Please wait...

Hyperion Records

GIMBX303 - Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 3

Recording details: April 2005
Various recording venues
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2010
Total duration: 310 minutes 54 seconds

Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 3
The Tallis Scholars Finest Recordings, 2000-2009

The third of three volumes featuring The Tallis Scholars' finest recordings, one for each decade, and each offering over five hours of the award-winning performances that helped establish Renaissance Polyphony as one of the great repertoires of western classical music. Volume 3 features recordings released between 2000 and 2009.

Other recommended albums
'Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1' (GIMBX301)
Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1
MP3 £15.99FLAC £15.99ALAC £15.99 GIMBX301  Boxed set (at a special price) — Download only  
'Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 2' (GIMBX302)
Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 2
MP3 £15.99FLAC £15.99ALAC £15.99Buy by post £17.50 GIMBX302  4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
'Berwald: Symphonies & Overtures' (CDD22043)
Berwald: Symphonies & Overtures
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 CDD22043  2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)  
'The Tallis Scholars sing Flemish Masters' (CDGIM211)
The Tallis Scholars sing Flemish Masters
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £11.75 CDGIM211  2CDs for the price of 1  
'Renaissance Giants' (CDGIM207)
Renaissance Giants
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £11.75 CDGIM207  2CDs for the price of 1  

This set of recordings begins with a short motet by a composer few people these days are familiar with. Philippe Verdelot (c1480/85–?1530/32) has been represented on Tallis Scholars’ concert programmes only by his beautiful Marian motet Beata es – Ave Maria; and his star has yet to rise more generally. Yet in his lifetime he was one of the most celebrated composers of the middle Renaissance period, and Si bona suscepimus was one of his most influential pieces. A Frenchman who after 1521 found most of his employment in Florence, Verdelot seems to have had an exciting life there, befriending Machiavelli and other republican intellectuals, probably siding against the Medici in their struggles against invading forces while holding down two of the most prestigious musical positions in the city: maestro di cappella at the baptistry of S Maria del Fiore (from 24 March 1522 at the latest to 7 September 1525) and at the cathedral (2 April 1523 to 28 June 1527). It is not known whether he was in Florence during the siege of 1529–30, or whether he survived it, but a number of the texts he set at that time suggest that he had first-hand experi­ence of the war, famine and strife which beset Florence during the last republic. Si bona susce­pimus, amongst other late motets of Verdelot, goes so far as to celebrate Florentine revivals of Savonarola’s theological and political doctrines.

One suspects however that the subsequent fame of the five-voice Si bona suscepimus was based entirely on the quality of its music. It is to be found in at least six printed anthologies, twenty-seven manuscripts and eleven intabula­tions and in 1545, almost certainly after the death of its composer, served as theatrical music in a German play. This and other motets were parodied by, among others, Arcadelt, Palestrina, Gombert, Lassus and Morales. One of the advantages of Verdelot’s late style to would-be parody writers is the beautifully simple melodic lines, the clearly delineated sections and austere textures which he had come to favour. Because the writing is so transparent the motifs are instantly recognizable; and the formal beauty of this motet is increased by a hidden repeat in the music, so that, although the phrases run con­tinuously, the words ‘The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away’ are used as a refrain, giving the overall shape of ABCB (this incidentally was Verdelot’s repeat, not Job’s). These words, suggesting civil disorder, are duly set in the most sombre style. It wasn’t for nothing that in 1552 Ortenzio Landi wrote: ‘Verdelot, the Frenchman, was singular in his time.’

Of all the many masters of the Flemish Renaissance who are held to be of minor interest, Nicolas Gombert (c1495–c1560) least deserves it. Although in the last twenty years there has been a genuine revival of interest, there is a long way to go before his uniquely expressive style is properly recognized for what it was; and this will never be achieved without reference to his ‘swan-song’ and most substantial masterpiece, the set of eight Magnificats, one on each of the eight Tones.

