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Hyperion Records

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Sibyl (c1540) by Francesco Ubertini Verdi Bachiacca (c1494-1557)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67887
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: 29 minutes 8 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
? 1555, by 1560; 4vv SATB; VienNB 18744
author of text

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

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.

from notes by Stephen Rice © 2011

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