The Franco-Flemish Masters

From the early 15th to the late 16th centuries, there was a flowering of musical innovation and productivity in a geographical area that included northern France, Belgium, and the southern Netherlands. Over the course of a roughly 200-year period, choral music in that region burst out of the constrictions of the ars nova style that had dominated both religious and secular composition throughout the 14th century and emerged as the first full expression of polyphony – writing for multiple voices, each equal in importance to the others. The musical innovations emerging from this region would exert a huge influence throughout Europe and contribute significantly to the shape of sacred composition up through the baroque era. As composers had to rely on chapel and court appointments to support them, Mass settings and motets were the most important musical products of this period – funeral and festal Masses were often written in honor of the composers’ patrons. But the composers of this school often wrote secular songs and instrumental music as well, some examples of which continue to be recorded and performed alongside their sacred music today. 

The earliest composers generally identified as part of the Franco-Flemish School are those who flourished around the ancient court of Burgundy, including Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay. In the work of these composers you can still hear strong hints of the open textures, extended melismas, and vinegary harmonies of the ars nova style. With the later work of Johannes Ockheghem and Antoine Busnois, we see an emergence from that influence, as vocal parts are written with richer, closer, and denser harmonies and textures, while also becoming more interactive and less independent. In the late 15th century came composers like Jean Mouton and Pierre de la Rue, who introduced subtle innovations of style including a greater emphasis on canonic writing and the introduction of the parody Mass – a Mass setting that would use a previously-written melody (often of a popular song, such as “L’homme armé” or “Fortuna desperata”) as the structural basis for the composition.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the influence of the Franco-Flemish composers spread throughout Europe. The music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, in Italy, and of the toweringly influential Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria draws deeply on the Franco-Flemish style, and then develops it further, looking forward to the later innovations of Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli, which in turn would usher in the baroque period’s rococo elaborations of Renaissance style.

Obrecht: Missa Caput; Salve Regina cover

Though not widely remembered today outside of specialist circles, Jacob Obrecht was one of the most famous and important composers of sacred music in 15th-century Europe, and the recent resurgence in interest in his music (thanks to the early music movement) has brought some exquisite music back to light. This recording by the Oxford Camerata brings Obrecht’s Missa Caput together with two Salve Regina settings and the motet “Venit ad Petrum,” all sung in a beautifully restrained, straightforward style.

Richafort: Requiem [in memoriam Josquin Desprez] cover

Jean Richafort may not be the most famous of the Franco-Flemish School composers who flourished in 15th and 16th century France and Belgium, nor was he terribly prolific. But his surviving music is some of the most sumptuously lovely of that period, and on this recording the funeral Mass he wrote in tribute to his teacher, the much more famous Josquin Desprez, is rendered beautifully by the Helgas-Ensemble under the direction of Paul van Nevel.

Gombert: Motets; Chansons; Magnificat cover

As the popularity of Renaissance choral music has grown in recent decades, one of the most common ways of presenting a composer’s works has been to create programs that put sacred songs alongside secular ones. On this recording, the excellent Capella Alamire ensemble presents both sacred motets and love songs by Nicolas Gombert, a composer of the Franco-Flemish School who flourished in what is now northern France in the early 16th century.

Josquin: Missa Mater Patris; Bauldeweyn: Missa Da pacem cover

Perhaps the foremost current exponents of what has come to be called the Oxbridge Sound are the Tallis Scholars, founded in 1973 and still led by Peter Phillips. On this recording, the group presents Mass settings by three composers of the Franco-Flemish School, all of them active in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but only one of them (Josquin Desprez) still widely known today. Noel Bauldeweyn is almost forgotten, but his Missa Da pacem is exquisite, as is Antoine Brumel’s Missa Mater patris. Josquin’s Mass on the same song rounds out an outstanding program.

Brumel and Prez: Missa Berzerette savoyenne cover

Chanticleer, America’s premier all-male choral ensemble, has created an absolutely exquisite album with this recording of a parody Mass by the Franco-Flemish composer Antoine Brumel. For his melodic source material, Brumel chose a secular song by Josquin Desprez: “Berzerette savoyenne.” From that tune he builds a complex edifice of devotional music that is performed with luminous tone and hushed wonder by Chanticleer, resulting in one of their most gorgeous releases.

Adriano 1 cover

The rather oddly-named Dionysos Now! ensemble has embarked on a multi-album project dedicated to the music of Adrian Willaert, one of the less famous composers of the Franco-Flemish School that flourished in northern France and Belgium in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. On the first installment, they perform Willaert’s Missa Mittit ad Virginem, along with the motet on which it’s based and several other sacred motets by the same composer. The ensemble’s sound is beautiful and they are recorded in a richly reverberant acoustic.

Dufay: Motets cover

The Boston-based Blue Heron choir is one of America’s leading interpreters of Renaissance choral music, and this collection of works by the Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay — the ensemble’s debut recording — is a great introduction to their sound. It focuses on sacred and liturgical music, but also includes a handful of secular songs and a few pieces from Dufay’s contemporaries John Dunstable, Hugo de Lantins, and Johannes Ockeghem.

The Ockeghem Collection cover

If you can’t get enough of the sacred music of Johannes Ockeghem, then this five-disc box is exactly what you need. It contains no fewer than thirteen of the Franco-Flemish master’s Mass settings, several of them “parody” Masses written on the basis of such popular songs of the era as “L’homme armé” and “Fors seulement.” The Clerks Group, led by Edward Wickham, is an outstanding ensemble known for the practice of singing from facsimile editions of original Renaissance manuscripts.

La Rue: Masses cover

Beauty Farm is a small, all-male vocal ensemble dedicated to the sacred music of the Franco-Flemish Renaissance masters. Their albums feature coyly erotic covers that bring to mind old American Apparel ads, which might lead one to expect a less-than-serious approach to the music, but don’t be fooled: these guys are very serious, and their performances are outstanding: spare but rich in tone, unerring in intonation. This first volume in their Pierre de la Rue series finds them tackling some of the great composer’s lesser-known Mass settings, such as Missa Almana and Missa de Sancto Antonio, alongside the more popular parody Mass Missa Tous le regretz.

Jean Mouton: Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées cover

During the Renaissance period, it was very common for composers to write Mass settings that used popular songs as melodic sources; the cactus firmus would be the popular melody, and a whole large-scale choral composition would elaborate upon it. For this Mass, the Franco-Flemish composer Jean Richafort used the melody of a song called “Dictes moy toutes voz pensées” (archaic French for “tell me all your thoughts”) to create a lush and somber masterpiece of religious music, sung beautifully here by the Tallis Scholars.