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Comme femme desconfortee 3v · Binchois, Gilles

Appearance in the group of related chansonniers:

*Dijon ff. 41v-42 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v PDF · Facsimile

*Laborde f. 18 »Comme femme desconfortee« 2v [3v] (Only T and C) · Facsimile

*Leuven ff. 25v-27 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v (new contratenor A) · PDF

*Wolfenbüttel ff. 31v-32 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v PDF · Facsimile

Other sources:

Escorial IV.a.24 ff. 131v-132 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v
Florence 176 ff. 123v-125 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v
*Munich 9659 f. 3v »Comme femme desconfortee« 2v [3v] (S and part of T only)  PDF · Facsimile
New Haven 91 ff. 32v-33 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v Binchoys · Facsimile
Paris 2973 ff. 38v-40 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v (revised contratenor B) · Facsimile
Paris 4379 ff. 13v-14 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v
Rome XIII.27 ff. 88v-89 »Comme femme« 3v · Facsimile
Uppsala 76a ff. 19v-20 »Comme femme desconfortee« 3v

Citations and use in other compositions, see Fallows 1999 pp. 116-117.

Edition: Gutiérrez-Denhoff 1988 no. 24 (Wolfenbüttel).

Text: Rondeau sixain; full text in Dijon, Leuven and Wolfenbüttel, also in Paris 4379 and Paris 2973; also found in Berlin 78.B.17, ed.: Löpelmann 1923 p. 202, and Jardin 1501 f. 93.

After Wolfenbüttel:

Comme femme desconfortee
sur toutes aultres esgaree,
qui n’ay jour de ma vie espoir
d’en estre en mon temps consolee, (1)
maiz en mon mal plus agravee
desire la mort main et soir.

Je l’ay tant de foys regretee (2)
puisque ma joye m’est ostee; (3)
doy je donc ainsi remanoir (4)

comme femme desconfortee
sur toutes aultres esgaree,
qui n’ay jour de ma vie espoir.

Bien doy mauldire la journee
que ma mere fist la portee
de moy pour tel mal recevoir, (5)
car toute douleur assemblee
est en moy, femme malheuree,
dont j’ay bien cause de douloir

comme femme desconfortee
sur toutes aultres esgaree,
qui n’ay jour de ma vie espoir
d’en estre en mon temps consolee,
maiz en mon mal plus agravee
desire la mort main et soir.

As a woman discomforted,
more than all others distraught,
I have not on any day of my life hope
of being consoled at any time,
but evermore oppressed by my misfortune
I desire death morning and night.

I have yearned for it many times
since it took my joy away from me;
must I then remain here

as a woman discomforted,
more than all others distraught,
I have not on any day of my life hope.

Well may I curse the day
when my mother bore me
to receive so much grief,
for all pain is gathered
in me, unfortunate woman,
whence I have real cause to grieve

as a woman discomforted,
more than all others distraught,
I have not on any day of my life hope
of being consoled at any time,
but evermore oppressed by my misfortune
I desire death morning and night.

1) Dijon, line 4 “…en nul temps …”
2) Leuven, line 7, a syllable is missing “... regrette”
3) Leuven, line 8 is corrupt, “puis qu’elle ma ma joye oustee”
4) Dijon, line 9, “doi je donc ycy remandoir”; Leuven, “doisge donc ycy remanoir”
5) Dijon and Leuven, line 15, “… tel deul recepvoir”
In addition some minor differences in spelling.

Evaluation of the sources:

The song is present in four of the ‘Loire Valley’ chansonniers, in three different versions. In Wolfenbüttel and Laborde (of which only the tenor and contra remain in the MS) it was copied from related exemplars, which exhibit some differences in notation of the lower voices (see the edition). The exemplar used for Dijon belonged to a tradition slightly different from the one used by the Wolfenbüttel scribe as indicated by the variants in the poetic text (see above), and the Leuven version is independent of the others having been reworked with a different low contratenor.

The differences in the music between Dijon and Wolfenbüttel/Laborde mostly concern coloration (S bb. 12.1, 14.3, 19.1, and 29.1-2; T bb. 8.1 and 25.3) and melodic details in the contra (bb. 12.2-3 and 27.1-2), which link the Dijon version with the versions found in the MSS Escorial IV.a.24, New Haven 91 and Paris 4379. The three-part progression in bar 30 seems to be unique to Dijon and may be a result of the Dijon scribe’s activity as editor of the music. The error in the Tenor bar 30.1-2 where some notes are notated a fifth lower than intended, is interesting. It might have been his intention here to create a parallel to bars 12.1 and 26.1 with all three voices in a smooth parallel sixth chord progression and sixths between superius and tenor. If he was revising the piece with an exemplar in fa-clefs he may have become confused.

