La Rue à Dijon

Philip the Fair and the Order of the Golden Fleece

in Music from the Courts of Burgundy

2018 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Pierre de la Rue, one of the most important composers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He served in the Habsburg-Burgundian court chapel from 1492 until his death, traveling with Habsburg rulers during most of his career. In 1503, he was returning to the Low Countries from Spain with Philip the Fair (also known as “the Handsome”; r. 1493–1506),the last duke to rule Burgundy as an independent state. On May 1, Philip’s name day, the retinue may have stopped in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, to celebrate the occasion with an elaborate mass performed by the duke’s chapel choir and the choir of Dijon’s Sainte-Chapelle, the official chapel of the Order of the Golden Fleece. This concert presents a hypothetical reconstruction of this mass for St. Philip and St. James in Dijon, incorporating La Rue’s Missa L’Homme armé II, which is based on a popular melody about “the armed man” or knight. The origins of the melody remain unclear, though some scholars have suggested that it was composed for the Order of the Golden Fleece. 

Philip the Fair

In La Rue’s mass, one of two settings that he based on the then-famous melody, the tune is heard in long notes sung by the tenors or altos throughout the mass. This mass is rarely performed, in part because La Rue’s authorship is not indicated in any of the surviving sources of the work. It is almost certainly by him, however, and we offer it in a hypothetical reconstruction of the liturgy Philip would have experienced, so that La Rue’s settings of the various sections of the mass ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) are interspersed with the plainchant singing and scripture recitation that constituted every mass service. Motets by Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400–1460) and Alexander Agricola (ca. 1445–1506), two other composers employed by the Burgundian court, are included as part of our reconstruction. While such liturgical re-enactment can rarely if ever be claimed as completely authentic, it does afford the listener a sense of how liturgical polyphony was used during the period. After relatively long stretches of plainchant, the polyphony impresses us all the more with its elaborate, interwoven vocal lines and bright colors. Its effect may be regarded as similar to that of stained-glass windows in a dark church; in such a space, the impact of the brilliant colors is all the more keenly felt.

The Sainte-Chapelle at Dijon

In assembling the music for our hypothetical Burgundian service, we imagined a specific context. As a member of Philip’s chapel, La Rue traveled with the duke to Spain in 1501, returning to France in 1503 by way of Burgundian territory; it was one of the few times during the composer’s tenure that the itinerant court was near (if not actually in) the Burgundian capital of Dijon, which remained one of the duchy’s most important administrative centers. (Our program’s title is a French pun reflecting our uncertainty of the court’s exact whereabouts during this period; it can mean either “La Rue at Dijon” or “the road to Dijon.”)  Philip’s name day (the day on which the Saint Philip was commemorated) was May 1, and it surely would have inspired the celebration of an elaborate mass by the duke’s chapel choir. In addition, it was the day before the traditional meeting day of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a group of thirty-one knights united in their faith in God, their solemn duty to protect Western Christendom from the Ottoman Turks, their commitment to the chivalric code of conduct, and their alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. Though full meetings of the Order (with all thirty-one knights present) were only convened every five years on average, the Sainte-Chapelle in Dijon, which was the official chapel of the Order, had received endowments to celebrated mass with polyphonic singing on the Order’s behalf every day of the week.  With such a confluence of events—Philip’s proximity to Dijon in May of 1503, the Sainte-Chapelle’s capacity as the official chapel of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the conjunction of his name day and the Order’s traditional meeting day on the calendar—it is not inconceivable that Philip’s chapel and the canons of the Sainte-Chapelle in Dijon would have combined forces to celebrate mass.  

If the Order of the Golden Fleece were on Philip’s mind on his name day, it would have been logical for La Rue and his colleagues to perform a mass based on L’Homme armé, the popular tune with a text about “an armed man” or knight. As noted above, the origins of the melody remain unclear, although some scholars have suggested that it was composed for the Order of the Golden Fleece, in part because it is thirty-one breves (or thirty-one measures) in length, an unusual number that corresponds with the number of knights in the order. 

© 2018 Ensemble Origo, Inc.

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