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Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye 3v · Caron
Helas que pourra devenir

Appearance in the five chansonniers:

*Dijon ff. 81v-82 »Helas que pourra devenir« 3v Caron PDFFacsimile (Phot. 166-167)

*Laborde ff. 12v-13 »Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye« 3v Caron PDF · Facsimile

*Wolfenbüttel ff. 49v-50 »Helas que pourra devenir« 3v PDF · Facsimile

Other sources:

Augsburg 25 f. 4 »Dess mayen lust« 3v
Bologna Q16 ff. 128v-129 »Helas que pour devenir« 3v Facsimile
Bologna Q18 ff. 35v-36 »Helasso« 4v (+C) Facsimile
Bratislava 33  »Mit treuen herzen« 2v [3v] (S and T only)
Florence 229 ff. 222v-223 »Helas que pourra devenir« 3v Caron
Florence 27 ff. 35v-36 »Helas« 4v (+C) Caron
Kraków 40098 ff. A3v/A3v/A3v »Der seyden schwantcz/Ave sydus clarissimus« 3v
Paris 15123 ff. 33v-34 »Hella que poura devenir« 3v Facsimile
Paris 676 ff. 12v-13 »Hellas que pora advenire« 3v
Perugia 431 ff. 59v-60 »Helas« 3v
Petrucci 1501 ff. 15v-16 »Helas que poura devenir« 4v (+C) Caron
Rome 2856 ff. 45v-46v »Hellas mon ceur« 3v Caron
Rome XIII.27 ff. 71v-72 »Hellas« 3v Caron
Segovia ff. 114v-115 »Elaes« 4v (+C) Caron
Sevilla 5-1-43 ff. 39v-40 »Hellas«
Trento 89 ff. 416v-417 Without text
Uppsala 76a ff. 13v-14 »Helas que pourra devenir« 3v
Verona 757 ff. 19v-20 Without text 3v

– the three versions combined in one PDF package

For citations and use of material see Fallows 1999, pp. 181-182.

Edition: Gutiérrez-Denhoff 1988 no. 40 (Wolfenbüttel).

Text: In most sources the text (or the incipit reference) is a rondeau cinquain, “Helas, que pourra devenir”, which appears in full in Dijon and Wolfenbüttel, also in Berlin 78.B.17 ff. 130-130v, ed.: Löpelmann 1923 p. 232. A different rondeau quatrain, “Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye”, is found complete in Laborde – also in Berlin 78.B.17 ff. 156v, ed.: Löpelmann 1923 p. 294. The incipit in Rome 2856 “Hellas mon ceur” is probably a conflation od the two first lines of “Helas, que pourra devenir” and not a reference to “Helas mon cueur, helas mon oeil”, a bergerette in Berlin 78.B.17 f. 90, ed. Löpelmann 1923 p. 138, and in Jardin 1501 f. 87v, which cannot fit the music.

After Laborde:

Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye,
si ne vous plaist m’estraindre vostre grace,
je ne requier heure, temps, lieu, ny espace (1)
de vivre plus, fors en merencolie.

Ad ce faire Desir si me convie
pour le plaisir que prans en vostre face,

helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye,
si ne vous plaist m’estraindre vostre grace.

Vostre beaulté a ma pense ravie
si griefvement que je ne scay que face;
et si Pitie ma grant douleur n’efface, (2)
en dangier suis que sus pietz je desvie.

Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye,
si ne vous plaist m’estraindre vostre grace,
je ne requier heure, temps, lieu, ny espace
de vivre plus, fors en merencolie.

1) Laborde, line 3, the word “lieu” is missing,
2) Laborde, line 11, the last word is missing.

After Dijon and Wolfenbüttel:

Helas, que pourra devenir
mon cueur, s’il ne peut parvenir (1)
a celle haultaine enteprise
ou sa voulenté c’est soubmise
pour mieulx sur toutes advenir?

C’est chois sans aillieurs revenir,
eslicte pour temps advenir
avoir plaisance a sa device.

Helas, que pourra devenir
mon cueur, s’il ne peut parvenir
a celle haultaine enteprise?

