At the end of the fourteenth centuryóamidst war, famine, and religious divisionóan extraordinary musical society flourished in southern France.  Nurtured in the courts of wealthy lords, the music of this society reflected and contributed to the prestige of the upper-class society.  In this style, now known as the Ars subtilior (the more subtle art), highly trained poet-musicians wrote and performed complex music for the entertainment of an elite, highly cultured audience.  Many pieces written at this time were dedicated to specific patrons, celebrating their achievements.  One of the principle patrons of this music was Gaston Febus III (1331-1391), count of Foix and Bťarn, two small but wealthy territories in southern France.

Febus lived in one of the darkest centuries of French history.  He was confronted with the Hundred Yearsí War, the Black Plague, and the Great Schism, three catastrophes which made life miserable for the populace. Febusís actions in dealing with the problems of his century demonstrate a shrewdness unmatched by many of his peers.  Under a  policy of careful neutrality, Febus navigated these difficult times miraculously well, thus sparing his people much turmoil.  Such was his leadership that his power and court rivaled that of the French king.  Febusís ability to balance clearmindedness with an eager spirit of chivalry was extraordinary.


The Black Plague made itís most destructive sweep through Europe between 1347 and 1351.  During the worst months, an estimated 800 people died daily in Paris; overall, 25-45% of the population of Europe perished from the plague.  For unknown reasons, however, a few select regions were plague free, Febusís land of Bearn among them.  Though probably through no act of his own, Febusís people were spared the devastation of the Plague.

Through canny negotiation, Febus protected his people from the second great calamity of the century, the Great Schism.  As all Christian Europe was rent by the election of two popes, Febus managed to stay on the good side of both Popes.  He allowed the people of each diocese to choose their own Bishop, then would petition the appropriate Pope for approval.  At the height of the Schism, Febus invited rival bishops to a Christmas feast.

Perhaps Febusís most significant achievement was remaining neutral in the Hundred Years War, a long series of battles, raids, and short-lived treaties between England and France.  As neighbor to Englandís hold on the continent, Acquitaine, Febusís good opinion was valued, for as a wealthy and capable lord, he could be a powerful ally or formidable enemy.  Immediately after inheriting his fatherís lands, Febus proclaimed his neutrality in the Anglo-Frankish wars; not only did he refuse to send a single knight to aid his sovereign lord, the French king, but immediately after the disastrous battle of Crecy, he took advantage of the French kingís weakness by declaring Bearn independent, subject to no one but God.  Febusís neutrality was respected: when the Black Prince of England raided southern France, burning and plundering everything in sight, he spared the lands belonging to Febus.  However, Febus did not avoid battles when he saw good cause, and gained the reputation of a swift and dangerous enemy.

Due to his reputation, wealth, and chivalric ideals, Febusís court attracted a multitude of visitors.  In this competitive but appreciative setting, the arts flourished like no where else.  Musicians were sought after for their skills, and became cultural agents for their lords.  Valued for their talent, musicians responded by creating and performing incredibly complex music to praise their sophisticated patrons.  Febus was the recipient of seven such dedicatory pieces, the greatest number of surviving pieces for a single patron.

One piece dedicated to Febus, a motet entitled Inter Densas, admirably reflects features of the Ars subtilior.  I would like to play part of it for you.


This motet contains two Latin texts sung simultaniously.  [Texts] One describes a marvelous vision, in which the dreamer sees a magnificent prince, and upon awakening, discovers that it is Febus.  The other text is more abstract, describing a beautiful garden which represents Febusís lands.  The texts praise a multitude of Febusís achievements.  While another piece finds Febus superior to no less than than Julius Caesar, Roland, King Arthur, Lancelot, and Tristan, to name a few, Inter densas describes achievements which can be supported by historical evidence.  To highlight a few: when the prince appears in the vision, attention is drawn to his golden hair, the feature which originally earned him the nickname ĎFebusí, refering to the flaming hair of the Sun God, Pheobus Apollo.  The dreamer witnesses Febusís great wealth and generosity, features which are corroborated by his contemporaries.  He sees that his court acts as a lodestone, drawing visitors from all corners of the world.  Jean Froissart, the fourteenth century French historian, visited Febusís court for the express purpose of gaining news of far off lands.  And interestingly, the musician also includes his own class in the description of Febusís court, stating that Febus is supported by flocks of poets.

Inter densas reflects also musical features of the Ars subtilior.  During this time, composers were exploring the possibilities of a new system of rhythmic notation.  Inter densas is built around a six note phrase, a structural voice called the tenor.  [Tenor]  Each note increases in rhythmic value; the first is the shortest, and the last the longest.  In their system of notation, however, the proportionate length of each note varies according to its context and the time signature.  Thus this six note pattern can be interprated in sixteen different ways.  The composer has chosen eight of them, and in complex written instructions, designates which ones should be used.  The result provides the structure of the piece.  Another feature of this tenor consists of a melodic motive, a pattern of three notes.  The tenor consists of two statements of this motive, one an inversion of the other.  This motive also permeates the other voices, where it is found some 80 times.

