It is surprising, then, that in its main source, Petrucci’s Motetti B (1503), the work appears for much of its considerable length to be paraphrasing chant one or two verses adrift from the model. Brumel’s fourth polyphonic section might be expected to set verse 7 of the chant, but (according to Petrucci) sets verse 9, and (to simplify slightly) the piece continues in this fashion until verse 19, where the sequence text begins to alter its metrical pattern, this and subsequent stanzas containing four lines of text instead of three. Here the Petrucci version comes back into line by means of a musical repeat: verse 17 in Petrucci is the same as verse 3.
Previous editors of the piece have stated that this phenomenon represents a creative rethinking by Brumel of the sequence genre, introducing a thematic return so as to strengthen the formal elements of the piece. No account is taken, however, of the effect of the even-numbered verses in performance, nor is any plainsong printed in these editions (in Corpus mensurabilis musicae, volume 5/v and Monuments of Renaissance Music, volume xi). A full discussion of the issues raised in editing this piece cannot be undergone here, but in brief I believe that the disjunction between paraphrased chant and text is erroneous, and presumably introduced during the publication process. The reason that a musical repeat is necessary in the first place is that the melodic pattern of the sequence changes at verse 5: instead of verses 5 and 6 sharing a melody, then 7 and 8 sharing another, as is the case elsewhere in the chant, verses 5 and 7 are the same—and evidently Brumel composed only one polyphonic setting of this melody—and verses 6 and 8, which are also identical (apart from a small change in the poetic metre) are not set at all since they were intended for monophonic singing. The version recorded here is thus a reconstruction of an inferred original, in which the repeat occurs in verse 7 and all plainsong verses correspond to the melody paraphrased in the polyphonic verse immediately preceding.
This abstruse but consequential point aside, Brumel’s setting of Lauda Sion is notable for its variety of approaches to the task of elaborating a chant melody. As well as altering in texture (verses 15 and 17 are duets) and metre (verse 23 is in triple time) the piece strikes a wide range of affective poses, with a progression from the laudatory and almost pugnacious opening verses towards a more contemplative approach to the sacred Body of Jesus. The relation of polyphony to the plainsong melody is always a close one, in which each note of the sequence is heard, usually in the tenor voice, with minimal elaboration until the final cadence where a much more substantial flourish can be expected. The other three voices usually imitate the opening of the plainsong lines (generally at the unison or octave rather than other pitches) but then diverge in order to create a constantly fluctuating, patterned texture, which comes together for cadences only rarely other than at verse-ends. Later in the piece, verse 21 ‘Ecce panis angelorum’ (‘Behold the bread of angels’), the point at which metaphorically the Host is revealed, is treated in hushed homophony, following which verse 23 is a suitably subdued prayer for Christ’s protection. Brumel’s polyphonic Amen, however, briefly reignites the martial spirit of the piece’s opening.
from notes by Stephen Rice © 2014