Or est contraint pour l’avenir, (2)
car Desir l’a fait convenir
qui l’a mis hors de sa franchise;
et desja la cause est commise (3)
a excuser pour souvenir. (4)

Helas, que pourra devenir
mon cueur, s’il ne peut parvenir
a celle haultaine enreprise
ou sa voulenté c’est soubmise
pour mieulx sur toutes advenir?

Alas my love, my more than perfect girlfriend,
if it does not please you to include me in your grace,
I will not need hour, time, place nor space
anymore to live, except in sadness.

Desire so drives me to be like this
for the pleasure I get from the sight of you,

alas my love, my more than perfect girlfriend,
if it does not please you to include me in your grace.

Your beauty has ravished my mind
so devastatingly that I do not know what to do;
and if Pity does not efface my great pain,
I am in danger of losing my way back on feet.

Alas my love, my more than perfect girlfriend,
if it does not please you to include me in your grace,
I will not need hour, time, place nor space
anymore to live, except in sadness.



Alas, what shall become
of my heart, if it cannot fulfil
that elevated enterprise
to which it has subjected its will
in order to fare better than all others?

It was chosen without turning to others,
elected for times to come
to have pleasure as its device.

Alas, what shall become
of my heart, if it cannot fulfil
that elevated enterprise?

Now it is pressed about the future,
for Desire has forced it come to an agreement,
which has made it loose its privilege;
and already its case is rejected
and laid aside for remembrance.

Alas, what shall become
of my heart, if it cannot fulfil
that elevated enterprise
to which it has subjected its will
in order to fare better than all others?

1) Wolfenbüttel, line 2, “mon povre cueur, si ne ...”,
2) Dijon, line 12, “... advenir”,
3) Dijon, line 15, “est a la cause c’est soubmise”
4) Wolfenbüttel, line 16, “pour en juger a son plaisir”;
- many differences in spelling.

Evaluation of the sources:

This song is found in many sources - in four of the later sources with an added high contratenor. The only three sources, which have complete texts for the music, are found among the ‘Loire Valley’ chansonniers, and here the song was copied by three different scribes using three different exemplars. These exemplars were closely related, since they all, for example, had an error in superius bar 37.2 in common, but still they must have been different.

The Laborde scribe copied a version in which the song had the decasyllabic rondeau quatrain “Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye” as text, and this version was not very insistent on key signatures in the lower voices. The scribe placed a flat at the start of the tenor part only, and then wrote it and the following contratenor continuously on the page without any further key signatures. The flat at the top of the page was probably meant as a sort of indication of the default choice in a performance of the lower parts, as they both evidently in all cases except one (T b. 45.2) call for flattened Bs. The single flat in the tenor can also be understood as just an indication of the fact that the tenor and the superius for most of the chanson move in strict intervallic canon at the fifth below.

The Wolfenbüttel scribe clearly notated flat key signatures in tenor and contratenor. His exemplar, however, presented him with a completely different poetic text, the rondeau cinquain “Helas, que pourra devenir”. On the one hand this provides more words for the long canonic sequence, which ends the song’s first section (bb. 19-29), but on the other hand its octosyllabic lines fit the remainder of the lines less well than the longer lines in “Helas m’amour”. His version of the poem was certainly corrupt, as the last line “pour en juger a son plaisir” does not fit into the poem’s pattern of rimes leonines. The last word has to be “souvenir” as in the versions of the poem in the MSS Berlin 78.B.17 and Dijon chansonnier. Moreover, the 2nd line contains an extra word at “mon povre cueur”, which really makes it difficult to fit the now many words to the melisma (see the edition). The differences in the musical text between Wolfenbüttel and Laborde are very few: they concern figurations (S bb. 9 and 62), coloration (S bb. 44.2-45.1), ligatures (T bb. 7-8, 47.2-48.1 and 50.2-51.1), and an accidental (C b. 28.2).

