Inspiring a Choral Revolution? The Polyphonic Music of Edward IV’s Burgundian Exile, 1470–1471
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In the second half of the fifteenth century, at least half a dozen prominent polyphonic choirs in England were transformed, both in terms of their numbers and their vocal range. The most prominent example was at St. George’s Collegiate Church, Windsor, where under Edward IV the number of boy choristers and lay clerks doubled, and the boys were trained to sing polyphony for the first time. One possible contributory factor to this burst of choral development is the polyphonic music Edward is likely to have experienced during his exile in the Burgundian territories from 1470–1471. Edward’s principal host while in exile was the nobleman Louis de Gruuthuse. While staying at Gruthuuse’s Bruges palace, Edward would have been able to hear polyphonic music at the neighboring Church of Our Lady, in the Lady Mass, guild services and during the concert-like “lof,” established in 1468. At around this time, Gruuthuse began constructing an upper-level oratory looking into Our Lady’s Church, and Edward subsequently built a similar space at St. George’s Windsor. These structures are part of a wider Anglo- Burgundian pattern of music patrons building raised oratories in the period 1450–1500. Oratories may have been built, in part, to improve the experience of listening to larger, louder choirs. Listening from the oratory would have both reduced the initial-time-delay gap and created an unobstructed line of listening to the choirboys, allowing their higher frequencies to be heard more clearly.
Despite complex political circumstances, Edward did spend time at Charles the Bold’s court. His visits followed a period in which Charles was especially concerned with expanding his choir. The duke’s chapel ordinances of 1469 specify six upper voices for singing polyphony. This may have been part of a wider phenomenon in the Burgundian territories and later, in England, of groups of six choirboys being established in choirs where their role specifically included polyphony. The choir at St. Donatian’s in Bruges had at least fifty years of history of boys and men singing polyphony together by 1470, and its recruitment and training allied to an attractive income and career prospects for its singers made this one of the finest choirs of its kind in Europe by the late fifteenth century. The years 1470–1471 would have been a peak in the choir’s activity due to the unprecedented spending on copying of music by Gilles de Joye in the year’s 1468–1471. The arrangements of St. Donatian’s choir are a possible model for the changes Edward went on to make to his choir at Windsor.