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 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 Naples (transcription) and Florence (illumination) 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, probably 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, including a conspicuous number of Englishmen: Du Fay, Binchois, Bedyngham, Dunstable, Frye. 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 Mac Hale – vocals | Raitis Grigalis – vocals | Vera Schnider – harp | Claire Piganiol – harp | Marc Lewon – lute, quinterne; conductor

Cooperation with the Goldberg Foundation (Clemens Goldberg)

17:45 Introduction to the topic by Clemens Goldberg


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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