They form an anthology of everything he was capable of. Throughout his career he had developed an interest in dense textures. Very rarely resorting to chordal writing and preferring bass- and tenor-heavy textures, he had specialized in the kind of polyphony which makes a virtue of detail; and to pack in yet more of it he tended to use five or six voices (where, in Josquin, four would have sufficed), sometimes fitting in lines where the outside observer would have sworn that to add anything further was impossible. With such a starting-point, it is a miracle of his art that he always managed to avoid a featureless muddiness. Indeed, the way the imitation works between the voices is as clear as it is resourceful and intensely argued, as tight as a bud which occasionally is allowed to blossom into fully fledged sequences and brief melodies.

What will surely strike the listener’s ear is the number of dissonances which Gombert wrote. In part these are the inevitable result of his habit of filling up the sonority. The polyphonic strands, more motivic than straightforwardly melodic, can seem deliberately to bump into each other, the range of expressive possibilities increased by his cavalier interpretation of the rules of normal part-writing. Particular examples of this are his delight in leaping from dissonant notes and not preparing suspensions properly; and yet he always moves his lines within narrow tessituras, in a restricted overall range, the top notes never very high, the low notes not low. One unexpected aspect of this technique is that the actual voice ranges are constantly shifting about: what is meant by ‘tenor’, for instance, is never stable. Another is the constant opportunity to deploy false relations, sometimes known as ‘English clashes’, by inflecting notes at cadences. There is a flourishing debate about how much the modern performer is entitled to do this, especially in Flemish music but, being English, we have long had the chance to admire the expressive effects of these dissonances in composers such as Sheppard and Tomkins, and use them freely here.

There is some historical evidence (and a story worth retelling) to suggest that this set of Magnificats was indeed the summation of all that Gombert had striven for in his music. The source of it is a contemporary physician and polymath named Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576) who recounted that Gombert was at one point imprisoned in a galley on the orders of Charles V, after having been convicted of molesting a choirboy in his care, and secured his release by composing his ‘swansongs’ which so pleased the Emperor that he was pardoned and allowed to retire to a benefice. It is known that Gombert did retire to a benefice in Tournai, and the Magnificats (his last major works, and to texts in which he had previously shown no interest) fit the designation ‘swansong’ very well, for all that it is a little hard to imagine why he should have turned his mind to such things when bobbing around on the ocean chained in a cabin. Previous to this imprisonment he had, in 1526, joined the chapel of Charles V as a singer, and by 1529 was the master of the choirboys of the Imperial Chapel. He is present in documents from 1526 to 1537 but is not present in a chapel list of 1540. In 1547 he describes himself as a canon of the Cathedral of Tournai, and he appears to have died before 1560.

All the Magnificats follow the same basic pattern: setting the even-numbered verses to polyphony and leaving the odd-numbered ones in chant. The early verses tend to be scored for four voices, increasing to five or more by the last one. Much of Gombert’s material is derived from the chant itself, as can be clearly heard in the points of imitation at the beginning of each setting. Furthermore, he faithfully retained the pitches of the cadences within the chant tones, using them in the polyphony both at the halfway point and at the end of each verse. (In his settings of Tones 3 and 6 he gave the performer two options, made possible by the fact that the contours of Tones 3 and 8 are similar, as are those of 6 and 1. In both cases he provided a setting of Tones 3 and 6, complete with final cadence in each verse and a sign to show that those tones end there. However, he then extended each setting to accommodate Tone 8 and 1 endings respectively, presumably for practical reasons for performance within the liturgy. In order to sing all of his polyphony we chose to record the extensions, and list the Magnificats accordingly.)

Each of the Magnificats has its own charac­teristics: Tone 1 introduces the listener to the essential method, beginning with the four standard voices SATB and eventually scoring up to five and then six, always doubling the lower parts, never the soprano and rarely the alto. As with some of the later settings, all the verses (except the three-part ‘Fecit potentiam’) begin with two melodies sounding together, one derived from the chant and the other apparently free – what is known as ‘double counterpoint’, a device much favoured by J S Bach in his fugues. The relationship between the various statements of these ideas, and how they combine, is unbelievably intricate. The intensity of this kind of writing is, however, regularly lightened by outward-going cadential flourishes, like the extended one into B flat at ‘et in saecula’ in the last verse.

