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Hyperion Records

CDA67271/2 - Lassus: Penitential Psalms

Recording details: August 1997
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: March 1998
Total duration: 141 minutes 18 seconds

'Vocal chamber music of a very high order' (Choir & Organ)

'This ensemble offers an extraordinarily convincing and unfailingly absorbing realization of the intimacy and dark introspection central to these wonderful compositions. A recording that belongs in any proper library of Renaissance music' (American Record Guide)

'It has been a long wait, but we now have the Penitential Psalms readily available in a set that will give lasting satisfaction. Seize the day!' (Fanfare, USA)

Penitential Psalms

Lassus was one of the most prolific of all Renaissance composers, writing an extraordinary quantity of music of high quality and in an exceptionally wide range of styles. Only a handful of Lassus' contemporaries begin to approach his compositional refinement and scarcely any can match his innate ability to express the meaning of a text so clearly. This skill comes to the fore in these setting of the seven Penitential Psalms, texts which held an important place in the liturgy during the Church's build-up to Easter. These are works of a profoundly gloomy nature.

Each Psalm takes its 'mode' (or 'tonality') from one of the sequence of eight 'modes' by which plainchant had come to be categorized. Lassus solves the problem of what to do with the eighth mode by amalgamating two of the so-called 'Laudate' Psalms (those beginning with the word 'Laudate'—an instruction to the people to praise God) into a work full of vitality. Although having absolutely no liturgical link with the Penitential Psalms, Lassus published all eight works together, perhaps exactly because they are so different in mood.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Orlande de Lassus was born at Mons, in Hainaut, in 1532 and died in Munich on 14 June 1594. He was one of the most gifted, prolific and cosmopolitan composers of his time. Although legend has it that he was three times abducted because of the beauty of his voice, there is in fact little definite evidence either about his antecedents or his early life. The first attested fact is that, at about the age of twelve, he entered the service of Ferrante Gonzaga, a general in the service of Charles V. Gonzaga was in the Low Countries in the summer of 1544 and, when he returned south, it seems likely that Lassus accompanied him back to Italy where he visited Mantua in 1545. Gonzaga then went to Milan and it is thought that Lassus spent the years from 1547 to 1549 there. After a period in Naples, Lassus moved to Rome where he was appointed Maestro di Cappella at St John Lateran in 1553 as the immediate predecessor of Palestrina in that post. He left this appointment after little over a year to return to his homeland where his parents were ill, only to find on his arrival that they had both died. Lassus is next heard of in Antwerp in 1555 where Susato printed a first collection of his music. In the following year Lassus received and accepted an invitation to join the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich, where he was engaged as a tenor under the then Maestro di Cappella Ludwig Daser. In 1563, when Daser retired, Lassus succeeded him as Maestro, beginning a thirty-year period in the post which ended only with his death in 1594.

Lassus wrote an extraordinary quantity of music of high quality and in an exceptionally wide range of styles. He was held in very high regard in his lifetime, particularly by his employers, the Duke Albrecht and subsequently his son and heir Wilhelm, with whom Lassus conducted a lively correspondence, sometimes in a mixture of languages. He was evidently valued not just as a gifted and extremely inventive musician but also as an amusing and diverting companion. He achieved international fame, won several international competitions for musical composition, and received honours from the Emperor Maximilian, who ennobled him and granted him a coat of arms in 1570, and from Pope Gregory XIII, who created him a Knight of the Golden Spur in Rome in 1574.

