Tourout Portrait of an Imperial Cantor Passacaille

Johannes Tourout
Portrait of an Imperial Cantor
Cappella Mariana/Vojtěch Semerád
rec. 2021, St Lawrence Church, Prague, Czech Republic
Texts and translations included
Passacaille 1124 [75]

There are many recordings of renaissance polyphony in the catalogue, but there are still composers who are badly represented on disc or whose music may never have been recorded. The latter seems to be the case with Johannes Tourout, whose oeuvre is the subject of the disc under review. He has an entry in New Grove, but then under the name of Thouront, with four alternatives: Thauranth, Toront, Thourot, Tonrroutt. There are even more variants than mentioned; the booklet adds some. This factor is one of the explanations for the problems of modern scholars to attribute music to him. The present disc aims at presenting a musical portrait of Tourout, but that is not without problems either, as we shall see.

As his Christian name suggests, Tourout was from Flanders. It is not known when he was born. His birthplace is also unknown, but may have been Torhout in West Flanders. There is only one document which includes some biographical information. In the early 2000s, “the musicologists Pawel Gancarczyk and Martin Staehelin identified a document dated 3 July 1460 which notified that one Johannes Tourout, cantor of the cappella of Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg, had been granted a prebend at the Church of Our Lady of Antwerp.” (booklet) As his name does not appear in the imperial archives from 1466 onwards, we have to assume that he either had died or had moved to a position elsewhere.

A relatively small number of works have been preserved; most of them are part of archives from Central Europe, such as the Codex Speciálník. His oeuvre includes both sacred and secular works. The present disc offers specimens of both genres.

Like so many masses from the renaissance period, Tourout’s four-part Missa Mon oeil is based on a chanson. The latter’s composer is not known; what is more, the chanson itself has not survived. The musicologist Jaap van Benthem, whose editions and reconstructions were the basis for this project, has reconstructed the chanson from the mass, and this allows for a performance of what may have been the chanson that Tourout used. It is for three voices, as was common at the time, as the other works in the programme confirm, since all of them – except the mass – are in three parts.

As was very common at the time, the Magnificat is an alternatim composition: the odd verses are performed in plainchant. Two versions have come down to us without the name of the composer. They include substantial differences. Jaap van Benthem attributed it to Tourout and was responsible for the reconstruction. In two sections the number of voices is reduced to two. Such reductions are a feature of the sacred music by composers of the Franco-Flemish school.

Three of the four motets are about Mary, a token of the importance of the veneration of Mary at the time across Europe. One of them is O gloriosa regina mundi: “O glorious queen of the world, help us, your kindness.” It must have been a popular piece as it has been preserved in more than ten manuscripts; only in one of them Tourout is mentioned as the composer. It is performed here in the original version and also in an instrumental version. Performing vocal music instrumentally was a common practice at the time; the Buxheimer Orgelbuch also includes a intabulation of this piece. O generosa nata David seems to be connected to the Christmas period, with a clear reference to the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “O noble offspring of David, as foretold the Blessed Spirit verily breathed into Thee the impressive Holy Word”.

In addition to the reconstruction of the anonymous chanson mentioned above, the programme includes three chansons by Tourout – that is to say: chansons which are attributed to him. The work-list in New Grove mentions a motet with the title O preclare Jesu care in one source and the text Ave virgo gloriosa in another. Jaap van Benthem believes that these are not the texts that Tourout has set, and are examples of the wide-spread contrafactum practice: the original text is replaced by a different one. In this case, Tourout’s work may have been a chanson; it is performed as such here on the text Mais que ce fut secretement. The two other chansons also have not been preserved as such; the work-list in New Grove includes a few textless pieces which have the characteristics of secular works, and that has motivated the performers to record them with appropriate texts.

A disc like this shows how difficult it is to bring to life the oeuvre of a composer about whom so little is known and whose oeuvre raises so many questions. Reconstructions are necessary, but have to be hypothetical. The best one may hope for is something one may call ‘educated guesswork’. It allows for a portrait of a composer whose music certainly deserves to receive more interest. The programme as recorded by the Cappella Mariana is an impressive testimony of Tourout’s art. He has been served very well by the ensemble. The singing and playing is of the highest order. The Cappella Mariana has developed into one of the main interpreters of renaissance polyphony, and it is nice that it pays much attention to music that has been preserved in sources in Central Europe.

A few issues need to be mentioned. In some pieces the balance could have been better; Hana Blazíková tends to be a little to dominant now and then. Whereas the mixture of voices and instruments seems to be justified in the secular pieces, the two-part sections in the mass are performed with one voice and one instrument. As the instruments are not used in the other sections, I have doubts whether this practice is historically justified.

However, these are minor issues. The main thing is that we get here outstanding performances of music by an unjustly neglected master. This disc is a substantial addition to the catalogue of renaissance music. A recording of other music by Tourout would be most welcome.

Johan van Veen

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Adieu m’amour, adieu ma joye
O generosa nata David
O gloriosa regina mundi
Mais que ce fut secretement
O castitatis lilium
O florens rosa
Fors seulement
O gloriosa regina mundi in varia prolationes species
Magnificat 4. toni
Mon oeil lamente
Missa Mon oeil