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Queen of Hearts

The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park (director) Detailed performer information
Available Friday 28 June 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: June 2023
St George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt & James Waterhouse
Release date: 28 June 2024
Total duration: 66 minutes 39 seconds

The infallible Gesualdo Six trademarks of consummate musicianship and scholarly integrity are much in evidence here. Queen of Hearts addresses and reflects on queens spiritual (the Virgin Mary) and temporal (Mary Tudor and Anne Boleyn, among others) in a programme of music largely of the sixteenth century, but spiced with two short works from the twenty-first.

Our first performances of ‘regretz chansons’ were inspired by the story of Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), whose heart was broken repeatedly over her lifetime and for whom many songs were written. After her death her heart was removed and stored in a stunning gold reliquary, which miraculously survived the French Revolution and is preserved today in her home city of Nantes. Many chansons mention the heart, especially in the tragic sense applied in ‘regretz chansons’, and specifically its desires and downfall. Thus our programme came to be titled Queen of Hearts.

The first ‘regretz chansons’ were written for Margaret of Austria (1480-1530), a major musical patron associated with this repertoire. Being connected, by blood or marriage, to many of the most important courts of Europe, Margaret was a powerful and capable leader, and she commissioned a ‘chansonnier’ (a large book of chansons) for her personal use, which demonstrates both her musical taste and her renown in European courtly circles. This chansonnier (B-Br MS 228), preserved in Brussels, opens with a series of works by Pierre de La Rue, a favourite composer of Margaret’s court. La Rue contributes two ‘regretz chansons’: Tous les regretz, probably the earliest such setting, and Secretz regretz (track 7), which looks beyond some of the text’s typical personal angst and calls for the support of the poet’s ‘loyaux amis’ (‘loyal friends’). La Rue uses duets and simple syllabic statements which then overflow to pour out the grief of the text into long, sobbing melismas.

A little further into Margaret’s chansonnier we find two settings of Fors seulement. This chanson was famously set for three voices by Johannes Ockeghem; parts from his trio were later extracted and used by several composers as a basis for their settings and as material for parody Masses. This in turn established these composers in a fraternity of accomplished and respected peers. The second of the chansonnier’s settings of Fors seulement, by Antoine Brumel, takes Ockeghem’s superius part as an altus line and complements it with a different text in the other parts: Du tout plongiet (track 12). As such, the echoes of Ockeghem’s lament fade in and out of focus, carried through the melody in the tenor. Brumel arrests the listener’s attention with an incredibly low-lying bass part, plunging into the metaphorical lake of despair. The lowest voice parts do later emerge from these depths to reflect the more hopeful outlook of the text’s conclusion, as the poet endeavours to enjoy gifts from the allegorical figure Fortune.

This technique of conflating new and old is also applied in motet-chansons such as Josquin’s Nymphes des bois, where affairs of the modern court (in the spoken language) are combined with sacred or biblical texts in Latin. There are several such motet-chansons in Margaret’s chansonnier, including Compère’s Plaine d’ennuy / Anima mea (track 4). Here the upper parts duet in French verse above the bass part’s Latin text in a manner similar to using chant as a cantus firmus—a technique called cantus prius factus. As Brumel honoured Ockeghem by borrowing from Fors seulement, Compère extracts his tenor part from the Song of Songs motet Anima mea liquefacta est by a fellow singer at the Sforza court in Milan, Gaspar van Weerbeke. It befitted Renaissance regents to emphasize their divine right to rule by comparing themselves to biblical royalty such as King David with psalm texts, and King Solomon through the Song of Songs.

More motet-chansons using the cantus prius factus technique are preserved in the ‘Henry VIII Manuscript’, held in the British Library. Alongside these is Antoine de Févin’s three-voice setting of Fors seulement (track 20). Févin spurns Ockeghem’s chanson and instead opens with an ornamented echo of Matthaeus Pipelare’s setting of a woman’s lament. In a style redolent of La Rue’s Secretz regretz, syllabic structure overflows into beautiful descending melismas in Févin’s setting, which itself served as inspiration for later generations of composers including Carpentras, Gombert and Adrian Willaert.

Févin’s Fors seulement also appears in the beautifully illuminated ‘Manuscript 1760’, another key European source, which is preserved in the Pepys Library in Cambridge. It contains a preponderance of works by Févin, and was thought to have commemorated either his death in 1511/12 or even that of Anne of Brittany in 1514, before the manuscript was redecorated with French lilies and English roses for probable use as a wedding gift to the English court.

Taking pride of place in Pepys Manuscript 1760 are two canonic settings of texts from the Song of Songs: Ista est speciosa, a twelve-part canon by Gascongne; and Quae est ista? by Févin. The rest of the compilation is then bookended by two miniature works by Johannes (Denis) Prioris. The first of these, Dulcis amica Dei (track 14), may have been written upon the death of Févin in 1511/12 and could have been used in place of the ‘Libera me’ in the Office for the Dead, as called for by the French poet Crétin in his lament for Févin. This brief sacred setting of a Latin ‘lauda’ text is short enough to be considered a form of ‘musical motto’ in courtly use and was later quoted or used as a cantus prius factus by other French court composers such as Gascongne, Moulu and Certon.

