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The Pope at Play: "Popular" (?) Music from 14th Century France: Part I - Ivrea Chace

"Early music" is a field of listening that many do not follow, even the most avid of classical music lovers. There are many opinions as to what time this label actually encompasses, but I propose it begins as far back as notated music in the West and ends before Palestrina (c. 1525 – 2 February 1594). Many would disagree, saying that early music ends around 1600 with the invention of opera by Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi, but Palestrina and the late 16th century has entered into so much of mainstream "classical" listening, that this music has lost most of its "early" edge for my taste. Those who say early music extends through the Baroque (1600-1750) do a great disservice to the vast time and array of styles they consequently clump together.

Despite most people's unfamiliarity with the early music repertoire of Early Medieval (c. 800 - c. 1100), High Medieval (c. 1100 - c. 1300), Late Medieval (c. 1300 - c. 1420), and Early Renaissance (c. 1420 - c. 1500) music, there is a substantial collection of beautiful, insightful, and genius work from this period. Most classical music survey classes either dispense with this period or only give it a cursory glance. Unfortunately, many composers from this period are unrecognized and their music is seldom performed.

Here, I will introduce you to a gem from the French 14th century Ars Nova: "Se je chant." This piece is a "chace," a genre of 14th century French secular music designed to be sung in strict canon with colorful descriptive texts set to a stylized popular melody.

"Se je chant" from the Ivrea Codex, B.C. 115 fol. 52v was possibly written by Denis le Grant, who died around 1352. He was composer and master of the French royal chapel in 1349 and Bishop of Senlis from December 23, 1350 until his death. Unfortunately, this is his only identified composition, though it is likely he wrote others. This piece appears in a few other manuscript sources and is mentioned by the poet Gace de la Buigne in his Roman des Deduis (vv.6309–18), indicating that this piece was probably somewhat popular during its time.

The piece is actually only one musical line. It is simply sung in canon (a "round") between three voices for its entire duration. The rapid singing and onomatopoeia in the text are meant to portray "the hunt". For example, you will hear imitations of trumpet calls in the middle of the piece on words like "Hau" and "huop." This antiphonal trumpet-like sound is created through a musical technique called "hocketting" and through emphasis of melodic intervals like the fifth and octave, common in most hunting horn calls. The canon form in itself is meant to symbolize the "chase" of the huntsmen after their prey, each voice literally chasing after the others.

As you listen and follow with the score, you will notice that near the climax of the hunt, the meter loses its stability and shifts between 3/2 and 2/2, with frequent overlapping of the two meters amongst the voices, creating a sophisticated level of musical discourse. All the time signature values in the score are given for performance purposes only and are not as they appear in the original manuscript. There are many ways to bar this piece, and I attempted to choose a way that is both simple yet displays the brilliant mixing of meter in this pieces. Richard H Hoppin, in his Anthology of Medieval Music realizes the music in a slightly more complicated fashion, but it is less convenient for clear reading and performance.

However, whatever barring is chosen does't effect the quality of the counterpoint and the overall rhythmic subtly. Truly, it is the rhythm that gives this piece its narrative drama: the rushing triple meter at the beginning suggests the excitement of departing on the hunt; the shift to duple meter and the rhythmic confusion reflect the confusion and exhilaration of the chase; and the gradual return of each voice to the familiar triple meter suggest the denouement of the return home. Through this narrative, Se je chant elevates itself beyond a mere canon to the level of artistry: it contains narrative within a strict form that easily can become dull and trite; the melody contains clear sectional divisions, creating a contrast between the subdued and the excited; the canon allows all voices to gradually involve themselves in the hunt and return home, generating a distinct dramatic arch.

Se je chant is not only a masterful display of canonic technique and counterpoint, but also a clever manipulation of musical material for delightful descriptive effect.

You can find my transcription of the piece here.

I noticed that there was no good score available online and that all performances on youtube were rather slow, so I uploaded this rare old virtuosic recording along with my score to youtube. Enjoy some music from the French Ars Nova! Scroll down further to read the original French text with a modern English translation.


French Text:

Se je chant mains que ne suel de la simple sans orguel Ou j’air mis toute ma cure, en iver pour la froidure, Ch’est pour l’amour des fauchons, que j’ai si blaus et si bons a voler pour la riviere, Que riens nulle n’ai si chlere comme d’aller y souvent, quant l’air est clair sans gros vent.

Alons y compains tres dous, Les oyslaus sont chi desous. Ho! Or tout col! Ho! Je les vol! Ho! Jetés! Jetés! ou vous les perdés!

Huo, huo, huop! Huo, huo, huop! Huo, huo, huop!

Hareu! Il s’en va. Hau, ha hau, ha hau, houp! Il va au change, bon gre Diu. Hau, ha hau, ha hau, houp! Huo, huo, huo, leves li! Hau, ha hau, ha hau, ha ha! Mors est, or paissons nos fauchons. Hau, hau, ha ha, hau!

Blaus dous compains retournons, Puis k’a voler ne trouvons plus d’oyslaus en chest pais. De cheus que chi avons pris, feral ma dame present. Et se je ne les present plus ama loyal a mie, Cest pout ce que ne puis mie.


English Translation:

If I sing less than usual of the simple modest one To whom I am wholly devoted in the cold of winter, I have done it for love of the falcons, so fine and so good at hunting by the river, That nothing is so dear to me as to go there often when the air is clear and not too windy.

Let’s go, gentle comrades,

The birds are down there. Hi – don’t speak! Ho – I see them! Ho – cast off, cast off or you lose them! Huo, huo, huop! Huo, huo, huop! Huo, huo, huop!

Hareu! He’s getting away. Hau, ha hau, ha hau, huop! He’s onto the trick, God willing. Hau, ha hau, ha hau, huop! Huo, huo, huo, pick him up! Huo, ha hau, ha hau, ha ha! He’s dead! Now let’s feed our falcons! Hau, hau, ha ha, hau!

Good gentle companions, let us return Since we find no more birds to hunt in this countryside. Of those we have taken here, I shall make my lady a present, And if I no longer give them to my loyal friend, It is because I can’t.



Primary Sources:

Ivrea, Biblioteca Capitolare d'Ivrea, I-IV MS CXV (115) “Ivrea Codex”. 52v-52v

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, F-PN Collection de Picardie 67. 67v-67v Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, F-PN nouvelles acquisitions françaises 23190 “Trémoille”. ix-ix

Secondary Sources:

Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Johnson, Mildred Jane. The Motets of the Codex Ivrea. 1955.

Kügle, Karl. The Manuscript Ivrea, Biblioteca Capitolare 115: Studies in the Transmission and

Composition of Ars Nova Polyphony. 1993.

Schiltz, Katelijne, and Bonnie J. Blackburn. Canons and Canonic Techniques, 14th-16th Centuries: Theory,

Practice, and Reception History ; Proceedings of the International Conference, Leuven, 4-6 October 2005. Leuven: Peeters, 2007.

Tertiary Sources:

Karl Kügle. "Le Grant, Denis." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.Oxford University Press,

accessed July 31, 2016,

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