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Hyperion Records

CDA67848 - Clemens non Papa: Requiem & Penitential Motets
Virgin and Mary Magdalen at the foot of the Cross, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece (c1510/15) by Matthias Grünewald (c1480-1528)
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: March 2010
Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Antony Pitts
Engineered by Justin Lowe
Release date: January 2011
DISCID: B011140E
Total duration: 72 minutes 47 seconds

'The setting of Mass for the Dead understandably gets top billing, for despite its modest scale and simplicity, it is an affecting piece, as its opening movements signally testify. The Brabant Ensemble sing this with admirable clarity, assisted by a very transparent acoustic and recorded sound image' (Gramophone)

'This is the second recording by The Brabant Ensemble devoted to Clemens … together they go some way to convincing us that he was one of the better composers of the 16th century … here we get good tuning and chordal singing that glows from within' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The disc admirably addresses a gap in the market with highly expressive performances of a beautiful requiem and a series of exquisitely crafted motets, which illustrate powerfully Clemens' great gift for both melody and harmonic adventurousness and intensity of expression' (Early Music Review)

'Sympathetically recorded and with excellent booklet notes by Rice, this is another fine release by an ensemble that could be seen as stemming from the same tradition as The Tallis Scholars, i.e a chamber choir bringing before the public little-known repertoire, the worth of which it passionately believes in. It does it every bit as well, too' (International Record Review)

Requiem & Penitential Motets
Kyrie  [1'56] GreekEnglish

The Brabant Ensemble under their director Stephen Rice presents music for the dark time of the year.

Its latest disc of 16th-century polyphony features the extraordinary compositional gifts of Clemens non Papa, put to the service of the Requiem Mass and a selection of motets on a pentitential theme. Within this general aspect of solemnity can be found countless shades of expression and emotion.

Despite the popularity of the composer’s music during his lifetime, Clemens is a somewhat marginal figure today and many of these motets have never been recorded before. Yet, listening to this music today, one is immediately enthralled by its opulence and harmonic lushness, very different from the occasionally sterile polyphony of some of the composer’s contemporaries. The Brabant Ensemble’s fresh, uncluttered and sincere performances truly bring this glorious music to life.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Jacobus Clemens non Papa is one of the most remarkably underrated composers of the sixteenth century. From the 1540s onwards he was widely published throughout Europe, in particular by Tilman Susato of Antwerp (himself a composer). Clemens’s surviving output of motets, Mass-settings, Magnificats, Souterliedekens (Dutch metrical Psalms) and secular songs in French and Dutch approaches five hundred items in total, placing him among the most prolific of the age. Sixteenth-century writers on music who discuss the leading contemporary musicians invariably placed him in the first rank. Yet Clemens’s position in modern understanding of Renaissance polyphony can only be described as marginal. The number of recordings devoted to his work is still in single figures, and his music features in concert programmes and the music lists of ecclesiastical choirs only rarely. This is particularly surprising because his style of composition, to a greater degree than that of contemporaries such as Crecquillon and Manchicourt, is based on melody rather than being contrapuntally driven—though his contrapuntal skill is undoubted. Moreover, Clemens frequently created striking aural images, which catch the ear with a sudden change of texture or harmonic shift: in contrast to the intentionally seamless polyphony of the slightly older Gombert, for instance, which creates its effect by gradual intensification and relaxation, Clemens’s music is far more straightforwardly dramatic.