The second work by Prioris recorded here, Consommo la vita mia (track 21), was almost certainly written for—or at least performed upon the death of—Anne of Brittany, as it is referenced by a royal herald as a part of her funeral rites. It sets a secular Italian ‘strambotto’—an old verse form constituting a single stanza—and closes Pepys Manuscript 1760. Like Josquin and many other Franco-Flemish composers, Prioris spent time in Italy, serving as chapelmaster for the Duke of Orléans, the future Louis XII of France and the third husband of Anne of Brittany.

Also included in Pepys Manuscript 1760 is Brumel’s Sub tuum praesidium (track 1), a simple prayer to Mary for protection that was also set by a small host of other composers such as Obrecht and Cipriano de Rore. Brumel writes for lower voices using simply ornamented homophonic statements in a peaceful setting. The work opens with a typically pithy chordal passage, reminding one of an illuminated initial in a manuscript, before alternating radiant chords with melismatic duets and trios.

Costanzo Festa was one of the few Italian composers of his time considered the equal of the Oltremontani Franco-Flemish composers. His Quis dabit oculis? (track 8) is one of two known settings of a text lamenting the death of Anne of Brittany in 1514, the other being by Jean Mouton. Festa’s setting survives under Senfl’s name as a reworking for the death of Anne’s first husband, Maximilian I. Restored with the original text, Festa’s harmony pours out lamentation for the twice-queen of France, and culminates in particularly heartbreaking manner with ‘Anna, Anna, requiescat in pace’.

The most famous ‘regretz chanson’, Mille regretz (track 5), became so after flourishing in print during the middle of the sixteenth century. Whilst there is some debate as to whether the work can be firmly attributed to Josquin, its undeniable beauty and evocative sighing final bars make it one of our favourites. So too of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-1558), who appears to have received a Mass based upon the motet from Spanish court composer Cristóbal de Morales as a gift in 1544. In the opening section, hear how the use of a rising fourth in the top voice, which gradually moves higher and higher, lends a sense of pining. Towards the end, this pattern is reversed, and the interval is reached through stepwise motion, almost as if the narrator has given up and started trudging slowly away.

Mouton’s De tous regretz (track 19) survives in a print from 1538 by Moderne in Lyons, but stylistically it belongs alongside the other ‘regretz chansons’ from the earlier sixteenth century. Duet textures melt into homophony in this simple but affecting example. Mouton is heavily represented in most of the key French sources and was at Anne’s court alongside Ockeghem, Compère and Févin. Upon Févin’s death, in 1512 Mouton wrote Qui ne regrettoit, a title that may echo Févin’s tenure at the French court, surrounded by ‘regretz’ settings.

Printed by Andrea Antico alongside Mouton’s Qui ne regrettoit in Venice in 1520 is Antonius Divitis’ Ista est speciosa (track 13). Antico’s Motetti novi e chanzoni franciose contains both sacred works in Latin and secular works in French by a number of the great French court composers and was probably organized by Adrian Willaert, who is thought to have been taught by Mouton. Ista est speciosa is a smart four-part canonic setting with an additional freewheeling tenor part that plays around the rigid canon. It transcends ‘canon as a composing exercise’ and produces a rare and surprising cadential figure in the bass. Divitis worked as Anne of Brittany’s maître de chapelle and continued to work at the French court after her death.

The third key French source is commonly referred to as the ‘Anne Boleyn music book’ and is preserved at the Royal College of Music in London. Anne Boleyn grew up in modern-day Belgium and became a maid of honour to Margaret of Austria, under whose auspices she developed her skills in music. Containing a mix of mainly Marian motets and chansons, her music book includes several works by Josquin, including Praeter rerum seriem (track 2), a rare musical example that is set apart from the regular Marian devotions, dealing instead with the mysteries of the Incarnation. This magnificent quasi-symphonic work opens with the three lowest voices solemnly illuminating the text, a bass duet accompanying the cantus firmus-like tenor; this is then answered by a similar distribution of three upper parts. The seriously impressive architecture of the work—one of Josquin’s grandest motets—belies moments of tenderness and grandiosity in alternation.

Displaying a different, more echt canonic approach to a cantus firmus, Jean Lhéritier’s Salve regina (track 16) was published in Paris by Attaingnant in 1535 but was probably written well before that. Relatively little is known about Lhéritier’s career other than a likely stint in Rome and a possible Ferrarese connection. The edition of his Salve regina recorded here aims to highlight some of the ornamented chant techniques typical of Lhéritier’s other works, often inverting the melodic shape of the chant. Reminiscent of La Rue and Févin, the text-setting often starts out syllabically before dissolving into dense but beautiful melismas. More proof of Lhéritier’s place in this courtly repertory is that his sole surviving Mass is a parody Mass on a chanson by Févin: On a mal dit de mon amy, preserved in Pepys Manuscript 1760.

