Helas le bon temps que j’avoie 3v · Tinctoris, Johannes
Florence 27 ff. 47v-48 “Helas” 3v Tinctoris
Florence 229 ff. 214v-215 “Hellas” 3v
Kraków 40098 ff. L8v/M4v/M9 “K” 3v
Petrucci 1501 ff. 57v-58 “Helas” 3v Tinctoris
Segovia f. 184 “Elaes abraham” 3v Loysette Compere
*Sevilla 5-I-43 ff. 44v-45 “Helas le bon temps que j’avoie” 3v PDF
Zwickau 78/3 no. 21 [Without text] 3v
Editions: Hewitt 1942, p. 331, and Tinctoris 1976, p. 130 (Petrucci 1501); Brown 1983, no. 198 (Florence 229).
Text: Probably a rondeau quatrain; most sources have incipits only; an incomplete refrain is found in Sevilla 5-I-43, the first line of which is found also as a refrain line in the poem by Martial de Paris, “Chacun vivoit joyeusement” (ed. Auquis 1824, p. 280).
After Sevilla 5-I-43:
Helas, le bon temps que j’avoie!
Alas, the good times I had!
Evaluation of the sources:
The only source with more text than an incipit is Sevilla 5-I-43, which was copied in Italy by a northern scribe around 1480. The sources exhibit few musical differences, cf. Brown 1983, Vol. 2, p. 462, and Tinctoris 1976, p. XIII. Only regarding the key signatures there is a bit of insecurity. Florence 27 and Petrucci 1501 have no signatures; Florence 229, Glogauer Liederbuch (Kraków 40098), and Segovia each have one flat in the tenor, while the scribe of Sevilla 5-I-43 was confused. He put in a flat at the start of the 2nd staff in the tenor part (bb. 15-30) and flats in the 3rd and 4th staves of the superius (bb. 29 to the end). This obviously was an error, and the key signatures in the upper voice were probably meant for the two last staves in the tenor, which would put this source in line with the majority of sources.
Comments on text and music:
Tinctoris’ song is probably a setting of a rondeau quatrain. It is composed for three relatively high voices placed a fifth apart with the leaping contratenor occasionally crossing above the tenor. Its opening on the word “Helas” is a calm cadence formula, which soon slides into a three-part imitation S-T-C of the ascending fourth figure at the octave and at the fifth (bb. 5.2-7). The flexibility of this imitation in passing is obtained by the different values of the opening notes in the respective voices: a dotted semibrevis, a minima, and a semibrevis. This is at once supplanted by a strict canon at the fifth below and at the distance of one minima value between superius and tenor (bb. 7-15). The next line starts as a unison canon in the upper voices in semibreves and dotted semibreves, which soon (b. 21) is transformed into a canon at the fifth at minima distance. The line ends in a play of complementary, dotted rhythms involving all three voices. The second section of the song opens in a similar type of setting that imperceptibly slides into the same tight fifth canon of the upper voices as earlier, before they relax in parallel sixths. The fifth canon is resumed in the last line (b. 38), but return at last to canon at the unison and the octave between tenor and superius. In all this sliding in and out of canonic passages, the contratenor is mainly supporting the play of the upper parts, even if it in spots takes a very active part.
This description shows that Tinctoris without much doubt has modelled his “Helas” on the corresponding chanson by Caron, which he knew very well and criticised in his Liber de arte contrapuncti (see further the comments on this chanson). The ease with which the composer introduces flexible canons between the core voices clearly reflects the procedures of Caron in his »Helas«; and the idea in the 2nd line of the close imitation of descending triads, which disturbs the flow of the beats and makes the harmony shimmer, is obviously a reworking of the third line of Caron’s song. Caron’s ear-catching four descending thirds in a row in the contratenor (which he repeats in the superius in the next line) is likewise highlighted by Tinctoris: They start in the contratenor (b. 19) on a prominent long note (and expanded to five thirds), and then they appear in superius and tenor. Tinctoris’ placement of this really characteristic passage as the rondeau’s 2nd line, just before the end of the first section, does not work out quite as well as the layout established by Caron. If the song is a rondeau, it may seem too much to have this passage to appear in the many repeats - it wears out. Maybe he found that placing the effect at the start of the second section would be too conspicuously similar to Caron’s idea.
None of the sources can support the existence of this chanson before Tinctoris’ move to Italy early in the 1470s. On the other hand, nothing speaks against that he composed it during the 1460s, while he worked in the Loire area (Orléans and Chartres), where he was engaged in the musical circles in which we meet the earliest sources for Caron’s “Helas” (the chansonniers Laborde, Wolfenbüttel and Dijon). The song could very well be contemporary with his rondeau in Dijon and Laborde, »Vostre regart si tresfort m’a feru«. It looks as if the version that Tinctoris knew was very similar to the version preserved in the Laborde chansonnier. Besides the strong structural similarities and the similar ranges of the voices, the majority of sources for Tinctoris’ “Helas” have the same disposition of key signatures, with a flat signature in the tenor only, as in Laborde’s version of Caron’s “Helas” and in the music example in Tinctoris’ Liber de arte contrapuncti.
Likewise, the music’s indifference towards the meaning of its text is just as evident as in Caron’s chanson. The fragmentary poem preserved in the Italian MS Sevilla 5-I-43 may not even be a rondeau. Its octosyllabic verse lines do not match the music in a satisfactory way; they seem too short for the musical phrases. A decasyllabic rondeau would be a better match. This can be tested by simply laying the words from Caron’s setting in the Laborde version, the rondeau quatrain “Helas m’amour, ma tresparfecte amye”, under the music as shown in my reconstruction (part of the edition; text and translation is found with the Caron chanson). The fit is much better, with a more natural flow and stronger contrast between the paces of the lines. It may simply be this early version of Caron’s song that he used to try out his creative powers.
A comparison with Isaac’s reworking of Caron’s “Helas” is illuminating. It is preserved in five late 15th century sources (Roma XIII.27, Florence 229, Verona 757, Segovia, Petrucci 1501) and in some 16th century MSS and prints (see Brown 1983, I, p. 209); in most sources it has the text incipit “Helas” only or is without text. Also this composition can in a satisfactory way be combined with the rondeau quatrain in Laborde (cf. Caron’s »Helas«). In a way, Isaac wholly misses the point of Caron’s rondeau, when he transforms it into a regular, systematic music typical of a younger generation. Every imitation is neat and preferably involving all three voices, the rhythm is steady - no exciting surprises - and the whole is quite elegant without disturbing contrasts. The music has been moved a generation onwards (see further the edition and the comments). Tinctoris on his side remained true to the musical premises of Caron. He did not rework Caron’s music, but created new music using the same mould. The result may not for structural reasons compare so favourably with Caron’s song, and it is slightly hampered by the overly regular cadences (too many on D) - he makes everything easier for himself by choosing D as finalis and by avoiding the dangerous cadence on A.
PWCH November 2011