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Hyperion Records

CDA67733 - Vaet: Missa Ego flos campi & other sacred music
Spring by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593)
Real Adademia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: May 2008
Kloster Pernegg, Waldviertel, Austria
Produced by Stephen Rice
Engineered by Markus Wallner
Release date: March 2009
Total duration: 75 minutes 4 seconds


'Stunning … Cinquecento's one-to-a-part approach, with countertenors on the top lines, is ideally suited to this repertory and really works wonders … at telling moments they modulate their delivery to considerable expressive effect … this highly accomplished singing does not draw attention to itself (or at least, not unduly) but focuses attention squarely on the composer. But for his early death, Vaet would have almost certainly emerged as a leading figure of his generation … this deserves to be widely heard' (Gramophone)

'A delicious feast of harmonic tension and inwardly-sensed architecture [Spiritus Domini]. Other gems include the expressive Miserere mei and a brilliant Salve Regina' (BBC Music Magazine)

Missa Ego flos campi & other sacred music

The vocal sextet Cinquecento are rapidly becoming one of the most admired early music ensembles recording today. The lithe, clear yet rich and warm tones of the six singers are ideal for the complex polyphony from the 16th-century Hapsburg court which they have made their speciality.

This latest release presents the music of Jacobus Vaet, repertoire they began to explore in their first disc for Hyperion (Music for the Court of Maximilian II). Vaet would undoubtedly be among the best-known composers of the sixteenth century had he not died at the age of about thirty-seven. In his short career Vaet produced, among other things, nine settings of the Mass, and his Missa Ego flos campi, a parody Mass on an extraordinary motet by Clemens non Papa (which also appears on the disc), is a notable example of his particular artistry. A fascinating selection of motets demonstrates the composer’s vivid approach to word-setting and imaginative choice of texts.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Jacobus Vaet would undoubtedly be among the best-known composers of the sixteenth century had he not died at the age of about thirty-seven, in 1567. His musical education was typical of the Low Country singers who dominated European church music in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: he became a chorister at the church of Notre Dame at Koortrijk (Courtrai) in 1543 at the age of thirteen, and when his voice broke in 1546 he was given a scholarship to the University of Leuven (Louvain). By 1550 he was working for the emperor, Charles V, as a tenor, and was a married man. Preferment came rapidly, and he was Kapellmeister to the Archduke Maximilian, Charles’s nephew, at the latest in 1554, when he can have been no older than twenty-five.

Vaet’s compositional output was large considering that his career lasted approximately fifteen years: he is known to have produced nine settings of the Mass (including a Requiem Mass), sixty-six motets plus sundry minor liturgical items, a set of Magnificats, and three French chansons. In the dedication to his motet collection published in 1562, Vaet states that since his other duties left him little time to compose, he had decided to prioritize texts in praise of God Almighty and of the House of Austria. Seventeen of the extant pieces are indeed ‘state motets’ in honour of the Habsburgs; the remainder take the standard texts of the time, such as Psalm fragments, prayers, other Biblical excerpts and liturgical texts. One would suppose that given a normal lifespan (usually about sixty years at that time, though a few individuals are known to have lived into their nineties), Vaet would have composed a similar quantity of music to Jacob Clemens non Papa (c1510–c1555), who is perhaps the most obvious stylistic influence on him.

He died, however, on 8 January 1567 of unknown causes. The deterioration in his health seems to have been rapid: in 1566 he was well enough to accompany Maximilian onto the battlefield, and his last child was baptized on Christmas Eve, 1566. Since his patron had in the meantime been elevated to the imperial throne as Maximilian II, the post left vacant by Vaet’s death was among the most prestigious in Europe, and it was filled only after sixteen months, by the distinguished composer Philippe de Monte. Several poets wrote elegies to Vaet, one of which was set to music by his fellow Habsburg musician Jacob Regnart, and another suggests in its text that it was intended for musical composition by no less than Orlandus Lassus—though sadly no such setting survives.

