Noël normand Rouen 1474

Sun 18.12.22 Saint-Ursanne, Zurich, Basel Bern, Liestal, Brugg

Historical Museum Basel

Hans Memling, panel painting, Christ with angels playing music, 1483/92 s, inv. no. 778-780, photo: Rik Klein Gotink, Collection KMSKA - Flemish Community

The Christmas play of Rouen


s usual in the cities and in the countryside, the Christmas story is told. The French verses of the Rouen play are set to melodies that have survived in beautifully decorated songbooks. Music and text merge in the unique and colorful interpretation of this work. The supposed secondary characters come into focus: angels sing with lute, harp and organ, shepherds decorate their melodies with pastoral sounds of fiddle and flute, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy.

Grace Newcombe – vocals, harp
Tessa Roos – vocals, bells
Matthieu Romanens – vocals
Raitis Grigalis – vocals
Tobie Miller – hurdy-gurdy, recorder, vocals
Marc Lewon – plectrum lute, lattice, vocals
Rui Stähelin – plectrum lute, vocals
Baptiste Romain – fiddle, rebec, bagpipes, vocals
Tabea Schwartz – viola d’arco, recorder
Claire Piganiol – organetto, harp, recorder

Leadership Team: Elizabeth Rumsey, Grace Newcombe, and Baptiste Romain.

Scientific support: Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. David Fallows

Introduction at 17:45 with David Fallows

“Bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy”
Instrument show for children and interested adults
Falknerstr. 36, Music Meeting, 2nd Floor, SO December 18, 4:00 p.m.

Concert venues of the 2022 ReRenaissance tour:

  • Collégiale St.-Ursanne (The concert was enriched by Gabriel Wolfer on the organ).
  • Barfüsserkirche, Historical Museum Basel
  • Water Church Zurich
  • Franz. Church Bern
  • City church Liestal
  • City church Brugg

Download flyer

Livre D'heures Rouen 1470


Rouen 1474 and the Great Swissmas Tour

Rouen 1474 and the great Swiss Christmas tour

In this month’s vlog, learn about the 15th century mystery play that provides a unique, explicit description of how instruments and voices can be “arranged” in the performance of a chanson – amazing! And because there were so many singers and instruments on stage during our concert tour in December, we present you a few of them in detail: the organetto, the rebec, the gittern and the bagpipe.

Merry Christmas and a Good 2023!

Christmas postcard tour Noël normand: Merry Christmas and a good 2023
Video clip of Didier Samson.

“Un Noël normand – Rouen 1474”

Concert from 18.12.2022. Barfüsserkirche, Historical Museum Basel. Video: Oren Krischenbaum


Interview with hurdy-gurdy player, recorder player and singer Tobie Miller, on the occasion of the program “Noël normand” in December 2022.

Thomas Christ: Dear Tobie, I am very happy to welcome an internationally known virtuoso of a relatively unknown instrument – the hurdy-gurdy – to interview. Your mother was a violinist, you grew up in Canada, please tell us how you found your way to early music in the New World. You have already before you came to Basel in Montreal, he studied early music at McGill University.

Tobie Miller: Thank you! It is my honor and pleasure to be involved in this project! – I guess my love of early music started early (childhood and teen years), but deciding to pursue further was definitely an act of teenage rebellion! As a child I played the violin, piano and sang – in a children’s choir I was inspired to play the recorder (I was jealous of some children who learned it at school). This became a kind of passion …


and as a teenager I spent many hours listening to my collection of old recordings of music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (this was back in the days when second-hand hipster record stores still existed, and I acquired a respectable selection of LPs). However, there was a great expectation in my family that if I studied music, I would follow a modern classical, “orchestral” path – my mother was a violinist, and my father held the position of principal tuba in the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (and before that, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) for 50 years. I was very encouraged to follow in his footsteps and even began my formal studies as a modern flute player (flute). To make a long story short, I totally hated that degree and dropped out at the end of the first year when I discovered that there was a fantastic early music department there. So it was that I dusted off my recorders and began my studies in “early music” at the age of 17 – much to the dismay of my parents. I completed both a Diploma and a Bachelor of Music at McGill University before moving to Basel in 2004.

