The Newberry Consort’s performance of “The Feast of the Oath of the Pheasant”

Genealogical roll of the Kings of England & France & the Dukes of Burgundy, 1465, Newberry Vault oversize Case MS 166
Genealogical roll of the Kings of England & France & the Dukes of Burgundy, 1465, Newberry Vault oversize Case MS 166

The Consort will perform the program from the banquet, with music by Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois and others, with a projected backdrop of illustrations and supertitle translations.

For ticket information, see the Newberry Consort website. Student tickets will be available at the door for $5 (cash only), with valid student ID.

Excerpts from program notes by David Douglass:

What a day it must have been, a day now just shy of 560 years ago! Philip, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Limburg, Artois, Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland, Friesland, and Namur, threw a lavish party to promote a religious war against the Turks in Constantinople. Eighteen days of preparatory celebration, games, and feasting culminated in a banquet with entertainments on February 17, 1454. The event was designed to shock and awe, to take his guests’ breath away and move their passions toward righteous anger.

Fortunately for us, one courtier who took part in the planning and presentation of the festivities, Olivier de la Marche, included a full description of the day’s events in his Memoires. One might suppose, especially considering the outlandishness of the entertainments that Olivier describes, that his memoirs are more fiction than fact, but the Feast was also documented by Philip’s court chronicler Mathieu d’Escouchy, and while de la Marche’s account fills out much more detail, the essential facts of the occasion are corroborated by d’Escouchy. Historians today are confident that de la Marche’s accounts are accurate, if a bit colored by the emotions of the experience.

Taken at face value, the Feast of 1454 is a terrific source for a satisfying modern concert program. That is, after all, what it was designed to be, entertaining and amazing. But the program has an added dimension when one considers the perspective of its own political time. Philip was a cagey and manipulative ruler, so cagey that his actions look simultaneously like the policies of a ruler worthy of being called le Bon, the good, while also conveniently advancing his fortunes and power.

If it seems at first glance that Philip’s motives and intent were unimpeachable, what evidence is there for us to suspect otherwise? Several clues exist. First, Philip’s era was thoroughly imbued with political intrigue, and the top levels of society were especially rife with such machinations. It was pretty rare for anything to have only one meaning or purpose. As it happened, a revolt and a minor war in Philip’s duchy had taken place the previous year over a newly imposed tax on salt. The fall of Constantinople came at the perfect moment to distract his subjects from the tax and unite them in the noble cause to restore that city to the Christians.

Second, in both accounts of the Feast of the Pheasant the primary focus is on documenting who attended. While knowing who the guests were is important, it seems trivial compared to the fact that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who witnessed it. When you hear the description of the feast you may wonder, like I have, why more paintings or tapestries weren’t created to commemorate the event. Only one painting depicting the Feast exists, and it shows some of the important nobles who attended, with only a modest side table to indicate that there was a feast at all.

The third and most telling reason that there might have been other ends to Philip’s push for a crusade than to regain the city of Constantinople for the Christian church, is that the crusade never took place. One would think that after all the expense, effort, and stirring rhetoric those involved would have been compelled to make good on their vows. It appears possible that the primary objective was more subtle than waging an all-out war: to present Philip as a Very Important Person, Duke, and member of the royal Valois household, and to secure and expand his duchy.

Another benefit arose from Philip’s practice of staging sumptuous parties and his establishment of Burgundy as a cultural center. Things Burgundian became all the rage, and fashion and art from the realm became exports that brought in revenue and raised Philip’s court to international importance.

The composers of Burgundian music from the time of the Feast of the Pheasant are well documented. Most of the music we are performing is by Guillaume Dufay, the most important composer of the period, let alone of Burgundy. Dufay traveled the known world, but he always kept his connection to Burgundy. His motet, Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae was written while he was in Rome, but his intent was clear: to support the Duke in his initiative.

Olivier’s account in his Memoires mentions two additional works by Dufay, Je ne voy onques la pareille (I Have Never Seen the Equal) and a motet, Alma redemptoris mater (Loving Mother of the Redeemer), but in all the descriptions of the music performed that day, those are the only specifics. I have therefore included other works of Dufay and his contemporaries Binchois, Morton, Busnois, and the ever-popular Anonymous. In Dufay’s time, the secular, the sacred, and the mythological were experienced side by side, as evidenced by the Feast, or even simultaneously, in liturgical settings of popular songs. I have included Morton’s L’homme armé, a song glorifying the “man of war,” as well as the Kyrie from Dufay’s Missa L’Homme armé, a setting of the Catholic mass based on Morton’s song.

I imagine that this program will remain in the Newberry Consort’s repertory for a long time, especially if we can ever figure out how to get our musicians into a pastry and hire a backward-walking horse… . For now, here is a taste, a glimpse into an amazing era, a chance to experience the music of groundbreaking composers, and a peek at one of the most bizarre and wonderful events of any time and place, Philip the Good’s “Feast of the Oath of the Pheasant.”

Performances:

  • Friday, February 7, Ruggles Hall, The Newberry Library, 8 pm/pre-concert lecture at 7 pm
  • Saturday, February 8, Lutkin Hall, Northwestern University, 8 pm/pre-concert lecture at 7 pm
  • Sunday, February 9, Bond Chapel, University of Chicago, 3 pm/pre-concert lecture at 2 pm

Featuring:

  • David Douglass, vielle and rebec
  • Ellen Hargis, soprano
  • Shira Kammen, vielle and harp
  • Rachel Barton Pine, rebec
  • Mark Rimple, lute, psaltery, and citole
  • Tom Zajac, winds, bagpipe, and percussion

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