Guillaume Dufay (c1397-1474)
L’alta bellezza – Wind music from 15th-century Italian courts
Alta Bellezza
rec. 2018, St Mary’s Church, Stoke by Nayland, UK
ARCANA A122 [47]

Programmes of music from the Middle Ages consist largely of vocal music. If instrumental music is played, it is mostly dances and instrumental versions of vocal pieces. The latter are often of the performers’ own making, as very little instrumental music from the Middle Ages has come down to us. One of the most important sources of dances is the so-called ‘London Manuscript’, which is preserved in the British Library. It comprises fifteen dances, eight of them istampittas, and four saltarellos. These were the two main dance types of the time.

How were they played? That is impossible to say: the instrumentation was not indicated, and basically they can be played on any kind of instruments, depending on the venue where and the circumstances under which they were performed. Recordings show a wide variety of instrumentation. There can be little doubt, though, that they were played by ensembles of loud wind instruments, known as alta, derived from the French term alta musique, in contrast to basse musique, ‘soft music’, played by recorders and by various strung and plucked instruments.

The alta (capella) usually consisted of a few shawms and trumpet or sackbut; sometimes percussion could be added. Medieval paintings attest to their importance: often they depict angels playing such instruments, and this inspired the higher echelons of society to make such instruments part of their musical establishment. They played both indoors and outdoors, and apart from dances, they performed vocal pieces. Such performances may have been mostly improvised, which explains why so little instrumental music has been preserved in manuscripts.

The ensemble Alta Bellezza comprises three players. Ann Allen plays the alto shawm, Hanna Geisel soprano and alto shawms and the gaita (referring to a bagpipe). The third player is Nathaniel Wood, who plays slide trumpets and sackbuts. They have put together a programme of pieces which may have been played at Italian courts in the 15th century. It reflects the kind of repertoire played by an alta capella at the time. The dance repertoire is represented by three pieces taken from a collection of dances preserved in Brussels.

The two main composers who figure in the programme are Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. Dufay was a much sought-after composer and stayed at several places, such as Bologna, Rome and Savoy. The versatility of his oeuvre reflects the importance of music in every part of life, from the church to the privacy of the homes of the aristocracy. He wrote secular music in Italian and in French; the latter are also represented here, as French was the common language of the Italian aristocracy at the time. Among the best-known items included here are Vergene bella and Se la face ay pale. The inclusion of pieces by Binchois may raise questions, as he was never employed in Italy. However, his music was known, and Piero de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo, and ruler of Florence from 1464 to 1469, owned a manuscript which included twelve chansons by Binchois. I don’t know whether Jacques (or Jacob) Vide, another Franco-Flemish composer, was also known in Italy; he seems never to have been there, as he worked for most of his life in Burgundy.

The repertoire was probably mostly secular, but it seems likely that sacred music could also be performed on loud winds. An example is included here: an anonymous setting of the sequence Victimae paschali laudes.

Recordings of music played on loud wind instruments are not that common. The best-known ensemble of this kind is Les Haulz et Les Bas, which has made quite a number of recordings, and which I also have had the pleasure to hear during the Utrecht Early Music Festival. This disc is my first acquaintance with Alta Bellezza, and it is a most pleasant one. It is an excellent ensemble, which has recorded an interesting programme of some of the best music written in the early 15th century. The short playing time is a little disappointing. However, some music lovers may find the sound of these loud instruments a bit too much of a good thing. It is probably advisable not to listen to this disc at a stretch.

Johan van Veen

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Guillaume Dufay (c1397-1474)

Resveilles vous et faites chiere lye

Gilles Binchois (c1400-1460)

Armours merchi

Guillaume Dufay

Puisque vous estez campieur

Vergene bella

Je me complains pitieusement

Quel fronte signorile

He, compaignons, resvelons nous

Gilles Binchois

Triste plaisir


Basse danse Triste plaisir (arr Hanna Geisel)

Victimae paschali laudes

Jacques (Jacob) Vide (fl 1405-1433)

Las, j’ai perdu mon espintel

Guillaume Dufay

Se la face ay pale

L’alta bellezza tua virtute valore

Ce jour de l’an

Gilles Binchois

Dueil angoisseus


La Danse de Cleves (arr Nathaniel Wood)

Basse danse Avignon (arr Alta Bellezza)