The exemplar used by the Dijon scribe had the same text and the key signatures as in Wolfenbüttel. His poetic text is slightly better, but is also somewhat corrupted. Here line 15 is muddled, “est a la cause c’est soubmise”, which provides the correct syllable count, but not much meaning. The decay probably started, when someone in the chain of transmission inadvertently repeated the end of the 4th line in the tierce. Compared to the Laborde version, the musical text of the Dijon copy is again very similar, if one disregards errors: the differences occur at plainer cadential decoration (S bb. 12 and 62) and ligatures (S bb. 49.2-50.1, T bb. 7-9, C bb. 46-51). Only in bar 53.2 in the contratenor we find what could be a trace of the Dijon scribe’s intervention; the dissonant clash between e and f in the lower voices has been softened by the introduction of a dotted figure.

For the differences and relations between the other sources, see Atlas 1976, I, pp. 146-148, Brown 1983, II, p. 481, and Gutiérrez-Denhoff 1988, pp.138-140.

The existence of three different, but as regards the music very similar, exemplars when the song was entered into the three “Loire Valley” chansonniers, shows that Caron’s composition already had been in circulation for a long time, and that scribes had struggled with solutions to the problem of fitting it with a text.

Comments on text and music:

This is a virtuoso setting of a rondeau – and it is unique among Caron’s songs. The original text probably was the rondeau quatrain preserved in Laborde, but at an early date the song became firmly associated with the rondeau cinquain that all later sources specify. An explanation of this change of text can only be purely speculative, as none of the poems excel in poetic clarity or striking images; the loss of some words in Laborde’s transmission of the rondeau quatrain could be part of en explanation.

In Laborde we meet a setting that is quite clear in its declamation of the poem, which fits its four musical phrases. It is written for two voices in relatively high tessituras, supported by a contratenor that occasionally moves above the tenor. The whole point of the setting lies in its extensive use of rhythmically free canons between the upper voices, in which the contratenor in two instances partakes with shorter statements. The piece opens in calm note values, the superius imitates the tenor at the octave after three brevis-bars, while the contratenor makes a “fake” imitation and hurries on to the obligato counterpoint to the tenor. From there on (b. 15) the song follows a pattern: The superius begins the remaining three phrases in semibreves (plain or dotted), which takes care of for most of text’s syllables; it is followed by the tenor in canon at the fifth below at the distance of one or two sembrevis-values, which sooner or later becomes reduced to a minima-value (bb. 17, 36-38, 48). The resulting close fifth canons then run on to just before the cadences.

The restrictions posed on the single voices by the fifth canons could have made this song quite tedious. The mechanical melismas are relieved by the fast tempo in a diminutio mensuration, and by the contrasts created by the line-beginnings. Especially the opening of the second section is spectacular: The staggered descending thirds and triads in dotted values sung by all voices suddenly suspend the steady beat of the preceding long melisma and transform the sound into a glittering turning wheel. A reflection of this reappears in the 4th phrase (from b. 46) in a different combination and shorter note values; the four consecutive descending thirds sung by the contratenor in bars 31-33 now appear in the superius bars 49-51.

David Fallows has commented, “... there is a good case for believing that the music was conceived independently of any text.” (Fallows 1999, p. 182). It is easy to concur to this given the abstract construction of the piece, the confusion concerning the texts, and the fact that the music does not show up a single instance of the note repetitions, which in many pieces help the singers to place the syllables. However, it is precisely the formal construction of the piece that makes the presence of the poem a necessity. The composition is a brilliant execution of the formal layout of the rondeau, including the full repetition scheme. A simple run though the music would hardly display its brilliance, as only the reappearance of the second section in the tierce after three repetitions of the first section can give it its full, mind-blowing effect. The excitement thus produced must be the secret behind the popularity of the song. Fallows is right in stating that the music’s relation to the text is weak. I, as well, cannot detect any connection between the two depressed love poems and the music; if anything, it should be that Caron is making fun of the poetry. The words function rather like a scaffolding for a play with the form of the rondeau. In this game the text transmitted by Laborde, “Helas m’amour” is the best candidate for being the original text.

