Performance and the Laborde Chansonnier: Authenticity of Multiplicities—The Manuscript, Repertory, and Enigmas

October 1, 1970

This paper was part of a panel entitled "Performance and the Laborde Chansonnier: Authenticity of Multiplicities" which was presented for The College Music Society at Baldwin-Wallace College, November 8, 1969. The moderator was Robert Austin Warner. The other panelists were David Crawford, Edith Borroff, and John W. Grubbs. Their papers also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 10.

At the outset we should explain just what was sent to the conductors as a basis for their contribution, for the copies of music they received were by no means a finished product. Late in the winter of 1969, xerox copies were made of about twenty pieces from our Laborde transcriptions for use by Professor Warner's Collegium Musicum in the Spring and Professor Thomas Taylor's in the Summer. At that time Mrs. McPeek had finished all the copying and most, but not all, of the corrections. One stanza of text was underlaid and there was no indication of editorial policy other than original clef and mensuration signs with the rate of reduction in note values. Almost none of the musica ficta had yet been added, only those instances that were most obvious or that were indicated in other sources closely related to Laborde. Subsequently, additional editorial accidentals were added by the students to whom the pieces were given as exercises in performance projects, as suited their tastes and needs. By September when the request was made to arrange this session, the completed copies of our transcriptions had long since been in the hands of the publisher, Luther Dittmer. Therefore, what the conductors have been working from are copies of the xerox copies made for, and used by, the Collegium Musicum at Michigan.

Precisely because the copies are incomplete, they seem to serve the intent of this session, for conductors were encouraged, or even forced, to use their ingenuity and imagination to the fullest. Surely nowadays there can be little question but that compositions such as these received performance in a great variety of ways. This session is devoted to the exploration of as many of those ways as time and conditions permit. One principle underlies the entire body of this presentation: the problems of performance for this repertory are susceptible not only to many solutions, but to many satisfactory solutions. One needs no great perceptive powers to predict that many of the remarks and demonstrations to follow will suggest plurality rather than unity of acceptable practice. After all there is no such thing as the edition of a piece—only an edition, one that seeks to invoke and involve the performing artist's creative powers. For the 15th-century repertory, that can lead in a variety of directions, any or all of which can be considered "authentic." The principle of acceptable variability would seem to be basic to this session and to the music with which it deals. The imprecise copies furnished the performers certainly encourage it.

The Laborde Chansonnier is so well known it is unnecessary to give more than a reminder of some of its more salient features. Helen Bush's excellent article in the Papers of the AMS (1940), pp. 56-79, gives information as to the description, the history, and the dating of the manuscript. Little has been added on those points since. The manuscript is copied by several hands on vellum of superior quality of which 151 folios remain. It is in small format measuring about 5¼ inches high by 3½ inches wide (13 cm. × 9 cm.). Conceivably this little book might have been carried in a jacket pocket or in a purse. Especially in its earlier two-thirds, the manuscript is profusely decorated in margins and initials (though the art work disappears from the later folios) making it one of the most beautiful of the 15th-century chansonniers. It was begun around 1465 or 1470. The last items and some corrections to earlier ones, probably were entered around 1500 or a little before. It is worthy of note that each change of scribe is accompanied by a change of music copyist whose pen techniques are similar to the characteristics which distinguish that scribe.

The contents, some of which are older than the manuscript, are all of the 15th-century repertory and include works by Dufay, Binchois, Okeghem, Busnoys, Frye, Caron, Baziron, Prioris, Hayne, Compère, Michelet, and others who were composing during the last half of the century. There are 106 songs, or 108 if one includes "Je ne demande aultre degré" of which only the title was entered without text or music, and the rondeau text "Vous auray je dictes moy belle dame" copied on the verso of the last folio but for which no music has yet been found. The manuscript opens with a piece by Walter Frye, "Ave regina celorum," having a musical form of secular origin, but here provided with a Latin sacred text. As Sylvia Kenney pointed out, the secular text has disappeared and the piece seems to have circulated most widely in its sacred setting. Of the remainder, some 89 are rondeaux; 12 are bergerettes; one is a ballade (Dufay's "Se la face ay pale"); another English piece by Walter Frye, "So ys empruntid," is here provided with French incipits ("Soyez apprentiz," ff.50v-52r); Prioris has a piece with Italian text (No. 97: "Consomo la vita mya," ff.136v-137r); and near the end is a song with sacred Latin text and Italian musical style (No. 100 "Dulcis amica dei," ff.139v-140r). The compositions performed here are Frye's "Ave regina celorum," while the rest are rondeaux and bergerettes, the forms most common in the manuscript.

