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.
from notes by Stephen Rice © 2011