TC: Sometimes it seems to me that the hurdy-gurdy is a kind of transitional or intermediate instrument between the violin and the organ. Can the complexity of tone generation and dynamics be expressed in a singlen explain in a few words? It is not just a matter of pressing and turning, but also of


and slapped with the wrist


TM: The hurdy-gurdy is something like a medieval computer! You are absolutely right that it combines the technique of stringed instruments and organs (more on that later) – the strings are bowed with a wooden wheel (circular bow) and can be divided into melody strings with a keyboard (wooden tangents on the keys shorten the strings) on the one hand, and drone strings that hold an accompanying note on the other. A special feature that appears for the first time at the end of the 14th century is the movable and rhythmic bridge (snare), similar to the tromba marina – it is the bridge of one of the drone strings, controlled by small hand movements of the player, which set accents on different parts of the rotation. This creates a rhythmic impulse (buzzing).


How does the hurdy gurdy

which could also be called a

in the other languages to

in the other languages to completely different names

to “vielle à roue” in France or to “hurdy-gurdy” in England?

TM: Originally, the instrument was called either “organistrum” or a vernacular version of “symphony”(chifonie, sinfonia etc.) titled. The former name is mostly used today for the large instruments played by two musicians, the latter for the smaller, portable instruments from about the 13th century onwards (but a clear demarcation of the terms remains impossible in the Middle Ages). Over the course of 900 years, the instrument came to have its own names in different languages and regions as it entered different social classes and styles of music-making: These names are sometimes related to the original names (e.g. zanfona) or are descriptive (



vielle à roue



) or simply onomatopoeic descriptions of the perhaps less sophisticated playing skills of some street musicians (e. g. B. English hurdy-gurdy). The instrument had a heyday in 18th-century France, where it was called simply vielle, as opposed to the modern French vielle à roue – to distinguish it from the medieval fiddle.

The etymological connection to the lyre in several languages (



lira mendicorum

vevlira, lira…) undoubtedly points to a connection with Orpheus mythology – there are even cantata texts from the 18th century that refer to the lyre of Orpheus. The name “Lyra” first appears in Sebastian Virdung’s, “Musica getutscht und ausgezogen” (Basel, 1511).

My favorite name, however, is undoubtedly “Ysis”: a 15th century text by Paulus Paulirinus explains that the instrument was actually invented by the goddess Ysis (and then goes on to describe an instrument often played by blind women – which is quite true in this case!). My ensemble Danguy was originally called Ensemble Ysis until well-known political events forced a name change …

TC: The instrument is


20th century
largely forgotten, but was able to achieve great success in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque.
as well as in the baroque period.

e flourishing experience. Can you tell us something about the birth of this instrument?

TM: The instrument seems to have originated in the 12th century to have along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The first representations we see are sculptures at churches along this path and show large instruments (organistrum) played by two musicians. The most famous of these instruments is the one on the portico of the Cathedral of Santiago, an incredibly beautiful and detailed instrument, fittingly placed in the center of the musicians – an indication of its importance. The organistrum combines the technique and function of three other instruments: the fiddle (stringed instrument), the organ (keyboard), and the monochord, essentially a complex version of a monochord with a sustained sound. The first instruments were large and were apparently used together with singing in church (to teach notes and/or for accompaniment) and had to be played by two musicians because of their size and keyboard system (sliders instead of keys). At In the 13th century, smaller versions of the instrument appeared very quickly, which were portable and could be played by a single musician, because they were handy and had a mechanism in which the keys fell back after being struck only by gravity – the same system we still use today. These smaller instruments are more associated with secular music and are available from the 13th century found throughout Europe.


: The hurdy-gurdy was yes an instrument of the church, but also dhe street and, as you told me, finally also of the nobility. I can imagine that there are still many compositions and also transcriptions that have remained undiscovered. Is that so?

TM: I think there are few instruments in music history that have undergone as many social and musical transformations as the hurdy-gurdy! There are certainly many compositions yet to be found, especially from the 18th century, the time when the instrumentation/use of the hurdy-gurdy was in vogue. I think that there are many works that remain in private collections, and I suspect that there are also compositions of the later 18th century (e.g. for
Lira Organizzata
) that are lost in libraries somewhere.

TC: Your Curiosity for the richness of early music has also made you known as a flutist and singer with many international ensembles and CD recordings. What about the discovery of other unknown instruments? If it were not for the exploration the organ lyre a grateful adventure?

TM: In fact, many years ago I was involved in a big project on the organ lyre! The hurdy-gurdy maker who built my instruments made the first working copies of the only instrument still in existence that has the range to play Haydn’s compositions. We have been on tour with the ensemble
Baroque de Limoges
(Christophe Coin) Recordings made. The CD entitled “La lira di Napoli” was released by Parenthèses (2009). This project was unfortunately discontinued at the end of 2009, but we now offer a program of concerts for 2 lire (organ lyre) and orchestra – in collaboration with my own group (Ensemble Danguy).



