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Antoine Busnois Composer

In hydraulis (a4)

Performances: 2
Tracks: 2
  • In hydraulis (a4)
    Year: c.1465
    Genre: Motet
    Pr. Instrument: Chorus/Choir
For over a century before Antoine Busnois wrote In hydraulis, practitioners of music had been composing "musicians' motets," with challenging melodies, special structural phenomena, and texts praising (or praying for) the singers themselves. Alanus' Sub Arturo plebs, for instance, sets a text, which lauds the English composers of Chaucer's generation, over a second text, about music theory, and a plainchant tenor "Their sound is gone out to all lands." In the fifteenth century, Loyset Compère's Omnium bonorum plena prays for musicians by name, and Josquin's Illibata Dei virgo nutrix conceals the composer's name acrostically in a piece which prays for all who sing "La, mi, la." Illibata, in fact, refers perhaps directly to In hydraulis, Busnois' salutory motet in honor of Maistre Johannes Ockeghem.

The text of In hydraulis, a Latin poem which Busnois likely wrote himself, first speaks of Pythagoras (regarded, in the Middle Ages, as the discoverer of music itself). After discussing, with considerable erudition, the proper Greek names for the musical intervals Pythagoras "discovered" by noting the ratios of weight between hammers which strike at different pitches, Busnois dedicates the poem to "You, Ockeghem, who sing these harmonies before all." Ockeghem spent the prime of his career serving the Abbey of St. Martin in Tours, and Busnois probably met him there in the early 1460s. Incidentally, this poem also dates itself: Busnois calls himself an "unworthy singer of the Count of Charolais." Thus, In hydraulis would have been written between April 1465, when Busnois left France, and June 1467 when his patron Charles, the Count of Charolais, became Duke of Burgundy.

The very same Pythagorean ratios and intervals in the text are woven masterfully into the musical substance of In hydraulis. The tenor voice's cantus firmus for the motet is a made-up melody, consisting of six repetitions of three notes. The notes, with lower neighbors, occur starting on D, A, d, d, A, D; the cantus firmus is thus palindromic, and contains the very Pythagorean intervals described in the text: 2/1 or octave (dupla), 3/2 or fifth (hemiola), 4/3 or fourth (epitrite), and 9/8 or whole step (epogdoon). Furthermore, the melody is repeated three times, each time subject to a new proportional mensuration. These mensural changes also produce the same Pythagorean ratios, in their most compact form of 6:4:3:2. Busnois, in celebrating the famous Ockeghem, simultaneously demonstrates his own prowess in the science of music.

Ockeghem may have responded to Busnois' compliment in composing his own Ut heremita solus. Ockeghem's most difficult piece also concerns an abstract tenor, with canonic symbolism and mensural transformation: each section of Ut heremita lasts 108 semibreves, which number signifies "Busnoys" in contemporary numerology. Also, Ut heremita begins with a near-quotation of the very melody which begins Busnois' second section of In hydraulis, at the text, "You, Ockeghem." Other musicians must have known of the pair of pieces, including Josquin: as noted above, his Illibata Dei virgo nutrix suggests a connection, and his Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae follows a similar cantus firmus disposition.

© Timothy Dickey, Rovi
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