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In 1498, the anti-corruption Friar Girolamo Savonarola was hanged, burned, and his ashes thrown into the River Arno in Florence. The texts he wrote from prison, meditations on the Psalms, inspired a generation of composers and imbue the eight extended works performed here with a rare fervour, something brought to the fore by the sixteen singers of Magnificat.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Dateline: Florence, 23 May 1498. The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who had been convicted of heresy, was hanged and burned this morning in front of a large crowd in the Piazza della Signoria. When the embers of the fire had cooled, the officials scattered his ashes into the River Arno in order to prevent the friar’s followers from collecting them and using them as relics to heal the sick and perform miracles. (Luca Landucci, Florentine shopkeeper)
This brief summary of Landucci’s eyewitness account of Savonarola’s execution evokes an event that sparked a sensation across Europe. The friar, born and raised in Ferrara, joined the Dominican order in Bologna, and then experienced a few years of spectacular success in Florence with impassioned sermons that called for religious, political and social reform. Printers issued copies of his sermons, devotional writings and prophecies, and they disseminated them throughout the continent. Dukes and kings took note of his prophecies. The friar railed against the corruption of Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), and when the pope retaliated with excommunication, many Florentines abandoned Savonarola’s cause. While in prison awaiting execution, he wrote a lengthy meditation on Psalm 50 (Vulgate), Miserere mei, Deus, and began work on another on Psalm 30, In te, Domine, speravi. His followers smuggled these writings out of his prison cell, and had them printed all over Europe. Reformers such as Martin Luther read them with approval.
The Latin motets on this recording span the decades from 1500 to about 1580, and several of them set the opening words of Savonarola’s prison meditations. The motets titled Infelix ego (‘Unhappy I’) by Orlande de Lassus and William Byrd are settings of the opening of the friar’s meditation on Psalm 50. Motets titled Tristitia obsedit me (‘Sadness has besieged me’) by Jacobus Clemens non Papa and Claude Le Jeune provide music for the first part of the meditation on Psalm 30. Clemens also incorporates part of the meditation on Psalm 50 at the end of his motet. This is just a sampling of settings of Savonarola’s meditations: three composers associated with the Este court at Ferrara (Willaert, Rore and Vicentino) also set Infelix ego to music. Other lesser-known composers in France and Germany also made musical settings, including Simon Joly and Jacob Reiner.
The 1490s ushered in more than half a century of wars and religious strife in Europe; duelling armies from France and the Holy Roman Empire marched across the Italian peninsula. Revolt against the Catholic Church broke out in northern Europe, and in 1527 the unpaid German mercenaries of the emperor mercilessly sacked Rome. In this time of extreme disorder, the meditations of Savonarola must have provided comfort and consolation. In the meditation on Psalm 50 the friar hovers on the brink of despair, then rejects it emphatically and calls on the mercy of God to deliver him. Military imagery comes to the fore in the meditation on Psalm 30: the allegorical figure of Sadness fights against the friar with banners of her armies flying, but the figure of Joy arrives and instructs him to cry out: ‘In you, Lord, have I put my trust; let me never be confounded’.
In his sermons, Savonarola often lashed out against the worldly vanity of religious worship, including elaborate polyphonic music. He claimed that such music merely charmed the senses—the ears of listeners—and the overlapping melodies made it impossible to hear the words. Thus elaborate music prevented meditation on the meaning of the sacred texts. In one sermon he excoriated polyphony: ‘These choirs create a roaring sound, because there stands a big-voiced singer who sounds like a calf and the others howl around him like dogs, and one can’t make out a word they are saying’. The friar promoted the performance of a simpler kind of music that made the words clearly audible: Latin hymns in Gregorian chant, as well as the sacred lauda in Italian (Savonarola himself wrote texts for several laude). But, in one of the ironies of history, many composers selected the friar’s own prison meditations for treatment in gloriously expressive polyphony. One can only imagine how the puritanical friar would have reacted to such complex musical settings of his words.
And yet the words do emerge clearly in many of these motets: the composers highlight the texts with rhetorical emphasis through repetition and with clearly shaped melodies. By around 1500 the motet had eclipsed the polyphonic Mass as a focus of compositional energy: motets began to vastly outnumber Masses, and many of their texts shifted from corporate pleading (‘pray for us’) to the more immediate first person (‘have mercy on me’). The texts of the psalms provided perfect vehicles for this new personal emphasis, and Josquin des Prez was among the first to set complete psalms to music, as in his monumental motet Miserere mei, Deus.
