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Hyperion Records

CDA67887 - Lassus: Prophetiae Sibyllarum & Missa Amor ecco colei
Sibyl (c1540) by Francesco Ubertini Verdi Bachiacca (c1494-1557)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: September 2010
The Chapel of Harcourt Hill campus, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by Justin Lowe
Release date: August 2011
Total duration: 74 minutes 1 seconds

'The Brabant Ensemble's singers sound thoroughly engaged in their tribute to Lassus, with a rich tone-spectrum allowing for maximum appreciation of his fluid, elegant polyphony' (Choir & Organ)

'They certainly are astonishing in their harmonic daring, moving from C major via G major and B major to C sharp minor in the bat of an eyelid, and are wonderfully captured here by the suavely assured Brabant Ensemble under scholarly Stephen Rice. The prologue and 12 movements that make up Prophetiae Sibyllarum are joined by a Mass, a magnificat and three marvellous motets, including the sumptuous Tristis est anima mea. Listen and be moved' (The Observer)

'The performances throughout are wonderfully persuasive, with nothing arch or affected in the way in which the texts are presented; expressively, music that is as highly wrought as any of its time is made to seem completely natural' (The Guardian)

'In his day, de Lassus was more celebrated than his contemporary Palestrina and even more prolific, although today their relative pre-eminence is reversed. This disc is typically representative of The Brabant Ensemble's intention to record and promulgate somewhat lesser-known music from the first half of the sixteenth century. Devotees of the period will welcome its austere, otherworldly beauty' (MusicWeb International)

Prophetiae Sibyllarum & Missa Amor ecco colei
Kyrie  [3'09] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [4'22] LatinEnglish
Credo  [7'08] LatinEnglish

Orlande de Lassus was an undisputed master of all the vocal genres of the late Renaissance, from German Lied to Latin Mass. He was extraordinarily prolific, and this recording features the glorious polyphony of the Missa Amor ecco colei and Prophetiae Sibyllarum, one of his most celebrated works. With the latter’s extreme chromaticism and constant modulation, Lassus stretched the compositional boundaries of the time to produce one of the most important and advanced works to come from the sixteenth century.

With their immaculate and instinctive performance style, Stephen Rice and The Brabant Ensemble prove the perfect advocates for this challenging music. The ensemble’s mellifluous phrasing and luminous tone breath life into these complex and beautiful works.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
With an extant legacy of approximately sixty Mass settings, one hundred Magnificats, and an astonishing five hundred motets as well as several hundred secular works, Orlande de Lassus is by some distance the most prolific composer of the Renaissance. He was also the most celebrated, known in his time as princeps musicorum and ‘le divin Orlande’. The sheer bulk of his output has perhaps obscured Lassus’s significance in modern times, since even among specialists in sixteenth-century music, few can claim familiarity with all his works. Furthermore, the celebrity of his great contemporary Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, maintained partly through the ubiquitous study of ‘Palestrinian counterpoint’ and partly through the preservation of the myth of the ‘Mass that saved polyphony’, has tended to overshadow Lassus’s fame, which was arguably greater in the sixteenth century than that of Palestrina. The recent publication of Lassus’s complete motets in modern clefs (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1995–2006, 21 volumes) will perhaps improve the visibility of this genre at least.

Born in Mons, Hainaut, in either 1530 or 1532, Lassus spent his early years as a chorister in the service of a member of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, Sicily and Milan. By 1549 he had moved to Naples, and began composing around this time. After another move, to Rome in 1551, he joined the household of the Archbishop of Florence, Antonio Altoviti, but in 1553 was appointed maestro di cappella at St John Lateran, the ‘city cathedral’ of Rome. Music prints under his name began to appear in 1555 during a protracted sojourn in Northern Europe.

The peregrinations of Lassus’s early career were to end permanently in 1556, when he accepted a position at the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, in Munich. Albrecht was succeeded by his son Wilhelm in 1579, but despite a considerable reduction in chapel resources during these transitional years, Lassus remained at the court, by now as chapelmaster, until his death on 14 June 1594. He was succeeded in turn by his two sons Ferdinand and Rudolph, who also published in 1604 a (nearly) complete edition of their father’s works, entitled Magnum opus musicum.

