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The music of Jean Sohier dit Fede: Comments and edition

We have quite a lot of data concerning the career of he French singer and composer known in the musical sources as “Fede”. Possibly the sources give too much information. As pointed out by Jane Alden, it may relate to more than one person known by these names (Alden 2010, pp. 117-119). For an overview of Fede’s biography and the literature, see the article ‘Fedé, Johannes [Sohier, Jean]’ by David Fallows in Grove Music Online (accessed June 2013; hereafter Fallows:Fede). Recently the confusing wealth of information on the musician has been discussed in an entertaining article by Jane Alden and David Fiala, ‘Dialogus de Johanne Sohier alias Fede’ (see the bibliography below). The information most relevant for the composer could be the following:

- Born around 1420.

- November 1443 to July 1445 in the papal chapel where he appears as “Jo. Fede alias Sohier” and “Joh. Sohier alias Fede”.

- From July 14, 1445 until April 1446 in the chapel of Leonello d'Este in Ferrara.

- From June 30 and until November 23, 1446 petit vicaire at the Cambrai Cathedral.

- 1449–1450 a chaplain at the Ste Chapelle in Paris.

- From August 1451 to February 1453 in the private chapel of Charles d’Orléans.

- 1462–1463, “M. Jehan Sohier dit Fede” was a singer in chapel of the dowager queen, Marie d’Anjou, who he probably followed on a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostella in late 1463. He was in La Rochelle with the queen on her return journey (Kirkman 2011, p. 70), when she died November 29, 1463.

- During the years following his service at the queen’s court he was involved in and lost a protracted lawsuit at the ecclesiastical court concerning a canonry in Saint Omer (Kirkman 2011).

- April 1466 described as a cleric of the diocese of Arras (Kirkman 2011, p. 73).

- 1472-73 in the Ste Chapelle in Bourges.

- 1473-74 in at the royal chapel of Louis XI.

Fedé was listed among prominent musicians in three French poems. The mention of most importance is found in Simon Greban's Complainte de la mort de Jacques Milet, which in the text is dated 1466 – that is during the lifetime of Fede (cf. Piaget 1893). According to the Complainte’s fanciful description of the young poet’s funeral in Paris, eight famous, creative men officiated, four poets and four composers. The singing of the musicians surpassed the melodies of the angels, not only by its exquisite notes, grace and solace, but most of all by its mournfully sounding of genuine lament (the author’s wish for real feelings in the professional music for the funeral service is quite remarkable):

Pour ce corps bel office y a
Et fut moult bien recommandé.
De Lorriz y officia,
Yvry, Munier et Mercadé,
Okeghem, Du Faÿ, Fedé,
Et Binchois y transmit musique,
Desquelz le chant a trescendé
Toute melodie angelique,

Non pas en nottes chansonnans,
Balans ne de revoisement,
Mais pyteusement resonnans
Comme lamentans proprement.”
Ainsi la messe entierement
Ces seigneurs ont voulu parfaire,
La tres plus solennellement
Qu’il seroit possible de faire.
(A. Piaget 1893, p. 233)

How Fede could qualify for inclusion in the company of Du Fay, Binchois and Ockeghem, is difficult to know. The obvious answer is that the rime structure simply required his name at the end of the line – I cannot recall any other composer of the age ending with the syllable “-dé”. In any case it shows that Fede was well known in Paris during the 1460s, and it is thinkable that his renown as a singer and improviser surpassed his status and presence as a composer in the sources.

His appearance in Greban’s Complaint surely meant that Fede’s name would be incorporated in future lists of famous musicians. Guillaume Crétin evidently used Greban’s poem as a model for his well-known Deploration sur la trepas de Jean Ockeghem from 1497 – in the text he calls for Greban’s partaking in the lamenting. Here Fede again is listed with Du Fay and Binchois – with Busnoys taking the place of the more recently deceased Ockeghem:

...
Et sur ce poinct les chantres commencèrent.

Là du Fay, le bon homme survint,
Bunoys aussi, et aultres plus de vingt,
Fede, Binchois, Barbingant ...
(Cretin 1864, p. 43)

The same may be the case with Eloy d'Amerval's Le Livre de la Deablerie (1508) where the list has become much expanded – Fede appears as in the earlier instances along with Du Fay and Binchois. However, Eloy’s inclusion of Fede may also be based on a personal relationship as they worked in the same circles in the Loire Valley during the 1460s and 70s (Higgins 2009):

Comme Dompstable et Du Fay
...
Et plusieurs aultres gens de bien:
Robinet de la Magdalaine
Binchoiz, Fede, Jorges et Hayne ...
(Higgins 2009, p. 179)

Franchinus Gaffurius made a very precise reference to one of Fede’s antiphons in his Tractatus practicabilium proportionum, (Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS A69 of c 1482): “et Joannes Fede in motetto O lumen ecclesie pro S. Dominico” (f. 19; facsimile in Wegman 1991, p. 44; facsimile of the MS). Gaffurius criticised Fede for his incorrect use of major prolation, but prolation signs do not appear in the setting’s only source, which must be regarded as quite authoritative. In spite of his precise reference, Gaffurius’ memory of the piece may have betrayed him as it apparently did in similar cases (cf. Wegman 1991, p. 55; D’Agostini 2005, p. 39).