In the Leuven chansonnier it is notated in a sort of ‘reduced’ fa-clefs. That is, without any letter-clefs (G-, C- or F-clefs) and only a single flat in each voice (two an octave apart in the contratenor) to show the relationship between the voices. They can be understood only if letter-clefs are imagined: In superius a C1, in the tenor a C4, and in the contratenor a F4 – all with a key signature of one flat. The Leuven scribe used exactly the same procedure when he entered another old song in fa-clef notation, namely Barbingant’s »L'omme banny de sa plaisance« on ff. 11v-13. The poem in Leuven is quite similar to the Dijon version. However, the second line of the first couplet (line 8) is corrupt and confused as the gender of the speaker here changes into a conventional male expression. The upper voices are close to the oldest version preserved the MSS Munich 9659 and Escorial IV.a.24 (see below). The one flat key signature works out quite well with the low contratenor (range F-a), which reorients the harmonic stance of the setting.   

As the list of sources above shows, »Comme femme desconfortee« was very popular during a long period of time, from c. 1460 and until at least after 1500 (cf. Uppsala 76a) and it supplied materials for arrangements and to motets and masses. But the composer is only specified in one source, namely New Haven 91, the Mellon Chansonnier, copied more than a decade after the death of Binchois. In the majority of sources this song in a female voice is notated conventionally and in a normal tessitura with an upper voice in the range b-c’’ – as in Dijon and Wolfenbüttel. Quite a lot of musical variants show up in the sources, especially in the contra, and this voice has been partly recomposed in the chansonnier Cordiforme (Paris 2973) within its original range, while Leuven offers a different low contratenor. All this ndicates that the song may be much older than its earliest sources. (1)

It is moreover probable that the song originally was conceived in fa-clefs. In two sources it appears entirely in fa-clefs. It is found among the latest additions, from the 1460s, to the Italian chansonnier Escorial IV.a.24, ff. 131v-132, and two of its voices are found in the fragments of a contemporary Burgundian chansonnier, Munich 9659 (München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Mus.Ms. 9659), f. 3v. The Neapolitan copyist of Escorial IV.a.24 apparently was bewildered by the notation of his exemplar and placed the fa-clefs in wrong positions, which according to a default reading would produce a song in D-Dorian and create difficult problems for the harmony (see Example 1). Luckily the fragment of the song in Munich 9659 transmits enough, the whole superius and half of the tenor, for us to conclude that the two sources have basically the same version of the song. In Munich 9659 the fa-signs are placed correctly and show that all three voices had a clef of three signs, namely fa2, fa4 and fas5 (see Example 2).

Example 1:
Escorial IV.a.24, ff. 131v-132

Example 2:
Munich 9659, f. 3v

A default reading of the fa-clefs of the combined sources (superius and tenor from Munich and contratenor from Escorial) according to its formation of interlocking fifths, (see further ‘On chansons notated in fa-clefs’, Figure 1) produces a sound picture with a flat less in the upper voice than in the lower voices. If we imagine a C4 and two F4 letter clefs. A very low pitch, F-f’, is the result, hardly fitting for a song in a female voice, but with the entirely conventional combination of key signatures of no flat in the upper voice and one flat in the lower voices (see the edition: default reading). It can of course also be read an octave higher, but this is less probable as it then will exceed the Guidonian gamut.

We can just as easily imagine another set of clefs a fifth higher, C2 and two times C4, and pitch and range then come into the same tessitura as in the fixed pitch sources, namely from c to c’’ (see the edition: high clefs reading). However, in this reading the notes revealed as fa by the flat signs are c’’, g’ and c’ in the upper voice and f’, c’ and f in the lower voices, and the upper voice thus has to operate with a fictive hexachord on d’ comprising the semitone step mi-fa on f#’- g’. A key signature of one sharp was close to unthinkable in 15th century polyphony, and it is not found in any of the main sources of French chansons. (2) But using fa-clefs you can perform the song at any pitch, even sing within the usual tessitura with a one-sharp key signature without writing it. The performance of “Comme femme” according to these rules brings about in a natural way the F-sharps otherwise demanded by the counterpoint in bar 4 and other places, and we hear a tonal shading characteristic of Binchois with a first section centred on G, while in the second section one has to sing naturals and firmly anchor the music on C. It is probable that the Burgundian source Munich 9569 preserves Binchois’ original notation including the tonal shadings, which were lost when the popular song was transformed into fixed pitch notation.