Prophetiae Sibyllarum has been one of the most celebrated of Lassus’s works since his lifetime. In 1574 the printer Adrien Le Roy, holder of the privilege to publish music for Charles IX, King of France, wrote to the composer offering him a salary of 1200 livres per annum to enter the King’s service as ‘compositeur de sa chambre’. The King’s desire to employ Lassus arose, according to Le Roy, from having heard the prologue to Prophetiae Sibyllarum: ‘He was so ravished by it that I cannot describe it.’ In modern times the daring opening, which seizes the attention by moving from a C major chord via G major and B major to C sharp minor in the space of four bars, has given rise to considerable discussion among music analysts, chiefly in relation to the opening text phrase, ‘Carmina chromatico quae audis modulata tenore’. At first sight this introduction appears to imply that the prologue, or indeed the entire piece, is chromatic; but as in most Latin poetry, the word order is subordinated to the metre, and here the word ‘chromatico’ describes the ‘tenore’, both in the ablative case. Thus it is not the ‘songs’ (‘carmina’) that are chromatic, but the tenor—the songs are ‘modulata’ (set polyphonically). In fact the tenor of the prologue is not chromatic at all, at least in the sense in which the term was understood in the sixteenth century: all of its melodic intervals are diatonic. The term ‘chromatic’ was frequently invoked in discussions of Ancient Greek music, whose theory had been known throughout the Middle Ages via the De musica of Boethius (c480–c524) but the practice of which was attracting much controversy in the mid-sixteenth century. Greek music theory allows three genera, the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic; but a notorious dispute in 1551 between Nicola Vicentino and Vicente Lusitano established that modern music could be written in all three simultaneously, and thus make use of all available intervals. It has been suggested that Lassus could have been present at this dispute, though there is no evidence to support this—but since his then employer Altoviti was resident in Rome, it is likely that he at least heard of it.

Partly the controversy, and the multiplication of possible intervallic relationships, reflects the fact that tuning of contemporary music had departed from the Pythagorean system expounded by Boethius, in which all the perfect intervals (octave, fourth and fifth, and their compounds) were pure but thirds and sixths were unpleasant, towards a system most elegantly codified by Gioseffo Zarlino (1517–1590) which treated thirds and sixths as pure ratios as well, the major third being 5:4 and the minor 6:5. This ‘just intonation’ system usually cannot be followed precisely in performance because the demands of tuning harmonic and melodic intervals purely are in competition, and also, if observed strictly, frequently lead to the music departing from its original pitch standard; however, for the most part the system produces clearly better results than equal temperament for chordal music, and consequently, so far as is feasible, is followed here.

Notwithstanding the intricacies of Renaissance music theory which it illustrates, Prophetiae Sibyllarum is one of the most arresting pieces of music written during the sixteenth century. Perhaps surprisingly, it dates from the beginning of Lassus’s career, possibly as early as 1555 but almost certainly before 1560. It was not published during his lifetime, the earliest source being a manuscript now in the Austrian National Library, which also contains the first of Lassus’s two sets of Sacrae lectiones ex propheta Job. The manuscript has a miniature portrait of Lassus as well as illustrations of the twelve Sibyls: it would appear to have been intended as a gift for Duke Albrecht.

There had originally been a single Sibyl: Herophile of Erythrae is thought to have been a genuine historical figure from the eighth century BC, though the earliest mention of any Sibyl in literature is in Heraclitus, from the fifth century BC, who names three, adding the Phrygian and Hellespontine to that of Erythrae. As in Lassus’s version, Sibyls were named after the shrine at which they spoke. Ancient Greece eventually listed nine Sibyls, with the Roman writer Lactantius (AD c300, but modelled on Marcus Varro, first century BC) adding a tenth, the Tiburtine. Sibylline writings were refashioned in Christian terms from the second century AD, and circulated widely as a complement to the Old Testament prophets who had foretold the coming of Christ; St Augustine mentions the Erythraean Sibyl in The City of God, and it is probably to her that the medieval sequence Dies irae refers in the line ‘Teste David cum Sibylla’.