Tone 2 again features four-part writing at the beginning, scoring down to three and then (unique to the whole set) two parts in the middle verses, finally expanding to five in the last. Nowhere is the overall tessitura wide enough at written pitch to accommodate a soprano part (and the first tenor part is persistently a third higher than the second). Gombert’s ability to derive points and imitative schemes from the chant tone alone is crystal clear in this setting, and nowhere more so than in the two-part ‘Esurientes’. Only in the last two polyphonic verses does he turn to the relative complexities of double counterpoint again.

Tone 3 presents what might be called the ideal Gombert scheme for the Magnificat: beginning with three voices and then adding one with each new verse, ending up, five verses later, with eight. The effect of these additions, while working the same basic (chant-based) material, is to state that material in an ever-denser context: a kind of aural perspective which opens out before your ears, the music acquiring extra dimensions as the same ideas are deepened and intensified. Gombert keeps the opening point unaltered until he reaches the seven-voice ‘Sicut locutus est’, when it goes into long notes, first in the top part and then in one or other of the tenors. The last verse employs four of the eight voices in two separate canons, one of them (between a soprano and a tenor) reverting to the chant- based point of the earlier verses. From the third verse (in five parts) onwards this Magnificat provides some of the most exhilarating poly­phony of the mid-sixteenth century.

Tone 4, like Tones 2 and 5, is essentially a four-part setting – without a soprano part but including two unequal tenors. It is probably the strictest of all the settings in deriving its material from the chant, the extra bass part in the last verse (now in six parts) providing a further resonant example of aural perspective. Just when the listener might conclude he has heard all that can possibly be done with the basic material, Gombert underpins the texure with yet another entry, lower in pitch than anything stated previously. There is little else in the period to rival the intensity of this technique, which Gombert revisits even more memorably in the last verse of Tone 8.

The chant of Tone 5 is transparently rooted in what the modern ear would call F major, beginning with the three notes of the triad F-A-C. Gombert equally transparently takes this as his starting point in each polyphonic verse, either using the triad in imitation (‘Fecit potentiam’ and ‘Sicut locutus est’) or filling it in to make a scale in imitation (‘Quia fecit’ and ‘Sicut erat’). This is the only Magnificat of the set to add a voice on top of the previously established texture in the last verse, necessitating the introduction of sopranos.

Although Gombert’s setting of Tone 3 is the most elaborate of his Magnificats in terms of numbers of voice-parts, Tone 6 is the most substantial in polyphonic terms, as beautiful in its detail as it is exquisitely crafted. All the basic material is consistently worked at greater length than elsewhere, which gives Gombert scope for such things as memorable sequences (especially at ‘et nunc, et semper’ in the last verse), double points and even, at the very opening, augmentation. Added to this is the effectiveness of the scoring, the last three polyphonic verses (TTB, TTBB, ATTBB) proceeding as if in a broad sweep to the final few bars. These bars are among the most highly dissonant, thickly scored and intense Gombert ever wrote.

By contrast Tone 7 is the least orthodox of the set. Gombert’s writing here has a harmonic uneasiness, often to be found in music based on this Tone, which is inherent in the chant melodies themselves. In modern terminology, although the notes of these melodies seem loosely to move around the triad of A minor, at the same time they convey a feeling of F major. And there is the further complication of the tritone between F and B natural, also characteristic of this Tone, though the angularity of it can be eased in the polyphony by applying musica ficta. It was part of Gombert’s musical personality to explore and if possible emphasize problematic issues like these, which he does here by regularly writing phrases which include the tritone, and by beginning four of the six polyphonic verses in F, but ending them all in A. The result, in its own way, is a tour de force.