I’m in . .. by David Fallows

Two and a half years ago (April 2020), Elizabeth Rumsey approached me with a proposal to collaborate on a reconstruction of the 1474 Rouen Christmas Play. My first reaction was, “Never heard of it”; my second reaction was, “Well, I should, so I’d better find out”; and because computer research takes a correspondingly long time for me, it then took about a week before I had downloaded all three volumes of the 1880 edition. It wasn’t until much later that further computer research revealed that I had already provided an excellent description of the Christmas game in an article published in 1983; so I knew it then, but had completely forgotten it in the intervening forty years.



And my third reaction was that it would need some cuts for a realistic concert realization: first of all, six singing angels and five singing shepherds and obviously many instrumentalists acting backstage while the angels pretend to play instruments on stage. And the actual piece would have taken at least eight hours, so we would have had to cut most of it. But it’s been a wonderful roller coaster ride over the last thirty months, gradually figuring out how the (theater) piece could be turned into a concert program. This will be the first concert I have been involved in organizing since I retired from teaching fifteen years ago. Of course, I will be there and attend as many performances as I can.

The essential aspect of the whole enterprise is that the 1496 printing, which is our only source for the play, had space left blank for the notes, but contained the lyrics for this music. From the blanks it can be inferred that most of the twelve songs included were for three or four voices, but one was for five voices and one was only for two voices. (Some fifteenth-century liturgical prints handle it the same way: they print the texts with blank space above them so that the owners can add the notes themselves; and the John Rylands Library in Manchester has a Schöffer print in which the music was actually added.) The texts are obviously sacred; and indeed no French sacred songs from the fifteenth century have come down to us. Thus, these were obviously spiritual retexts of secular songs. The next task, of course, was to choose my favorite songs from the 1470s and adopt their music for our concert. As I said, this has all been very exciting for me, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing it with you and other listeners in Switzerland.

(Translation: Marc Lewon)



This concert is dedicated to a Christmas mystery play about the incarnation and birth of Christ, performed at the “neuf marchié” in Rouen in 1474. The only surviving source – a print that appeared about 20 years later – arouses particular interest: In 12 places in this book there are instructions for sung passages for which space was left blank for the entry of notes. In none of the three surviving copies of the print was music entered; however, the page and text divisions leave no doubt that polyphonic songs were intended here – mostly three- or four-part, once also two-part and once five-part. The placement of the texts also makes it clear that these particular pages of the book were set up like the surviving French chansonniers from around 1470, with all the voices read off a double page spread and the remaining text placed at the bottom of the page. Most of the pieces are in the famous “formes fixes” (the “fixed forms”) of secular song, which were popular in France in the 14. and 15th century were maintained.

Since the poems here are all sacred (as befits the theme of the play), we must assume that the original music was intended for secular songs and that the texts here are the so-called “noëls,” as they were called in French. In fact, the known French repertoire of “noëls” does not begin until some years later, but from the years around 1470 there are numerous Italian sources for “laude spirituali” with the note “cantasi come” (“to be sung to the tune of”) followed by the name of a secular song to be used for the music (and in this Italian repertoire many of the songs mentioned were indeed French and polyphonic, some of which have been used for our reconstruction).

Therefore, for this concert we have chosen the music of French songs from the early 1470s and set the printed sacred texts on them. Most of the movements selected here survive today in ten or more sources, which means that they were among the most popular songs of their time, i.e., the songs most likely to have been selected for the original performance in 1474.

In doing so, we will not manage to reproduce the scope of the original production. The printed edition concludes with a list of 78 speaking parts, without counting the instrumentalists, who were apparently positioned invisibly behind the stage and were to be used especially for the polyphonic songs. In several places there are instructions for singing the polyphonic songs, occasionally requiring the instruments to play alone while the angels on stage were to pretend to be the ones playing their instruments. This seems to indicate that the instrumentation of the songs was somewhat fuller than we are used to today – hence the many duplications in our interpretations.

What we also can’t come close to is the sheer length of the original production. It’s hard to give definite numbers, but the performance spanned two days and fills about 450 pages in the original print. This means at least eight hours of pure performance time, to which the many scene changes and stage actions must be added. We can confidently leave this ambition to a larger production with far more extensive financing and an extremely patient audience. In short, what we offer here is the best we can do with our resources – a mere reflection of the original, but also a reminder of what was possible in the 15th century.

