Thursday, February 23, 2012

Two 'Hits' Five Hundred Years Apart

One of the most popular pieces of music of the late 15th century was the chanson "J'ay pris amours". It was disseminated in a huge number of manuscripts and recycled in many other pieces, both vocal and instrumental, as was common practice at the time. Oddly, despite its popularity, we do not know who composed the chanson, but it was likely to be one of the leading chanson composers of the time such as Hayne van Ghizeghem or Busnoys. Here is the score for the first half:

Click to enlarge

It begins with a 'motto' phrase, five notes that present the mood and that are set off from the remainder of the song by a rest. Then the superius proceeds with the melody, echoed an octave below by the tenor in strict imitation a half-note later. In the next phrase, the imitation is much looser and it is a fourth below. These elements, a so-called 'point of imitation' for each phrase of text, were fairly new techniques. Also at this time harmonic structure was making a shift from modal harmony to tonal harmony. This is shown in this piece by things like the V - I cadence in measure 7 where the contratenor falls a fifth from the root of the dominant to the root of the tonic. The 'half-cadence' in measure 16 is a bit unusual from our point of view with the cross-relation between G natural in the contratenor the beat before against the G# in the superius. What probably made this chanson so popular was its simplicity and clarity, which, given the tendency to virtuosity of the time, led to its use by other composers such as Henricus Isaac. He keeps the superius exactly as it is and adds a very ornate tenor. Martini goes even further and, keeping the superius and tenor, adds two new contratenors, quite ornate, in strict canon a mere eighth note apart. Other examples abound. Here is a performance of the original song with voice and lute. Up to the 1'04 mark, they perform it very simply. After that, they begin adding ornamentation.

I don't know about you, but what this reminds me of is a popular song of our day--one so popular that more than 2500 'cover' versions exist by other artists. Again, it is possibly the simplicity and clarity of the original that led to so much use by other artists. Here is that song:

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