Tone 8 makes a fitting climax to the set, both in the subtlety of its motivic elaboration and, unusually, in the beauty of its melodies. In addition Gombert’s scoring is at its most flexible here, the fifth polyphonic verse adding an extra alto part to the established SATB choir, which gives the only incidence of doubled altos in the set (he never did double the sopranos). This part then disappears again in the last verse which resumes Gombert’s favourite technique of adding new parts below the prevailing texture, conjuring a low bass out of nowhere. The result is the five lower voices presenting and re-presen­ting musical motifs in a narrow vocal range while the sopranos sing unforgettable arabesques above them (‘et in saecula’). To conceive such involving detail within a deliberately restricted idiom is a characteristic of chamber music of any period at its very best.

Since the release in 2005 of The Tallis Scholars’ disc dedicated to John Browne it has become more and more obvious that with him we are dealing with an English composer who should rank with the greatest the country has ever produced. Like Tallis, Purcell, Elgar and Britten, Browne had a compositional voice capable of conjuring up a sound-world which literally has no equal. The power of his thinking comes over so strongly that we found audiences everywhere wanted more of it, and I duly started to programme his colossal pieces whenever circumstances permitted. True, this wasn’t very often since his unusual and enlarged scorings rarely exactly match the ten singers who make up our touring group, but, especially with Stabat iuxta, Browne has given us a new departure in concert programming. Cornysh we always sang: wonderful concert material because of its bril­liance; but we have begun to find that Browne’s more mystical vision works even better.

If so much of the music which originally surrounded John Browne had not been lost over the course of time, his style might seem less extraordinary today. As it is his writing is extreme in ways which apparently have no parallel, either in England or abroad. Compared with the ebullient William Cornysh, Browne is subtle despite his colossal textures; compared with him Robert Fayrfax and Nicholas Ludford seem pedestrian. Where Jacob Obrecht made compositional history by writing in six parts in his glorious Salve regina, Browne wrote in eight in O Maria salvatoris. And although this piece would soon be rivalled by Robert Wylkynson in his nine-voice Salve, it is known that Wylkynson only tried this because the Browne was there to beat. And then one only has to look at the sheer length of all these Browne items to realize that something very unusual is going on.

All the evidence suggests that Browne simply set out to make more expressive than before all the elements of composition which he had inherited: harmony, melody and sonority. Sonority is the one which will strike the modern listener most forcefully, not only in the eight-voice textures of O Maria salvatoris, but in the way every piece is scored for a different grouping. It was almost as if once he felt he had squeezed every last nuance from a sonority, it was time to try a new one. O Maria salvatoris (TrMAATTBB) may seem remarkable, but so in a different way are Stabat iuxta (TTTTBB), O regina mundi clara (ATTTBarB), not to mention the more ‘normal’ Stabat mater (TrMAATB) and Salve regina I (TrMATB). Every piece represents a new sound-world within which Browne was able to deploy his incomparable grasp of sus­tained melody. This is another extreme: the sheer length of Browne’s lines gave him rare opportunities for graceful contours, arabesques and embellishments – never have vocal lines been so seductive. And underneath, as with any composer of sustained melody, there is a completely reliable use of harmony, relatively simple compared with later composers with this talent, but always fitting the melodies like a glove, whether shaping cadences or adding a chromatic inflection to heighten the mood. It is those chromaticisms which represent the third extreme.

All the music recorded here is to be found uniquely in the earlier folios of the Eton Choirbook, dating from about 1490 to 1500, whose index tells us that originally there were ten more pieces by Browne in the collection. Of these five are completely lost and two more are incomplete. The five which we have recorded are all quite similar in one respect: their overall length and division into two clearly delineated parts, the first in triple time, the second in duple. The architecture of these halves is also similar: each building slowly to its final cadence through reduced voice sections, leading to the full choir at full throttle – this is even true in the gentle Stabat mater. With the Salve regina, for example, Browne was careful to convey the reflective nature of the text for most of its length, but eventually allowed the final ‘Salve’ full reign, building through thirty-five bars of melisma to a trumpet-like open fifth on the last chord.