In this connection, it is interesting to remark that the rondeau quatrain also fits Heinrich Isaac’s reworking of Caron’s song. It can be laid under all the voices in a natural way without word repetitions, and quite different from the strained text underlay in the version published in Brown 1983 no. 6. In most sources, Isaac’s setting has the word “Helas” as a text marking; in Florence 229 only, it has the incipit “Helas que pourra mon cueur”, which similarly to the appearance of Caron’s song in Rome 2856 probably is a conflation of the two first lines of the rondeau cinquain. Concerning Tinctoris’ and Isaac’s use of Caron’s “Helas”, see my comments on Tinctoris’ »Helas«.

Tinctoris and Caron’s song

That Johannes Timctoris was well acquainted with this song has often been discussed in the musicological literature. Most important are the contributions by Karol Berger, Peter Urquhar and Margaret Bent. (1) In his Liber de arte contrapuncti, Liber secundus of 1477, Capitulum XXXIII on discords, also called false concords, which all are to avoided, Tinctoris says: “... ne mi contra fa in concordantiis perfectis admittant. Verumtamen saepissime apud infinitos compositores etiam celeberrimos oppositum comperi, [...] et apud Caron etiam in uno carmine quod dicitur "Hellas", sicut hic patet: [Music examples] Et profecto quomodo errores tam evidentes a tantis compositoribus committi video, nullo prorsus alio modo eos excusandos arbitror quam per hoc dictum Horatii quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, id est, ut Acro exponit, quandoque errat bonus poeta, unde et bonum etiam musicam aliquando errare non est mirandum.” (2) (... not to admit mi against fa in perfect concords. Nevertheless, I have often discovered the opposite in works by a great many composers, even the most famous, as ... and with Caron in a song called “Hellas”, as seen here: [Examples] And indeed, when I see such evident errors committed by so many composers, I think that these men can be excused in absolutely no other way than by this statement of Horace: “When the good Homer slumbers”, that is, as Acro explains, when the good poet errs; hence it is not to be wondered at that a good musician sometimes errs.) (3)

The outcome of the discussions seems to be, that Berger and Urquhart find that Tinctoris (grudgingly) accepts these diminished fifths at certain cadence combinations, while Bent establishes that Tinctoris of course strongly disapproves in the cases shown in his examples.

One may, however, wonder why the Caron song was singled out for critique at all. Tinctoris shows bars 41-46 of the tenor with a one flat key signature, and the same five bars of the contratenor without any key signature. His example seems to be taken from the version preserved in Laborde (on this, see further my comments on Tinctoris’ own setting of «Helas»), where it appears as a song without key signatures in superius and contratenor and with only a suggested b-flat in the tenor. All the needed flats in the lower voices can so easily be supplied by the performers that Tinctoris probably would deem it “asinine” to notate them, (4) and accordingly no one in their right mind would sing a b-flat in the tenor in bar 45. However, for most of the song, the tenor is dependent on the superius in strict intervallic canon at the lower fifth; the b-natural in bar 45 only appears after the actual stretch of canon ends. Therefore, Tinctoris must have read the key signature of the tenor as an indication of transposition, as a prescriptive sign. And in this situation, Caron ought to have supplied a b-quadratum before bar 45 in order to make things crystal clear to the performer - and to avoid the scorn from the methodical music theorist.

See also Heinrich Isaac's setting of “Helas”.

PWCH November 2011

1) Karol Berger, Musica ficta. Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino. Cambridge 1987, pp. 93 ff; Peter W. Urquhart, ‘False Concords in Busnoys’, in Paula Higgins (ed.), Antoine Busnoys. Method, Meaning, and Context in Late Medieval Music. Oxford 1999, pp. 361-387; Margaret Bent, ‘On False Concords in Late Fifteenth-Century Music: Yet Another Look at Tinctoris’, in A.-E. Ceulemans & B.J. Blackburn (eds.), Théorie et analyse musicales 1450-1650. Louvain-la-Neuve 2001, pp. 65-118.

2) After

3) Translation based on Bent 2001, pp. 88-89, and Tinctoris 1961 pp. 130-131.

4) Cf. latest Bent 2001, p. 71.