Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.

Composer Biography: Gilles Binchois (c1400-1460)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Along with John Dunstable (c1390-1453) and Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), the Franco-Flemish Gilles Binchois was one of the three most important composers of his generation. Invited to serve the Burgundian court under Philip the Good (1396-1467), Burgundy soon became the center of musical activity in northern Europe and Binchois was at its heart. Other composers flocked to study and collaborate with him, and he was widely imitated musically. He may have been the greatest musical influence of his time. In the manuscript of poet Martin Le Franc’s (c1410-1461) Champion des Dames (1440), there’s an image of Binchois and Dufay chatting. Oh, to be a fly on that wall! Binchois was born in Belgium, the son of Jean and Johanne de Binche, in the town of Binche near present- day Mons, about 45 minutes south of Brussels and close to the current French border. Binche is still pretty small with fewer than 35,000 residents. Mons was Walloon country, which meant that Binchois probably spoke French with an accent. Walloons had their own language, but the region soon aligned itself politically with France and it was a Romance language, so sounded (and still sounds) a lot like French to the Flemish speakers in the northern part of the area. Binchois’ father worked as a councilor to Duke Guillaume IV of Hainault (dates unavailable) and also in a church in Mons, although I wasn’t able to find out what he did there. (Binche, Mons, and Hainault are all within 20 miles of each other, so he never strayed far from home.) I didn’t find anything indicating that Gilles shared his musical gift with others in his family or whether or not he had siblings. His father’s work at a church gave him access to an organ, and it’s thought that he trained at Binche and was a chorister and organist at Mons. In fact, very little is known of young Binchois until 1419, when he became organist a Saint Waudru in Mons. He stayed there until, in 1423, he went to live in Lille to serve the Englishman William Pole, Earl of Suffolk (1396-1450), who was with the English forces occupying France. He may have visited England with the Earl during the four years that he worked for him. When the Duke of Suffolk (dates not found) fell off his horse in 1424 and was laid up for a while, he commissioned Binchois to set a poem, Ainsi, que a la fois, into a rondeau (a dance song), and paid him very well. This particular piece has not survived. Suffolk’s friend Charles of Orleans (1394-1465) was an amateur musician with some great skill, and probably commissioned a song or two as well. Binchois’ genius got him invited to Burgundy to join the chapel of The Duke of Burgundy (later, Philip the Good) (1396-1467). Philip was a big supporter of the arts, and Binchois found himself in the company of such notables as famous painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441). From sometime before 1431 until 1453, Binchois was chaplain at the court of Burgundy. He was also a canon at a church in Mons along with Dufay. I didn’t find any evidence of marriage or offspring and it’s possible that he took holy vows, although I didn’t find any evidence of that either. In 1430, Philip the Good founded the chivalric order of the Golden Fleece that united a motley northern nobility, including Walloons, Picards, and Flemings. His chapel included Binchois, and other important musical geniuses, such as Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin, the latter two of whom were born in the Duke’s northern territories. When Philip ordered his troops to capture Joan of Arc (1412-1431) at Compiegne in 1430, Binchois seems to have gone with them. He was in the neighborhood at the time, fighting against the occupying English army. But he was back in Burgundy by 1431 (a bad year for Joan of Arc), in time to compose a piece to celebrate the baptism of Philip the Good’s newborn male heir, Antoine. The boy’s name, his guardian figure St. Anthony, and the names of the 19 singers, including Binchois’ own, were woven into the text for the composition, Nove cantum melodie. Unfortunately, in the midst of wars and the movement of the center of western Europe’s musical scene from Burgundy to Paris, the top two lines of the first section of music were lost. In 2004, Andrew Kirkman and the Binchois Consort reconstructed the lines and made a recording, so you can hear at least approximately what it would have sounded like. During his life, Binchois held prebends (an allowance paid to clerical employees at a cathedral) in Bruges, Mons, Cassel, and finally at Soignes. He was appointed provost (the most senior academic administrator) of the collegiate church of St. Vincent (1452), and he continued to receive a pension from the Burgundian court. Binchois, along with Ockeghem and Antoine Busnois (c1430-1492), was one of the few northern composers to resist the lure of the Italian musical community. His chanson style, which included a secular solo with two instrumental parts, was arguably superior even to those by Dufay. The texts of his pieces reflect the pessimism of the period and its preoccupation with ideas of death. Three decades of contact with English musicians at the Burdgundian