The Salve regina and the Stabat mater are the pieces which for years have maintained Browne’s reputation as a composer. They are both highly expressive, though for many commentators the Stabat mater is the supreme masterpiece of the period, contrasting dramatic writing with contemplative passages in an emotional world of contrasts thought to have surfaced first with Monteverdi. Certainly there is nothing so wide-ranging in a single work by Palestrina. The drama breaks through the surface at the word ‘Crucifige’, which Browne hammers into place before turning inwards again with the phrases which follow: ‘O quam gravis’ (‘O how bitter was your anguish’). This quartet, at such a sensitive moment in the text, is one of the most perfect examples of Browne’s art: at fifty bars in length its melodies are able to unwind as if time has stopped, an effect heightened by the use of slow triplets.

But perhaps the piece which sums Browne up most perfectly is the Stabat iuxta. Its scoring (TTTTBB) has probably militated against frequent performances, but it is just that scoring which makes such an impact. With six voices operating within a compass of less than two octaves the opportunities for dense, almost cluster chords are unrivalled. The use of low thirds in chordal spacing is not encouraged by text-books of correct polyphonic procedure, but Browne simply could not avoid them with this scoring, and they are thrilling. Density of sono­rity leads to other delights, like false relations and other dissonances, which characterize much of the piece and culminate in the final bars. Grove’s Dictionary does not overstate the case when it says: ‘In the penultimate bar [of Stabat iuxta] a particularly harsh form of false relation between the first, third and fourth voices is notated quite explicitly and insisted upon in a way which was most unusual in this period.’ And this is in addition to the power of the melodies themselves.

O regina mundi clara has a very similar effect to Stabat iuxta, the sonority adjusted a little by adding an alto voice to the array of lower sounds, but with no decrease in the intensity of the writing. The coup de grâce is once again delivered on the final chord by adding a chromatic note – F sharp – which has scarcely been heard before in the whole piece. Perhaps coup de théâtre would be a better expression.

Finally we come to the biggest antiphon of them all – O Maria salvatoris – which was held in Browne’s lifetime to be so remarkable an achievement that it was given pride of place in the Eton Choirbook, as the opening item. Since there was no precedent for eight-part polyphony it must in some measure have been experimental, though one looks in vain for signs of immaturity. In general the eight-voice sections are shorter than the full sections to be heard elsewhere in our selection, but for fluency of utterance one need listen no further than to the opening phrase, which just sets the two words ‘O Maria’. The wonder contained in those first bars sets the emotional scene for music which is difficult to sing, but supremely worth mastering.

Palestrina and Allegri
Of all the music The Tallis Scholars are asked to sing in concert, the Palestrina and Allegri items recorded here are the most in demand. The fame of Allegri’s Miserere – which we have sung over 350 times in concerts throughout the world – is well established. The story behind this composition is a good one, but perhaps no better than the one behind the Mass which ‘saved church music’ – Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. However accurate these stories might be, both compositions were written to be performed in the Sistine Chapel where the musicians would have been surrounded by Michelangelo’s newly painted frescos. I some­times stand on stages before a performance of the Allegri and invite the audience to imagine themselves in the Sistine Chapel, the famous choir gallery half-way up the right-hand wall, the soloists grouped there, the highest voice launching the top C into the vault. However dissimilar the actual performance venue, this image of heaven-on-earth always enhances the experience. Actually to perform in the Sistine Chapel, as we did in 1994, remains the most memorable thing we have ever done.

Palestrina is the composer The Tallis Scholars have sung and recorded most frequently. This is not surprising: the quality of his music merits all the fame it has been accorded over the centuries, making him probably the most talked-about composer in the history of Western classical music (Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner are possible rivals in this, but with them the process hasn’t been going on for so long). But there is more to him than the ability to write a master­piece every time he sat down to compose: his style makes demands of its performers which no other composer quite made. We have come to realize that if a group can sing Palestrina well it can sing any choral music well, for in his music there is no hiding-place. The sonorities are so clear, the logic of the writing so compelling, that one sound out of place is immediately detect­able; and a blemish is more serious in music which depends on sheer sound for its impact than in more pictorial or rhetorical compositional styles. With Lassus and Byrd, for example, interpretation through the words alone will go a long way to producing a convincing perfor­mance; Palestrina requires his performers to think more carefully about the sound itself. The nearest comparison is with the passage-work in Mozart’s piano music, which is equally so clearly and logically conceived that a stray note can acquire a disproportionate influence. Just as a pianist must rehearse scales and arpeggios to play Mozart well, so a vocal ensemble must work on blend and tuning to sing Palestrina well. There is no better or more rewarding way of learning how to sing Renaissance polyphony.