Vaet’s motet Antevenis virides was written in honour of Duke Albrecht of Bavaria, a ruler notable for his enlightened patronage of the greatest composer of the day, the aforementioned Lassus. The poem, which according to its text source was linked with Lassus (although again no setting by him survives), is an acrostic on the Duke’s Latin name, Albertus. As was by this time customary for such laudatory verse, it is written in Classical hexameters—though particularly convoluted ones—and praises Albrecht’s rule in general and specifically his role as a patron, apparently so great that he could instruct the Muses themselves. Vaet’s setting contributes to the Humanist air of the poetry by subtle control of word-stress in a largely homophonic texture, following both the natural accentuation of the words and the pattern of the poetic metre.

The nine surviving Mass settings by Vaet mostly follow the dominant sixteenth-century formula of so-called ‘parody’ or ‘imitation’, modelling the Ordinary cycle on a work from another genre (from the mid-century onwards, typically a motet). Vaet was relatively unusual in combining more than one melody in three of his Masses; elsewhere he parodied his own motets as well as those by Jean Mouton (c1459–1522), Cipriano de Rore (1515/16–1565), Lassus, and in the present case Jacob Clemens non Papa. Following the standard approach, Vaet opens his Missa Ego flos campi with material from the beginning of the motet; it would be normal then to proceed more or less in the order in which the imitative points appear in the model, recrafting them as necessary to fit the Mass text. However, Clemens’s motet is something of a special case: for reasons discussed below, the phrase ‘Sicut lilium inter spinas’ (‘As a lily among thorns’) is particularly striking in its setting by the older composer, and Vaet makes use of this distinctive motif at strategic points throughout his Mass. The first is the climax of the Kyrie (3'45"), where it is preceded by the phrase that follows it in the model; the same ‘Sicut lilium’ phrase recurs in every movement, most noticeably perhaps in the ‘Osanna’ (Sanctus 3'25"), where it is transformed into triple metre.

Like older contemporaries such as Thomas Crecquillon, another imperial composer who however worked for the Spanish rather than Austrian branch of the Habsburg family, Vaet introduces variety of texture at particular points of the Mass cycle. Having reduced the number of voices from the seven of Clemens’s motet to a more manageable six, Vaet thins the ensemble still further, to four; this is the texture for the ‘Christe’, the middle section of the Gloria (‘Domine Fili’), the ‘Crucifixus’ in the Credo, and the Benedictus, all passages where such reduction is commonplace. Conversely, the Agnus Dei is expanded, this time to eight voices (like other composers working in German territories at this time, Vaet writes only one Agnus section, here sung twice in order to complete the text). The most audacious piece of reduced-voice writing, however, is the ‘Pleni’ (Sanctus 1'33"), a duet between two basses beginning on low F. Although beginning together, the two voices are in fact in canon, where one sings at twice the speed of the other. Canonic techniques were becoming less popular during Vaet’s lifetime, as the interest in artifice that had characterized late-medieval music gave way to an emphasis on text declamation; but composers still occasionally demonstrated their skill in this area. Vaet here manages to achieve the effect of imitation between the two parts, which in this type of canon is no mean feat.

One aspect of Vaet’s compositional style that distinguishes him from the older generation of Clemens is a particularly vivid approach to word-setting. In Ecce apparebit Dominus, the image of the Lord appearing ‘upon a white cloud, and with him thousands of the saints’ is conjured up by a vigorous opening phrase strongly indicating the sense of motion of the heavenly host towards the listener; contrasted with this is the much more grandiose exhortation in the second half of the piece for Jerusalem to rejoice with joy. Similarly, the short motet Filiae Jerusalem provides a fine example of the conflation of sacred and secular elements in music of this period. Its opening suggests a liturgical text: the first, busy, imitative point represents the throng of Palm Sunday observers jostling to see Jesus enter Jerusalem. However, the ‘martyr’ apparently being celebrated is in fact the emperor Maximilian, ‘with the crown with which the Lord crowned him’: the idea of emperor as martyr may possibly be a reference to Maximilian’s noted sympathy with Protestantism.

