North Cyprus  

Cyprus was an ideal staging area during the crusades, a vital point of supply and a strategically important bastion for the Western armies. It also offered first-rate harbours (Famagusta for example) only two-days' sailing from the Egyptian coast and mere hours from Syria. Cyprus' climate, foodstuffsand raw materials made it a paradise on earth. In 14th century French poetry, the island was frequently referred to as "Engaddy, la precieuse vigne" (Engaddy, the precious vine). 

During the Third Crusade, Richard the Lion-Hearted was unable to resist the island's charms, and in 1191 added it to his possessions. A year later he sold it to the Templars for 40,000. Unable to afford the luxury of a private island they resoldit to the dispossessed king of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, scion of a noble French family from the Poitou region.

Thus, 1192 brought radical change and marked the beginning of a flourishing period in the history of Cyprus. The French instituted a feudal society despite resistance by the locals and the Orthodox Church, establishing a court on the Western model in Nicosia. French "colonization" did not end until 1489, when the island was taken by the Venetians.

Painting: "Love Roundplay", from French book illustration, master of the "Roman de la Rose", c. 1420/30; Archiv fur Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin

Painting: "Love Roundplay", from French book illustration, master of the "Roman de la Rose", c. 1420/30; Archiv fur Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin.

For three centuries, the island of Cyprus was an outpost of European culture. An increasing number of European immigrants, predominantly French, lived beside the local people. A chronicler relates: "The masters of this country are the Franks. The Greeks and Armenians obey and serve them as colonials; they have been reduced to servitude, and pay (the Franks) tribute."

The seventeen Lusignan kings and queens that resided in Nicosia between 1192 and 1489 left a rich legacy of French culture. Chronicler Leonitas Makhairas of the early 15th century, writes "The people began to learn French, and their Greek deteriorated -and it remains so even today." In his General History of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem, Cyprus... (Paris, 1613), Estienne de Lusignan writes of this time that the "The nobility in Cyprus sings as sweetly and with as pleasing voices as it is written that the druids and sardons [healers] once sang in France in times of yore."

The French Gothic architecture was introduced. In 1208, construction was begun on Santa Sophia in Nicosia, the choir of which is identical with that of Notre Dame in Paris. The castles of Kolossi, Kantara, Buffavento and Dieudamour (also known as St. Hilarion) were all built on the Western pattern. The Abbey of Bella Paix (or Bellapais), also in French Gothic style, was built a bowshot away from Castle Dieudamour. The fortress of Limassol is a copy of the castle of Gaston Phoebus in Foix, France. The church of St. Georges-des-Latins in Famagusta is the twin of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Kings, diplomats, artists and crusaders visited Cyprus; often they chose it as a temporary or permanent residence. In a chronicle written in 1256, we read that "Three hundred nobles and barons, French as well as those from Flanders and Germany, companions of Jean de Montfort, seeing that they could not reconquer the Holy Land with their army, fell back on Cyprus..." The German Ludolfus von Suchen, a pilgrim who passed through Famagusta in 1336, reported in his De Terra Sancta et itinere Jhierosol: "It is the richest city that I have seen and the people here are extremely wealthy. They are all rich merchants, which is not surprising considering that Cyprus is the most remote Christian outpost. All passenger and cargo ships call at Cyprus, no matter whence they come or whither they are bound. The pilgrims, too, must go on land here before they continue their journeys. Languages from all over God's green earth are spoken here. These languages are taught in schools especially provided for that purpose."

Guillaume de Machaut
Guillaume de Machaut

The courtly culture and music that blossomed on the island reached its climax in the years between 1359 and 1432. Pierre I de Lusignan (died 1369) entered history as Cyprus's "sun-king". His fame in Europe was mainly due to an extended three-year tour he made there. During this journey, Pierre became acquainted with the most important centres of European musical activity. No less figure than Guillaume de Machaut wrote a chronicle 8000 lines long in honour of this nobleman, La Prise d'Alexandrie [The Conquest of Alexandria]. Wherever the Cypriot court passed during this European tour, Pierre I was greeted with the highest honours. On his arrival in Avignon (March 29, 1363), Froissart relates that he "was received most sincerely, piously, and very honourably". He continues: "All the cardinals, the clergy of the city and all the holy colleges went to meet [Pierre I] with croses and miters with holy water and a very grand profusion of relics and saints' statues, and great was the pomp before him..." The band of musicians in the retinue of Pierre I de Lusignan also caused great excitement during this tour. They also pleased Charles V in Rheims that he donated 80 francs in gold "for the musicians of the King of Cyprus".


The spectacular journey was not without its effect on the music on Cyprus, for after his return Pierre I extended what was to become a lasting influence. Until far into the 15th century, the musical life at the court of Nicosia could not be imagined without the French Ars Nova, and later the Ars Subtilior. Many French musicians and composers were active at the Cypriot court, and Nicosia became one of the most important centres of the Ars Subtilior style.

