Charles V and the Regrets-chansons

Charles V, ruler of the empire ‘where the sun never sets’ was born in 1500. His father died when he was still a young boy, and he was brought up by his aunt, Marguerite of Austria, who was regent for him in the Netherlands. She was one of the chief influences in his youth, so it is likely that the musical taste of Charles was formed at the court of Marguerite. Charles may have continued his aunt’s tradition of Regrets-chansons at his own court in Spain, where de Narváez dedicated his version of Mille Regrets to him.

Marguerite had been through a lot of hardship in her life by the time she took on the care of her nephew. To secure peace with France, Marguerite was betrothed to the son of Louis XI of France at the age of three, and sent to Amboise where she received a French education until her fiancé would be old enough to marry her. However, when she was eleven years old, the Dauphin refused her. War broke out, and Marguerite was held hostage in France for another two years. After a peace had been signed, Marguerite was restored to her family and continued her education in the Netherlands, a homeland she had never really known. Two years later, in a new scheme to strengthen political ties between the ruling families of Europe, she was married to the son of the Spanish king. At the same time her brother was married to the daughter of the Spanish king, and out of this latter marriage the future Emperor Charles V was born. Marguerite was less lucky, as four months after her marriage she became a widow. To make matters worse, soon after that Marguerite gave birth to a stillborn child and again she returned to the court in the Netherlands alone. In 1501, 21 years of age, Marguerite was married to Philibert II le Beau, the duke of Savoy. However, her husband died three years after the marriage. After that, Marguerite would not marry again. In 1506 her brother King Phillip died. As his wife was incapable of taking over the responsibilities of her deceased husband, Marguerite was given the regency of the Netherlands, as well as the guardianship of her young nephew. She set up court in Malines (near Brussels in current Belgium) and surrounded herself with artists and musicians. After Charles’ coming of age in 1515 Marguerite’s regency temporarily came to an end, but was soon restored and lasted till her death in 1530.

Music played an important role in the court where the young Charles was brought up. There was sacred music for the daily services in the court chapel, but also for special occasions like memorial services, marriages and affairs of state that required a solemn ceremony in church. The chapel music was taken care of by a group of professional singers and the clergy. Members of this court chapel performed many duties, as they were often singer, priest, composer, choirmaster, organist, music teacher and scribe at the same time. When occasion demanded, they also wrote music for courtly entertainments. They had a high social standing and received a high salary.
There were also instrumental musicians attached to the court, providing music during dancing, the hunt and processions. On special occasions they joined the court chapel to perform in more elaborate church services. Their social standing and salaries were lower than those of the members of the court chapel.
Lastly, the nobility received an extensive musical education themselves, often from the members of the court chapel. They were taught to sing and to play musical instruments, like the clavichord.
When Charles set up his own courts, he surrounded himself with musicians, too. In Brussels he had a court chapel with mainly Flemish musicians; this was called the Capilla Flamenca when he brought them to Spain. At his Spanish court Charles made an even larger ensemble, called La Grande Chapelle. This was made up of the best musicians from the whole of Europe. The music performed by these groups was based on the Burgundian examples he knew from his youth: sacred polyphony for voices. Only later in the 16th century secular instrumental music would gain more importance. For Charles, music was not just part of the ceremony in church, or part of the pomp and circumstance connected to affairs of state; it gave him personal pleasure as it did to his aunt. His Capilla Flamenca travelled with him throughout Europe. Even after his abdication in 1556, Charles is known to have sung with the choir in his retreat in San Jeronimó de Yuste.

From the court of Marguerite two lavishly decorated manuscripts with chansons for courtly entertainment are preserved. The larger one is called the Album of Marguerite of Austria (Brussels, Royal Library MS. 228) and the smaller one the Chansonnier of Marguerite of Austria (Brussels, Royal Library MS. 11239). These are manuscripts filled with chansons by composers such as Pierre de la Rue, Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compère, and many of these chansons have titles that include the word ‘Regrets’. This tradition of so-called Regrets-chansons started with Tous les regrets, composed by Pierre de la Rue on a text by the court poet Jean Lemaire de Belges, written to console Marguerite after her dismissal by the future king of France in 1493. It is generally accepted that Marguerite’s hardships, combined with a melancholic nature has led to this taste for sad music on sad texts. It is very likely that Charles, exposed as a young boy to this music, developed a similar taste. In 1520, when Charles was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he received from Josquin des Prez a collection of chansons that perhaps included Mille Regrets (though some scholars say Jean Lemaire des Belges is the composer of this chanson). Nicolas Gombert, singer in Charles’ court chapel, wrote a six-voice chanson with the same title. Cristobál Morales, a Spanish singer and composer working for the pope in Rome, even wrote a complete mass on the chanson. Morales was a member of the Papal choir and as such has sung on three recorded occasions for the emperor and he even received a commission to write music for Charles’ wedding to Isabella of Portugal in 1526. However, his Missa Mille Regrets was published in the Missarum Liber Primus (Rome, 1544), a work dedicated to Cosimo de’ Medici, in a bid to find employment with this Grand duke of Tuscany. Any connection of Morales’ Missa Mille Regrets with Charles V is unknown to me. However, the fact that Luys de Narváez, music teacher of the children of Charles, called his vihuela version of Mille Regrets ‘the song of the emperor’ (La canción del emperador), is an indication that Marguerite’s taste for regrets-chansons had been passed on to her nephew, who continued this tradition.

David van Ooijen

Read more about the musical life at the court of Marguerite of Austria in:
Muziek aan het hof van Margaretha van Oostenrijk
Music at the court of Marguerite of Austria
Jaarboek van het Vlaams centrum voor oude muziek
Jaargang III – 1987
Published with Alamire (Peer, Belgium 1987)

The Album of Marguerite of Austria (Brussels, Royal Library MS. 228) and the Chansonnier of Marguerite of Austria (Brussels, Royal Library MS. 11239) are both available as facsimile from Alamire

The music is also available in a modern edition, with an extensive introduction:
The chanson albums of Marguerite of Austria
A critical edition an commentary by Martin Picker
University of California Press (Berkley and Los Angeles, 1965)