The composers we hear here were well known in the 1470s. Johannes Ockeghem was the leader of the French royal chapel since 1452. Hayne van Ghizeghem had been active at the Burgundian ducal court since 1457 and at the French royal court as late as the early 1490s. Loÿset Compere is perhaps the youngest composer here: he is first mentioned in 1474 at the ducal court of Milan, although his career was obviously well advanced by then. Johannes Martini worked at the ducal court of Ferrara from 1473. At least one single document from the Milan court from 1477 is known about the life of Colinet de Lannoy. Only the Englishman John Bedyngham is almost not at all archivally tangible, although his works have been copied very frequently in continental sources since the early 1450s, and he is known to have died in 1458-59 (a detail you are reading here for the first time: all existing printed references to him erroneously give his death as a year later). Finally, the anonymous piece in the program is a wild card: The text sung by the Gentiles in Bethlehem is completely incomprehensible, so we took the music of an almost equally incomprehensible piece from the same period: Cados cados adonay cherubim; and miraculously the text fits like a glove.

David Fallows

(Translation: Marc Lewon)



Texts & History

This concert celebrates a Christmas mystery play on the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ as performed at the ‘neuf marchié’ of Rouen in 1474. Part of its interest lies in the only source, a printed book from about twenty years later. On twelve occasions in this book there are directions for singing, with spaces left for the music to be added. No music was entered in any of the three surviving copies of the book; but the placing of the text on the page makes it absolutely clear that these were all polyphonic songs – mostly in three or four voices but once in two and once in five. The placing of the texts also makes clear that these particular pages of the book were planned like the surviving French chansonniers of the years around 1470, with all voices readable from the same opening and the remaining text at the bottom of the page. Most of the pieces are in the famous ‘fixed forms’ of secular song cultivated in France throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Since the poems here are all sacred (as befits the theme of the play), we must assume that the original music was for secular songs and that the texts here are what were called ‘noëls’ in French. Actually, the known French repertory of ‘noëls’ begins a few years later, but from the years around 1470 there are many Italian poetry sources of ‘laude spirituali’ with annotation ‘cantasi come’ (sing it like) followed by the name of a secular song to be used for the music (and in that Italian repertory many of the songs mentioned were in fact French and polyphonic, several of them being used for our reconstruction).

So for this concert we have chosen the music of French songs from around the early 1470s and pasted the printed sacred texts on to them. Most of the music chosen here survives in ten or more sources today, which is to say that these were among the most widely loved songs of their time, namely the ones most likely to have been chosen for the original production in 1474.

What we cannot do is to match the scale of the original production. The printed edition ends with a list of seventy-eight speaking roles, without mentioning the instrumentalists who were apparently invisible behind the stage but regularly playing particularly in the polyphonic songs. At several points there are instructions about the singing of the polyphonic songs whereby the instruments occasionally play alone and the angels on stage pretend to play instruments. What that seems to mean is that the scoring of the songs is rather fuller than we are used to today, hence the inclusion of much doubling in our performances.

What we also cannot begin to match is the sheer length of the original production. Clear figures are hard to reach. But it spread over two days and fills about 450 pages in the original print. So eight hours minimum and probably a lot more with the various bits of scene-changing and stage-action. That ambition we can safely leave to a larger company with far fuller financial support and an extremely patient but supportive audience. In short, what we offer here is the best we can – a mere shadow of the original but a reminder of things that were possible in the fifteenth century.

The composers we have used here were well known in the 1470s. Johannes Ockeghem had been head of the French royal chapel since 1452. Hayne van Ghizeghem had been at the Burgundian ducal court since 1457 and was at the French royal court still in the early 1490s. Loÿset Compere may be the youngest composer here: he is first documented at the Milan ducal court in 1474, though his career was plainly well advanced at that point. Johannes Martini was at the ducal court of Ferrara from 1473. Colinet de Lannoy’s life is known only from a single document at the court of Milan in 1477. Only the Englishman John Bedyngham is almost without biographical documentation, though his works were very widely copied in continental sources from the early 1450s and he died in the years 1458-59 (a detail that you are reading for the first time: all existing printed references to him wrongly have his death a year later). Finally, the anonymous piece was a wild-card: the text sung by the gentiles in Bethlehem is entirely incomprehensible, so we took the music of an almost incomprehensible piece from the same years,
Cados cados adonay cherubim
; and by some wonder the text fits the music like a glove.

David Fallows



The Bassanos

Homage to the recorder family
Sun 29.09.24 18:15 Concert

Historical Museum Basel


Magnum opus musicum 1604

Tribute to Orlando di Lasso
Sun 27.10.24 18:15 Concert



Du Fay 550

Music for a lifetime
Sun 24.11.24 18:15 Concert

Historisches Museum Basel


Now sing and rejoice

Sing-along Concert
Sun 29.12.24 17:45 Workshop 18:15 Concert