The Magnificat octavi toni, one of a set of eight representing each of the Psalm tones, is a fine example of this highly popular genre of Renaissance Gebrauchsmusik. Outlining in every verse the motif G–A–G–C that defines the eighth tone, the piece nevertheless responds to the necessity to create a different mood for each verse: for instance the three-part ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ (‘He has filled the hungry with good things’) stands in sharp distinction to the duet ‘Fecit potentiam’ (‘He has shown the power’). The latter combines the aggression of the text with a highly polished piece of duet writing. As the contemporary theorist Nicola Vicentino put it in 1555, writing for two voices is harder than for more: ‘Every painter depicts a completely clothed figure quite well, whereas not all painters can do the same with a nude’ (tr. Maria Rika Maniates).

Any mid-to-late sixteenth-century composer attempting a setting of the Psalm text Miserere mei, Deus knew that he stood in the shadow of Josquin Desprez, whose five-voice setting was one of the best-known and most influential motets of the period. Vaet manages to stand aside from the Josquin tradition somewhat, whilst nonetheless nodding to it. Josquin repeated the opening phrase ‘Have mercy on me, God’ after each verse, providing a powerful unifying theme recognizable instantly from the semitone up to and back down from the first syllable of ‘Deus’. Vaet opens with a fantasia on this melody, referring to it but not allowing it to suffuse the texture as Josquin did. He then moves away from the motif, creating his own rich sonority with a preponderance of lower voices, before finally returning to it to close the motet.

Spiritus Domini is unusual among the motets of Vaet, and indeed those of his contemporaries, by being structured around a cantus firmus in long notes. The subject of the motet is the Pentecost theme of the Holy Spirit going out into the world, and perhaps this image suggested the idea of a sacred chant surrounded by the more worldly elements of five other voice parts composed by Vaet. Perhaps more common than cantus firmus treatment at this time is the taste for moralizing texts, shown by Musica Dei donum. Appropriately enough given his influences and direct contemporaries, this text is set by Clemens non Papa and Lassus as well as Vaet: an apposite indication of Vaet’s stature as a composer.

Vaet composed no fewer than eight settings of Salve regina, the most popular of all motet texts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The present version is in six parts and, unlike the majority of Vaet’s settings, is polyphonic throughout: more often he alternates polyphonic verses with plainchant, following a long tradition of setting the Salve in this way. Although the chant is not incorporated directly, the melodic material of the motet is closely based on it, and even at times quotes it directly. A contrasting central section is scored for three upper voices only, before the full choir returns, completing the prayer with a final section in triple time.

The motet on which Vaet’s Mass-setting is based is one of the best-known by Clemens non Papa, one of the shadowiest figures of the generation active around the middle of the sixteenth century. It has been suggested that his odd nickname—‘not the Pope’, sometimes appearing as ‘nono Papa’ or even ‘haud Papa’ (‘absolutely not the Pope’)—was thought to distinguish him from a local poet by the name of Jacobus Papa. This would seem unnecessary, however: recently discovered documents showing that Clemens was a notorious drunkard and morally dissolute would seem to indicate that the sobriquet arose in jesting distinction from Clement VII, Pope during the composer’s early years. (Not that the papacy was itself any stranger to licentious behaviour in the sixteenth century, in the hands of families such as Borgia and—in Clement VII’s case—de’Medici.)

Be that as it may, one spell of employment held by Clemens—tellingly, for a period of only three months—was at the leading religious confraternity of Onze Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap in ’s-Hertogenbosch, during the autumn of 1550. The motto of this guild, devoted to performing good works (and good music) in the name of Our Lady, was ‘Sicut lilium inter spinas’ (‘As a lily among thorns’: one of many standard references to what was by this stage of late-medieval devotion regarded as the perpetual virginity of Mary). That Clemens should write a motet in seven parts (a Marian number) in which this very phrase is uttered three times in homophony, first by a high-voice group, then a low, then finally the entire choir, suggests strongly that the Broederschap was involved in its genesis. The beauty of this moment is enhanced by its central position in the piece: just as the Virgin is a lily among thorns, so her motto is set in simple chords between complex polyphony. The motet concludes with descriptions of streams of waters flowing down from Lebanon, aptly depicted in wave-like phrases passed between the voices.

Stephen Rice © 2009

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