The A-la-mi-re Manuscripts: Flemish Polyphonic Treasures
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Polyphonic treasuresfrom the Alamire scriptorium
Some 500 years ago, an unknown German musician from Nuremberg arrived inthe Low Countries, having probably travelled by way of the trade routes leadingfrom southern Germany to Antwerp. He called himself Petrus Alamire, a pseudonymthat any trained musician would have immediately recognised as a reference tothe late Medieval system of musical education that made use of the hand ofGuido d'Arezzo. The combination of the pitch 'a' and the note names la, mi, andre (found in the three hexachords) are the main elements involved.
The man behind thispen name was in fact one Petrus Imhoff or Imhove or Van den Hove. He wasprobably educated in the Nuremberg of D??rer and received his first knowncommissions as a music calligrapher in the Low Countries, for organizations in's-Hertogenbosch (Illushious Confraternity of Our Lady, in 1497) and Antwerp(Collegiate Church of Our Lady, in 1499) Alamire very quickly rose to becomeone of the most desired music calligraphers and producers of beautiful choirbooks in the Low Countries. Important commissions were not slow in coming: in1503 he realised a royal edition for Philip the Fair, in 1509 he entered theservice of Archduke Charles as escripvain et garde des livres, and in1511 he took on a double assignment for the emperor Maximilian and his daughterMargaret of Austria. The manuscripts soon played a role in the pan-Europeanpolitical dealings of the Burgundian-Habsburgs. Many rulers needed to be'bought off by Archduke Charles in order to win their votes for the approachingelection of Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Charles chose the motto Plus oultre,that was probably set to music by an anonymous composer (Vienna,Osterreichische National-?¡bibliothek, Handschriftensammlung, MS 9814). Thecourt's frequent choice of such manuscripts as one-of-a?¡ kind official giftsshould come as no surprise, considering that many influential rulers, includingthe elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony and Pope Leo X, showed a great interestin music, at a time when the polyphony at the Burgundian-Habsburg court wasblossoming as nowhere else in Europe, and when Alamire had developed a uniqueand highly refined Ghent-Bruges style to illuminate his calligraphic musicaleditions. These manuscripts have often been very well preserved and are held as thetreasures of a number of important European libraries, including Brussels (theformer court library), Jena (choir books from the collection of Frederick theWise), Munich (codices of Wilhelm IV of Bavaria), London (the Henry VIIImanuscript), the Vatican (for Pope Leo X),and Vienna (former Habsburgcourt library).
After the imperial elections Alamire continued to remain active, and hisatelier, where numerous scribes were now employed, produced weighty editions ofthe finest quality, illuminated in the Ghent-Bruges style. In particular, themembers of the Habsburg house showed great interest: in 1523, Margaret ofAustria ordered additions made to the chansonnier (Brussels, RoyalLibrary, MS 228) that was first made for her in 1516; imperial choir books wereproduced for Charles' tr?¿s noble plaisir and carried to Spain by aspecial envoy for use by the Capilla Flamenca that resided there(1523/1526); and Alamire made a number of manuscripts in the 1530s for Maria ofHungary, the governess of the Low Countries after Margaret of Austria, whorewarded him in his old age with a pension.
Among other proud owners of Alamire manuscripts were Raimund Fugger, amember of the bankers' family that had supported Charles V, and ArchdukeWilhelm IV of Bavaria, who helped to stem the tide of advancing Protestantism.
Finally, a number of important churches (and collegiate churches), such as theChurch of Our Lady in Antwerp, and especially the richer brotherhoods, such asthe two in 's-Hertogenbosch and Antwerp mentioned above, were in a position toacquire Alamire manuscripts, which they cherished as valuable works of art, asthe following note shows: [10/1/1514] \pro meester Petter Alam??re sangschriffergedaen 1?ú vlems omdadt hij ons aen gegeven heeft te maeken eenen coostelicksangboeck voer ons capelle in manyiren die noodt dis gelixs en zal gesin zijnal met mottetten van 5 st??mmen." ("for Master Peter Alamire,music copyist, paid 1?ú Flemish because he has promised to make us a costlysinging book for our chapel, the likes of which will never again be seen, withmotets for five voices").
Although manyinteresting aspects of Alamire's life remain obscure, we do have a goodoverview of his biography. We know that he lived first in Antwerp and later inMechelen, that he was married to Katlyne vander Meeren, that he dealt inmanuscripts, various musical instruments (cornetti, crumhorns, flutes,clavichords), lute strings, and even paintings, that he instructed Christian IIof Denmark, a brother-in-law to Charles V (who was later banished), in thebusiness of mining, and that he also carried letters for such eminent humanistsas Pirckheimer and D??rer, the latter of whom referred to Alamire as a 'a mannot lacking for humour' (homo non infestivus). But the most intriguingpart of his life story was his activity as a spy for the English court of HenryVIII in the years 1515-1518. Partly with the help of his cover as a merchant ofmanuscripts, 'minstrel/singer/chaplain' Alamire spied on Richard de la Pole,nicknamed 'the White Rose', who was the exiled English pretender to the throne,resident chiefly in Metz. Eventually the English court began to suspect theirtop agent, whom they had originally trusted wholeheartedly, of counter-espionage.
Even a gift of five part books, a splendid parchment choir book, eightcornetti, and many lute strings, together with secret political information,were not able to convince Henry VIII and his lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey,of his loyalty.
Despite all this,Alamire will surely go down in history chiefly as an eminent musiccalligrapher, who with his atelier of copyists, illuminators, and miniaturists,successfully spread Flemish polyphony throughout western Europe, andparticularly throughout the leading royal courts. Some 850 compositions of veryhigh quality (mostly Masses, followed by motets, chansons, and a fewinstrumental works and polyphonic songs on Dutch texts) have come down to usthrough this collection of no fewer than 48 choir books and twelve (sets of)fragments, often discovered in book bindings. The most important polyphonistsof the period 1495-1535 are represented, including the eminence grise JohannesOckeghem, Notenmeister Josquin Desprez, Margaret's favourite Pierrede la Rue (with by far the most compositions), and the newcomer AdrianWillaert. Although it is not strictly speaking taken from the corpus of Alamiremanuscripts, a splendid musical genealogy can be heard in the 'composers'motet' Mater floreat florescat by Pierre Moulu, that was probablywritten around 1517.
The corpus of Alamiremanuscripts offers an ideal source for a CD programme. From this unique body ofdocuments we have selected a number of representative works that act as asample of Alamire's production between about 1497 and 1535. A special place inthe whole is held by the above-mentioned chansonnier of Margaret ofAustria (Brussels, Royal Library, MS 228), both for its content (for example,the many regretz chansons) and its form. The manuscript opens with theremarkable six-voice motet Ave sanctissima Maria, probably by Pierre dela Rue, which takes the form of a triple canon. The tenor of this motet isilluminated by a miniature of Margaret praying to the Virgin Mary. This scionof the Burgundian-Habsburg house (r