The story of the Missa Papae Marcelli is difficult to fix down in fact. The myth holds that the cardinals attending the Council of Trent were about to decide that singing polyphony in church services was unacceptable, for reasons ranging from the inaudibility of the texts to the complaint that polyphony was too sensuous and too intel­lec­tualized (quite a complaint!). There was a move to reinstate plainchant as the only permis­sible church music. One of the leading figures in the debate was the man who became Pope Marcellus II in 1555 and it is probable, given the title of the eventual composition, that Marcellus asked Palestrina to write a piece which would show the world that part-music could be both concise and musically valuable. Certainly in two of its movements – the Gloria and Credo – the Missa Papae Marcelli has a precision of word-setting which was innovative, though the other three movements are much more elaborate and the second Agnus Dei possibly the most mathematically complex movement Palestrina ever wrote. Scored for SSAATBB where the rest of the Mass is for SATTBB, it explores two canons which are sung at the same time: one between the first bass and the second alto (a fifth above the original and twelve beats after it); and the other between the first bass and the second soprano (a ninth above the original and twenty-four beats after it). The evidence for saving church music is rather confused, then, though it is surely significant that the syllabic style of the Gloria and Credo was recognized at the time as being novel: when the Mass came to be pub­lished in 1567 it was prefaced with the words ‘novo modorum genere’ (broadly speaking ‘a new form of expression’).

The syllabic style not only appealed to the reforming cardinals of the Council of Trent, however. The avant-garde composers of the later sixteenth century were moving fairly unani­mously towards a harmonically based, word-orientated idiom in which the craze for madrigals played a central role, thus paving the way for the Baroque. The syllabic movements of the Missa Papae Marcelli were early in this change: later in his life Palestrina took up the method more consistently. His Stabat mater is the supreme example of this. Almost his last datable composition, it was written around 1589/90 in the antiphonal style between two separated choirs which is associated with Venetian music: perhaps Palestrina as an old man was keen to show that he was fully abreast of all the latest developments. Whether it was seen as being Venetian or not, when the Stabat mater was presented to the Papal choir it was instantly recognized as being a masterpiece and, like Allegri’s Miserere, jealously guarded as an exclusive possession, to be performed uniquely by them every Palm Sunday.

Any Vatican composer setting a text about Saint Peter would have felt on his mettle, and nowhere does Palestrina make words shine more splendidly than in his six-voice Tu es Petrus. He must have identified with this text since he had already set it once before for seven voices, and soon would write one of his most elaborate parody Masses on this six-part version. His sense of musical architecture is at its most compelling here as he builds up the massive pillars of sound which underlie the words ‘claves regni caelorum’. Joyful, positive in spirit, sonorous to the ear: Tu es Petrus sums up much of the mood of counter-Reformation Rome in general, and Palestrina’s art in particular.

The story behind Allegri’s Miserere is more straightforward and verifiable. The outline of the music we sing today was written by Gregorio Allegri sometime before 1638, when it was copied into a manuscript of that date – Allegri was a member of the Sistine Chapel choir from 1629 until his death in 1652. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had become so famous that the Papacy forbade anyone to sing it outside the Sistine Chapel, in order to enhance the reputation of the Papal choir. It is alleged that the music finally escaped when Mozart at the age of fourteen wrote it down from memory. That he did this is certain since, even though the actual copy he made does not survive, a letter from his father to his mother describing the incident does. In fact there were other copies of the Miserere outside the Vatican by then, though it was only about the time of Mozart’s visit in 1770 that the music became widely available.

