The reasons for the prominence of this little section were largely political-its comparative peace and the wisdom of its rulers. But they were also economic, its many populous towns being already launched on that fascinating career of commercial prosperity that presently made their people the merchant-princes of western Europe, The Netherlanders now began to display a civic and national spirit like that of the best modern nations, and their interest in music was simply a part of their general enterprise and independence.
Other parts of Europe were also moving along similar lines, though with more interruption. Northern Italy presents nlany analogies, espe-- cially in the prominence of large commercial towns, but there was much less unity of effort. England, too, was coming forward as a home of free enterprise, though not equal to her neighbor across the North Sea. The period is here called that of the Netherlanders. It has also been called Flemish or Belgian, neither of which is quite satisfactory. It might also be called Burgundian, since from 1363 for over a century it owed much to the four great dukes, Philip the Bold (d. 1404), John the Fearless (d. 1419), Philip the Good (d. 1467) and Charles the Bold (d. 1477), all of whom were friends of culture, especially music and painting. Their territory. varied in extent, often reaching from 'Antwerp on the north clear to the Mediterranean, including fully half of modern France, favorite seats of the court being Ghent or Bruges. In the struggles between France and England the dukes usually sided with the latter- which throws light on the close .connection in music between the Netherlanders and the English.
The Netherland school of sacred composition took its rise in some way from the later developments of secular song in northern France. If all the facts could be gathered, it is likely that from the ablest Trouveres, like Adam de la Hale (d. 1287), to the earliest of the contrapuntists, like Dunstable and Dufay (active by about 1420), a series of works could be found with a' continuous advance in method. While we cannot adequately fill this gap of almost one hundred and fifty years, it is clear that the transition from the solo minstrel-song to the polyphonic mass was made through the form known as the 'chanson' (the same word as the canson of the Troubadours, but a different thing). This was a secular piece in which a central melody or air was enriched by one to three other voice-parts so as to makea rude part-song.
The composer's object was not to produce a true chord-sequence (which would have involved more harmonic knowledge than the age possessed), but simply to match together two or three melodies as such. The foundation melody or cantusfirmus, selected from the stock of existing songs, sacred or secular, was usually given to a middle voice (ultimately called the 'tenor,' because it 'held' or carried the theme), and the added voices were the 'bass' below and the' alto' or 'soprano' (' treble ') above, sometimes both, giving four-part effects. From the rjth century we have a considerable list of' chansonniers, with many works of varying complexity. It is evident that the art of composition is converging upon part-writing of a novel kind. In the 14th century lor some reason the number of names and works extant is not so large, but they are enough to show that the style is being cultivated with growing assurance. At the opening of the 15th century we are suddenly confronted by an imposing array of composers, represented by many works in several varieties, especially masses, motets and chansons, all showing plain connections with previous styles, but with an artistic quality that is new. Apparently, then, the 14th century saw the gradual transmutation of the secular part-song, often hardly more than a fugitive improvisation, into the extended mass, wrought out with careful study and fully written down so as to secure the intended effect. From the original stage, when the aim was the mere amusement of some courtly circle, to the final one, when the enrichment of the cathedral service was attempted, was a striking transition, though not unparalleled in later musical history.