The preserved works of Fede consist of two antiphons for St Dominic and three ruined chansons in the Nivelle chansonnier (erased or partly disappeared). We can safely disregard the ascription to Fede of the rondeau »L'omme banny« in the MS Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Ms. Magl. xix.176; more trustworthy sources assure that it was composed by Barbingant (see further the edition).

Sacred music

The choirbook in Modena, Biblioteca estense universitaria, MS alpha.x.1.11 (ModenaB), was made for the chapel of Leonello d’Este in Ferrara during the 1440s (facsimile as a PDF) - or the book was made in Florence and then brought to Ferrara in 1448 (Haar & Nádas 2008). Among sacred pieces by Du Fay and Binchois we find an opening dedicated to the two antiphons by “Fede”, ff. 51v-52. They were probably later added to the book as a result of his employment as a singer in the Ferrarese court chapel 1445-46 (Lockwood 1984, p. 55):

»O lumen ecclesie« 3v, ModenaB ff. 51v-52: Fede, “Antiphona di sancto Dominico” PDF (1)

Text: O lumen Ecclesie, doctor veritatis, rosa pacientie, ebur castitatis. Aquam sapientie propinasti gratis, praedicator gratie, nos junge beatis. Alleluya.
[Versus:] Ora pro nobis beate pater Dominice.

»Magne pater sancte Dominice« 3v, ModenaB f. 52: Fede, “alia antiphona di sancto Dominico”. PDF
Tenor: “A faulx bourdon”.

Text: Magne pater sancte Dominice, mortis hora tecum suscipe, et hic semper nos pie respice. Alleluia.

Both settings paraphrase the chant antiphons transposed up an octave in the upper voice. These chants can, for example, be found in the Parisian 14th century Dominican antiphonal, the so-called “Poissy Antiphonal” (Melbourne, State Library of Victoria, MS *096.1 R66A), ff. 298-298v (facsimile of the MS). Here they are used as Magnificat antiphons in the 2nd Vespers for the feast and octave of St Dominic. “O lumen ecclesie” in the Poissy Antiphonal does not include the final “Alleluya” and the reference to the following verse and respons “Ora pro nobis ...”, which we find in Fede’s setting. With the “Alleluya” and verse included the song is found in the modern Dominican Antiphonarium Sacri Ordinis Prædicatorum Pro Diurnis Horis, Rome 1933, pp. 134-135, in exactly the same melodic shape, but here used as an antiphon for the procession after the Salve Regina at the end of Compline every day, a practice going back to the 14th century. This more general use may have made Fede’s setting a more attractive item to include in the choir-book.

»O lumen ecclesie« is a varied setting in motet-style of the paraphrased chant, which is placed in the high upper voice (c’-f”). It is supplemented by a tenor an octave lower and a wide-range contratenor (c-a’) moving mostly above the tenor. The variegated flow involves the pacing of the music ranging from the broad opening to fast-moving melismas (from longae to semiminimae), the use of duets as well between superius and tenor (bb. 40-58) as between superius and contratenor (bb. 71-84), and the change to triple time in the last-mentioned duet. Imitation appears in the superius-contratenor duet (bb. 71-77) and in the following three-part section between tenor and superius (86-94). In all compositional aspects the setting seems completely up-to-date for the 1440s.

The other St Dominic-antiphon, »Magne pater sancte Dominice« (“alia antiphona”) may appear as a slight work in comparison. It is a setting in straight parallel sixths (except at cadences) between the tenor and the paraphrased chant in the superius with the canon “A faulx bourdon” written in the tenor. It is a very effective liturgical setting and a contrast to the artful “O lumen”.

Secular songs

The three songs attributed to Fede are all found in the Nivelle chansonnier (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Rés. Vmc. ms. 57) of the 1470s, a rondeau and two bergerettes, all originally for three voices:

»Tout a sa dame« 3v, Nivelle ff. 48v-49 (no. 38)

»A la longue j’ay bien cognu«, Nivelle ff. 49v-51 (no. 39)

»Mon cueur et moy avons cence«, Nivelle f. 72v (no. 59)

All three songs have suffered heavily from the interventions of later users of the chansonnier. Of “Mon cueur et moy” only the upper voice for the first section of the bergerette remains after the loss of the following fascicle, which contained on its front page the lower voices of the song's first section and on the first opening the couplet section. Too little remain for us to get an impression of the song.

The two other songs have more or less been erased or rubbed out while leaving the illuminated initials and voice designations intact. Of “Tout a sa dame” the tenor and the contratenor were unharmed, but both openings containing “A la longue j’ay bien cognu” were erased. However, faint traces are still visible on the pages, and the ultraviolet photographs published in the facsimile edition by Paula Higgins (Minkoff, Geneva 1984) have made it possible to reconstruct the songs with some confidence.