Josquin’s career oscillated between sojourns in France and the courts of Italy. After training in northern France and Provence in the 1460s and 1470s, he moved to Milan and then to Rome as a singer in the Sistine Chapel in the 1480s and 1490s. He returned to France around 1495. By 1503 his services were in high demand, and Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, negotiated a contract for one year—but only after offering an enormous salary. According to the poet Folengo, Josquin composed his setting of Psalm 50 at the duke’s request. The devoutly religious duke was a supporter of Savonarola, and in 1498 Ferrara witnessed the first printed edition of the friar’s meditation on this psalm. In his meditation, the desperate friar reiterates the opening words ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ several times; Josquin likewise turns these words into a refrain that returns at the end of each verse in a rhetorical manner hitherto unseen in the genre of the motet. The melodic subject at the opening is simple in the extreme: a single reiterated note leads to an upward inflection by just a semitone on the word ‘Deus’. The music proceeds in airy textures for two voices, and these alternating pairs of voices lead to powerful sections for all five parts, often in chordal homophony in which all the voices declaim the text together. Only at the refrain on ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ does the fifth voice (a second tenor) join the ensemble for added emphasis. This fifth voice provides an armature for the other voices by singing the monotone subject, at each entry, on successively lower steps of the scale: first on tenor E, then a tone lower on D, then on C, etc. In the second part of the motet, the direction reverses and the tenor ascends the scale. In the third part, the tenor again descends the pitches of the scale. The words are crystal clear, and the friar, had he lived, could hardly have found fault with the music.
The Este court in Ferrara evinced particular interest in Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 50 in the 1540s and 1550s. The composers Willaert, Rore and Vicentino were all associated with the court, and each provided a lengthy musical setting of the opening words of Savonarola’s meditation, Infelix ego. Furthermore, they incorporated the music of Josquin’s austere monotone subject, ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, as a recurring cry in an inner voice, with each entry on a different pitch of the scale. In this way, the three composers made explicit a connection between Savonarola’s meditation and Josquin’s Miserere, a link merely suggested by the circumstantial evidence of the commission in 1503 of Josquin’s motet by Duke Ercole. Further possible patronage of Savonarolan motets by the duke’s grandson, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, will be suggested below.
The music theorist Heinrich Glarean esteemed the music of Josquin and his contemporaries as a ‘perfect art’, and he thereby posed a dilemma for the next generation of composers active from the 1520s to the 1540s: how does one improve on perfection? Composers such as Jean Lhéritier, Nicolas Gombert and Jacobus Clemens responded by filling in some of the diaphanous textures of music from Josquin’s generation. They wrote denser polyphony in which the voices enter in a series of imitative statements and then continue to sing throughout the rest of the work, with very few pauses for breath. The music theorist Hermann Finck commented favourably on this development, and singled out Gombert for praise: ‘[He] has shown all musicians the way… For he shuns rests, and his compositions use full harmonies in general, and imitative textures in particular’. Greater density of texture inevitably produced friction among the parts, and consequently occasional harsh dissonances can be heard at the ends of phrases of text. These dissonances help to articulate the sections of text within the dense melodic flow.
Lhéritier may have been a student of Josquin in the early 1500s, and from 1506 to about 1530 he enjoyed a career at various Italian courts, including Ferrara, Rome, Mantua and Verona. After 1530 he served the Cardinal of Clermont, probably in Avignon and Rome. In the years before 1530 Lhéritier composed his six-voice motet Miserere mei, Domine, whose initial melody echoes Josquin’s Miserere: Lhéritier opens with a single repeated note that leads to an ascending semitone inflection, as in the opening of Josquin’s work. While Lhéritier makes no overt reference to Savonarola, the penitential mood of the music, as well as the verses from Psalm 50 in the second part, mark this work as a descendant of Josquin’s motet. Lhéritier structures his motet around an armature of two inner voices, who sing in canon on a separate text, ‘Da pacem, Domine’. These two inner voices are not readily apparent, and are thus less rhetorical than the highly audible refrains in Josquin’s motet. Lhéritier does signal the first entry of this inner canon through striking declamation in the outer voices for the words ‘sana me Domine’.