However, just as the Pope had feared, once the Miserere was heard outside the magical confines of the Sistine Chapel, the music was found to lose its power to astonish. The problem with any performance of it, then as now, is that what Gregorio Allegri himself composed is simple and plain. Everything depends on the embellish­ments which are added to Allegri’s chords. There was a tradition of improvising amongst the Papal singers which no other group of singers could match, so in a way the fact that copies of the music escaped the confines of the Vatican didn’t make much difference to the fame or develop­ment of the piece: one still had to go to the Sistine Chapel to hear it sung to its fullest potential. It seems likely that the embellishments got more and more effective as the decades passed until by the end of the nineteenth century the best of them had also been written down and become part of the composition. By then they included the high C which has so characterized the piece in recent times. For modern performers there remains the option of adding extra embellish­ments to the ‘established embellish­ments’, which is what Deborah Roberts has done in the version included here. They are published here as she sings them (see page 20 of the sung texts booklet), the fruit of her experiments across most of the 350 performances that The Tallis Scholars have given. She and I acknowledge the irony of writing down these improvisations, but if making them available in print means that yet more dazzling roulades will be invented by subsequent performers then we are probably only doing what the Papal singers did when they listened to each other centuries ago.

In our landmark 1980 recording of the Miserere, which opens Volume 1 in this series, we followed standard practice by singing the chant verses to Tone 2. Eventually it was noticed that the higher of the two soprano parts in the five-voice choir parodies Tonus Pere­grinus, the so-called ‘wandering tone’. It was the action of a moment for the cantor on this recording, Andrew Carwood, to restore the beautiful contours of Tonus Peregrinus to the nine chant verses, and so give the music a flow it has never fully had, at least in modern times.

It has recently become a favourite intellectual game to compare Josquin’s career with that of Beethoven. Essentially the point is that Josquin was as influential a composer in his time as Beethoven was in his; but the subplot is that Josquin ought to be taken as seriously as any later composer even though he lived so long ago and only wrote for voices. To invoke his name in the same breath as Beethoven’s is the best way to put him where he deserves to be.

There isn’t much substance in this except to point out that Josquin travelled constantly whereas Beethoven didn’t. But one intriguing idea that has come out of the comparison is that a Josquin Mass is presented these days like a Beethoven symphony – a succession of move­ments, making a satisfying musical experience when performed without break, in a concert hall. Unlike a symphony, the Mass traditionally ends with a slow movement, the Agnus Dei, while stacking the most positive music in the middle of the succession of events, in the Gloria and Credo; but in the hands of a master this doesn’t matter, since the musical logic will extend through all the movements, culminating in the last one, pro­ducing a rounded emotional experience comparable to, if different from, that of a symphony. In fact I personally have come to think of Josquin’s sixteen or so authenticated Mass-settings as an equivalent achievement to Beet­hoven’s nine symphonies: each one explo­ring a different aspect of the form, each one an intellectual and technical tour de force, each one showing a different side of his personality. In this respect there is more substance in comparing Josquin with Beethoven than with, say, Mozart or Haydn, since Josquin and Beethoven both seemed more concerned to individualize every work they wrote, to make each work tell. And to prove this point Gimell and The Tallis Scholars recently decided to record all of Josquin’s Masses.

The settings included here are two of the finest to come from any pen. They are linked by having secular polyphonic songs as their models, coincidentally neither of which are safely attributed to any single composer. Malheur me bat is probably not by Ockeghem but by a little-known Flemish composer called Malcort, whose obscurity should not detract from the beauty of his song, nor from the fact that it became a favourite model for Mass-settings by composers active around the year 1500. How strange, then, that not one of the nine sources for it provides any words apart from the title – the performance given by The Tallis Scholars at the 2008 Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, London, was made possible by commissioning a contemporary poet – Jacques Darras – to com­plete the text. The attribution of Fortuna desperata to Antoine Busnoys is more secure, though the manu­script evidence is not conclusive.

The two Masses sung here are also linked by the way Josquin borrowed his material from the chansons. Both of these chansons were three-voice compositions. Before Josquin the normal procedure in basing a Mass-setting on a chanson was to take one of the original voice-parts, often the tenor, and derive all the motifs to be used in the Mass from it. This was called paraphrasing a melody. However in these two settings Josquin went a stage further by plundering all three of the voice parts for quotable material, at a stroke tripling the stock of ideas he could draw on. Thus the art of parodying a poly­phonic model was born, in which tradition Missa Fortuna desperata, which is reckoned to be earlier than Missa Malheur me bat, was one of the first. We can hear Josquin refining and developing these techniques in Missa Malheur me bat.

