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Se la face ay pale 3v · Guillaume Du Fay

Appearance in the five chansonniers:

*Laborde ff. 64v-65 »Se la face ay pale« 3v PDF · Facsimile

*Wolfenbüttel ff. 40v-41 »Se la face ay palle« 3v PDF · Facsimile

Other musical sources:

New York Boorman f. 1 »Se la face ay pale« 3v
*Oxford 213 ff. 53v-54 »Se la face ay pale« 3v Guillermus du fay PDF
Pavia 362 ff. 65v-66 »Se la face ay pale« 3v
Rome 1411 ff. 9v-10 »Se la face ay pale« 3v G. Dufay
Strasbourg C.22 f. 77v »Se la fa re« 3v G. Dufay

- three versions in a convenient PDF package

Reworkings, citations, intabulations and use of material, see Fallows 1995 pp. 78-82 and Fallows 1999 p. 362-363.

Editions: Bush 1940 pp. 68-69 (Laborde); Gutiérrez-Denhoff 1988 no. 32 (Wolfenbüttel)

Text: Ballade (?), Laborde and Wolfenbüttel only transmit two stanzas (with an indication of a repeat of the first stanza as a third stanza). Their version of the stanzas seems to be slightly corrupted. I’ve chosen to try a translation of the rather opaque poem in the version preserved by the older, more authoritative source, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. misc. 213, ff. 53v-54.

Se la face ay pale,
la cause est amer,
c’est la principale,
et tant m’est amer
amer, qu’en la mer
me voudroye voir;
or, scet bien de voir
la belle a qui suis
que nul bien avoir 
sans elle ne puis.

Se ay pesante male
de dueil aporter
cest Amour est male
pour moy de porter;
car soy deporter
ne veult de vouloir,
fors qu’a son vouloir
obeisse et puis
qu’elle a tel pooir.
Sans elle ne puis.

C’est la plus reale
qu’on puist regarder,
de s’amour leiaule
ne me puis guarder,
fol sui de agarder
ne faire devoir
d’amour recevoir
fors d’elle, je cuis
se ne veil douloir.
Sans elle ne puis.


If my face seems pale,
the cause is love,
it is the principal reason,
and to me love is so
bitter that I could
throw myself into the sea;
now she knows in truth,
the fair one I serve,
that I cannot have any
happiness without her.

When I have a heavy weight
of regret to carry,
this Love is hard
for me to bear;
for to enjoy myself
she will not allow,
except that I her wishes
obey, and since
she has such power,
I cannot live without her.

She is the most regal being
that one might ever see,
to love her faithfully
I cannot resist,
I’m mad to admire
and not serve her
by receiving love from
no one but her – I’m trapped
if I do not wish to suffer.
I cannot live without her.


The poem in Wolfenbüttel:

Se la face ay palle,
La cause est d’aymer,
C’est la principale,
et tant m’est amer
[Amer], qu’en la mer
me vouldroie voir;
Car c’est bien de voir
la belle a qui suis
Qui nul bien avoir 
sans elle ne puis.

Ce pesante malle
de dueil a porter
Ceste amour est male
pour moy de porter;
Car soi deporter
ne veult de vouloir,
Fors qu’a son vouloir
obeisse et puis
Qu’elle a tel vouloir.
Sans elle ne puis.

Se la face ...

Laborde has some differences in spelling; and the lines I.5 “Qu’anque la mer”, II.1 “C’est pesante malle”, and II.4 “pour moy desporter” transmit a few variants.

Evaluation of the source:

The versions in Laborde and Wolfenbüttel belong to the same late tradition of transmission, which differs from the older one represented by the MS Oxford 213. It differs first and foremost in that it does not transmit any notated accidentals, not even the b-flat in bar 17 which is essential for Du Fay’s use of the tenor part in his Missa Se la face ay pale in exactly the same shape as in MS Oxford 213. The MSS Pavia 362 and Strasbourg C.22 however also omit this accidental. Secondly, this tradition has an independent solution to a problem in the Contratenor, which was introduced by a probable writing error in Oxford 213. Here in bar 5 the second note e’ was written as a minima (cf. the transcription), and this was repeated in the later version combined with a shortening of the fourth note d’. This operation enabled the bars 5-7 to agree with the other voices in a performable, if not very elegant, solution.

The source list above is shorter than seen in other studies. I regard the version transmitted by Escorial IV.a.24 ff. 135v-136 (with a different Contratenor), and the one in München 810 ff. 69v-70 and Trento 89 ff.424v-425, a four-part arrangement of Du Fay’s Superius and Tenor (see the edition in Dufay 1966 no. 87), as reworkings of the original chanson.

However, the versions in the Laborde and Wolfenbüttel chansonniers were not copied from the same exemplar. The differences in the text alone make a common exemplar improbable. Moreover Laborde has unique and curious “feminine” endings to lines 2 and 3 in the Tenor (bars 6 and 10) involving repetitions of the phrases’ final notes. And while the Contratenor in the Oxford 213 version confidently ends the song by the downward leap of a fifth to the finalis, Wolfenbüttel shows an old-fashioned leap of an octave up to g’ with an alternative final note (blackened) on c’. Laborde has no less than three blackened (alternative) notes c, g and c’ – the Laborde scribe apparently considered the octave leap old-fashioned, but had some difficulties in deciding what to put in stead (the black g is not a good solution!).

The Contratenor is not easy to underlay with text in these versions. Long notes and ligatures have to be broken up – also more than in Oxford 213. Maybe it would be easier to perform it without text, with the part vocalized or performed by an instrument. However, in some situations it was apparently important to sing it. The reworked Contratenor part in Escorial IV.a.24 (see the edition in Dufay 1966 p. XXXIV (C only) and Hanen 1983 no. 120) fits the text perfectly; it could be a singer’s revision of his part.

Comments on text and music:

Du Fay’s famous song has often been described as a sort of ballade with very short lines of five syllables in an unusual through-composed setting. It seems easier to regard the poem as a strophic song with rime équivoquée and a refrain as Du Fay obviously did (the poem appears in any case more related to the popular ballade or strophic song than to the courtly forme fixe). The song is highly effective with short, memorable melodic lines in both Superius and Tenor, often syllabic and always with the parts in perfect balance, and it ends in a festive fanfare involving all three voices. It must have been composed during the first part of the 1430s, probably for the court of Savoy, as its tenor and final fanfare later was ingeniously exploited in the four-part Missa Se la face ay pale, which Du Fay most likely (but still hypothetically) composed for the consummation of the wedding between Amadeus of Savoy (later duke Amadeus IX) and the daughter of the French king, Yolande de France, in October 1452 (Cf. Fallows 1987 p. 70). The song still lived in the French repertory of the 1460s as the Laborde and Wolfenbüttel chansonniers attest, now slightly adapted to later tastes.

PWCH November 2008