Songs Without Words

The Mystery of a Textless Chansonnier (c1473)
Sun 26.03.23 Intro 17:30 Concert 18:15

Historical Museum Basel

Manuscript Berlin chansonnier detail 2v

"Songs Without Words" | The Mystery of a Textless Chansonnier (c1473)


hat would have been a suitable gift for a celebrity wedding in 15th-century Italy? A personalised and dedicated magnificent manuscript was definitely among the Top Ten. What if some of the workshops, such as the transcription workshop in Naples or the illumination one in Florence, failed to deliver their order on time?  Then the showpiece was destined to remain unfinished; in this particular case, textless.

The “Berlin Chansonnier” is presumed to have been commissioned for the marriage of Margherita, from the merchant family Castellani, to the patrician Bernardino Niccolini. In all likelihood, it was 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. Over time, this has led many to overlook this source.

By using concordances, we can reconstruct the texts of all but nine pieces, and we can also often attribute them to specific composers, such as Du Fay, Binchois, Bedyngham, Dunstable, and Frye. These names are among the greatest of the time, and the collection includes a conspicuous number of Englishmen. The remaining nine compositions without text are found only in the “Berlin Chansonnier,” otherwise unknown (Unica).

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

Tessa Roos – voice | Simon MacHale – voice | Raitis Grigalis – voice | Vera Schnider – harp | Claire Piganiol – harp | Marc Lewon – lute, gittern; direction

Cooperation with the Goldberg Foundation

17:30 Introduction to the theme by Clemens Goldberg

«Berliner Chansonnier», Schule von Florenz, um 1480. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett (Foto: 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


Prelude to the concert “Songs without words”

by Dr. Peter Reidemeister

For me, this program at “ReRenaissance” is a “rebirth” in the truest sense of the word, a rediscovery and reinterpretation of the theme of my preoccupation with the chanson manuscript of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett almost 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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