Scottish Rite Cathedral

October 6

Most lives in 15th-century France were short, nasty, and brutish–burdened by assorted maladies, the lingering hostilities with England, and the internecine feuds among dukes. Yet arts and crafts flourished–the rich and the powerful, as if to atone for their sins, were munificent in their patronage. John, Duke of Berry, had a mean and avaricious streak, but it was in his service that the Limburg Brothers produced the book of hours, the Tres riches heures du duc de Berry, one of the glories of the early Renaissance. Paris harbored the best illustrators in this age of illuminated books and played host to roving architects and sculptors whose works reconciled Italian and northern European styles. Musicians searched for new sounds and were much in demand at the various courts and the city’s finest homes. But the musical entertainment was not just for the privileged set–the burgeoning middle class of merchants and craftsmen as well as the poor also craved it.

The Parisian music scene in the early 1400s described by the Newberry Consort’s detailed program notes doesn’t seem all that unfamiliar. Theory was debated at the universities; private conservatories, with their rigorous curricula, trained singers and instrumentalists in “serious” religious music; street minstrels, who had organized a guild to ensure professional behavior, concocted lighter fare with a broader appeal; star musicians, despite low social status, hobnobbed with their employers; and the dukes of Burgundy, on whose fortunes the well-being of Paris depended, eagerly stole top singers from the choirs of the royal chapel and the papal seat in Avignon. Musical and other cultural activities in Paris continued to thrive well into the 1450s, despite political chaos. But virtually no records of Parisian cultural life survived the ensuing turmoil, which lasted into the 1480s and included the reign of the cruel, uncultured Louis XI.

The Newberry Consort’s sampler of music from this rather remarkable time–compiled by the consort’s director, Mary Springfels–took us from Vaillant (1360-1390) to Agricola (1446-1506). Some of the selections–and scholars’ knowledge of the musical practices of the period–are based on scores in the Codex Chantilly, one of the “rare and very rich sources of late 14th century polyphony.” Its repertoire is now believed to be largely Parisian.

As usual, the Newberry Consort members–Springfels, David Douglass, Judith Malafronte, and Kevin Mason–showed why they are among the best in the business. One didn’t have to be an early-music devotee to be drawn into their performances, to marvel at their expertise, conviction, and gusto. (Judging early-music interpretations is no easy matter, since there are few points of reference.) The instrumental pieces were pleasant diversions, chosen more than anything to demonstrate the interplay of the sounds made by the period instruments. Following one piece, the players even helpfully explained to the audience the origins of their various instruments–the vielle, rebec, viola da gamba, and lute.

It was through the songs, however, that we got a taste of what Parisians liked in their music and of their view of life and love. To the modern ear “Puis que je suis fumeux” (Since I am smoky), by the minstrel and cleric Hasprois, might sound like a smoker’s declaration of his right to smoke or a play on the word fumer. Its humor is doubled when one learns from the program notes that it was intended as a satiric jab at the Society of Fumeurs, a presumably pretentious club of young aesthetes who may have smoked opium. Some of the songs conveyed a sense of chivalrous, if more tormented, love left over from the age of the Crusades. And one or two must have been intended as mock laments that gently made fun of those who were in love with love.

The best songs of the evening were the three by Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474), a master of polyphony, a teacher of Jean de Ockeghem, and a member of the school of northern European composers whose revolutionary ideas dominated the development of music throughout the continent after 1420. In all likelihood, the Flemish composer never set foot in Paris, though his songs seem to have been extremely popular there in the 1450s. Compared to the other selections on the Newberry Consort’s program, his songs stood out in sophistication and emotional complexity. The melody lines are long breathed, the texture denser, and the lyrics more poetic. “Navre je sui d’un dart penetratif” (I have been smitten by a sharp arrow) in particular could have been mistaken for one of Poulenc’s more enchanting songs. Of course, it helped that mezzo-soprano Malafronte sang it with feeling, tenderly caressing every syllable–except for two or three moments in the second half when her voice tired a bit, she was sensational. One of the playful numbers she sang consisted entirely of the refrain “I am from Germany, I speak German.” This little ditty is proof that Renaissance Parisians, high and low, were so infatuated with the sound of music that any excuse would do.