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Antoine Busnois

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Aliases: Busnoys, Antoine; Busnoys, Antonius


Born: 1430

Died: 06 November 1492

French composer, singer and poet. He was the most prolific French composer of songs between Guillaume Du Fay and Claudin de Sermisy, and was widely acknowledged, along with Johannes Ockeghem, among the most outstanding composers of the second half of the 15th century.

The place and date of Busnoys' birth are unknown. In all likelihood he hailed from the tiny village of Busnes near Béthune (Pas-de-Calais) in the province of Artois. Nothing is known of his early musical training, though he surely attended an ecclesiastical choir school, as did most late-medieval singers, probably in northern or central France.

Literary, musical and other circumstantial evidence points to Busnoys' activity in aristocratic circles surrounding the French royal court in the Loire valley by the 1450s, if not earlier. The earliest known biographical document places him squarely in Tours, where he was a chaplain in Tours Cathedral.

By 1465 Busnoys had moved from Tours Cathedral to the collegiate church of St Martin, where Ockeghem held the dignity of treasurer; this would have facilitated even more direct musical contact between the two composers than had probably already existed. In September 1465 he proposed himself for the position "master of the choirboys" at the allied church of St Hilaire le Grand, Poitiers, position he occupied for one year.

Busnoys seems to have written nearly two-thirds of his chansons by 1466 (see Fallows in Higgins, 1992) – that is, by the time he left Poitiers. Much of the surviving sacred music, too, must have been composed before 1467. The four-voice setting of the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes, with its unusually high ranges, unique in his oeuvre, may have been written with the choirboys of Tours or Poitiers in mind; likewise the two settings of Regina caeli, the second of which has been described as ‘one of the loveliest stretches of music ever written’.

Not long after Busnoys left Poitiers his name turns up in a document of 14 March 1467, as a chantre in the service of Charles, count of Charolais and heir to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. Within a few months of his arrival at the court Busnoys must have composed the motet In hydraulis, whose text pays homage to Ockeghem as ‘a new Orpheus’ and designates Busnoys himself ‘the unworthy musician of the count of Charolais’ (the count became duke of Burgundy on 15 June 1467).

Along with the other singers of the Burgundian chapel, Busnoys accompanied Charles to all his major military confrontations before 1476: Liège and Péronne in 1467–8, Péronne, Beauvais and the conquest of the Somme towns in 1472–3, and the siege of Neuss, which lasted nearly a year during 1474–5. On 7 December 1476, at the outset of Charles's disastrous siege of Nancy, most of his chaplains were in Ghent serving his wife, Margaret of York. The duke died in that battle, on 5 January 1477. The appearance of Busnoys' name on the wardrobe accounts for Charles the Bold’s funeral marks the end of his association with the mercurial warrior-prince, who balanced an obsession with military conquest with a passionate interest in music and musicians. Busnoys remained in the service of Charles's daughter and heir, Mary of Burgundy, and on her marriage in 1478 transferred to the chapel of her consort Maximilian of Austria. The last appearance of Busnoys' name in the records of the Habsburg-Burgundian court is on 17 April 1483. Nothing more is known of him until his death was reported almost a decade later.

The most important claim made about Busnoys by 15th- and 16th-century theorist’s is Pietro Aaron's statement in his Thoscanello (1523): ‘It is believed that the tune (canto) called L'homme armé was invented by Busnoys, and that he took the tenor and, because it was short, transferred the beat from the semibreve to the minim in order to have a wider field’. It is uncertain whether Aaron meant that Busnoys had reworked the rhythm of an existing composed or popular chanson, or that he had newly composed it himself, either as a monophonic or polyphonic chanson or as the tenor of his mass. Giovan Tomaso Cimello (c1540) stated that Ockeghem had written the original song; in 1613 Pietro Cerone repeated the claim that Busnoys had composed the tune, but added that Ockeghem had been the first to write a mass on it. Busnoys' Missa ‘L'homme armé’ may or may not have been the original mass in the series of ultimately more than 40 composed on this tune, but in any case it was one of the first, probably written about 1460, and plainly the most influential of the first generation of L'homme armé masses.

View the Wikipedia article on Antoine Busnois.

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