Little-known though his music may be, Clemens is at least celebrated for his nickname. The significance of the sobriquet ‘non Papa’ has been debated for a number of years, but the recent discovery by Henri Vanhulst of correspondence in 1553 between the Archduke Maximilian of Austria and Philippe du Croÿ, son of a deceased patron of Clemens, offers a possible explanation. Maximilian was seeking to build up the musical establishment of his chapel, and requested that his father’s Kapellmeister, the Netherlander Pieter Maessens, travel to the Low Countries in order to secure the services of Clemens. Du Croÿ replied that although it would be possible to achieve this, he would not recommend Clemens on account of the fact that he was a great drunkard and lived immorally (‘un grant ivrogne et tres mal vivant’—the latter probably referring to Clemens breaching his priestly vow of chastity). The position went to another Netherlander, the young Jacobus Vaet, and Clemens’s puzzling lack of any important employment, considering his fame and popularity as a composer, is explained. This story has a bearing, also, on the nickname (which appears in manuscripts in jocular alternative forms such as ‘nono Papa’ and ‘haud Papa’—‘absolutely not the Pope’). The time during Clemens’s life when there was a Pope Clement—the seventh, alias Giulio de’ Medici—was 1523 to 1534, during Clemens’s adolescence: one may speculate therefore that the composer became known as ‘non Papa’ at that time because of his distinctly un-ecclesiastical behaviour, and that the name persisted long after any distinction between musician and prelate was necessary, if it ever had been.

What about Clemens’s music caused his great popularity? Two features of his style stand out and set him somewhat apart from his contemporaries: both have to do with the constructive properties of his polyphony. Whereas musicians operating within the standard career paths of the time, such as his direct contemporary Thomas Crecquillon, were educated firstly in contrapuntal technique, and continued throughout their lives to base their compositions on a series of contrapuntal points woven together, Clemens’s textures seem often to function as melody with supporting lines—all written in an imitative style, certainly, but designed to emphasize the melodic gesture rather than to subsume it into a contrapuntal whole. An analogy could be made with the procedure of George Frideric Handel: where Handel writes fugues, their essence is the presentation of melody, and where the melody demands to be treated in a particular way, the counterpoint will accommodate it.

The second aspect of Clemens’s writing that draws the listener’s attention is the manipulation of harmony. To use the word ‘harmony’ in relation to sixteenth-century polyphony is to invite disapproval from those who believe the term anachronistic; but (partly for the reason elaborated in the last paragraph) I believe that Clemens can usefully be viewed in such terms, to a considerably greater extent than his contemporaries. Although passages in block chords had been present in sacred music for many years before his time, generally at moments of extreme solemnity such as the name of Jesus Christ in the Mass, on numerous occasions in the motets presented here Clemens blends chordal writing into the wider flow of the polyphony, in order to achieve effects that seem more to do with form or even more abstract concepts, than with illustration of the text. An example is found in the short (and very unusual) motet Vae tibi Babylon et Syria, which takes a text from the Apocryphal book 2 Esdras concerning the impending annihilation of cities hostile to the Jews. The inhabitants of these cities are invited to clothe themselves with sackcloth and hair shirts: this line of text is extended over nearly two minutes of music, in which the somewhat aggressive stance of the piece’s opening is gradually wound down towards the subdued ‘plangite filios vestros’ (‘weep for your children’). The motion of the bass part is slowed to semibreves and breves while the upper three voices gradually sink sequentially over the range of an octave. The evidently deliberate reduction of tension in this passage creates a sense of exhausted despair that can only partly be broken for the final text ‘quoniam appropinquavit perditio vestra’ (‘for your destruction is drawing near’).

Elsewhere in his motet output Clemens adopts other formal strategies that seem independent of text expression. In the large tripartite motet De profundis, which sets Psalm 130, for instance, the first section ends with an extended downward sequence at ‘Domine, quis sustinebit?’ (‘Lord, who could bear it?’). The texture is full at this point, with the lowest two of the five voices moving steadily in minims and in parallel thirds, while the soprano and one of the altos adopt a dactylic rhythm (semibreve–minim–minim), again mostly in parallel motion. Meanwhile the quinta pars or second alto is far more rhythmically active, syncopating with semiminims and minims against the prevailing tactus. No voice straightforwardly underlays the text (and the sixteenth-century sources are unhelpful in their underlay indications), reinforcing the impression that this passage was conceived as a sonic unit rather than specifically with the expression of these words in mind. This is underlined when a reworked version of the same sequence reappears at the end of the final section, but this time in triple rhythm, so that the four beats of a sequential unit in the first statement make up one-and-one-third breves rather than one breve, and the accentual pattern is ingeniously displaced.

