. Medieval Ensemble of London: Ce diabolic chant: Ballades, Rondeaus & Virelais of the Late Fourteenth Century, L’Oiseau-Lyre 1983. New London Consort, Ars subtilior. Linn Records, 1998. De Caelis, Codex Chantilly. Aeon 2010.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994. “Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Turuskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979. “The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961. “The Notation of Medieval Music,” by Carl Parrish. Pendragon Press, New York, 1978. “Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997. “Music in the Medieval West; Western Music in Context,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014. “Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.
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