Janus I de Lusignan (1374-1432) was one of the most important figures in the music life of Cyprus. Though embroiled in constant struggles with Saracens, Genoese and Venetians, he left no stone unturned in his attempts to surprise and delight the eyes and ears of his many European visitors, as evidenced in the following description by Khabil Dhabeir, chronicler to the Sultan Al-Malik al-Ashraf Barsbay: "The palace was richly furnished with costly beds and with particularly tasteful and expensive furniture. The walls were hung with splendid paintings and crosses of gold and silver. However, what my master admires most was a large organ that produced the most wonderful tones whenever its keys were pressed.


Cypriot musical culture reached a climax during Janus's reign, when the music of the island developed a style of its own quite independent from that of the mainland; for though the influence of Ars Subtilior cannot be denied, additional elements emphasised in word and tone, the island's peculiarities and mannerisms. It is to Janus himself that we owe our knowledge of this rich music: Janus's daughter Anna upon her marriage to Louis, Count of Geneva, took with her a thick manuscript, written between 1413 and 1426, remains as the solitary, silent witness of the music heard at the court of Nicosia.

Shelf-marked "ms.J.II.9", the Cypriot manuscript is today in the collection of the National Library of Turin, Italy. It consists of 159 folios containing over two hundred polyphonic compositions both sacred and secular.

The collection contains, in succession, a Gregorian repertoire (with an approbation by the pope dated 1413) that includes songs for St. Hilarion and St. Anna, the saints of the island; sections of polyphonic masses; motets in Latin and French; ballads; a cycle of polyphonic masses; and virelais and rondos as well. Two peculiarities make this manuscript unique: first, not a single composer is mentioned by name; and second, each work is without exception a unique copy: not one has ever been found in any other manuscript. This, then, is the completely isolated witness to a local art.

The texts used in the compositions reflect at times the island location (Christ represented as a seaman) and there are frequent references to local court life (mottos from coat of arms are used as ballad refrains). The secular texts, apart from occasional local orthographical variants, are typical of courtly lyric poetry in 14th century France.

The central compositional concern of those working in the Cypriot Ars Subtilior style was the logical, consistent attainment of the polyphonic ideal. Each voice is completely independent of the others, and moves through the polyphonic fabric to form a contour of its own. As to rhythm, Cypriot compositional technique is extremely complex. Ample use was made of rhythmic novelties such as syncopatio, color and proportio, and new note symbols permitted the representation of note values that had previously defied graphical rendering. Thus, metric accents in the different voices almost never coincide, and the "laws" of rhythm were at times out of joint. Indeed, a rhythm that was regular and without syncopation would stand out immediately as particularly conspicuous detail. One can best appreciate, upon listening, just how "nervous" this music may sound in the two mass excerpts: Gloria and Credo.

A singular characteristic of Cypriot music is the melodically varied use of sequence: that is, the repetition of a single motive or melody at different tonal levels. This can be heard very clearly in"Si doulchement mon ceur je sens souspris" where on the word "vivant", the upper voice repeats a motive five times: from e' to c. Further, it is unusual that the sequence is used only in one voice while other voices are singing unpredictable countermelodies.

Moderate the chords well,
Syncopating in legato fashion,
Deigning to use fleuretis [i.e. vibrato embelishments],
Not to excess but in good measure;
Striving all one's life
To learn to propotion
One's song with graceful ardor,
Perfectly, never lapsisng.

Noted on the back of Folio 104 of the Cypriot manuscript is a ballad "Pour haut et liement chanter" (to be sung high and legato); its text is nothing less than a summary of the compositional and interpretative ideals of Ars Subtilior music. The third verse, which concerns rhythmical interpretation and the art of embelishment, will serve to introduce the performance we are about to hear. Its text is as follows 


Some of the music found in the Cypriot manuscript are as follows:

  • Sanctus in eternis - Sanctus et ingenitus
    Four-part isorhythmic motet [Folio 75 verso - 76 recto]
  • Si doulchement mon ceur je sens souspris
    Three-part ballade [Folio 116 verso]
  • Je sui trestout d'amour raimpli
    Three-part virelai [Folio 155 recto]
  • Je suis trestout d'amour noriture
    Three-part virelai, instrumental
    [Folio 154 recto, with an additional second contratenor]
  • Gloria
    Four-part isorhythmic mass section [Folio 32 verso - 34 recto]
  • Certes mout fu - Nous devons tresfort amer
    Four-part isorhythmic motet [Folio 76 verso - 77 recto]
  • Je prens plaisir en une dame
    Three part ballade [Folio 104 verso]
  • Credo
    Four-part isorhythmic mass section (forms a pair with Gloria, No.5) [Folio 34 verso - 37 recto]
  • Personet armonia
    Three-part isorhythmic motet, instrumental [Folio 71 verso - 72 recto]
  • Si douchelment me fait amours -Nulz vrais
    Four-part ballade double [Folio 127 - 127 recto]

Music From the Court of King Janus at Nicosia (1374-1432), Sony Classics Recording, Huelgas Ensemble, conducted by Paul Van Nevel, 1993.