The chansons on Asteria’s third album are all gathered from one extraordinary manuscript, the celebrated Oxford 213 manuscript currently housed at the Bodleian Library in England. Aside from being the largest collection of 15th century chansons by known composers like Dufay and Binchois, it contains a great number of anonymous works from the earliest period of the the 15th century. Asteria chose to focus on this exquisite body of little-known works for Un tres doulx regard, and many of these songs have never before been recorded before.
Just like the shy lover who is knocked off his feet by the merest glance from the object of his affections, the music of the first generation of Burgundian composers at the end of the ars nova is infused with the sweetness and explosive passion of new love. “Un tres doulx regard” – A most sweet glance – is the result of extensive archival research into this little-known period, dating roughly from 1390 to 1420, just before the meteoric rise (and subsequent fall) of Burgundian power and influence that would briefly propel Franco/Flemish art and music to the very apex of European fashion.
At the turn of the 15th century, a common merchant or educated noble in Dijon, Brugge or Lille would have had very little reason to suspect that the next 70 years would bring with them such dramatic developments. War with England, repeated calls for crusades, and the terror of the black death were still very much the order of the day when their new duke, Philip the Bold, a prince of the Valois dynasty of French kings, took as his bride Marguerite of Male, a Flemish princess and the richest heiress in Europe. The unprecedented wealth that subsequently flowed into Burgundian coffers was used to support an increasingly extravagant series of artistic endeavors and cultural achievements that would place Philip’s court at the cultural and political center of Europe. It was at this time that the celebrated sculptures of Claus Sluter were realized at the Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon, and the finest artisans in northern Europe were engaged to beautify Marguerite’s elegant country palace in nearby Germolles. Under Burgundian patronage, Christine de Pizan, perhaps the greatest poet of the late middle ages, would leave her enduring mark, and later in the century Jan van Eyk and Rogier van der Weyden would adorn Burgundian spiritual and secular edifices with their best works.
In music, too, much was changing. The bewildering complexity of the ars nova composers was met with a strong, reactionary backlash by the following generation, who eschewed the virtuosic, twisting melodies of their predecessors in favor of more simple, elegant lines and forms. Inspired by their duke’s love of chivalric ideals, the music of this early Burgundian period is perhaps the most plainly beautiful of the age, reflecting the more pure and finely distilled poetic traditions of the day.
The theme of these secular chansons is almost invariably that of courtly love, that mysterious and uniquely medieval literary and cultural tradition that places the lady on the highest possible pedestal and prescribes with absolute precision the social roles for noblemen and noblewomen at court. But like the rules of love in any age, there are countless variations and permutations: “Although my beard be grey, may you ï¬nd it in your heart to love me,” beseeches an aging knight in “Pourtant se jay la barbe grise.” “Give comfort to your lover, for he has served you to the best of his ability!,” encourages the text of “Dones confort.” And in Johannes le Grant’s “Layssies moy coy,” the jilted lover requests merely to be left alone in his love-stricken grief: “Don’t speak to me of singing – I have better cause to lament!”
When the knight woos his lady, the pain of her initial refusal is utterly bittersweet. The more inaccessible the object of his affections, the greater his passion, and the higher the drama and glory of the pursuit. The troubadours of the preceding age preached the gospel of courtly love as the ultimate human experience, and their ability to convey the passion and despair of love in verse and music – the longing of new love, the agony of love unfulfilled, and the exquisite pain of love itself – was viewed as the pinnacle of artistic expression. Indeed, the voluminous quantities of courtly song and poetry, spanning almost 500 years, attest to the enduring interest that medieval society held for the twists, travails and seeming contradictions of this fascinating tradition.
In the end, things have not changed so very much in the 500 years that have followed; songs about love still predominate, and our lives are still capable of being turned upside-down in the merest instant by “a most sweet glance!”
Track listing – click on song title for text and translation
01-Pour L’amour De Ma Doulce Amye (Guillaume Dufay)
Total time: 63:49