Psalmody, the singing of Psalms (Greek psalmodia originally meaning singing accompanied by the striking or plucking of a stringed instrument) was a central and well-established feature of Jewish religion when it was taken into the worship of the early Christian Church. It spread rapidly over the Christian world and we have accounts from the third century testifying to how widespread the practice had become. Members of the clergy and the monastic orders were expected to commit the whole Psalter to memory. The monastic orders, especially the Benedictines, promoted the incorporation of the Book of Psalms into the Western Liturgy so that all 150 Psalms were recited each week, a practice which continued in the Roman Catholic Church until the 1971 revision of the Breviary which provides instead for a monthly cycle of Psalm readings. In the Anglican Church the Psalms have traditionally been said on a monthly basis and psalmody has been an important feature of the Continental Protestant and English Nonconformist tradition. In addition to forming part of the Divine Office in this way, the Psalms have provided the major source of the texts of the Mass Propers, such as the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion, which vary according to the season of the Church Year and are inserted between the unvarying texts of the Mass Ordinary—the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.

The seven Penitential Psalms are a group of Psalms, numbers 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 in the Anglican numbering (in the Vulgate all except Psalm 6 are numbered one digit lower), which have been in liturgical use for penitential prayer since early Christian times and, in the later Middle Ages, were prescribed to be recited after Lauds on Fridays in Lent. In the Book of Common Prayer they are appointed as Proper Psalms for Ash Wednesday, the first three at Matins, Psalm 51 at the Commination and the last three at Evensong. In the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic liturgy, as established by the Missal issued by Pius V in 1570, more extensive use is made of the Penitential Psalms; this is described below under the heading of each Psalm. The Munich Court, which had hitherto followed the rite of the diocese of Freising, adopted the Tridentine liturgy at Christmas 1581.

Lassus made settings of all the seven Penitential Psalms together with the two Laudate Psalms, Laudate Dominum de caelis (Psalm 148) and Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius (Psalm 150). They first appeared, shortly after his appointment as Maestro in 1563, in the form of two sumptuously produced manuscripts, lavishly decorated and adorned by superb illuminations by the Munich court painter Hans Mielich. They were copied between 1565 and 1571 and were reserved for use by Duke Albrecht. Two companion volumes of commentary on the music and the miniatures were also produced by Samuel van Quickelberg, a Dutch adviser to the Duke. According to Quickelberg these compositions had been produced in response to a commission from the Duke and when, after his death in 1579, they were eventually published, with some changes, in a printed edition by Berg in Munich in 1584, Lassus’ preface refers to them having been composed about twenty-five years before and retained in the use of Duke Albrecht. This suggests that they were composed around 1559, shortly after Lassus’ first engagement by the Duke in 1556. Quickelberg refers to these compositions as ‘musica reservata’. Describing Lassus as the most distinguished and polished musician of the century, he says that Lassus’ music expresses the textual content of the Psalms so aptly with lamenting and plaintive tones, almost bringing the subject to life before one’s eyes, that it is difficult to say whether the emotions of the text more enhance the lamentation of the music or whether the lamentation of the music brings greater adornment to the text. This type of music they call ‘musica reservata’, he says, and in these and in his almost innumerable other compositions Lassus has amply shown to posterity the inimitable excellence of his genius. The definition of the term ‘musica reservata’ has been much debated by musicologists and different sources imply different meanings; but Quickelberg’s comments suggest that he intended to convey first that the music of these Psalms was, like much of Lassus’ music, especially responsive to the meaning of the text and used special techniques such as word-painting, sudden chordal shifts and changes of rhythm to bring this out; and secondly that, perhaps because it needed the informed knowledge of a musical connoisseur to appreciate these fully, this was a class of music often ‘reserved’ for use by a patron.

Though he makes use of a wide variety of compositional techniques in his settings, Lassus builds an element of musical scaffolding into the cycle by composing each of the Psalms in a different musical church mode. The first Penitental Psalm is thus set in mode 1, sometimes termed the Dorian mode, the second in mode 2, the Hypodorian (transposed up a fourth), and so on until the last Psalm which is in mode 7, the Mixolydian. This left an untidiness in that there was no Penitential Psalm to take up mode 8, the Hypomixolydian. Lassus dealt with this by adding a setting of two Laudate Psalms in mode 8. There seems to have been no liturgical reason why he included the Laudate Psalms in the same publication as the Penitential Psalms, but they are less sombre in style than the Penitential Psalms and it is possible he did so partly in order to provide balance in the work as a whole.

