One of the most controversial theories surrounding the performance of Renaissance polyphony is that of the so-called ‘secret chromatic art’. First proposed by the scholar Edward Lowinsky (1908–1985) in relation to motets by Jacob Clemens non Papa, it holds that certain pieces could be performed with the addition of numerous accidental flats, sometimes leading to the entire piece ending a semitone lower than it began through a process of transposition. Lowinsky hypothesized that this related to crypto-Protestant significance in the music: Clemens’s mysterious nickname ‘non Papa’ would in this case indicate anti-Papal leanings—though more recent research suggests that Clemens was so called for much more prosaic reasons to do with his debauched lifestyle. Whatever the background to this phenomenon, it is certainly the case that in several pieces of this period, if the rules of musica ficta are followed as most likely would have happened in performance from separate partbooks, one flat after another appears in the music and leads to a downward spiral. One such example is Phinot’s Pater peccavi
, a motet based on the story of the prodigal son.
The first half of the motet proceeds in a contrapuntally unproblematic way; only when the son begins to describe his miserable circumstances (‘hic fame pereo’) does the modulation begin, achieving the entire shift in an extraordinary passage a little over half a minute long (3'45" to 4'20"). Having so to speak ‘found his feet’ in the new tonality the son resolves to go back to his father to beg forgiveness (‘Surgam et ibo’), but the pain of his humiliation is underlined by the highly expressive downward sequence of suspensions (‘et dicam ei’) before the plea ‘Make me as one of your servants’ (‘Fac me sicut unum ex mercenariis tuis’) returns in a mood of resignation. Such a direct narrative explanation may seem out of place for a motet published as early as 1538; yet the remarkable effect both of the ‘secret chromatic’ spiral and the later suspension passage suggests just such an interpretation despite the early date.
from notes by Roger Jacob & Stephen Rice © 2009