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Johannes Ghiselin and ” L’Alfonsina”

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Johannes (Verbonnet) Ghiselin (fl. 1491–1507; his dates of birth and death are unknown) was a Flemish composer of the Renaissance, active in France, Italy, and in the Low Countries, who was a contemporary of Josquin des Prez, and a significant composer of masses, motets, and secular music.  Little is known about his early life, but it can be inferred that he was from the south Netherlands, from archival mentions of him as being “da Piccardia” and “fiamengo.”  It is possible that he was born around 1455 in Picardy, which was then controlled by France.  He may have been associated with the Burgundian chapel in the 1470s during the time of Charles the Bold, since he composed Je lay empris for him; however, no documentary record of his having been there has yet been found.

The first direct record of Ghiselin (also known by his alias Verbonnet) is in 1491, when he was at the court of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in Ferrara, Italy. Isabella d’Este sent him to France to get some singers for the Este chapel that same year, and he left Ferrara in 1492 at the latest. In 1492 and 1493 he was a singer at the baptistery of St. Giovanni in Florence, and it is possible that he went to France and/or the Low Countries immediately after that. Since he is listed in Jean Crétin’s poem (1497) on the death of Ockeghem along with other students of that famous composer, it has been inferred that he may have studied with Ockeghem, although if so, it is not known if this occurred before coming to Italy or during the mid-1490s.  By 1501, he seems to have become known as a singer to the King of France.

Ghiselin maintained a connection both with the French court and Ferrara for the next several years, occasionally serving as an emissary. After Josquin accepted the offer of employment as choirmaster by Duke Ercole I in Ferrara in 1503, Ghiselin was ordered to travel with him from Paris to Ferrara, arriving on April 12.   Ercole I died in 1505.  Ghiselin apparently remained in Ferrara until 1505, when both he and Josquin fled the outbreak of the plague there; Jacob Obrecht, who had recently joined the spectacular musical establishment at the Estense court, remained behind, and succumbed to the contagion in July 1505.

As with Josquin, Ghiselin was interested in solutions to the musical problems posed by the multiple-movement setting of the mass.  Ghiselin’s masses were well-known and respected, as is made clear by music printer Ottaviano Petrucci’s decision (1503) to publish an entire book of them, including La belle se siet, De les armes, Narayge, Gratieuse, and Je nay dueul, immediately after his similar publication of masses by Josquin, only the second such publication devoted to masses by a single composer in music history. Most of his masses are based on chansons, including works by Antoine Busnois, Alexander Agricola, Guillaume Dufay, Loyset Compère, and himself.

Ghiselin also wrote motets, chansons, secular songs in Dutch, as well as some instrumental music. His setting of “La Spagna” for four parts is probably one of the earliest settings of this famous bassadanza tune for multiple parts, although its date has not been determined.  Ghiselin evidently returned to the Low Countries after fleeing Ferrara, for he was in Bergen op Zoom in 1507, receiving a considerable stipend at the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Gilde. He probably died between then and 1511 in Flanders, Belgium, since the records for those years are missing, and when the records resume his name is absent, and there are no further records of his activity. Given the small number of his compositions dated after 1505, it is likely he died young.

Ghiselin was described in 1517 as one of the most famous composers of his time.  Especially in the works of his middle years, he was given to displays of technical skill, as seen in the masses De les armes and Gratieuse. However, this inclination towards rational construction in his compositions is not just an intellectual exercise; it was a way to achieve formal structures of an exactness not to be realized in later masses of the century. The problem of form was very important in the large-scale masses of the second half of the 15th century, and like his contemporaries, Ghiselin worked on its solution.

The following work by Johannes Ghiselin is contained in my collection:

L’Alfonsina.

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