In its heyday the Duchy of Savoy occupied a strong and distinctive position on the European stage: standing between two great cultures, those of Italy and France, it partook of both. The court was French-speaking and cultivated a strong sense of ceremony and display markedly similar to that of its illustrious neighbour, Burgundy, which it clearly emulated. Yet at the same time the cultural traditions of northern Italy were close at hand and an ever present influence (as is still apparent to the observant traveller in this part of Europe today). Thus the duchy had a unique and distinctive character, not just politically but also geographically and culturally. Standing astride the Alps, it was a territory of passage and transition that controlled the mountain passes, the routes of journeying, trade and exchange; and while the Alps acted as a conduit for trade and commerce, they performed a similar function artistically and culturally as well.
In the early 1400s Duke Amadeus VIII sought quite consciously to build up his state, as the dukes of Burgundy had done, not simply from a geographical and economic standpoint but in its cultural resources and institutions too. He sought new territory and also new ways of consolidating his position as an illustrious and glamorous ruler, in the thoroughly modern manner of the fifteenth century. The building up of his musical establishment was an integral part of this scheme – an act of princely statecraft and magnificence as well as of artistic connoisseurship. This attitude he bequeathed to his descendants, including his son Louis. The quality and scope of his patronage, flanked by that of his predecessors and followers, was brilliantly displayed in the recent exhibtion Corti a Città (Turin, February-May 2006). The Savoy Project may be seen as a musical response and counterpoint to this epoch-making show and to the historical view it transmitted of the duchy in all its late-gothic and Renaissance splendour.
The present project grows out of a series of concerts and recordings by the Binchois Consort that seek to bring historical and technical scholarship into close creative partnership with the particular skills possessed by professional performers working at the highest level. Our aim in the Savoy Project is to evoke something of this dazzling period of Savoyard artistic patronage through a series of carefully devised musical programmes. These will draw on some of the finest fifteenth-century music associated with Savoy and on the interpretative skills of the Binchois Consort, who are recognized as pre-eminent in this repertoire. The first concert in the Project was recently given in one of the key locations for fifteenth-century polyphony, Trento in North-East Italy, where the seven Trent Codices, the greatest jewels of the surviving manuscript tradition, are preserved. The second concert will be given in early 2008 in All Souls Chapel, Oxford. The programmes form an illuminating sequence and their cumulative impact will, we hope and trust, be revelatory. Each programme is carefully planned and internally coherent as a musical experience. Yet we are confident that the series as a whole will offer, through the mutual light cast by the programmes on one another, as well as individually, an impact that will be more than the sum of its parts.
- Du Fay and Savoy This programme aims to capture something of the cultural and creative richness of the special relationship that existed between Guillaume Du Fay and the dukes of Savoy during one of their most culturally brilliant periods. Du Fay, musical beacon of his age, remained fascinated for more than two decades beginning in the 1430s by the artistic possiblities of his association with Savoy – a duchy that stood in a relationship of friendly rivalry to its ‘cousin state’ of Burgundy. The programme pairs an epoch-making mass setting of the 1450s, the Missa ‘Se la face ay pale’ (long seen as a classic of its time) with the elegant set of mass Propers, unperformed since the fifteenth century, for St Maurice. St Maurice was a Savoyard saint of great renown and prestige: he was the patron of Amadeus VIII’s chivalric order founded at the Château de Ripaille on the southern shores of Lake Geneva, and dedicatee both of the great abbey of St Maurice-en-Valais in the upper Rhône valley and of an important church in the ducal town of Pinerolo, to the south-west of Turin. This brilliant tapestry of four-part polyphony, describing in a great arc the musical course of a princely Mass of the richest kind from the 1450s, will be complemented by individual songs and motets closely connected to the Savoyard context.
- Princes, Popes, Politics and the Power of Music This programme comprises a linked sequence of major works by Du Fay and others from the 1430s and 40s. These were composed directly for some of the most emiinent men of the age, both of the secular world and of the international church, in an era when music, religion and politics were still profoundly interconnected. The programme sets great occasional pieces, papal ceremonial music, and contemplative devotional settings against one another in what we believe is a vivid and striking musical arrangement. Rome, Florence, Savoy and the Council of Basel are all represented here, as is Amadeus VIII in his later guise as Felix V, the great peace-loving antipope of Lausanne. Major compositions by Du Fay are complemented by selections by Johannes Brassart and Nicolas Merques among others, forming a musical counterpoint to such important cultural reference points as Conrad Witz’s great altarpiece for St Peter’s, Geneva (signed and dated 1444) and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s (the future Pius II’s) Latin eulogy of Basel.
- ‘In Death, A Living Monument’: the Brumel Requiem This programme showcases a sequence of commemorative pieces designed to evoke the death and commemoration of Duke Philibert II ‘le Beau’ (d.1504). The Eglise de Brou—which still stands, complete with the fabulous tomb of Philibert himself—was built by his widow Marguerite of Austria as a grand funerary chapel for her husband, and could well have been the setting for just such a Requiem as that by Brumel, the centrepiece of this programme. The Requiem is complemented by a new performing version of Brumel’s five-voice motet Languente miseris (here reconstructed as a commemorative déploration, which it may well have been) and a short group of pieces on the Seven Joys of the Virgin, Margaret’s preferred theme for her own funerary monument and commemorative space within the same chapel. A more particular aim in this case would be to give a location concert (and, as a permanent historical document in sound, a recording) in the great memorial church at Brou.
- ‘The Savoyard Picturesque’ This programme presents a brilliant but neglected polyphonic mass setting by Antoine Brumel on a ‘picturesque’ Savoyard theme: the lovely Missa ‘Berzerette savoisienne’ based on a song of the same name by Josquin Desprez. It sets this against selected items of chant and polyphony – both songs and motets – drawn from manuscript sources closely related to Savoy and its musicians. The programme will be structured around the Mass Ordinary, with motets substituting for Mass Proper items, while a group of songs will offer a moment of stylistic and poetic contrast, evoking the vitality of the court in the grandeur of its secular displays.
- Songs and motets This programme will present (as did the initial concert of the Project given at Trento in October 2007) a balanced and contrasting sequence of songs and motets, drawn in the main from manuscript sources that are of known Savoyard provenance, or can be convincingly associated with Savoy in some other way. Songs by Du Fay and others from the 1430s to the 1450s—showcased in some of the great chansonniers of the period— will be interleaved with motets by composers represented in the Savoy sources and archives. This programme aims to present a musical image of the court in all its vivacity and colour, an image given particular vividness through the juxtaposition of contrasting and complementary styles (as well as languages). At the same time, it will expose rare new corners of the song and motet repertory of the fifteenth century, in the form of new and unfamiliar works that, in turn, will cast new light on the more familiar pieces.
This last offering in the series will focus on the fascinating and unique repertory of the Franco-Cypriot manuscript (MS Turin Bibl. Naz. Univ. I.II.9). This large and important manuscript originally formed part of a ‘marriage bequest’ brought to Savoy by Anne de Lusignan at the time of her wedding in 1434, and was kept thereafter in the ducal library. As in the other programmes, we will again use historical and philological scholarship to bear on insights that can only, in the end, come through intensive study in the context of actual performance. This fascinating and musically rewarding group of compositions, which embraces both chant and polyphony, has never before been seriously subjected to such study, and little of it has been performed in modern times. The programme thus promises to be revelatory in more ways than one: it will give the repertory the level and intensity of exposure for which it is long overdue, and at the same time reveal it in the context of the larger picture of Savoyard music during this, its cultural heyday.