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
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
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
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
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.