First page of the Mechelen Choir Book. The opening miniature is probably the young Charles V on a throne | Regionale Beeldbank Mechelen

Arts & Sciences
c. 1515
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The Mechelen Choir Book

Polyphonic Music in the Low Countries

The Mechelen Choir Book is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved music manuscripts from the 16th century. It was produced in around 1515 in the workshop of Petrus Alamire in Mechelen. The town on the Dyle was at that time the effective capital of the Low Countries and thanks to Margaret of Austria an important cultural centre.

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The Choir Book contains the music for seven multi-part Latin masses: one by the composer Matthaeus Pipelare and six by the court singer and composer Pierre de la Rue. Numerous singers sang together from this large book, which was placed on a lectern. Petrus Alamire copied and sold luxury music manuscripts, decorated with miniaturespainted representations in a manuscript. . He supplied many music manuscripts commissioned by the court of Mechelen. These can be found today all over Europe. The Mechelen Choir Book was probably a present from Maximilian of Austria to his grandson, the later Emperor Charles V.


Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1537, fol. 58v

Polyphonist Johannes Ockeghem (around 1410-1497), probably the singer with the glasses, sings from a choir book. Posthumous miniature (2nd quarter of the 16th century).

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Polyphonic Music in the Low Countries

The Choir Book contains polyphonic – or multi-part – music. With monophonic music, such as Gregorian chant, everyone sings the same tune. Polyphony means that the composer combines several melodies, which are nevertheless attuned to each other. The new form of music developed from 1200 onwards. The musical directors of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris played an important role. They added a second and third voice to the Gregorian chant.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Franco-Flemish polyphony was the most important musical style at the great courts all over Western Europe. Franco-Flemish means here: on both sides of the language border that runs through the Low Countries and which played no part on an artistic level. The flourishing was due to the excellent choir schools of the cathedrals of Tournai, Cambrai and Liège and to important churches in for example, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Mons. There talented boys learned from a choirmaster how to embellish the mass with Gregorian chant and polyphonic song.

The composers and singers from the Low Countries were particularly popular in the rest of Europe. Polyphonists like Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, Adriaan Willaert and Philippus de Monte went to the important courts and churches and in so doing ensured the spread of the Franco-Flemish repertoire in Europe. The splendid choir books like those of Alamire also contributed.

Focal points

Hof van Savoye.

Regionale Beeldbank Mechelen, Jan-Baptist De Noter, 1780

The Hof van Savoye, the town Palace of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen, was one of the first Renaissance buildings in the Low Countries. In the 17th and 18th century it was the seat of the Great Council of Mechelen, the highest court in the Netherlands until the French Revolution.

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The Court of Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria was the only daughter of Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy. From 1507 she ruled the Habsburg Netherlands as regentman or woman who rules a country as a representative of the monarch. . She also played a diplomatic role in the conflicts between the Habsburgs and the French king about the borders of their territories in the Low Countries. After the death of her brother Philip the Fair in 1506 she oversaw the upbringing of his children, among them the later Emperor Charles V.

Margaret was highly educated and an important patron. She lived in Mechelen in one of the first Renaissance palaces in the Low Countries, the Hof van Savoye. She gave commissions to many sculptors, painters, illuminatorsartists who paint or draw depictions or decorative shapes in manuscripts. , glass-blowers, carpet-weavers, writers, composers… and made her court one of the most important centres of the Renaissance in North-West Europe.

Her ample library contained not only religious and didactic literature, but also chivalrous romances, songbooks and chronicles. She built a remarkable art collection, with works by resonant names like Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymus Bosch. She also owned pieces by well-known Italian artists and even objects of Aztec and Arab origin. Such a many-facetted collect was also designed to express the power of the Habsburgs. Finally she was herself an active writer. She wrote, for example, a moving lament on the death of her brother, Philip the Fair.

London, The British Museum, WB.261

Conrat Meit (c. 1470/85-1550/51), Portrait Bust in Boxwood of Margaret of Austria (1515/25). Height 9 cm. The wood-carver and sculptor from Worms entered the service of Margaret of Austria before 1514.