If such quasi-instrumental passages suggest a composer most closely attuned to sonority, elsewhere in De profundis Clemens refutes any suggestion that he might be oblivious of textual concerns. Earlier in the third section, the word ‘misericordia’ (‘mercy’) is treated homophonically and with perfect Humanist word-stress; and towards the beginning of the piece ‘Si iniquitates’ (‘If [you should observe] transgressions’) is not only sung homophonically but repeated at a higher pitch for increased emotional effect. De profundis as a whole is one of Clemens’s most impressive achievements, running for nearly ten minutes as a freestanding musical structure.

Matching it in scale is Tristitia et anxietas, slightly shorter in terms of note values but even longer in performance. This motet has long been known to students of Renaissance polyphony for its apparent influence on the setting of the same text by William Byrd, first noted by Joseph Kerman; however, like the majority of motets presented here it does not appear to have been recorded before now. Its anguished tone is set by the opening imitative point which, in the manner of Clemens’s distinguished older colleague Nicolas Gombert, winds slowly and tortuously around a single pitch, with an opening movement of a semitone. Other obvious emotional tugs are provided at ‘occupaverunt’ (‘have invaded’) with another semitone; ‘Moestum factum est cor meum’ (‘My heart has been made dejected in grief’), which is homophonic and uses the fauxbourdon texture that frequently signals heightened emotion in this repertory; and most obviously at ‘Vae mihi’ (‘Woe unto me’) with block chords high in the choir’s range, and chromaticism that is not written in, but forced by the rules of musica ficta, producing a wrenching harmonic shift that underlines the anguish conveyed by the text. The second section of the piece changes its outlook entirely, trusting in God’s care for those who hope in him (‘sperantes in te’—again highlighted with homophony). Finally the text, emulating Job in its willingness to bless God despite extreme misery, states ‘may your name be blessed now and always’: the final phrase ‘et in saecula saeculorum. Amen’ is subjected to sequential treatment, with a waterfall-like figure that Clemens evidently felt bore repetition in toto.

Peccantem me quotidie was a popular choice of text for Renaissance composers, being set by Byrd, Lassus, and Palestrina among the great names of the later sixteenth century, as well as Clemens, his contemporaries Thomas Crecquillon and Pierre de Manchicourt, and numerous more obscure figures (Manchicourt’s setting has been recorded by The Brabant Ensemble on Hyperion CDA67604). The text, a Respond from the Office for the Dead, is treated in its correct liturgical form by Clemens, though there is no evidence that it was intended as part of a liturgical cycle. Just as in Tristitia et anxietas, Clemens appears to have focused his compositional energies partly on directly text-expressive manoeuvres, and partly on musical gestures. The former is exemplified by the opening rising fourth followed by a downward tone, a frequent mournful opening as found—to name but one place—in the ‘Emperor’s song’ Mille regretz attributed to Josquin Des Prez. A second instance is the text line ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, God’) which concludes both sections, where the texture is rapidly thinned down to two voices in an open fifth, emphasizing the penitential utterance with a rising and falling semitone—another device of Josquin’s, found especially in his motet on the ‘Miserere’ text. Sonorous invention is heard just before this moment in the first section, where ‘quia in inferno’ (‘for in hell’) brings a sequence descending to the depths followed by a static setting of the word ‘nulla [est redemptio]’ (‘there is no [redemption]’). In the second section, conversely, Clemens composes a rare rising sequence for ‘libera me’ (‘free me’), each repetition taking five beats and therefore breaking the regular pulse as if the vocal line is discarding its rhythmic shackles.

Clemens set the text Erravi sicut ovis (‘I have wandered like a sheep’) twice, once for four voices and once for five. The five-voice setting recorded here doubles the alto register, with an ostinato repeating the Prodigal Son’s plea ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your presence: now I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your servants’. The mood in the first section is supplicatory rather than anguished, with increased intensity in the final third of the piece, at ‘quoniam speravi in te’ (‘for I have trusted in you’), where the lower three voices become more rhythmical and the tessitura rises as the prayer requests to be surrounded with joyfulness (‘circumda me laetitia’).

