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Interview, Guy James on Queen of Hearts

The Gesualdo Six. Image credit: Ash MillsThe imagery of the Virgin Mary as regina caelorum - Queen of Heaven - is fairly widespread in liturgy and music, and has inspired composers for centuries. Perhaps less obvious - but deeply fascinating once you dive into them - are the parallels drawn between the Mother of Jesus and real-life, flesh-and-blood queens over the years.

English vocal consort The Gesualdo Six have a by now firmly-established reputation for intriguing concept albums, weaving together relatively disparate pieces into coherent programmes and narratives, and Queen of Hearts is no different. It combines sacred music in veneration of Mary, works written in honour of monarchs such as Anne of Brittany, Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor, and secular chansons inspired by the painful learning of courtly love.

A primarily early-Renaissance programme - featuring Brumel, Josquin, de la Rue and their contemporaries - is complemented by two contemporary works - one by Owain Park, director of The Gesualdo Six, and one by Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade.

Countertenor and musicologist Guy James explains more about this album, and the intriguing blurring of sacred and secular that it explores. 

Image credit: Ash Mills

There are a few examples here of ‘regretz chansons’, mostly identifiable by their opening line containing the word ‘regretz’ in the French of the period. What exactly are ‘regretz chansons’, and how did this micro-genre arise - and what happened to it?

These are beautiful chansons, primarily written between 1480 and 1520 whose texts concern themselves with the theme of Regretz: a similar but broader concept to ‘sorrows’ which bewail a personal tragedy for the poet, such as the loss of family member or a lover. It is thought that these first sprang up in Margaret of Austria’s court, with the first, ‘Tous les regretz’, written by her preferred court composer, Pierre de la Rue. Several similar works then appear together in her chansonnier. Beyond how the music sounds, we can better understand this repertoire by both examining the choice of texts, and the format of the surviving sources. Courtly chansonniers give us a fascinating snapshot of lines of influence between composers and their relationships with their patrons. Regretz chansons survive into the 1540s with Gombert and others, and these decisions can inform us about how the composers saw themselves: re-setting a nostalgic text 40 years later shows us that Gombert sees himself as the inheritor of a number of musical traditions.

You mention that Ninfea Cruttwell-Read’s Plaisir n’ai plus (specially commissioned for the album) is unusual for offering a male perspective on the ‘regretz chanson’ style. I’d always assumed that a lot of this kind of yearning, ‘courtly love’ poetry was already written predominantly from a male standpoint - is it actually a bit less clear-cut?

While its likely that attitudes at the time led to the survival and attribution of more poems to men, Queenly courts offer us a window into the courtly life from an unambiguously female perspective. The education for a young princess would heavily feature music and the arts, and Margaret of Austria almost undoubtedly wrote not only the texts for several chansons but likely also some of the musical settings that survive in her chansonnier. Regretz chansons should be considered from the perspective of the complicated and often wretched experiences of the Queens who commissioned the manuscripts. These are often wreathed in coded language and similarly beautifully illuminated, for example by depicting daisies and pearls, both ‘marguerites’ in French, surrounding the music of works specifically referencing Margaret of Austria.

How did works like Quis dabit oculis?, dedicated to the memory of specific monarchs, survive down to the present day? Surely there can’t have been much re-use value in a lament for Anne of Brittany in the ensuing centuries?

Interestingly this work survives as a re-working by Senfl for Maximillian, so these works proved adaptable to the politics of the day. Patrons such as Anne of Brittany, Margaret of Austria and Ercole I d’Este who put music at the heart of their court also made it a political tool, which meant that certain texts or settings could have powerful and perilous implications politically. Anne of Brittany experienced a popular renaissance after her death which may have helped her music survive through the centuries but most importantly it was the foresight to preserve the written music tradition and prepare and preserve these beautiful sources which contributes to their endurance. They were often re-purposed and re-gifted, and this is why many survived the French revolution in English collections, highlighting the importance of sharing our traditions across the continent and beyond.

The text of Prière pour Marie is striking for how closely it links Mary Tudor and the Virgin Mary. It seems almost sacrilegious. Did the Church ever try to rein in this sort of imagery, to discourage people from equating earthly monarchs with the mother of Jesus?

I suppose that this depends on our understanding of the limits of power with the courts of the time. Whilst it wouldn’t perhaps seem appropriate for a monarch to directly refer to themselves alongside biblical figures, grateful or fawning court members and peasants can hardly be expected to be controlled too tightly by the preeminent figures of the day. The text of Prière pour Marie is reported to have been uttered by French peasants; there must have been a considerable PR operation being undertaken more or less continually, and the church would have been part of this power struggle. Many of the ways that these lines are blurred, sacrilegiously or not, are through coded language and deniable allusion.

I’ve always found the multi-textual chansons of this era (represented here by Compère and Brumel) very strange, as they seem like they would be impossible to follow! Would listeners generally have been able to disentangle the two texts, or was it more of an intellectual pleasure for the composer and singers?

The motet-chansons are particularly interesting because it is a rare technique, yet such an obvious way of getting those coded messages across, both musically and politically. It is a fascinating early example of composers experimenting with textural textures, something that has been a fascination for composers since, with macaronic texts appearing in many contemporary works. There would have been a great deal of musical literacy in the court so I believe that listeners would have been easily able to identify famous tunes or texts in certain parts. It raises an interesting question about how courtiers would have listened to these performances. Also placing half-hidden references to sacred texts in secular chansons is another way that the lines between heaven and earth could be blurred for political purposes.

The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC