Gilles Binchois

Biography

Born: 1400; Mons, Belgium    Died: September 20, 1460; Soignies, Belgium  
Destined to become one of the most influential composers of the early fifteenth century, Gilles Binchois was born sometime around 1400, probably in Mons, to a well-placed bourgeois family. His father, Jean de Binche, was a councillor to Duke Guillaume IV of Hainaut and his daughter Jaqueline of Bavaria. His son may thus have received his first training at the court of Mons, with its ties to royal France and Burgundy. The earliest surviving Read more documents of his life relate his service to the church of Ste.-Waudru in Mons, as organist from December 8, 1419, until July 28, 1423; it is likely that he also trained as a chorister. Duchess Jaqueline fled to England in 1423 and married Duke Humphrey of Gloucester; this may explain Binchois' early contacts with the English nobles occupying northern France. For some time around 1424, Binchois was in Paris, apparently lending courtly service to William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk.

Two lines in Ockeghem's lament on Binchois' death suggest the possibility of military service in the composer's youth. The "honorable worldliness" in this poem, however, could as easily refer to his courtly service to Suffolk and, from the late 1420s, the court of Burgundy. Gaps in the surviving payment lists prevent certain dating of his arrival in the Burgundian court chapel, but by 1431 he was fifth in seniority. In this year, he composed his single isorhythmic motet, for the baptism of Duke Philip the Good's son.

Unlike the majority of fifteenth century musicians, Binchois never became a priest nor did he take a university degree. This did not prevent his service as chaplain to the Burgundian Dukes, however, with a long list of lucrative prebend incomes in absentia in Bruges, Mons, Cassel, and Soignies. In addition to his choir service, Binchois composed a great deal of sacred music, continued to compose widely in the courtly chanson genres, and likely performed his own songs to harp accompaniment. Around 1437 he was awarded an honorary secretariat. He travelled little during the decades of his Burgundian service, but was in Mons in 1449 -- with Guillaume Dufay.

A provostship at St.-Vincent in Soignies from 1452 led to Binchois' retirement there in February 1453. He continued to receive the income from his benefices there until his death in 1460. His musical contacts apparently also still throve in retirement, as the composers Guillaume Malbeque and Johannes Regis both worked in Soignies at this time. Upon Binchois' death, both Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem composed moving laments in music: the one alluding to two specific chansons of Binchois, the other to his general style. Already in 1442, the Burgundian poet Martin le Franc had credited Binchois (and Dufay) with a rejuvenation of the art of music on the Continent; his chansons would serve composers throughout the century as models for elaboration and parody. A portrait of the legendary musician "Tymotheus" by Jan van Eyck may perserve the serious countenance of Binchois for posterity, while a number of important Continental music manuscripts offer his chansons to a later age.

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