The two shorter motets Heu mihi, Domine and Vox in Rama are linked by their use of another expressive interval, the rising minor sixth. The former then reverts to the trusted formula of the semitone upper auxiliary note at ‘quia peccavi nimis’ (‘for I have sinned greatly’), before bringing the rising fourth and downward scale into play (‘Quid faciam miser?’—‘What shall I do, miserable?’). With homophony and expressive suspensions at ‘Ubi fugiam?’ (‘Where should I flee?’), the first section of this piece offers a catalogue of the devices used by Clemens and his contemporaries to bring out sorrowful feelings in their motet texts. Vox in Rama similarly uses expressive fourth leaps, sequences and homophony, but on a much smaller canvas, the whole piece lasting only seventy-two breves. The story of Rachel weeping for her lost children is perhaps the most harrowing of all the penitential texts represented here. (It also provided the model for a setting by the Jacobean English composer George Kirbye, as shown by D Humphreys, Early Music 2008.)

The Missa pro defunctis is not one of Clemens’s better-known Mass-settings, which is somewhat surprising given its austere beauty. Like most Requiem settings of the Renaissance, it combines movements from the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei—the Gloria and Credo would not have been sung at Masses for the dead) with those Proper to the occasion, namely the Introit, Tract, Offertory, and Communion. For most of the Mass the plainchant melodies are paraphrased in the tenor voice, though occasionally they are found in the soprano (for instance in the Kyrie and Offertory). Given the relatively restricted palette of four voices and chant paraphrase chosen by Clemens, he is able to conjure a remarkably varied range of harmonic colours across the seven movements of the Requiem.

The Introit is the most conventional movement, with the chant in long notes in the tenor initially; for the Psalm verse ‘et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem’ (‘and the vow will be repaid to you in Jerusalem’) the texture becomes homophonic with a straight falsobordone harmonization of the Psalm tone in the top voice. After the mandatory repeat of the opening section the Kyrie adopts a similar homophonic style, though Clemens begins to vary his choice of harmonies, notably by introducing an unexpected final chord for the Christe section. The Tract follows the plainsong into a different tonal area, reverting to a more imitative texture. Having created the dialogue between these two styles, Clemens begins in the latter part of the Tract to mingle them, first introducing harmonic twists (perhaps significantly at the word ‘evadere’), then underlining the sentiment of the final text phrase with a general pause and homophonic texture.

The Offertory is both the central movement and the longest, at 4'30". In the main it is rapid, moving in fast semibreves and homophonically. The final line of the first section, ‘quam olim Abrahae promisisti’ (‘as long ago you promised Abraham’) is more relaxed in spirit, yielding to chant (taken here by the women) and, following a further energetic verse, returning to round off the movement in a reflective vein.

Like the Kyrie, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei are both short, but here—especially in the Agnus—Clemens is at his most ingenious in avoiding unnecessary repetition. Each invocation of the Agnus Dei ends on a slightly different chord: the final one is forced by the melodic shape of the top voice to finish in the minor, unusually for any Renaissance piece but especially for a Requiem movement since the chants are largely in the major mode (which at this time lacked any connotation of happiness, being regarded rather more as harsh). Finally the Communion Proper completes the Mass in tender fashion, with a return to the ‘Requiem aeternam’ text and almost static chords for its response ‘et lux perpetua luceat eis’ (‘and let perpetual light shine on them’), followed by a lightly ornamented repeat of the line ‘quia pius es’ (‘since you are merciful’). Clemens’s Requiem Mass may be one of the less demonstrative sixteenth-century settings of these texts, eschewing the compositional virtuosity that characterizes his motets, but it achieves a solemn reflectiveness that is highly appropriate musically for this ritual of mourning.

Stephen Rice © 2010

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