court made Binchois the most influential composer on English composers in the Burgundian style, which was a pleasant combination of English primness, French romance, and Italian rambunctiousness. While a member of the Burgundian court chapel, Binchois spent a great deal of time composing. He wrote no complete Masses, only separate movements and, other than four Magnificats, his other church music consists mostly of short three-part hymns and antiphons. Some have the liturgical melody in the highest voice (richly ornamented in the English style) or in the tenor, or they are missing it altogether. Sometimes the third part is fauxbourdon (rather than polyphony, the parts consist of parallel notes to the melody, an early approximation of chords—for more on this, see my blog post on Chords versus Polyphony). Binchois’ sacred music is musically more conservative than his secular, complying with the rules and thematic elements of the day. No complete Mass cycle has survived, although some independent movements can be paired, based on similarity. He wrote three Gloria/Credo pairs, five Sanctus/Agnus Dei pairs, 12 single Mass movements, over 30 other sacred works. Binchois’ pieces are characterized by effortless, graceful melodies, uncomplicated rhythms, and carefully balanced phrases. Some of his church music is simple, elaborating the plainsong with chords in fauxbourdon, with occasional ornamentation, a consolidation of the Burgundian styles. Tenor lines of two or three voices were used to make fauxbourdon. Popular during his own lifetime, numerous compositions by other composers from the mid-15 th century were based on his works, including three Mass cycles {Ockeghem’s Missa de plus an plus, Englishman John Bedyngham’s (1422-c1459) Missa Dueil angoiseux, and an anonymous Mass cycle called Esclave puist il devenir}. His secular songs embody the courtly tradition of the time. Many have a sad or nostalgic quality, telling of unrequited love in the rather stilted style of the chivalric manner. He wrote many of his own texts. His secular songs are mostly rondeaux, which is a dance form with a pattern of a repeating refrain and verses. They are nearly all for a single-texted upper voice accompanied by an untexted tenor a fifth lower and a contrabass in the same range or a little lower. Often formal in his treatment of poetic forms, Binchois could achieve depth of feeling. Other chanson are more routine, with successive short melodic phrases dominated by cadence formulas (a pattern of notes that signify the end of a section or the piece—modern music still does this, from classical to hip hop to country and western). Many of his works survive in single sources, compiled in various locations in southern Europe, far from the Burgundian court. This tells us that many of his works must have been lost or attributed to the super productive, long-lived, and mega-famous Anonymous. Only one isorhythmic motet has survived. Among his secular music, there are about 50 rondeaux, several ballades, Fille a marier (songs for or about marriageable girls), and chanson. Binchois is credited with 28 independent Mass movements, four Magnificats, more than 30 motets and hymn settings, and about 55 chansons, six of which survive as keyboard arrangements. The chanson was his best genre, and he ranked with Dufay as a major exponent of the form. Most are settings of rondeaux, and a few are ballades. Most adopt the usual three-part texture, with a melodious top line accompanied by two instrumental parts of equal range. Binchois stayed in Philip’s employ until he retired with a generous pension to Soignies in 1453. He died there six years later. His death was lamented in works by fellow Burgundian court musicians Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497) and Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474). Both used the rondeau form that was Binchois’ favorite and involved repeating musical motifs and text. Like Ockeghem and Josquin, Binchois enjoyed considerable posthumous notoriety, with his fame reaching that of a household name by the 1470s. Their music continued to be performed for quite some time. By 1613, however, Binchois’ name was garbled in a dubious elegy by Johannes Nucius (c1556-1620, a German theoretician and composer who has enjoyed the ignominy he musically wished on Binchois, Dufay, and Dunstable. There’s a miniature in a manuscript of Martin le Franc’s poem, Le Champion des dames that shows Dufay playing a portative organ and Binchois playing a harp, the symbols of sacred and secular music, respectively.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton, New York, 1994. “Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1974. “A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981. “The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, 2012. “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Gould, and Claude VV. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerard Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985. “The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque, ” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973. “Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music,” by Manfred F. Bukofzer. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1950. “Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.