In 2015, a small auction house in Brussels sold a lot consisting of a statue, an illuminated initial and a songbook to an art dealer. The songbook was purchased by the King Baudouin Foundation and entrusted to the Alamire Foundation in Leuven, the international centre for the study of music in the Low Countries, for study. The result exceeded everyones expectations: it turned out to be a totally unknown, complete, late 15th century chansonnier in its original brocade binding. It is extremely rare to find sources like this, especially ones that have been preserved in their original form. The last comparable discovery dates back to almost a century ago.
The elegant manuscript, illuminated with coloured initials, consists of 96 parchment pages. It opens with a spiritual work in Latin, but then includes 49 songs in French, all of which are secular. The manuscript does not state the names of any of the composers. Because 38 pieces are also found in other chansonniers from the same period, however, it has been possible to identify them and attribute them to leading 15th century Franco-Flemish masters, such as Gilles Binchois, Johannes Ockeghem and Antoine Busnoys. Twelve compositions in the manuscript are unique and completely unknown. Further musicological research will be required to reveal the identity of these pieces.
There is more than one reason why the Leuven Chansonnier is a particularly important find: it deepens our understanding of the knowledge in circulation at the time and the reception of 15th century secular songs, it is a new source of known, sometimes famous compositions, and it adds no less than twelve undiscovered pieces to our late mediaeval musical repertoire.
The Leuven Chansonnier has been fully digitised by the Alamire Digital Lab. You can see it online at www.idemdatabase.org. A commentated facsimile edition was published by WPG in 2017, as the first in a new series, the Leuven Library of Music in Facsimile. The editors-in chief, David J. Burn and Bart Demuyt, intend to create a series of high-quality reproductions of original musical sources of exceptional aesthetic, musical and cultural value.
The world première of all the music in the songbook (including the unique works) will be performed by none less than Ensemble Leones, Sollazzo Ensemble, Park Collegium and Huelgas.