This theory can be supported by two songs in sources from the 1430s, »Tous desplaisirs n’en sont prochains« and »Mon seul et souverain desir« of which the latter is firmly ascribed to Binchois in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Misc. 213, f. 71v, and the former can with a very high probability be ascribed to Binchois. Both songs show exactly the same two-octave range and the same system of fa-clefs as ‘Comme femme’, and the same reading procedure again results in a high clef alternative with a one sharp signature, which in both cases becomes inflected by an accidental flat after a few bars (cf. ‘On chansons’ and the editions of the songs).

The late appearance of “Comme femme” in the sources has put a question mark on the ascription in the Mellon Chansonnier, but David Fallows argues convincingly for keeping it within the Binchois canon. (3) That “Comme femme” and “Tous desplaisirs” use identical systems of notation is an additional argument, which Dennis Slavin mentions as a “technical procedure otherwise unique to Binchois”. (4) And one can add that its perceived ‘late style’ fade away when the text’s poetic structure and high literary quality is taken in account and it is heard in the notation of Munich 9659 and Escorial IV.a.24. Then it becomes evident that a song not much younger than the two songs from the 1430s was slightly modified when it was transformed into the fixed pitch notation of the late chansonniers. I think that we can safely assume that Binchois composed all three chansons, and that he probably also invented the special notation with two flats a fifth apart in every voice, which permitted him to make songs with a sharp in the upper voice without putting it down in notation.

The ‘new’, recently discovered source for this song, the Leuven chansonnier, confirms the theory that the song originally was conceived in fa-clefnotation, and that the notation caused problems for the copyists in the 1470s when they did not any longer really understand its implications. Just replacing the fa-clefs with letter-clefs was one solution, but something was lost. The solution adhered to by the Leuven scribe, to retain a similarity with the original notation by keeping one or two flats in easy recognisable positions, caused difficulties that forced the invention of a more modern contratenor.

Comments on text and music:

The literary value of this song in the voice of a woman is high and its form, a rondeau sixain, is rather unusual for the repertory. David Fallows has compared it to the poems of Christine de Pizan (1365-1430) “… the most heart-breaking of all his [Binchois’] works … expressing the utter stillness of despair in its wonderful last line – ‘desire la mort main et soir’.” (5) Its picture of a desolated woman was used as a symbol of the Virgin Mary by using its tenor as foundation for motets; the most famous example is the »Stabat mater dolorosa« by Josquin Desprez.

The greater scope of the refrain in the six-line rondeau permits the author to establish a distinctive coherence between the sections of the poem and an intensity of feeling, which is matched by the music. The recurrent theme of “Comme femme desconfortee” is enhanced by the use of octave imitation between tenor and superius, while the remainder of the setting is mostly declamatory with a noticeable parallelism between lines 2 and 5, and lines 3 and 6. The second line is brought to a cadence on C (b. 10) in the then prevailing G tonality, while the cadence of the fifth line (b. 24) is Phrygian on E in the re-established C tonality. Lines 3 and 6 open with the same music (in line 6 a third lower), three syllables recited on the same note and a rising dotted figure in parallel sixths (bb. 11-12 and 25-26). Remarkable is also the close link between lines 3 and 4, where the drawn out ending in bars 19-20 sounds like an echo of the medial cadence bars 14-15.

The contratenor is a supporting voice in the same range as the tenor. Later scribes may have thought it rather old-fashioned and revised it. An interesting trait is that Dijon and Wolfenbüttel and other sources have a semibrevis at the end of bar 25, which allows them to sing the complete text of the last line “desire la mort main et soir / dont j’ay bien cause de douloir” in the tenor and contratenor – staggered in relation to the superius. In the original version of Escorial V.a.24 (and probably Munich 9659) and Leuven, Paris 2973, New Haven 91 and Paris 4379 the whole bar is filled out with perfect note values in the lower voices, and the text has to be reduced in performance; a possible solution is to let all voices sing “la mort / cause” together on the dotted figure (b. 26.1-2), a most impressive effect.

PWCH March 2010, revised May 2017

1) Cf. Thibault & Fallows 1991, no. 29; on the different ‘families’ of variants, see Atlas 1976, Vol. 1, pp. 183-185, Gutiérrez-Denhoff 1988, pp. 122-123, and Perkins 1979, Vol. II, pp. 292-297.

2) Cf. Dean 1996, p. 219

3) The points against Binchois’ authorship are summarized in Atlas 1976, Vol I, p. 183. Fallows’ arguments are lined up in Thibault & Fallows 1991, p. CXII.

4) Slavin 1989, pp. 121-122.

5) Fallows 2000, p. 205.