The tenor, the motive, and the texts combine in ingenious ways in Inter densas.  For example, the fourth verse of the triplum text describes Febus doubling his hoard of treasure.  At the same time, the other text describes the abundant fruits produced in his lands.  At this point, the tenor is in its fastest statement, entirely in duple time.  Thus, not only do the two texts compliment each other, but the doubling of treasure is reflected in the duple time in the structural voice.

This piece contains many other fascinating complexities which are typical of music of the Ars subtilior.  It is built around complex mathematical principles, and upon careful study a number of patterns can be found buried in the music.  In addition, its texts provide an informative description of Febus and his court, helping us understand the setting in which this intriguing music flourished. 


Triplum text

Inter densas deserti meditans

Silvas pridem allectus ocio

In sonitu rivulus crepitans

Invasit me sompni devocio.

Meditating in the thick woods of a

wilderness not long ago, drawn to

rest, a murmuring brook in earshot,

a spell of sleep overcame me.


Ecce princeps occurit inclitus

Flama capud tectum cesarie

Auro gemmis desuper varie

Per amictum solerter insitus.

ďBehold, a renowned prince appears,

his head bedecked by golden hair

and moreover by gold and gems, diversely

and skillfully worked through an amice.


Hunc circumdat caterva militum

Et tironum non minor copia

Nescientum quid sit inopia

Reverentur hii omnes inclitum.


A band of soldiers surrounds him,

and no less a number of recruits who

are ignorant of the meaning of want;

they all stand in awe of the celebrated one.


Is thesauri cumulos geminat

Quod invident cernentes emuli

Sed mirantur gaudentes populi

Cum thesaurum hinc inde seminat.



He doubles his hoard of treasure,

which his discerning rivals envy,

but his joyful people marvel when he

shares out this treasure on either side.


Hic exaurit orbis confinia

Ut adamas quod ferrum attrahit

Quantum magnus se nullus retrahit

Quin visitet potentis limina.


He draws from all corners of the world,

like the lodestone that attracts iron;

no great man can as much pull himself away, nay

rather he must visit the threshold of the powerful one.

Hinc vallatus rethorum gregibus

Et ascultans prudentum dogmata

Super omnes solvit enigmata

Cunctos vincit libris et legibus.


From this place, supported by flocks of poets

and giving ear to the advice of the learned,

he solves problems better than everyone and

he is superior to all in his writings and his laws.


Stupet orbis totus attonitus

Conspiciens huius magnalia

Dum hostium prosternit prelia

Terras omnes implevit sonitus.


The whole world, thunderstruck, is  

astonished, admiring his great works.

When he quashes the uprisings of his

enemies, the din fills all the earth.Ē


Tunc exultans de tam miris rebus

Nomen querens huius magnifici

Tam illustris confestim didici

Quod is erat potens ille Phebus.

Then, delighting in such marvelous things,

and asking the name of this magnificent

and illustrious person, I learned forthwith

that he was that mighty one, Phebus.


Duplum text

Imbribus irriguis et vivo fonte redundans


Plantis et arboribus vernoque tempore florens

Ortus odoriferis fragrans aromatibus umbris


Ocia querentes recreatis plaudent amenis

Flowing with nourishing rain-showers and a lively spring,

and flowering in the springtime with plants and trees,

a garden with shady places redolent with fragrances and aromas;

those seeking rest give praise, refreshed by these charms.


Turribus excelso protentis in ethere cinctus

Varia vestitum nutrit pictura pavonem

Fertilis hic uberes fructus producit amenos

Prestat in occasum Phebo declinante recessus

Girded by towers stretching to high heaven,

it nourishes the peacock arrayed in varied display;

this fertile spot produces abundant fruits

and provides pleasant recesses looking westward at sunset.



O quam spectandus colit hunc agricola tauro


Mira res hunc genitrix tuetur cornibus ortum


Cavet ab ingressu merito temerarii manus


Cornibus O genitrix saucia facta tuis

O what a spectacle: the farmer tends this place with a bull!

Such a marvel: the bullís mother guards this garden with her horns!

The hand of the rash one is rightly wary of any intrusion,

a wound having been made by your horns, O Mother Cow!


Quis quis es invidens ut fraudes fructibus ortum

Huius ab agricola ne tenearis cave

Whoever you are who enviously wish to rob this garden

of its fruit, beware lest you be caught by its farmer.


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