Songs without words

The mystery of a textless chansonnier (c1473)
Sun 26.03.23 Intro 17:30 Concert 18:15

Historical Museum Basel

"Songs without words" | The mystery of a textless chansonnier (c1473)


hat would have been an appropriate gift for a celebrity wedding in 15th century Italy? A personally made and dedicated magnificent manuscript was definitely among the top ten. What if it was not finished on time, if one of the workshops involved in Florence did not deliver on time? Then the showpiece remained unfinished, in this case: textless.

The “Berlin Chansonnier” was apparently commissioned on the occasion of the marriage of Margherita from the merchant family of the Castellani to the patrician Bernardino Niccolini, presumably not finished in time for the occasion, and then – deprived of its purpose – abandoned. What remains is a collection of 42 chansons of the Burgundian school without any lyrics let alone composer names, which has led to the neglect of this source.

From concordances we can reconstruct all but nine pieces with texts and partly composers – among them the greatest names of the time: Du Fay, Binchois, Bedyngham, Dunstable, Frye – surprisingly many Englishmen can be found. The nine others are compositions that are contained only in this manuscript and are otherwise unknown.

In cooperation with Clemens Goldberg, whose 2022 Foundation produced the first color photograph of the manuscript, ReRenaissance brings the contents of this uniquely beautiful source to the stage for the first time, including previously unheard Unica.

Tessa Roos – vocals | Simon MacHale – vocals | Raitis Grigalis – vocals | Vera Schnider – harp | Claire Piganiol – harp | Marc Lewon – lute, quinterne; conductor

Cooperation with the Goldberg Foundation

17:30 Introduction to the topic by Clemens Goldberg

Tickets/Reservations: You can purchase numbered seats in the first three rows (from CHF 35). The remaining 100 seats are unnumbered, also for these you can make a kind of reservation with a desired price, so that you are sure to have a seat in the concert: E.g. simply enter ticket price CHF=O and give a collection as usual at the exit or pay a desired price right away when ordering online. You are also welcome to simply call 079 7448548.

"Berlin chansonnier" fol. 2v, School of Florence, c. 1480. National Museums in Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett (Photo: Dietmar Katz)


Berlin Chansonnier | Songs Without Words

Teaservlog for “Songs without words” The mystery of a textless chansonnier (c1473)
Video Editing Grace Newcombe; Camera Andrew Burn


Interview with Vera Schnider, specialist for modern and historical harp, since August 2022 lecturer for historical harp at the music school of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis

Thomas Christ (TC): Dear Vera, we are pleased to be able to interview you as one of the best known and most versatile harpists of your generation. When and how did you discover the harp for yourself?

Vera Schnider (VS): There is one incisive experience that makes me blush slightly today. The first time I saw a harp was during the opening of the rebuilt Chapel Bridge in Lucerne: three musicians passed under the bridge on a barge playing the harp. As a result, I really wanted to learn to play the instrument. In retrospect, I wonder if I had heard her play at all, or merely let myself be dazzled by the sight?

TC: The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments and had a very high value in the early historical music making practice. In the ancient Orient, women were apparently only allowed to play the harp. Could you tell us something about the social history of the harp? Is there a reason why even today a majority of women reach for this instrument?

VS: I find this impression to be a great contradiction to the facts: Since the early Middle Ages at the latest, the harp has been depicted on works of art mostly with male players. I also only know names of harpists from that time. In the 16th, 17. and 18th century we also meet mostly men. A major exception might be the time around 1800; in the context of salon music, wealthier women often performed with the harp. If you’re talking about social history, I think it’s interesting to note that this has mostly been a lighter genre. There the role of the woman in the society and her role as a musician to the good, cultivated entertainment becomes graspable. But these ladies were all trained by Maîtres!
The tradition of “true” harp virtuosos seems to have been a male one after all. And even today there are a large number of harpists in France, for example, which puts our image of the supposedly feminine instrument in a somewhat different light. And yet, the sound of the harp seems to be associated with something genuinely feminine. In addition, there is probably the visual, the petite woman at the instrument with the delicate sound.
I often sense this thinking when, for example, instrumentation is discussed in the basso continuo: The harp is supposed to sound when it comes to the celestial, the feminine. I often wonder how this would have been viewed 400 years ago.

TC: Starting from contemporary music, your artistic career has led you “back” to early music. Could it be that the bridge – especially with regard to the practice of ornamentation and improvisation – is more obvious from modern to baroque or renaissance music than to classical music? In any case, your broad performance practice gives the impression of a great willingness to experiment.

