A large manuscript containing 166 late medieval French songs, located today at the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria in Torino, Italy, is the most significant evidence of a rich musical culture found in neither France nor Italy, but Cyprus. Yes, the island of Cyprus, which, for nearly three centuries, was ruled by Lusignan kings beginning in the late 12th Century.
The island was conquered by Richard the Lionheart in 1191 and then sold to the Knights Templar who put Guy de Lusignan in charge. During the three hundred year Lusignan family reign, Cyprus became the farthest reach of late medieval French culture.
The Cyprian manuscript found in Torino’s national library can be traced to the early-15th Century, a high point at the Lusignan court of Janus I where there was a sophisticated musical environment associated with Charlotte de Bourbon, the king’s wife. When she arrived on Cyprus, she brought to the island two French musicians, Gilet Velut and Jean Hanelle, both of who became important musical figures at court and may very well have composed some of the pieces the manuscript. And while all of the composers who contributed to the manuscript remain anonymous, it is one of largest and most important sources for late medieval French song.
The Torino manuscript has a wealth of music, including plainchant, mass settings, motets in French and Latin, virelai, ballades, and rondeaux… all music commonly found in the late-medieval era. Yet the French songs are finely crafted and are unique to the manuscript (no copies are found anywhere else).
The manuscript came to life for reasons that are still unknown, but there are a number of theories; the strongest of which claims that the manuscript was copied for an Italian patron with a connection to the Lusignan court on Cyprus and then somehow found itself in Savoy. Although a little sparse, this theory at the very least shows a tangible link between Cyprus, Italy, and Savoy, if somewhat clouded by a haze of mystery and speculation.
The 17th-century French political figure Cardinal Jules Mazarin is the inspiration for our new release of the week. The ensemble Le Jardin Secret has put together a program of French and Italian works inspired by Cardinal Mazarin, a powerful force behind the support of Italian opera at the courts of Louis XIII and XIV. Released on the Coro label, the program contains vocal and instrumental music by primarily well-known composers including Charpentier, Lully, Louis Couperin, Luigi Rossi, and many others.
Here’s a video of ensemble La Morra performing a work from 15th-century England.