There are few unica in the Laborde. Its contents include some of the most popular and often-copied pieces of the epoch, with some having over forty concordances spanning more than half a century in time. This raises one major point that must be borne in mind as the pieces are performed: the Laborde version is not necessarily the best version of a given piece, but it is the Laborde version. The transcriptions furnished the directors are not "definitive editions" of the pieces as derived from all sources. Instead they are what the Laborde has as supported by other closely related contemporary manuscript sources. As such the Laborde examples appear to preserve practices that were current, whether or not they were the best ones. Since any editor feels limitations in reflecting his source, no attempt was made to force a correspondence with other sources or to "correct" the Laborde versions out of existence, especially when Laborde is corroborated by other sources.

The performance problems posed by the Laborde Chansonnier are those common in 15th-century manuscripts, but here they are aggravated by restricted dimensions. Indeed, in view of the size, one could doubt whether a performance ever took place directly from this manuscript unless the performers knew the piece and had no need to read the tiny notes and words. The small size also may be responsible for a great deal of the difficulty in determining underlay of text and other allied problems.

Among the obvious questions the performer must solve is the one of resources or media. The manuscript itself gives little indication. Regularly in Laborde, the first stanza of the poem is underlaid to the superius music on the left page of an opening with remaining stanzas written below. Lower parts in the right side of the opening seldom carry more than text incipits. Sometimes it is possible to fit words under the lower parts for a vocal performance, but just as often the way the lower parts are copied prevents text underlay. At other times text underlay to the top part is difficult even when words are provided, and the part bears an instrumental appearance. In still other places the underlay suggests alternation of instrumental and vocal resources. Some pieces are appropriate for instruments alone, some could be done by voices alone, most seem appropriate for a mixture. But what instruments, which voices, and what sort of mixture? The manuscript contains a variety of styles with almost infinite possibilities for satisfying solutions.

Tempi constitute another problem. The mensuration signs are C, and O almost exclusively. Laborde preserves some pieces in C that appear in in other sources, with a few cases of the reverse. In at least one instance the O in Laborde becomes O3 in a later source. What is the tempo? There might be allowable differences here also when dealing with the same piece in different versions.

Still another problem is the application of musica ficta. In the matter of flats at the clef and other notated chromatics, Laborde is a good deal more conservative than many other sources with which it shares the same repertory. Few problems allow more different solutions than how far to go in supplying the missing sharps and flats, and how many are "required." Different tastes and different conditions resulting in various solutions seem not only possible but desirable.

Text underlay for 15th-century music has bedeviled editors for generations. It would be a joy if one could say he had solved the riddle for all times and situations, but generalizations seldom stand the test of specific application. In Laborde the words are copied in where there is room, not necessarily where they are sung. Yet one cannot say that the underlay is altogether haphazard. Most often the Laborde scribes indicate rather carefully where in the music a line of text begins and ends, and sometimes a significant syllable, or word or phrase is carefully placed. But in-between the underlay is inexact, suggesting that text could be performed in many different ways so long as important things come where they should. One is apt to try many solutions, and speaking for my own struggles with this source, I have applied as many as fifteen different text settings before deciding on one, and then I am not certain there are not fifteen others that would serve as well. The more one works with them the less adamant he is likely to feel that he has found the one "right" solution. In some cases it is possible to eliminate long melismas by repeating a word or phrase. But which words, and should all melismas be eliminated? Sometimes the system works; sometimes it doesn't. At other times problems can be solved by having instrumental interludes that interrupt the sung text—sometimes, but not always. There just seems to be no one system that works all the time. What has been done here is simply to consider each piece as a separate problem and to try to arrive at solutions that are related to the phenomena there in what seems the most fitting and most musical way. The judgment is often subjective. In this edition, at least, text underlay is a suggestion, not a requirement.

Satisfactory answers to problems in text underlay, in musica ficta, in tempo, and in performing resources may lie in several directions rather than in one. Must there be one answer to a thousand questions? That is what this session is designed to explore.

7094 Last modified on April 17, 2018