The eight modes originated as a means of classifying and regulating plainsong melodies based on a series of different diatonic scale patterns associated with characteristic melodic patterns, specified ranges, reciting notes and finals. These features gave each of the modes a different musical flavour and, although not all these features could be precisely carried over into music for more than one part, the idea of such compositions having a specific modal character was carried over into polyphonic music as it developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition to the purely musical characteristics of each mode, there was retained from earlier times, going back as far as the eleventh century, the idea that each mode had a specific ‘affect’ and it also became for a while the custom to order the polyphonic compositions in a collection of pieces in the sequence of their modes. (In order to accommodate all the Psalms on two compact discs it has been necessary here to move the Laudate Psalms out of sequence.)

Each of the authorities who wrote on the subject of ‘affects’ described them rather differently, but a contemporary English example can be taken from John Daye’s Psalter of 1567, to which Thomas Tallis contributed his well-known eight tunes, one in each of the eight modes. This Psalter is a metrical translation of the Psalms by Matthew Parker (1504–1575), a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who later was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Elizabeth I. The Psalter offers the following descriptions:

Dorian The first is meeke: devout to see.
Hypodorian The second is sad; in maiesty.
Phrygian The third doth rage: and roughly brayeth.
Hypophrygian The fourth doth fawne: and flattry playeth.
Lydian The fifth delighth: and laugheth the more.
Hypolydian The sixth bewayleth: it weepeth full sore.
Mixolydian The seventh tredeth stoute: in froward race.
Hypomixolydian The eighth goeth milde: in modest pace.

The two Laudate Psalms are written in a lighter vein and may happen to correspond to the designation of mode 8 by Hermannus Contractus, an eleventh-century theorist, as ‘joyful and exultant’, but it does not seem that Lassus’ settings of the Penitential Psalms really conform at all to the general character of these ‘affect’ descriptions and, given the uniformly sombre nature of the texts, this is scarcely surprising. What he was really interested in was the detailed shaping of each movement to the specific ideas in the text as these arose.

Penitential Psalm No 1 (Psalm 6) is prescribed for Monday at Compline and also at Matins of the Office of the Dead. Lassus’ setting opens with a passage of sombre and slow-moving full harmony to set the mood of the cycle but he soon begins to introduce more movement and variety of texture. As in all the other settings of the cycle Lassus breaks the text up into a number of separate short sections, sometimes less than a verse in length, and employs constant changes of texture and sections for reduced voices to introduce variety and point up the character of each piece of the text. Within each section he constantly finds ways of illuminating particular words, such as the wonderful falling bass scale arriving at a deep B flat chord at the word ‘morte’ in the section beginning ‘Quoniam non est in morte’ or, in the last section before the Doxology, the sudden triple-time cross-rhythms at the words ‘et conturbentur vehementer’ and the flurry of quavers produced by the the words ‘valde velociter’.

Penitential Psalm No 2 (Psalm 32) is prescribed for Monday at Matins and at Prime in the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (2 November). In this Psalm Lassus uses passages of sonorous homophony lightly seasoned with polyphony, more fugally conceived sections for all voices, short passages in triple time and reduced voice sections in a vigorous imitative style to keep the music moving forward. After a powerful homophonic Gloria the Psalm concludes, as do the others, with a final section in six voices of great expansiveness.

Penitential Psalm No 3 (Psalm 38) is set for Matins on Maundy Thursday and is also used at Terce in the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. This setting makes a good deal more use of imitative voice-leading than the second Psalm but also includes effective passages of rapid homophony to illustrate ‘neque in ira tua’ and ‘impleti sunt illusionibus’, some beautifully written duos and trios in a strongly imitative manner and, again, a powerful six-part ending.