The fifteenth century saw a revival of interest in the prophecies of the Sibyls, exemplifying the tendency of Renaissance Humanism to deploy aspects of the ancient world in support of a Christian message. The republication of Lactantius’s Divinae institutiones in 1465 was undoubtedly a major spur to this interest. The twelve prophecies set by Lassus include two more than any extant antique source (the additions being Europaea and Agrippa): in this he follows another fifteenth-century version, Sibyllarum et prophetarum de Christo vaticinia by Filippo Barbieri (c1426–1487), though Lassus’s ordering is apparently unique.

The thirteen movements of Prophetiae Sibyllarum are presented in a set of six pairs, with the prologue attached to the first pair. The pairs are linked by cleffing and tonality: the first, third and sixth pair have the standard cleffing pattern c1-c3-c4-f4 for the four voices (or soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs in modern equivalents). The second and fourth pairs are in chiavette (g2-c2-c3-f3 or treble, mezzo-soprano, alto, baritone), and the fifth pair in ‘low clefs’ (c3-c4-c4-f5). Additionally the second, third, and sixth pairs have a flat signature, which the other three omit. These clef configurations are generally agreed to imply transposition: late-sixteenth-century music theorists usually advise that chiavette be transposed down a fourth, but theorists’ discussions of the low clefs are few. For the low clefs in the present recording, an upward transposition of a minor third in relation to the standard clefs has been adopted, as well as the usual downward fourth for the chiavette.

Like the great majority of Lassus’s Masses, Missa Amor ecco colei is a so-called ‘parody’ setting: though no model has been firmly established, it resembles a villanelle on this text by Prospero Caetano. About a quarter of Lassus’s Mass output is for six voices, and the SSATTB voice disposition of Missa Amor ecco colei seems to have been a favoured one: doubling the soprano and tenor lines permits contrast between high and low choirs of three voices, which the composer exploits fully. The Mass is particularly notable for the exuberant running motifs in which the soprano voices either alternate, or sing together in thirds. The Benedictus features an unusually long sequence, a device that is used to such an extent that one would think of an earlier composer such as Obrecht rather than the habitually more rhetorical Lassus. Also worthy of note is the emphasis in the Credo on the words ‘unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam’, the Munich court having remained faithful to the Catholic church at the Reformation. The Magnificat Quant’in mille anni il ciel, composed around 1583, is based on a madrigal by the little-known composer Noletto or Nollet published in 1546: unusually, the closest resemblance between madrigal and Magnificat is found in the last polyphonic verse rather than at the beginning of the parody. Sharing the scoring of Missa Amor ecco colei, this Magnificat setting also plays off higher versus lower voices extensively, a technique to which the structure of the canticle’s verses lends itself particularly well.

The three motets performed here are loosely linked by their mournful or elegiac subject matter, though since two of them are in the major mode they may not appear morose to modern ears. Iustorum animae begins imitatively before rapidly adopting a much more homophonic mode of expression. The ‘torment of death’ is illustrated with some advanced dissonance which sounds rather more gorgeous than grating, before a short triple-time section gives way to a very static final few bars which represent the souls’ state of peace. Deficiat in dolore vita mea is more along the conventional lines of the Franco-Flemish motet, using dissonant suspensions and passing notes to heighten the penitential air of the text. Tristis est anima mea, which sets Christ’s meditation in the Garden of Gethsemane from St Matthew’s Gospel, is one of Lassus’s most dramatic narrative motets, changing mood every few bars and illustrating the text closely. The opening slow section defines the mood and also the unusually wide tessitura of the piece, from low F in the bass to soprano high G. ‘Sustinete hic’ (‘remain here’) is set to a rising syncopated phrase, dragging itself upward in contrast to the sleeping disciples. At ‘Nunc videbitis turbam’ the story-telling becomes more urgent, with block chords and a heavy tread representing the oncoming crowd. The most direct word-painting is at ‘circumdabit me’, with circling melodies as the crowd surrounds Jesus. The disciples, however, melt away (‘vos fugam capietis’), the vocal lines descending slowly and dissonantly but without drawing attention to themselves, while Jesus goes to his death (‘et ego vadam immolari’), the energy of the piece dissipating onto the last chord, which is stretched wide across the tessitura as Jesus was on the Cross. The entire motet is a remarkable display of compositional virtuosity in the service of text expression, and is rightly famed as an example of the new musical aims towards which the late Renaissance was heading by the end of Lassus’s life.

Stephen Rice © 2011

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