These techniques are astonishingly compli­cated. Just about every bar of every movement is underpinned by a quotation from the model in question, though there seems to be no logic to how Josquin decided which of the three voices he was going to home in on, or whether more than one is being used at any given moment (all three tend to appear at the beginning of the movements), or what speed the chosen melody is being quoted at. In general he liked to construct his polyphonic lines out of quite short motifs, often quoted as sequences which become building blocks (the Sanctus of Missa Fortuna desperata gives a good example of this). More often than not his resourcefulness is not clearly audible: the best chance of hearing the chanson material is when he quotes their melodies in very long notes. This happens in the Credo of Missa Fortuna desperata, for example, where he takes the top part of the chanson and quotes it four times in the top part of the Mass in ever diminishing speeds (in the ratio 8:4:3:2), giving the movement a power­ful drive to its end since the last statement is going four times faster than the first. But the processes can be opaque: in Missa Malheur me bat, in both the Gloria and the Credo, he quotes a melody, stops, goes back to the beginning of it again and quotes more of it, stops again, returns again to the begin­ning and quotes yet further in a kind of expanding loop. Yet this thematic scaffolding is only part of the story. Around the ‘big’ quotations, Josquin borrows or invents literally endless tiny motifs, which serve to disguise the pure mathematics which underlie so much of the writing, while at the same time expres­sing the essential nature of the texts and driving the musical argument forward.

All this wisdom in the art of composition culminates in these Masses, as it tended to cul­minate in the Romantic symphony, in the last movement. By intensifying the learning which underlies both Agnus Dei settings, as well as intensifying the symbolism inherent in the borrowed themes, Josquin in his own style achieves a symphonic breadth of expression.

In the Agnus settings he was thinking as follows: Missa Malheur me bat’s Agnus has three invocations, which was the normal procedure in Josquin’s time and place. Missa Fortuna desperata only has two, though it is possible that a two-voice section, which would have come between the two four-part ones that exist, has got lost over time. In the first Agnus of Missa Malheur me bat the tenor carries a simplified version of the chanson tenor in long notes, while the other voices surround it with a classic example of Josquin building blocks with a repeating motif. The second Agnus, for two voices, is a free canon at the second. This, the most difficult canon of all to write, produces a mesmerizing, unearthly effect. The third Agnus is one of the great tours de force of the repertory, similar in method to the final Agnus of Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé sexti toni. The four voices of the earlier movements have become six. The outside parts of the chanson are retained without alteration while the middle part of the original is removed altogether and replaced with a double canon (that is, with two sets of two voices in canon with each other). In this way the music from the chanson acts as a scaffolding for the filigree detail of the canonic parts, coming and going as they like, as it seems outside time.

In the Agnus Dei of Missa Fortuna desperata Josquin invented an arguably simpler but no less effective formula. Again we are in the world of building-block motifs, but this time over a very long-note bass part, which at times explores the most sonorous depths of the voice. In the first Agnus these bass notes are formed from the original top part of the chanson, transposed down an octave and a fifth, augmented and inverted. The second Agnus follows the same pattern, only now the bass long-notes are taken from the chanson’s tenor, here transposed down an octave but uninverted. It has been suggested that the inversion in the first Agnus was intended to represent a catastrophic turn of Fortune’s wheel, with the return to normality made possible through the good offices of the uninverted melody in the second Agnus.

However one likes to view the very plausible symbolism inherent in these Agnus Deis, there can be no denying that by reviewing at the end the themes which have been circulating through­out the earlier movements Josquin brings his settings to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Not that the listener will consciously grasp every­thing that is happening – one needs a score for that, and even then it is hard to spot all the references. But subconsciously the mind is enthralled.

Peter Phillips © 2010

   English   Français   Deutsch