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Febus avant!

Once upon a time, in 14th century France, there was a nobleman who was able to bring people from opposite sides of, oh, say, a papal schism, together for a meal and some entertainment. His name was Gaston.

Livre de chasse

A scene from the Livre de chasse, a medieval book on hunting, written by Gaston Fébus.

Once upon a time, in 14th century France, there was a nobleman who was able to bring people from opposite sides of, oh, say, a papal schism, together for a meal and some entertainment. His name was Gaston, and he also had very sophisticated tastes in music. We’ll hear music that was composed for this 14th-century knight — songs that not only mention Gaston Fébus by name, but even set his motto as a refrain.

Our featured release, heard both within the program and again at the very end, is a 4-CD set called Figures of Harmony: Songs of the Codex Chantilly circa 1390, by the Ferrara Ensemble.


The Ferrara Ensemble, directed by Crawford Young, with music inspired by the flamboyant 14th-century Count of Foix, Gaston Fébus, from a 4-CD set entitled Figures of Harmony.


Christmas Day 1388

On Christmas Day in 1388, to the utter amazement of the chronicler Jean Froissart, the Count of Foix seated bishops from both sides of the Papal Schism at his table in Orthez. Froissart had seen a good many splendid courts, but never, he says, “a king or prince so well-knit of limb, so handsome of manner, so comely of stature; the bonny face flushed with health, the green eyes that inspire affection wherever it pleases him to direct his glance…” …you get the idea.

Neither did Gaston seem to suffer from a lack of self-confidence. Self-styled Fébus, after the Greek god of the sun because of his golden hair, he was well educated, fluent in French as well as his native Languedoc, a famous hunter, and a patron of music and the arts. Born in 1331, Gaston was the count of Foix, which owed fealty to the French king, and viscount of Béarn, which owed fealty to the English king. Obviously, diplomacy features prominently in Gaston’s capabilities.

Here’s a motet in the old style (well, old for the 14th century!) – it’s in three parts, each with a different text. One talks about Phoebus – the sun, of course, but also our guy – rising over the world and blazing triumphantly through it, the second text makes veiled references to political events of the day, and the third, consisting only of the word “cornibus” – perhaps refers to the symbol of the Viscounty of Béarn, which is…4 cows.

Cantica Symphonia, directed by Giuseppe Maletto, sang the anonymous motet “Fébus mundo oriens (Lanista viperus/Cornibus)” on their 2009 Naxos CD Almisonis melos: Latin motets and mass fragments in the Ivrea codex.

Most of the pieces that honor Gaston are in the fixed poetic form of the ballade: 3 verses of 7 lines. For each verse, there’s a chunk of music – let’s call it the “A section” – that’s heard twice, with a first ending and a second ending. Then there’s a slightly longer second section – the “B section.” We get all of that three times. The music is very subtle, complex melodically and rhythmically. It demands concentration, and affords even the most experienced listener plenty to ponder.

This wonderful ballade is by the mysterious Trébor…try spelling it backwards. The ballade compares Fébus favorably to Alixander the Great and Hector, two of the Nine Worthies. At the end of each verse of this ballade, you’ll hear that in Gaston’s service are “Foix, Béarn, Castelbon and Noailles,” all parts of his domain in the Pyrenees.

The Ferrara Ensemble, directed by Crawford Young, sang the ballade “Se Alixandre et Hector,” by the mysteriously-named Trébor, from their 2015 4 CD set called Figures of Harmony – Songs of the Chantilly Codex circa. 1390.

And where there are worthy men, especially in the case of Gaston, there are also worthy women. In this anonymous ballade, we are led astray by loads of cadences with major thirds that go somewhere that is musically unexpected – very labyrinthine! The text says,

“Mount Aon, in Thrace, that pleasing country where lovely harmony resounds, hosts at its court nine prestigious ladies who are the rulers of beauty. There resides Phoebus, getting wisdom, honor and goodness…”

A truly labyrinthine piece – did you notice that there were only two verses performed? That was the Ensemble Trefoil, performing an anonymous ballade extolling the virtues of Gaston Fébus from their very aptly titled MSR Classics CD called Masters, Monsters and Mazes: Treading the Medieval Labyrinth.


Febus avant!

Welcome back. We’re listening to 14th century French music composed for Gaston Fébus, music in which what the ear thinks should happen does not always happen, and the unexpected is the only sure thing to expect.

Johann Cuvelier also composed a ballade honoring Gaston. His text compares Fébus favorably to Galahad, Arthur, Samson, Tristan, and, as they say, the rest of the usual Arthurian suspects. Once again there are three verses, and this time we hear the motto “Febus avant! Par prouesse conquise!” – “Forward Febus! Conquer through prowess!” – at the end of each verse.

The Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul van Nevel, performed Johann Cuvelier’s ballade “Se Galaas” on their 1993 Sony Classical CD entitled Febus Avant! Music at the Court of Gaston Fébus 1331-1391.

Let’s end as we began, with another early motet in honor of Gaston, this one with a truly obscure text, nearly impossible to translate, whose general idea is to extol his political prowess and his ability to put an end to malicious deeds by his enemies. The energy is infectious in this rendition by the Huelgas Ensemble.

That was the anonymous motet “Altissonis aptatis/Hin principes in honor of Gaston Febus,” and once again we heard the Huelgas Ensemble from their Sony Classics CD Febus avant! Music at the Court of Gaston Febus.


Figures of Harmony

We’ve already heard some music from our featured release, a spectacular 4-CD set of 14th century music from the Codex Chantilly. We’ll end with a couple more pieces from it. This is music that was, for its time, on the cutting edge of the avant-garde: rhythmically complicated and sometimes dissonant. The description in the CD itself says it well:

“Here are love songs for the End of the World: a time of deadly plague, devastating earthquakes, endless war, disintegrating religion, and the explosion of science and measurement.”

Here is a short piece, “Le ray au soleyl,” the rays of the sun — short, but incredibly dense in its rhythmic complexity.

“Le ray au soleyl,” the rays of the sun, from a 4-CD set called Figures of Harmony: Songs of Codex Chantilly, by the Ferrara Ensemble.

The notation for the next exquisite piece, “La harpe de melodie,” is also a work of art: a beautiful illustration of a harp, with the strings serving as the lines of the staff, and the notes written upon the staff.

“La harpe de melodie,” beautiful complex music from the 14th century,  from a 4-CD set called Figures of Harmony: Songs of Codex Chantilly, by the Ferrara Ensemble, directed by Crawford Young.


Break and theme music

:60, Figures of Harmony, Ferrara Ensemble, Arcana 2015, D. 3, Tr. 10 Chanconeta Tedescha

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.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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Wendy Gillespie

Wendy Gillespie, Director of the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project, is Professor Emerita of Music at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and Past President of the Viola da Gamba Society of America. In 2011 she was awarded Early Music America’s Thomas Binkley Award, and in 2012 a Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award. She continues to enjoy her career as a performing musician, having made more than 100 recordings and performed on five continents. Wendy began working with Harmonia in January 2012.

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