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‘My Heart Always Feels Longing’ by Pierre de la Rue

Pierre de la Rue was the favourite composer of Margaret of Austria. He was trained at the choir school of the cathedral of Tournai. In 1492 he entered the service of Margaret’s father, Maximilian of Austria and later of her brother, Philip the Fair. From 1506 to 1508 he was in charge of the court chapel of Joanna of Castile, Philip’s widow and the mother of Emperor Charles V. Afterwards he returned to the court in Mechelen.

Pierre de la Rue composed mainly in Latin and French. But one song by him in Dutch has been preserved: ‘My Heart Always Feels Longing’. This love song was also popular in Europe, like a few other Dutch-language ‘hits’. These were adapted and translated and often used for instrumental settings.

Polyphony flourished not only in the great churches and at the European courts. In the 16th century rich burghers also ordered songbooks for their own use. They contained besides church music also worldly songs, in French and Dutch. The musical culture of the burghers in this way contributed to the spread of Dutch-language polyphonic music. The spread of printing also played a role. For example, in the years after 1550 the Antwerp music printer Tielman Susato published eleven Dutch-language ‘musyck boexkens’. The civil war at the late 16th century put an end to the flourishing period of the Dutch multi-part song in the Southern Netherlands.

Het Gruuthusehandschrift van omstreeks 1400 is de oudste bron met (eenstemmige) Middelnederlandse liederen die vergezeld zijn van muzieknotatie, waaronder het Egidiuslied.
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KW 79 K 10, fol. 28r

The Gruuthuse manuscript of about 1400 is the oldest source of (monophonic) Middle Dutch songs, accompanied by musical notation, including a famous elegy on a certain Egidius.

Josquin des Prez
Petrus Opmeer, Opvs chronographicvm orbis vniversi a mvndi exordio vsqve ad annvm M.DC.XI, Antwerp, 1611, dl. 1, p. 440.

Like many Franco-Flemish polyphonists, Josquin des Prez also had an international career. He worked in Milan, Rome and Paris. His musical innovations had a great influence on the development of polyphony.

Leuven chansonnier.
Collection Koning Boudewijnstichting, Fonds Léon Courtin-Marcelle Bouché, at the Alamire Foundation, Leuven, Rob Stevens

The Leuven Chansonnier is an exceptionally well-preserved 15th-century songbook, with 50 songs for part-singing. Its discovery in 2014 was world news. The book is of great value for research into Franco-Flemish polyphony. The King Baudouin Foundation bought the book and entrusted it to the international study centre the Alamire Foundation.

Basses danse.
Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS 9085

This rare dance book (around 1500) on black parchment belonging to Margaret of Austria is the oldest known dance and songbook from the Low Countries. The manuscript contains 58 songs with gold staves and silver notes. Below the notes letters indicate the dance steps.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Est. Willaert A. 001

The Basilica of San Marco in Venice was filled with the music of numerous ‘Fiamminghi’, as artists from the Low Countries were called in the Italian city states. Adriaan Willaert (around 1490-1562) from Roeselare and after him Cypriaan de Rore (1515-1565) from Ronse were resident conductors there in the 16th century.

Margareta van Oostenrijk.
Antwerp, KMSKA Royal Museum of Fine Arts

Portrait of Margaret of Austria as a widow, from the studio of Bernard van Orley, 1519-1520.

Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, VH 23,871 B.1 R.P

One part of the three-part setting of the Souterliedeken Crying, praying, groaning and complaining (Psalm 87 (88) by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510/1515-1555/56), published in 1556 by Tielman Susato in Antwerp.

Huelgas ensemble.
Luk Van Eeckhout, Huelgas Ensemble

Polyphony can appeal, to a wide public, when performed in many ensembles, concerts and festivals.

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Weg van het Meesterwerk

Bron: VRT archief, Sylvester productions – 4 sep 2019

Pierre de la rue
Canvas Klassiek

Bron: VRT archief, Canvas en Bl!ndman – 26 okt 2008


Iedereen Klassiek

Bron: VRT archief – 16 apr 2018


Bossuyt Ignace
De Vlaamse Polyfonie

Davidsfonds, 2015. 

Bossuyt Ignace, e.a.
Meerstemmigheid in beeld: zeven meesterwerken uit het atelier van Petrus Alamire

Davidsfonds, 2015. 

Burn David J. & Meconi Honey
The Mechelen Choirbook/Het Mechels Koorboek Study/Studie

Alamire Foundation/Davidsfonds, 2020.

