"Worthy of the immortal gods" was the fifteenth century theorist Johannes Tinctoris' assessment of the music of Antoine Busnois (as well as that of Johannes Ockeghem). The twentieth century, as well, has identified in this composer a crucial link between Guillaume Dufay and Josquin Desprez. His chansons, masses, and secular vocal polyphony represent some of the finest (and most plentiful) examples of French music of the latter half of the
fifteenth century; yet Antonius de Busne, dit Busnoys, often seems unjustly eclipsed by his esteemed contemporaries.
Busnois' family history and early life remain somewhat shrouded in the historical mists. His name (in the Artois dialect) most likely indicates the town of Busne (similarly, Gilles from Bins was styled "Binchois"). Since Busnois had advanced to the priesthood by 1460, the period 1436-1439 is suggested for his birthdate. His name and the location of his early benefices suggest Flanders/Artois/Hainaut as the general area of his first training in music, though 1450s service to the Court of Brittany is also possible.
The earliest documentary evidence of his life, shockingly, is a Vatican petition (1461) for absolution from the sentence of excommunication. The young priest apparently beat another priest bloody within the cathedral close, organized five further gang assaults on him, and then continued to celebrate mass while under sentence! It seems the Pope pardoned these youthful indiscretions, however, as Busnois recevied promotion to Acolyte and then to Subdeacon around Easter 1465.
Busnois by now was a choir clerk in the Abbey of St.-Martin in Tours, where Ockeghem himself served as Treasurer. Also by this time, his many accomplishments as courtly poet and musician were already being recorded in a series of central manuscript Chansonniers in the Loire Valley. Autobiographical evidence in one set of these songs hints strongly of an extravagant society love affair between the priest and a Parisian noblewoman.
After one further year in French lands, serving a Potiers church from September to July 1465 as Master of the Choirboys, Busnois was dismissed, perhaps for financial irregularities. Less than a year later, he is documented in service to the Court of Burgundy, the most important position of his career. His motet In hydraulis praises Ockeghem and calls himself an "unworthy singer of the Count of Charolais"; this Count was crowned Duke of Burgundy on June 15, 1467, and Busnois followed Charles the Bold onto the international stage. His service was at first unofficial, but tenured by November 1470; he provided a variety of musical and courtly duties to the peripatetic court until well after Charles' death. He sang regular liturgical observances in the Duke's chapel, followed the Duke on military campaigns, and even undertook a diplomatic embassy of some secrecy at one point (this last could have entailed a "poaching" mission to secure singers from a rival prince's chapel). His few surviving sacred works, with a number of chansons, may date from this service.
After Charles' January 1477 death, Busnois entered the service of his daughter and heir, Marie of Burgundy. Upon her marriage to the Maximilian I later the same year, he transferred his service to the chapel of the Hapsburg Emperor. Busnois is documented at least sporadically in this well-remunerated position until April 1483. Two anomalous Italian-texted pieces attributed to him have suggested his presence sometime in Italy, but one of these certainly is an Italian contrafactum of a French piece, and the other is more likely the work of a Florentine. The final documentary reference to Busnois indicates his death: the Chapter of St.-Saveur in Bruges met on November 6, 1492, to consider replacements for their recently deceased musical director. Read less