Antoine Busnois (also Busnoys) (c. 1430 - 6 November 1492) was a French composer and poet of the early Renaissance Burgundian School. While also noted as a composer of motets and other sacred music, he was one of the most renowned 15th-century composers of secular chansons. He was the leading figure of the late Burgundian school after the death of Guillaume Dufay.
While details of his early life are largely conjectural, he was probably from the vicinity of Béthune in the Pas-de-Calais, possibly the hamlet of Busnes, to which his name seems to refer. He may have been related to the aristocratic family of Busnes; in particular, a Philippe de Busnes, canon of Notre-Dame in Lens, could have been a relative. He clearly received an excellent musical education, probably at a church choir school somewhere in northern or central France. An aristocratic origin may explain his early association with the French royal court: as early as the 1450s references to him appear there, and in 1461 he was a chaplain at Tours. That he was not entirely a man of peace is indicated by a petition for absolution he filed in Tours, dated 28 February 1461, in which he admitted to being part of a group that beat up a priest "to the point of bloodshed", not once but five times. While in a state of anathema he was foolhardy enough to celebrate Mass although he was not an ordained priest, an act which got him excommunicated until Pope Pius II pardoned him.
He moved from the cathedral to the collegiate church of St. Martin, also in Tours, where he became a subdeacon in 1465. Johannes Ockeghem was treasurer at that institution, and the two composers seem to have known each other well. Later in 1465 Busnois moved to Poitiers, where he not only became master of the choirboys but managed to attract a flood of talented singers from the entire region; by this time his reputation as singing teacher, scholar and composer seems to have spread widely. But he departed in 1466 just as suddenly as he came for no known reason, and the former master was given his old job back. He then moved to Burgundy.
Busnois was at the Burgundian court by 1467. His first compositions there appeared immediately before the accession of Charles as Duke on 15 June, since one of his motets -- In hydraulis -- contains a dedication to Charles calling him Count. On becoming Duke of Burgundy, he quickly became known as Charles the Bold for his fierce and sometimes reckless military adventurism (which indeed led to his death in battle ten years later). But Charles loved not only war but also music, appreciating and rewarding Busnois for works composed while in his service. Busnois was listed along with Hayne van Ghizeghem and Adrien Basin as "chantre et valet de chambre" to Charles in 1467.
In addition to serving Charles as singer and composer, Busnois accompanied the Duke on his military campaigns, as did Hayne van Ghizeghem. Busnois was at the siege of Neuss in Germany in 1475, and survived (or missed) the disastrous Battle of Nancy in 1477 at which Charles was killed and Burgundian expansion was ended forthwith and forever.
Busnois remained in the employ of the Burgundian court until 1482, but nothing exact is known about his exploits between then and the year of his death. At the time of his death, in 1492, he was employed by the church of St. Sauveur in Bruges.
Busnois' contemporary reputation was immense; he was probably the best-known musician in Europe between Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem. He wrote sacred and secular music. Of the former, two cantus firmus Masses and eight motets have survived, while many others were most likely lost. He set the Marian antiphon Regina coeli several times. Stylistically, his music can be considered a midpoint between the simplicity and homophonic textures of Dufay and Binchois, and the soon-to-be pervasive imitative counterpoint of Josquin and Gombert. He used imitation only occasionally but skillfully, created smooth and singable melodic lines and had a strong feeling for triadic sonorities, anticipating 16th-century practice.
According to Pietro Aron, Busnois may have been the composer of the famous tune L'homme armé, one of the most widely distributed melodies of the Renaissance and the one more often used than any other as a cantus firmus in Mass composition. Whether or not he wrote the first Mass based on L'homme armé, his was by far the most influential; Obrecht's setting, for example, closely parallels that of Busnois, and even Dufay's quotes from it directly. Richard Taruskin attempts to prove that Busnois' was the model later L'homme armé masses were based upon through a study of the composer's numerological symbology within the work, and by demonstrating that Dufay and others were emulating (or paying homage) to this aspect, among others.David Fallows points out that the complexity of the Busnois mass may indicate that he was actually borrowing from Dufay. Busnois may even be the composer of a cycle of six Masses all based on the same tune, found in Naples, on the basis of stylistic comparison.
But Busnois' chansons (French secular songs) are the works on which his reputation mainly rests. Most are rondeaux, but some are bergerettes; many of them achieved the status of popular songs, and some were perhaps based on other popular songs which are now lost. He probably wrote the words for almost all of his chansons (anticipating Wagner by four hundred years!). Some of his tunes were recycled as cantus firmus for Masses composed more than a generation after his death, for instance Fortuna desperata (which was used both by Obrecht and Josquin). An unusual chanson is Terrible dame, which is not only an antiphonal dialogue (unique in the chanson literature) but has an Old French title requiring no special skill to translate.
While most of Busnois's secular songs are set to French words, at least two employ Italian texts and one is in Flemish. Most are for three voices, although there are a few for four.