De Cock Johan
Margareta van Oostenrijk. Parel van Bourgondië

Uitgeverij Elena, 2021. 

De Iongh Jane
De Hertogin. Margaretha van Oostenrijk, hertogin van Savooie 1480-1530


Eichberger Dagmar (red.)
Dames met klasse – Margareta van York en Margareta van Oostenrijk

Davidsfonds, 2005. 

Grijp Louis Peter (red.)
Een muziekgeschiedenis der Nederlanden

Amsterdam University Press, 2011. 

Maes Francis
De klanken van de keizer: Karel V en de polyfonie

Universitaire Pers, 1999. 

Mareel Samuel, e.a.
Kinderen van de Renaissance: kunst en opvoeding aan het Habsburgse hof (1480-1530)

Lannoo, 2021. 

Schreurs Eugeen (red.)
De schatkamer van Alamire: muziek en miniaturen uit Keizer Karels tijd, 1500-1535

Davidsfonds, 1999. 

Triest Monica
Macht, vrouwen en politiek, 1477-1558: Maria van Bourgondië, Margareta van Oostenrijk, Maria van Hongarije

Van Halewyck, 2000. 

Verberckmoes Johan
Wij, Habsburgers

Houtekiet, 2022. 

Willaert Frank
Het Nederlandse liefdeslied in de middeleeuwen

Prometheus, 2021. 


Geerts Paul
Suske en Wiske. De Kleine Postruiter (nr 186)

De Standaard, 1990. 

Raskin Brigitte
De gestolen prinses

Davidsfonds/Infodok, 2009. (15+) 

Vanhole Kamiel
De nacht van Margaretha

Vantilt, 2000 (Toneelmonoloog). 

Willumsen Dorrit
De Gentse bruid

De Arbeiderspers, 2005. 

Nu kijken

Overal Klassiek
Hoe de Vlaamse polyfonie de muziekgeschiedenis veranderde
Radio 1
De wereld van Sofie – 13 mei 2023

Stratton Bull, artistiek leider van Cappella Pratensis, over het Mechels Koorboek.

‘Vecchie letrose, villanella alla Napolitana’

(La Capella Reial de Catalunya & Hespèrion XXI) 

Chanson Susanne un jour

(Vox Luminis)

Pierre de la Rue
Pour ung jamais

Chanson van Margareta van Oostenrijk (Corvina Consort) 

Pierre de la Rue
Me fauldra il tousjours ainsi languir

Chanson van Margareta van Oostenrijk (La Morra) 

The Consort of Musicke
Kirsti Consort
Consorto Etereo
Choeur B212
Conservatorium van Amsterdam o.l.v. Eduardo López Cabello
Egidius Kwartet
University of San Francisco Choir
La Morra
Capella Sancti Michaelis/Currende Consort
Les Jardins de Courtoisie

Laudantes Consort

Laudantes Consort
S’io odo alcun felice, e lieto amante

(Ratas del Viejo Mundo) 

Motet Timor et tremor

(The Sixteen) 

Se je souspire/ Ecce iterum

Motet-chanson van Margareta van Oostenrijk (Cappella Clausura) 

Pierre de Rue
Mijn hert altijt heeft verlangen

(La Morra)

Pierre de Rue
Mijn hert altijt heeft verlangen

(Capilla Flamenca) 

Roepen, bidden, kermen, claghen

(Capella Sancti Michaelis/Currende Consort) 

Bijkomend luister/kijk materiaal

Oh Flanders Free. Music of the Flemish Renaissance.

Capilla Flamenca (Alamire IUB 03; Naxos 554516) 

Et lux perpetua. Funeral Music of the Renaissance.

Ensemble Chant 1450 (Christophorus 77298)

Jacob Obrecht
De wereldlijke werken

Camerata Trajectina met La Caccia en Brisk (Globe 6059) 

Souterliedekens. 16e-eeuwse wereldlijke liederen en psalmzettingen van Jacobus Clemens non Papa en Gherardus Mes.

Camerata Trajectina (Globe GLO 6020) 

The A-La-Mi-Re Manuscripts. Flemish Polyphonic Treasures for Charles V. Josquin/De la Rue/ Willaert.

Capilla Flamenca (Naxos 8.554744) 

The Songbook of Zeghere van Male. Renaissance-Polyfonie in Brugge.

Capilla Flamenca (Eufoda 1155)