VS: I think it was or is sheer curiosity. I can’t stand knowing only a small section. I need to know what came before or after; I’m interested in the continuum. And when you study a modern instrument and play an early work, the “dark” inkling arises in you that the sonic result cannot be the ultimate truth … At some point I heard recordings of 16th century Italian music. with historical instruments, and was completely electrified. This reinforced the above discomfort and logically had to result in an education in early music.
Contemporary music opens up a similar field here: I have to learn to listen anew each time, to engage with the different aesthetics of the individual composers, to think anew about my instrument, its sound and the associated playing techniques.
And what is probably also central is a certain complexity. I’m interested in resistance; I want to work my way through a musical text, also wrestle and search a bit for meaning. I want to illuminate styles, confront failure again and again, train myself in new listening habits. When it gets too comfortable, I move on – that makes it a bit of a hassle, too. In this respect, I would have to limit your question and say that the path into classical music would have been fatal for me, not into classical music per se.

TC: You not only curate music festivals, but are also interested in cultural policy issues in Switzerland. Do our current politicians understand the social relevance of general music education? As an expert – on the Music Committee of both Basel – where do you still see a need for action?

VS: The fact that I could never put down the music of today has a lot to do with my understanding of art: I believe in the relevance of what we do, I am convinced that a healthy society needs art and that art is a place of reflection that makes visible what is present underground. Especially with the harp I want to distance myself clearly from the purely entertaining. Through contemporary music, I can actively participate in today’s cultural creation, as a person of the 21st century. Silence is not an option for me, especially in view of the current upheavals.
In Basel, the political situation seems to me to be very benevolent; there is a climate of enabling. The only question that drives me is how regulatory policy should be. Here I vote for complete artistic freedom, precisely in order to always be one step ahead of society. However, I fear that we have created an ivory tower for ourselves away from all politics. I think a lot about how we can get back into society and still be true to ourselves. In this respect, I see a need for action above all among us composers and musicians.

TC: My last question, for a given occasion, always concerns the recent resurgence of interest in Renaissance music. Will pre-1600 music remain a niche experience for a savvy audience, or will it soon enjoy broader exposure?

VS: I keep it similar here to contemporary music: I as a performer have the responsibility to make the present or the past time as carefully audible as possible. I have to create relevance through my actions. You mustn’t be too concerned with external effects, you mustn’t jump on any hype. I experience this very strongly at ReRenaissance! In addition, there is the loving design of the series, through the people involved, through the graphics, the magical places ReRenaissance is, fortunately, already a success story. In this respect: Let the music speak for itself!



Prelude to the concert “Songs without words

by Dr. Peter Reidemeister (Director of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis 1978-2005)

For me, this program at “ReRenaissance” is a “rebirth” in the truest sense, a rediscovery and reinterpretation of the Intromy involvement with the chanson manuscript of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett nearly 50 years ago.

At that time there was no (English titled) Master’s thesis, but a (Latin titled) Magister thesis, to practice and to show that afterwards one could tackle a weightier topic and a more extensive thesis, the dissertation. My choice of topic was therefore intended to bring together my historical and my musical interests and to leave room for a more ambitious work, about which I was already in discussion with my teacher, Prof. Carl Dahlhaus. But things turned out differently.

I had personal ties to the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, the repository of the manuscript in question, in that my father was the director of the Berlin museums. When I found what I was looking for in the catalog there, the interest was great, not only on my part, but also on the part of the staff, who didn’t know much about the manuscript and wanted to know more. The research subsequently led me both through all the other (not so few) parallel manuscripts of the 15th century to find out whether there are “Unica” in our collection, i.e. pieces that have survived only here, and all the way to the library of Perugia to determine the “alliance coat of arms” of the manuscript and thus its dating on the basis of the armorial books to be found there – the Internet did not yet exist.

To my boundless surprise, four weeks later I received a letter (which I keep to this day…) from Prof. Dahlhaus suggesting that I turn the paper into a dissertation without any changes and schedule the oral exams. Obviously there were many students, but too few verifiable degrees… Only by this miracle was I then in the right place at the right time, when in 1973 a deputy to the Schola director Prof. Wulf Arlt was sought. How do you think my life would have gone on if I had had to write another dissertation for years at that time?

And now the second great joy: to hear the pieces of the manuscript, and especially the Unica, in performances at today’s level of development of performance practice and at the level that our Basler musicianguarantee on the basis of their local training. How will the pieces sound? How is the decision made about vocal or instrumental instrumentation? How are the problems of missing texts solved?

A very special evening for me!




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