Antoine Busnois : Worthy of the immortal gods, died #OnThisDay 1492

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On this day in 1492, Antoine Busnois died.  He was a Netherlandish composer and poet of the early Renaissance Burgundian School. While also noted as a composer of motets and other sacred music, he was one of the most renowned 15th-century composers of secular chansons. He was the leading figure of the late Burgundian school after the death of Guillaume Dufay.

His compositions comprise two cantus firmus masses, several motets, and dozens of secular chansons. Busnois was best known for his secular music, and indeed his finest works in these forms compare well with those of the acknowledged master of the age, Johannes Ockeghem. In fact, Busnois’ best known work, the motet-chanson “In hydraulis,” is a tribute to Ockeghem, his teacher. Busnois’ compositions delight in all manner of tricks, from harmonic effects to lyrical acrostics. His secular works represent the apogee of the intricate chanson form (in both poetry and music) of the early Renaissance. (Todd McComb, Classical.net)

According to Pietro Aron, Busnois may have been the composer of the famous tune L’homme armé, one of the most widely distributed melodies of the Renaissance and the one more often used than any other as a cantus firmus in Mass composition. Whether or not he wrote the first Mass based on L’homme armé, his was by far the most influential; Obrecht‘s setting, for example, closely parallels that of Busnois, and even Dufay’s quotes from it directly. Richard Taruskin attempts to prove that Busnois’ was the model later L’homme armé masses were based upon through a study of the composer’s numerological symbology within the work, and by demonstrating that Dufay and others were emulating (or paying homage) to this aspect, among others. David Fallows points out that the complexity of the Busnois mass may indicate that he was actually borrowing from Dufay. Busnois may even be the composer of a cycle of six Masses all based on the same tune, found in Naples, on the basis of stylistic comparison.

But Busnois’ chansons (French secular songs) are the works on which his reputation mainly rests. Most are rondeaux, but some are bergerettes; many of them achieved the status of popular songs, and some were perhaps based on other popular songs which are now lost. He probably wrote the words for almost all of his chansons (anticipating Wagner by four hundred years!). Some of his tunes were recycled as cantus firmus for Masses composed more than a generation after his death, for instance Fortuna desperata (which was used both by Obrecht and Josquin). An unusual chanson is Terrible dame, which is not only an antiphonal dialogue (unique in the chanson literature) but has an Old French title requiring no special skill to translate.

While most of Busnois’s secular songs are set to French words, at least two employ Italian texts and one is in Flemish. Most are for three voices, although there are a few for four.


busnois2England’s Orlando Consort, a quartet of male singers augmented as needed by other performers, offers performances of Renaissance vocal music that lie midway between the traditional and the highly individualized modern. Sometimes they veer toward one of those two extremes, but often, as on the present disc, they find a happy medium. Their sound, especially in sacred music, owes much to the English cathedral tradition, but there’s a well-honed edge to their one-voice-to-a-part interpretations that brings out the crowds who’ve recently been drawn to early music. This disc is intended as an introduction to a composer who doesn’t always offer easy listening to the modern ear. Netherlander Antoine Busnois, active at the end of the fifteenth century and considered the greatest figure between Dufay and Josquin, wrote music that broke free from elaborate medieval numerology but came in advance of Josquin’s perfect marriage of music and text. His music, like that of Ockeghem, is dense, kinetic, and abounding in hidden symbols and allusions, not all of which can be decoded at a half millennium’s distance. His surviving output, however, is weighted more toward secular music than is Ockeghem’s.  (Allmusic)

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