How the Leuven Chansonnier Was Discovered

Dec 11, 2018 | blog, Luevan, medieval | 0 comments

This January, we are excited to perform music that, until recently, was lost to the sands of time. Our program What’s Old is New: The Leuven Chansonnier features music from a tiny medieval songbook that was recently discovered.  

The book, which is still in its original binding with a brocade cover, was found in 2014 by a private art dealer in a lot of art objects he’d bought in Brussels. The art dealer contacted the Alamire Foundation, a center that specializes in polyphonic music at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, and asked if they were interested in it. The discovery sent shockwaves through the early music world, as this is only the sixth 15th-century songbook to have been found in the world.

Even more exciting, the Alamire Foundation has already digitized the entire book and put it online for free, allowing anyone around the world to see all of its lavishly decorated pages up close.

The tiny book, which measures about the size of a 3 by 5 index card, contains 96 sheets of parchment and includes 50 songs. The first is Ave Regina in Latin by Walter Fry. The other 49 are secular songs in French, most about love and loss.

Like the other five songbooks, the Leuven Chansonnier is thought to have been created in the Loire Valley region of France between 1465 and 1475. All six of these books marked a new way that music was recorded. Before the 1470s, words were often written down first, and then musical notes were aligned to them. But in these songbooks, the music was written first, and the words were written later.

Although none of the songs lists the name of its composer, researchers at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven have determined that several of the songs in the Leuven Chansonnier are by well-known Franco-Belgian composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois and Gilles Binchois, whose works are also featured in the other songbooks. And 12 of the songs are completely new.

Debra Nagy, who is co-directing the program with us, says she likes to think of these songbooks as personal playlists that were written for a specific nobleman. She says the songbooks contained some of the most popular tunes of the day, as well as personal favorites of each of the owners, and she suggests that the king or duke may have flipped through the songbooks to select a piece for his musicians to play, almost like cueing up a song on a jukebox.

“You could either read the text or say to your professional musicians in the room, ‘Hey, could you play this for me?’” Nagy says.

Researchers still don’t know, however, exactly who the Leuven Chansonnier’s original owner was.

According to the King Baudouin Foundation, which purchased the book and has entrusted it to Katholieke Universiteit on a long-term loan, the book contains a coat of arms of the Dukes of Savoye-Nemours, leading researchers to believe that it belonged to the second Duke of Nemours (1531-1585), although they don’t think he was the book’s original owner.

All of the songs in the Leuven Chansonnier are written for three parts, except one, which was written for four. However, Nagy says the book doesn’t specify which parts are for voices and which are for instruments. Nagy says harps would have been likely used to play notes in the bass register, while the lute would have been used for notes in the tenor or alto range. The organetto, a small organ that was often played on someone’s lap or on a tabletop, would have played notes in a soprano range.

In our concert, we will be using a mixture of all of these instruments, as well as recorders, viel, rebec and percussion, in addition to three singers.

“It’s a fantastic repertoire,” Nagy says.

We hope you’ll join us Jan. 11 to 13 to hear some of the musical treasures inside the Leuven Chansonnier!


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