Cantica Symphonia

Antoine Busnois: L'Homme Armé

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In the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples there is a fifteenth-century manuscript containing six masses all based on the cantus firmus of the popular tune L'homme Armé. The front pages of these masses are neatly razored out owing to some miniature harvesting in antiquity, depriving us not only of key parts from within the musical texts but also of any composer attribution that may have appeared on those pages. This has produced one of the most hotly debated issues in renaissance music; Judith Cohen -- who has edited the masses for their first publication in 1981 -- Richard Taruskin and most others have adduced in favor of Franco-Flemish composer Antoine Busnois. Even some writers from Busnois' own time credit him with the composition of the tune L'homme Armé; modern scholars find ample stylistic resonance between these six masses and the one L'homme Armé mass Busnois is known to have composed. However, Don Giller contends that these masses are the work of Busnois' non-Burgundian contemporary Firminus Caron, citing stylistic similarities to specifics of Caron's style and to the L'homme Armé mass he composed, known from a Vatican manuscript. When Paul van Nevel first recorded a reconstructed version of the cycle of six for Sony Classics under the rubric La Dissection d'un Homme Armé in 1991, he decided the best attribution was to the composer initially recommended by Cohen in her publication: "Anonymous." With Glossa's Antoine Busnois: L'Homme Armé, featuring Cantica Symphonia, it appears that Busnois is winning the upper hand in the debate.

Rather than attempt to render the maximum amount of music available from the fragmentary manuscript source -- as did van Nevel -- Cantica Symphonia settled on rendering those mass movements that survive relatively complete and to add another work attributed to Busnois, a Magnificat on the Eighth Tone whose attribution was first put forth by Charles Hamm in 1960 and apparently not challenged so far. It is a remarkable fifteenth-century Magnificat in that there are no chant incipits and the whole text is through-composed. This glorious piece is the highlight of the program, and as the whole disc has a remarkable constancy of style, it tends to underscore the possibility that Busnois did indeed compose all of this music. Cantica Symphonia utilizes a mixture of instruments and voices in realizing these works; some performances are purely instrumental, others a cappella, and some with a mixture of both elements. While there is plenty of variety and the playing/singing is top drawer, the aforementioned constancy of style can lead to a kind of polyphonic ennui by the opening of the last third. It's probably best to find a way to take a break, say after track 7. Apart from that, Cantica Symphonia's Antoine Busnois: L'Homme Armé is a beautifully packaged, well-recorded edition of these rare remainders of works belonging to the last phase of the early renaissance.

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