Gombert’s motet on the opening six verses of Psalm 30, In te, Domine, speravi, also bears no overt relation to Savonarola, aside from the fact that the friar based one of his prison meditations on this text. Gombert served the Emperor Charles V (who was also King of Spain) in the 1520s and 1530s; he travelled constantly with the emperor’s choir, which accompanied the peripatetic ruler from Madrid to Barcelona, from Bologna to Tunis and back to Rome, and to the Netherlands. Around 1539 the composer met misfortune when the emperor sentenced him to the galleys on the high seas for violating a choirboy in his charge; but after a few years of exile he received pardon and retired as a canon at Tournai cathedral. His setting of Psalm 30 creates a constant flow of imitative entries: Gombert leaves no room for rhetorical moments of chordal declamation. Once the music gets underway, it unfolds with unstoppable, energetic momentum. The penitential text could address Gombert’s own human frailty, or it could equally well have been used for services in the emperor’s chapel. In the liturgy, these first six verses of Psalm 30 occur in the final office of the day, Compline, sung just before retiring for the night. The concluding verse is particularly apt: ‘Into your hands, Lord, I entrust my spirit: you have redeemed me, Lord God of truth’.
Clemens’s music shares Gombert’s sense of inexorable forward motion. Little is known of his career, beyond a short time in Bruges in the 1540s, a few months in 1550 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, then an early death in the 1550s (he had a reputation for heavy drinking). He composed over 200 motets, which circulated widely in the Netherlands and Germany. His motet Tristitia obsedit me, published in Antwerp in 1553, is a setting for four voices that draws on both of Savonarola’s prison meditations, first the one on Psalm 30, then that on Psalm 50. He obsessively repeats phrases of text, and the opening section vividly creates the friar’s state of mind as he endlessly replays images of friends who have rejected him, as well as the sins that oppress him. Only in the second part of the work does the sense of doom begin to lift: the friar hovers on the brink of despair, then emphatically rejects it: ‘absit’ (‘let it not be’). The music drops to a whisper as he prepares to cast himself on the mercy of the Lord. He finally arrives at the pleading words of the Psalm: ‘Miserere mei, Deus’. Here he audibly refers to Josquin’s monotone subject for the same words.
Le Jeune, Palestrina and Lassus all belong to the generation of composers active from the 1550s to the 1590s. They represent three European capitals, Le Jeune in Paris, Palestrina in Rome and Lassus in Munich. Like Clemens, Le Jeune provided a musical setting for the opening of Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 30, Tristitia obsedit me, but he selected completely different phrases from it. Little is known of Le Jeune’s biography before the 1570s, but the possibility arises that he composed his motet for a patron from Ferrara, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este. Le Jeune converted to the Huguenot cause around 1560, while from 1561 to 1563 Cardinal d’Este served as papal legate to France, with orders to negotiate with Huguenot leaders and return them to the Catholic fold. Civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions erupted in 1562, and Cardinal d’Este departed France in defeat. During his few turbulent years in France, the cardinal may have commissioned the setting of Savonarola’s meditation from Le Jeune. It is a dramatic and vivid evocation of Savonarola’s final meditation: the allegorical figure of Sadness has gathered up an army to lay siege to the penitent friar, and with banners waving she fights mightily against him. The battle rages at the words ‘pugnare non cessat’ (‘she never ceases to fight’), with incessant repetition in thumping military rhythms and repeated notes in the music. Le Jeune also follows the example of Willaert, Rore and Vicentino in their settings of Infelix ego, by incorporating a borrowed melody as a repeating subject. He takes this melody and text from Lupus Hellinck’s motet In te, Domine, speravi. These opening words sound repeatedly in the second cantus voice, always on the same pitch, like a clarion call. The rhythms of the subject are more urgent in the second part, where the voices sing it at twice the original speed. Finally, all voices join in clamorous imitative entries and cry: ‘In te, Domine, speravi: non confundar in aeternum’.
Palestrina, living in Counter-Reformation Rome, could hardly risk setting Savonarola’s words to music; rather he set a liturgical text, Tribularer, si nescirem, a Responsory for the Office of Matins on the First Thursday of Lent, which he published in 1572. He does, however, give a nod to Josquin’s Miserere: he quotes the monotone melody from that motet as a repeating subject, with entries on ascending and descending pitches of the scale, as in Josquin’s motet. Palestrina also carefully studied the motets of the preceding generation, as can be seen in his Masses that rework the music of motets by Lhéritier and Hellinck, among others. Palestrina’s dense and continuously imitative textures recall those of Gombert, yet the effect of his music is less driven and more luxuriant. His finely turned melodic lines flow smoothly, even suavely, and he avoids the harsh dissonances that are a hallmark of Gombert’s generation. The music promotes quiet contemplation and purges dramatic gestures and dissonances that would break the serene mood. Palestrina worked for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este in the late 1560s, and, given his adoption of Josquin’s melodic subject from Miserere, he may have composed Tribularer, si nescirem for his Ferrarese patron.
