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"Comme femme": A Fifteenth Century Song Goes Viral

Stained glass depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.

How did tunes go viral, or in other words quickly become widely known, centuries before there was any such thing as social media? This hour on Harmonia, we’re exploring a 15th century song about a disconsolate woman that went viral, in its own time. Join us as we hear how composers borrowed tunes in the days before plagiarism was relevant, with this, the next installment in our occasional “Greatest Hits of the Renaissance” series.

We heard Josquin Desprez’s setting of the text “Ave Maria,” performed by La Chapelle Royale, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe.


The song of the day, “Comme femme desconfortée,” appears in eleven manuscript sources, one (and only one) of which attributes it to Gilles Binchois. Of course it never hurts to attribute a song to a well-known composer, though this attribution is shaky on stylistic grounds. Whoever the composer, its wide dissemination suggests that “Comme femme desconfortée” was one of the best-known chansons of the late 15th century, and the many sacred and secular compositions that draw on its tenor line further attest to its popularity.

The lyric is quite heart-wrenching: Like a woman most distressed, more even than all the others, with no hope of being consoled on any day of my life, weighted down by my misfortune, I desire death, day and night.

“Comme femme desconfortée” is a poem in the medieval poetic form of a rondeau. As is typical, the 8 lines of text are set into two repeating (though not exactly alternating) chunks of music. The returning refrain heightens the drama of the woman’s distress. Let’s hear the song performed in several very different but equally historically informed presentations. You’ll hear the first half sung by two voices. Pay special attention to the male voice part-that is the one that lives on for decades in the music of other composers.

You heard the Ensemble Gilles Binchois performing the first half of “Comme femme desconfortée.”  And now the other half of the song, performed by a single voice and two instruments. Isn’t it amazing how different this version sounds from the previous one? And yet it is still the same song!

That was the Consort of Musicke directed by Anthony Rooley, with Catherine Bott singing the second half of “Comme femme desconfortée,” accompanied by instruments.

Josquin's Stabat Mater

Compositions of the 14th and 15th centuries often create a confluence of courtly love and the cult of the Virgin, and our song is no exception. The despair of an unhappy woman invites us to think perhaps about the sorrow of the Pietà. Josquin Desprez’s “Stabat Mater” quickly became one of the most widespread of many existing versions, appearing in some twenty-one manuscript and printed sources and serving as a model for at least two other compositions. Interestingly, there is no trace of the chant melody “Stabat Mater” in Josquin's setting: but the tenor line, which is the only pre-existing musical material, is “Comme femme.”

That was La Chapelle Royal, directed by Philippe Herreweghe, singing Josquin Desprez’s “Stabat Mater.” You are forgiven if you did not hear the tenor line of “Comme femme,” as it is buried deep in the texture of the motet, travelling slowly in very long notes in the middle of five voices. The tune happens twice, once in each of the piece’s two sections. Are we supposed to hear it, or is the presence of the tune simply a structure around which to build a motet? Opinions vary, as do the ways these pieces are performed. One thing is clear – the tenor line doesn’t have enough notes to set the entire “Stabat Mater” text. This raises an interesting question about how pieces of this sort were performed. Did the singers just choose syllables to sing? Or was the tenor line played on an instrument? Both solutions seem plausible under different performing circumstances.

Alexander Agricola

Of all the pieces that borrowed the “Comme femme” tenor, Josquin’s “Stabat Mater,” was the most-copied, but probably not the earliest. That honor likely belongs to a piece by Alexander Agricola, a composer who’s credited with being the first composer of a substantial body of textless music that may have been intended for instrumental performance. His works include three settings of “Comme femme,” in 2, 3, and 4 parts. The three- and four-part settings appear in some sources with one texted voice consisting of prayers to the Virgin Mary, but in others is has no text at all. Let’s hear instrumental versions of all three Agricola pieces. I hope you’ll be able to distinguish the long notes of our famous tenor line much more clearly in these settings.

You just heard three versions of Alexander Agricola’s “Comme femme desconfortée,” performed by the viol consort Fretwork, playing on reproductions of 16th century viols that sound very different from the standard consort of viols used for later repertory.

Composer Ludwig Senfl certainly knew Josquin’s “Stabat Mater,” as he based his own motet “Ave rosa sine spinis (Hail Rose without a thorn)” on Josquin’s piece, which he published in one of the earliest German printed motet collections. Senfl’s text is an acrostic of the Ave Maria. Each of seven stanzas begins with a word or phrase of the well-known prayer, whose Latin text is as follows:

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.

Benedicta tu in mulieribus,

et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,

ora pro nobis peccatoribus,

nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

Absent is any mention of Mary's suffering, and thus the direct textual resonance between chanson text and motet text that is present in Josquin's “Stabat Mater.” Instead, Senfl enhances the general Marian devotional content of his motet by invoking the Marian associations of “Comme femme desconfortée.” Let’s hear an interpretation of the motet from Die Gruppe für Alte Musik München.

You heard Ludwig Senfl’s five-voice motet “Ave rosa sine spinis,” performed by Die Gruppe für Alte Musik München, led by Martin Zöbeley. Did you hear a very subtle doubling of the tenor part by a Renaissance trombone, or sackbut?

So, “Comme femme” was known both as a song and as one part of many motets during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Why did “Comme femme desconfortée” go viral?  Well, it is quite possible - though not provable - that Agricola and Isaac influenced one another in their choice of this cantus firmus in the 1490s while working together in Florence, and that Josquin got the idea to use “Comme femme desconfortée” as the tenor of his “Stabat Mater” from his interactions with Agricola at the Ferrarese court.  Senfl, who was a student of Isaac, probably knew his teacher Isaac’s piece as well as Josquin’s… Whatever the reason, some of the most striking and beautiful polyphony of the 16th century could not exist without the Disconsolate Lady.

Missa mi-mi

Our featured release this week, the recording Missa mi-mi, by The Clerks’ Group, ties directly in with our song of the hour, the 15th century chanson “Comme femme desconfortée.” Heinrich Isaac uses our song to transform his motet “Angeli, archangeli” into a description of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her name appears nowhere in the text, which pleads for intercession from angels, archangels, and numerous other classes of saints. It is drawn from two antiphons for the Feast of All Saints, though like Josquin’s composition, the melodies of their chants are absent in Isaac’s composition. The only pre-existent musical element of the piece is once again “Comme femme desconfortée.” Its presence in “Angeli, archangeli” not only inscribes Mary (who is not otherwise mentioned in the text) into the motet, but the structural prominence of the tenor voice gives Mary a place of much greater privilege within the polyphonic texture than any of the other classes of saints named in the text. Mary and the saints were closely related in late medieval iconography; upon Mary’s assumption into heaven, she was crowned queen of the heavenly assembly of saints. So here is a splendid motet appropriate for performance on any occasion when veneration of the Virgin or of the heavenly community of saints is desired.

That was Isaac’s motet “Angeli, archangeli” performed by The Clerks’ Group, directed by Edward Wickham.

Break and theme music

:30, Agricola: Chansons, Fretwork, harmonia mundi 2006, Tr. 6 Pater meus agricola est 

:60, Agricola: Chansons, Fretwork, harmonia mundi 2006, Tr. 4 Agricola I - Comme femme 

:30, Agricola: Chansons, Fretwork, harmonia mundi 2006, Tr. 7 Tout a part moy I

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Wendy Gillespie.

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