Trying to explain the erasures David Fallows finds it “... hard to avoid concluding that the composer had in some way disgraced himself in the eyes of the book's original owner” (Fallows:Fede). This is hardly the case. As Debra Nagy has shown based on an analysis of the corrections and erasures in the Nivelle chansonnier, the two songs by Fede were erased along with other more widely circulated songs in order to make room for new songs, a plan which never came to fruition (Nagy 2009, pp. 20-21). But a doubt still lingers. Namely that “A la longue” was erased because “... contrapuntal errors marked it as flawed, and therefore removable” (Ibid.). She describes it as containing a “... variety of compositional errors including accented dissonances, a second inversion sonority and poorly masked parallel octaves” (Nagy 2009, p. 19).

We can now take the rehabilitation of Fede as composer a step further. As shown in the editions, the critical remarks concerning Fede’s compositional ability rest on errors in the transcription of the music. The two songs probably were copied without any such errors; they complied with the French style of the 1450s and early 1460s, and showed a quite original and independent musical thinking. They set poems slightly outside the beaten track for chansons, possibly mirroring the composer’s service at the poetry-infatuated court of Charles d’Orléans. The rondeau uses four syllables only for each line of verse, and the bergerette includes a short line inserted in the middle of a four-line refrain. The two songs probably belonged together as a pair of opposites – just as they appear in Nivelle: The rondeau declares the lover’s absolute loyalty towards the beloved, while the disillusioned lover in the bergerette does not wish to keep the relationship secret anymore. The first setting is very compact and in the bergerette the composer underscores the contrasting couplets by using an ‘improvised’ fauxbourdon-voice below the upper voice instead of the contratenor. We may think that this was an obvious idea, but it seems to be unique in the secular repertory, an exceptional cross-over between sacred and secular musical practices.

Likewise there cannot be any doubt that the Ferrarese sacred works from the 1440s and the later chansons were composed by the same person, the musician named “Fede” in the sources. Jane Alden supposes that they were created by two different musicians: “... the style of these works bears little resemblance to the songs ascribed to “Fede” in Niv.” (Alden 2010, p. 118). This does not hold up for closer scrutiny. The sacred and secular works are similar in technique and style according to the period and genre as one can check up on in the linked editions here. This similarity is of course now reinforced by the realization that Fede did transfer the fauxbourdon-technique from the sacred to the secular sphere. But our “Fede” most probably was not the royal secretary of 1461-1464 or the contratenor singer at S Pietro in Rome in 1466 (Alden 2010, pp. 118-119).

Additions to the bibliography in Fallows:Fede

Guillaume Cretin, Déploration sur le trépas de Jean Okeghem ... remise au jour, précédée d'une introduction biographique et critique, et annotée par Er. Thoinan, Paris 1864

Arthur Piaget, ‘Simon Greban et Jacques Millet’, Romania 22 (1893), pp. 230–243

Rob C. Wegman, ‘Guillaume Faugues and the Anonymous Masses “Au chant de l'alouete” and “Vinnus vina”’, Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis (1991), pp. 27-64

Gianluca D'Agostino, ‘Reading theorists for recovering “ghost” repertories. Tinctoris, Gaffurio and the Napolitan context’, Studi Musicali 34 (2005), pp. 25-50

James Haar and John Nádas, ‘The Medici, the Signoria, the pope: sacred polyphony in Florence, 1432-1448’, Recercare 20 (2008), pp. 25-93

Debra Nagy, ‘Scratched-out Notes, Erased Pieces, and other Lacunae in the Chansonnier Nivelle de la Chaussée’, Notes 2009, pp. 7-35

Paula Higgins, ‘Speaking of the Devil and Discipuli: Eloy d’Amerval, Saint-Martin of Tours, and Music in the Loire Valley, ca. 1465-1505’ in M. Jennifer Bloxam, Gioia Filocamo, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (eds.), Uno gentile et subtile ingenio. Studies in Renaissance Music in Honour of Bonnie J. Blackburn. CESR Tours 2009, pp. 169-182

Jane Alden, Songs, Scribes, and Society. The History and Reception of the Loire Valley Chansonniers. New York 2010, pp. 117-119

Andrew Kirkman, ‘Johannes Sohier dit Fede and St Omer: A Story of Pragmatic Sanctions’ in Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel (eds.), Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: “Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne”, Woodbridge (The Boydell Press) 2011, pp. 68-79

Jane Alden & David Fiala, ‘Dialogus de Johanne Sohier alias Fede’ in Anna Zayaruznaya, Bonnie J. Blackburn, Stanley Boorman (eds.), Qui musicam in se habet. Studies in Honor of Alejandro Enricque Planchart, American Institute of Musicology (A-R Editions) 2015, pp. 257-284

PWCH July 2013, revised February 2016


1) The anonymous “O lumen ecclesie” 3v found in Prague, Památník Národního Písemnictví, Strahovská Knihovna, MS D.G.IV.47, ff. 202v-203 (no. 143; cf. facsimile), which DIAMM has recorded as a source for Fede’s composition, is a completely different setting.