In addition to many works by the great Josquin, Anne Boleyn’s music book also features our other old friends at the courts in modern-day France: Févin, Mouton, Compère and Brumel. Found next to Brumel’s Sub tuum praesidium is Mouton’s Tota pulchra es (track 15), yet another Marian/Song of Songs combination. A miniature gem, Tota pulchra es is written for lower voices and shows off Mouton’s complete control of harmony and pathos. The crowning central minor cadence is one of our favourite moments in the repertory.

Brumel’s Sicut lilium (track 6) is another Song of Songs setting presented in Anne Boleyn’s music book and it bears enough similarity to have possibly been inspired by Prioris’ Dulcis amica Dei, especially in the falling thirds of the opening phrases. In another perfect miniature, Brumel reflects the delicacy of the flower depicted in the text with his simple but elegant setting.

Anne Boleyn left the court of Margaret of Austria in 1514 to attend to Mary Tudor, who was then on her way to marry Louis XII and thus become his third wife, following the death of Anne of Brittany. Written specially for this recording, Owain Park’s Prière pour Marie (track 11) sets a prayer reportedly uttered by French peasants during Mary’s journey to the wedding and beautifully reflects upon the blurring of the boundary between queens terrestrial and celestial: ‘Marie au ciel et Marie en la terre.’

Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Plaisir n’ai plus (track 18), also specially commissioned for this recording, sets Clément Marot’s poetry of c1532. Marot was part of the circle of court poets surrounding Anne of Brittany and was influenced by Marguerite d’Alençon (later Marguerite de Navarre), and his poetry explores themes very familiar to ‘regretz chansons’ but from a male perspective, longing after a lost ‘Dame de valeur’. Cruttwell-Reade describes her work as being influenced by monodic psalm-singing, but she then expands and transcends the harmony of the early Renaissance to explore the seconda pratica, recomposing cadential figures favoured by Monteverdi and Gesualdo, before pushing this yet further in chromatic twists and turns.

The final two works on this album are later examples of ‘regretz chansons’ and Song of Songs settings by the familiar pairing of Gombert and Clemens non Papa. Sometimes more strongly associated with their work in Spain, both these Franco-Flemish composers were heavily influenced by the French courts. Gombert chooses the same text as Brumel, Tous les regretz (track 22), but extends Brumel’s compass by expanding to six voices. Published by Susato in Antwerp in 1544 in a book of exclusively French chansons alongside music by Willaert, Josquin and others, it shows the lasting affection and demand for ‘regretz chansons’ and showcases Gombert’s stylistic harmonic language, as affecting in this chanson as in his motets.

Ego flos campi (track 23) by Clemens non Papa was published in 1555 by Phalèse. The product of a later generation of Song of Songs motets and noticeably more dense, with seven vocal parts, it justly remains one of Clemens’ most famous and lauded settings. Masterful permutations and combinations of upper and lower voices give the work plenty of air and space in an almost polychoral manner. Belying its largely syllabic text-setting, this motet beautifully evokes the living waters flowing forth from Lebanon.

Guy James © 2024

Over the past few years, it has been a joy to delve further into the rich tapestry of musical works that inspired our earlier album Josquin’s legacy (Hyperion CDA68379). Choosing the repertoire for a recording is a particularly exciting challenge, requiring careful selection of a handful of pieces that weave together to create a compelling story.

Josquin’s legacy explored the cross-currents of texts and the movement of ‘Oltremontani’ composers (from the Franco-Flemish School who came ‘over the Alps’ to northern Italy) as they travelled around Renaissance Europe. As we developed our concert programmes for performance, a new thread emerged: music that connected the queenly courts of Europe. There are several fantastic and beautifully illuminated sources containing music written for these courts, and many of them are preserved in the United Kingdom.

On this album, we explore music that venerates the Virgin Mary—the ‘regina caelorum’—and that memorializes her terrestrial counterparts, highlighting the interwoven lives of Anne of Brittany, Margaret of Austria, and—in England—Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor. We feature works which build new upon old, in particular a number of motet-chansons where sacred Latin texts are presented alongside contemporary courtly concerns in the vernacular. Just as medieval Catholic liturgy appropriated the Song of Songs to venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary, motet-chansons allowed court composers to work Song of Songs texts into secular music for the court, blurring the distinction between heavenly and earthly queens.

The concluding piece in our programme is the remarkable Ego flos campi by Clemens non Papa, composed for seven voices. Recording this work was a poignant moment for the ensemble, as it was the last track we recorded with our outgoing bass, Samuel Mitchell, who has been with us for seven years. It was wonderful to have Alasdair Austin with us to complete the line-up. We have thoroughly enjoyed putting together this collection, and our particular thanks go to Guy James for his work researching and preparing editions of the music. I hope we have captured something of the intrigue and excitement we feel when singing this repertoire, and look forward to how this programme might develop in the coming years.

Owain Park © 2024

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