Of the two Laudate Psalms, Psalm 148 is sung at Lauds on Christmas Day and during the Burial Service of Very Young Children. Psalm 150 is sung at Lauds on Holy Saturday and at Lauds in the Office of the Dead. It seems clear that Lassus regarded the two Laudate settings as effectively one unit because he follows the rather extraordinary procedure of beginning the second one in the middle of a section for reduced voices following the most perfunctory of cadences. The setting is divided into four long sections, the last of which is in six parts. Responding to the joyful nature of the text, the music is written in a lively style which balances the sombre mood of the Penitential Psalms.

Penitential Psalm No 4 (Psalm 51) seems always to have attracted a great deal of devotional attention. There was a tradition of singing it in a fauxbourdon style of simple homophonic chanting often with alternate verses being sung to plainsong. Victoria produced a written-out alternatim setting in this manner. Savonarola, shortly before his execution in 1498, produced a meditation on the Psalm, entitled ‘Infelix ego’, which ends with its first sentence and was taken as motet text by both Byrd and Lassus. The Psalm is used in the Burial Service and the Office of the Dead as well as in Lent; and it is also prescribed in the traditional liturgy (considerably modified in 1955) for Holy Week for Lauds on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In the ‘Tenebrae’ ceremony of progressively extinguishing the lights in the church during the service, a set of fifteen candles mounted on a hearse (a triangular frame bearing fifteen candles) was placed in front of the altar. One candle was extinguished at the end of each Psalm until only the topmost candle remained lit. During the Benedictus the six candles on the altar were likewise extinguished one by one, from each side alternately at every second verse, so that by the last verse all were extinguished. All other lights in the church were also put out. Then, during the repetition of the Benedictus antiphon Traditor autem, this final lighted candle was hidden behind the altar, signifying Christ’s death. The verse of the antiphon ‘Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem’ was then chanted (extra words were prescribed for the two following nights) and then Psalm 51 was recited in a low voice, followed by the collect ‘Respice, quaesumus Domine’ and the prayer ‘Qui tecum vivit’. At the end of the prayer, a noise, signifying chaos, was made by knocking on the choir stalls until the remaining lighted candle reappeared from behind the altar, signifying Christ’s resurrection. All present then rose and retired in silence. Lassus’ setting of the Psalm draws on his usual range of techniques but reflects the fauxbourdon tradition in relying heavily on sombre homophonic or near-homophonic writing.

Penitential Psalm No 5 (Psalm 102), one of the longest in the cycle, is sung at None in the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Lassus uses the full range of his musical techniques to sustain interest and keep the music moving forward to an impressive six-part ending.

Penitential Psalm No 6 (Psalm 130), the shortest, is sung at Vespers on Wednesday, during the Burial Service, and in the Office of the Dead at Vespers and Lauds. Lassus’ setting is unique in the cycle in that it is constructed around a cantus firmus, loosely based on the sixth Psalm tone, which figures in each of its eight sections. It appears first in the Baritone I part. In section 2 it is used in a canon between the Tenor and Baritone I parts. In section 3 it forms the basis of a canon by inversion between the same two voices. In section 4 it forms the structural basis of a short trio. In section 5 it migrates to the Bass, moving up, in slightly modified form, in the next section to the second Baritone part. The following trio and quartet display it in the top part and in the Doxology it returns to its original place in the first Baritone part.

Penitential Psalm No 7 (Psalm 143) is set for Lauds on Good Friday and Compline in the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. In this Psalm Lassus returns to the use of the full range of musical devices, including some wonderful pieces of word-painting. These include a strongly syncopated setting in rapid motion of the words ‘turbatum est cor meum’ at the end the fourth section, similar treatment of the words ‘Velociter exaudi me, Domine’ in section 7; and a marvellous setting of the following phrase ‘defecit spiritus meus’, which begins after a rest in all parts, ends on an unstressed beat and is followed by a written-in bar’s rest in all parts. The Doxology provides a strong finish, with the Gloria beginning in steady, broad, near homophonic manner and the last section opening in a rather florid imitative style gradually bringing all the six parts into a sustained and sonorous ending.

Jon Dixon © 1998

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