Lassus was born in Mons (now in southern Belgium) around 1530, and moved in 1544 to Italy for musical training; the young composer came to prominence in Rome in 1553 as chapelmaster of San Giovanni in Laterano. He returned north in 1555 and spent the rest of his long career in Munich as chapelmaster to the dukes of Bavaria. Duke Albrecht, who maintained close ties with Ferrara, must have known the motets by Willaert and Rore on Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 50; perhaps he requested a setting of Infelix ego, or Lassus took the initiative himself. The composer’s distinctive rhetorical style captures the friar’s desperate state of mind, especially through surprising shifts of harmony. And the third section suggests a single speaking voice with passages of chordal declamation that alternate the full choir with reduced groups of low and high voices. The voices cry out at times, then fall suddenly to a whisper, as in the setting by Clemens, concluding with a final chordal appeal of ‘Miserere mei, Deus’.
William Byrd’s Infelix ego represents a culmination of the tradition of setting Savonarola’s meditations to music, and he exceeds his predecessors in both length and intensity of expression. He did not publish it until 1591, in a volume of his motets dedicated to the Catholic nobleman Lord John Lumley, but manuscript sources show that he composed it in the late 1570s. Motets circulated in these manuscripts alongside English songs, and it is likely that sophisticated amateurs performed this repertory as chamber music. Byrd possibly knew the motets on Savonarola’s meditations by Clemens and Lassus, for Lord Lumley owned printed copies of them. Perhaps Byrd’s rhetorical repetition of phrases of text owes something to Clemens; his iridescent shifts of harmony from major to minor recall the music of Lassus. At the end of Byrd’s motet, the familiar words ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ arrive, and here the chordal declamation recalls Josquin’s subject, with the monotone statement and semitone inflection in the top voice. The most extraordinary moment, however, unfolds at ‘misericordiam tuam’, where the voices pour forth wave upon wave of imitative entries and ascend to the heights. This is music of unprecedented power, in England or on the continent. As Catholics in Protestant England, Byrd and his co-religionists suffered harassment, and Byrd’s setting of Savonarola’s meditation must have given voice to their sense of persecution, as well as their hope in the Lord’s mercy.
Patrick Macey © 2016
Singing Josquin’s Miserere is a challenging and thrilling experience. The outer parts are complex and varied, requiring both control over long-breathed phrases with leaps and wide ranges, and agility in more soloistic sections. The middle voice holds the repeated plainsong-like incantations of ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, and simple though its notes are, it plays a vital structural and unifying role. Patrick Macey’s note tells of the inspiration for Josquin’s setting and its link with Savonarola, and Macey has suggested that the work was not only composed at the behest of Josquin’s musical patron, Duke Ercole, but that the duke (a keen singer) may have sung one of the parts himself. The ‘cantus firmus’ part covers about an octave, and perhaps this was the duke’s part: there would have been less likelihood of royal embarrassment or vocal difficulty than there might be in singing one of the other parts, which cover an octave and a half or more.
Much of the Miserere text is delivered in tightly imitative two-part writing—a technique that reappears in several of Josquin’s later psalm-settings—with contrasting fuller passages containing static, chant-like repetition. The ostinato figure ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, for example, is barely more than a monotone with ‘hypnotic rumination around the same circling figure’ creating ‘extraordinary intensification’ (Macey). By the simplest means, Josquin holds our attention and draws us into his music, into the mood of the text. Though not present in any rubric, there is an inherent imperative to give the more elaborate verse sections (all scored with a reduced number of voices) to solo voices, and to use the full ensemble for the ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ sections, most of which are scored for the full complement of five parts. This scheme allows the singers freedom to narrate their parts and interact with each other in verse sections that demonstrate Josquin’s subtle and expressive writing, then to combine in the more solid, structural passages. Josquin’s masterful writing demands a measured and thoughtful response, and for me, giving the singers the opportunity to weave artistic individuality into the fabric is essential.
Even though Savonarola’s ashes were consigned to the waters of the River Arno, his influence did spread far and wide across sixteenth-century Europe. His meditations exhibit both despair and redemption, themes that, in the hands of the composers represented here, provide the inspiration for musical works of great passion. Josquin’s Miserere lies at the heart of this programme, and the choice of the other pieces was influenced in no small part by Patrick Macey’s book Bonfire Songs—Savonarola’s Musical Legacy. As with Savonarola’s writings, these compositions are both political and personal: they reflect on turbulent times and on people of great conviction and spirit. Their variety of scoring, texture and harmonic language is mirrored in their intensity and attention to detail. We invite you to listen ‘from the inside’, embracing both their power and their subtlety, and to find as much satisfaction in listening as we did in performing these extraordinarily intense works.
Philip Cave © 2016