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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Denys van Leeuwen on Late Fifteenth-Century Liturgical Singing, Translated by Robert Redman (1533)

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

‘Whether descant may be commendable in the divine service, and of certain things which ought to be eschewed in song.

Like as it is declared in a certain book named “Summa Virtutum et Vitiorum,” it is greatly reproved in singing the divine service to fain a voice to much quavering or warbling, either for pride, vainglory or pleasure for, as saint Gregory said, whilst they fain warbling voices they let slip all good devotion.

Likewise, in singing the divine service, too much loudness and mounting of the voice is not commendable, nor likewise the rolling of it. Nor also too much swiftness, or to drag overly long at the latter end, and to skip over the rest or pausing in the middle, especially when the song is so swift that it is shaken all to nought.

Moreover, the question may be asked whether descant, or the breaking of the voice, may laudably be suffered in God’s service. Upon this subject, in the said notable book of Summa, it is written thus: the breaking of the voice or descant seems to be nothing commendable in the divine service.

On this subject, it can be read in the legend of saint Sebastian that a person is not to be considered a proper christian who, as it were, is wedded unto the barber, who trims his bush, who seeks sweet sensations, and who breaks his voice, for the breaking of the voice seems to indicate a broken mind. Just as the turning of the head is nothing commendable for men, nor the great rolls of plates in the garments of women, no more is descant unto singers.

And just as the wind often stirs up a great many waves and surges, even so the wind of vanity is the cause of all this quavering and surges in singing. These things are contained in the aforementioned book of Summa, whereby it is provided that they that use such manner of singing utter it for nothing else but for their vainglory and wantonness of mind, which things do exist in their singing voice.

For if it were excusable or to be commanded for any reason, it should only be done for the purpose of exciting and stirring the people unto devotion, for some folks, because of such melodies, are greatly moved unto contemplation and devotion, for which reason organs are also used in the church.

Whereupon saint Augustine said, “whenever the song is more delectable unto me [than] the ditty, I acknowledge that I do sin penally, and then I would rather to hear no song at all.” Furthermore, although descant especially provokes some to devotion and heavenly contemplation, it seems nevertheless greatly to revoke and distract some from the mind of their own prayers.’

(‘This present treatise concerning the state and life of canons, priests, clerks, and ministers of the church was first compiled in Latin by the reverend and devote father Dyonisius, sometime one of the Charter-house in Ruremond and taken and exemplified with great diligence out of an original copy the which he wrote with his own hand and now again being diligently corrected is translated into the English tongue into the honour of God and for the utility and soul health of clerks and other students of the same...’)


‘Whether descante may be cōmendable in the dyuyne seruyce / and of certayne thynges whiche ought to be eschewyd in songe

LIke as it is declared in a certayne boke namyd / summa virtutū et vitiorum / it is greatlye reprouid in syngynge the dyuyne seruyce to fayne a voyce to much quaueryng or warbelyng eyther for pride / vainglorye / or pleasure. For as saynt Gregorye sayth. Whylste they fayne warblynge voyces / they let slyp all good deuocion / lykewyse in syngynge diuine seruyce ouermuche lowdenes and mountynge of the voyce is no• comendable nor lykewyse the rollyng of it / nor also to much swyftnes or to dragge ouerlong at the latterēde / & to skyppe ouer the rest or pausinge in the myddes. And specyally when the song is so swyft that it is shakē all to nought. Moreouer a question may be mouyd whither descāt or breking of the voice may lawdably be sufferyd in goddes seruice / vpō that in ye said notable boke of summa it is wryten thus. Breakyng of the voice or descante semyth to be nothyng cōmendable in ye diuine seruice / wherupō it is redde in the legend of saīt Sebast. that {per}sone is to be estemyd no right christian / which is in a maner weddid vnto the barbour / which trīmeth his bushe / which sekith swete sauours / & breakyth his voice / for brekyng of the voyce semith to betoken a broken mynde / euyn as the turnyng ī of the hed is nothyng cōendable vnto men / nor the great rollys of playtes in the garmētes of womē •omore is descāt vnto syngers. And lyke as the wynde is wonte to reyse vp great plentie of wauis & surges / euyn so the wynd of vanyte is the cause of all this quauers & surges in singyng / these thyng{is} ar cōtaynid in the foresaid boke of summa / wherby it is {pro}uydyd yt they that vse such maner of singyng / do vtter it for nothyng els but for theyr vainglory & wātones of mynde which thyng{is} do cōsyst ī theyr uyce singīg / for yf it wer excusable or to be cōmēdyd for any cause it shulde be onlie done for excyting & styrryng the people vnto deuocion / for some folkys by reason of suche melodyes / ar greatly mouyd vnto contēplacyō & deuocion for which cause also organes ar vsid in the church. Whereupon saynt Augustine sayeth. As often as the songe is more delectable vnto me / then the dite / so oftē I knowledge that I do synne penally / & then had I rather to here no song at al / furthermor although that descāt specially {pro}uokith some vnto deuociō & heuēly cōtemplacion / yet for al that it semith greatly to reuoke & let some frō ye minde of theyr owne prayours.’

(‘This present treatyse concernynge the state and lyfe of Chanons / prestes / clerkes / and minystres of the church / was fyrst cōpyled in Latyne by the reuerend and deuoute father Dyonisius / sometyme one of the Charter-house in Ruremond / and taken and exemplifyed with greate diligence out of an originall copy / ye which he wrote with his owne hande / and nowe agayne beynge diligently corrected / is trāslated into the Englyshe tonge / vnto the honour of god / and for the vtilite & soule helth of Clerkes / & other studentes of the same...’)


Denis The Carthusian, The Lyfe of Prestes (London: Robert Redman, 1533). Translation into modern English made for ease of access.

The image below is painted by an anonymous follower of Hieronymus Bosch in the second half of the fifteenth century known as ‘Zangers en Musici in een Ei’ (‘Singers and musicians in an egg.’)


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