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Easter V, 24 April 2016

Isaac: Missa paschalis
Lassus: Regina caeli laetare
Gallus: Alleluia. In resurrectione tua Christe

On the fifth Sunday of Easter we hear from two Flemish composers living at either end of the Renaissance. The early life of Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450 – 1517) is not well documented. We don’t know where in Flanders he was born but once he started working for Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent) he travelled widely throughout Europe, finally settling in Florence. He was a prolific composer, from whom hundreds of motets and 36 masses survive as well as much instrumental music. He was compared to his more famous compatriot: ‘It is true that Josquin composes better but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants him to’. The Missa paschalis is a six part mass setting, which takes as its basis the plainchant Missa Paschalis (now known as Mass I), and the original chant alternates with Isaac’s composed sections. The Kyrie is by far the most complex movement. There are six sections with a wide range of effects: listen to the changes in metre (double time moving to triple time); the interruption of cadences; blocks of sound suddenly disappearing, leaving just two parts to carry the momentum: a surprisingly modern sounding piece. The short Agnus Dei has much to recommend it: lovely interplay between the parts, increasing and reducing the number of singers, interrupted cadences, all of which are heavily dependent upon the chant.

We continue our series of settings of the ‘Regina Caeli’ with the setting by another prolific composer, Orlandus Lassus (1532 – 1594). Lassus was also employed by a Medici, Cosimo, before settling in Munich at the court of the Duke of Bavaria. Like Isaac he uses six parts and uses plainchant as the source of all melodic material. Lassus rarely lets a phrase finish before starting the next one and, since most phrases end with all parts singing, when the next starts and one part takes the line alone, you feel the next line emerge almost unannounced.

The Slovenian Jacobus Gallus (1550 – 1591) composed a piece for every liturgical eventuality, masses and motets to cover the whole year. Unlike Isaac and Lassus, he rarely quoted plainchant, preferring the more modern writing for choruses. His double choir motet ‘Alleluia. In resurrectome tua Christe’ is in the style of the Venetian school that was taught by Lassus: brash, almost orchestral, fanfares using the division of the choir to bounce rhythmic ideas around.

Easter IV, 17 April 2016

Clemens: Missa Ecce quam bonum
Byrd: Ego sum panis vivus
Palestrina: Regina Coeli

For this fourth Sunday of Easter, we shall sing a mass setting by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1555), which is based on his setting of the 133rd Psalm: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”. This mass opens in 5 parts but Clemens adds and subtracts voices throughout the piece. The north European style of the Flemish composer is evident: particularly notable is that, when a part is included in a movement, it rarely rests. The flowing Kyrie reflects the motet’s mood but one could imagine that the opening of the Gloria came from a battle mass, a lively phrase that would not seem out of place in a trumpet fanfare. An extra baritone part is added for the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, creating a rich, thick texture and an even stronger evocation of the sentiment of the psalm.

The two motets were written by two of the most prolific composers of all time. William Byrd (1539-1623) published his two books of liturgical music (the Gradualia) in 1607 and 1609. These 109 motets are settings of the propers; the first collection focuses on the Marian feasts, Corpus Christi and All Saints: a startling statement of Byrd’s allegiance to the Roman church in that torrid time of the English Reformation. Byrd’s settings are always harmonically and rhythmically creative. He was also often keen to ‘paint’ the words. In this motet “Ego sum panis vivus” note how the voices fall with the bread of heaven descending from heaven. The structure of the piece is also wonderfully crafted: no phrase is allowed to finish until we reach the core of the text, the repeated:”vivet in aeternum” that is, those who eat of the bread from heaven will live for ever. Both statements stand apart.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) wrote over 300 motets, usually in 5 or more parts. His Regina Caeli is unusual in that it was written for four voices; it was not published in his lifetime and the tenor part has been reconstructed as it was lost. In contrast with Byrd’s complex motet, Palestrina’s setting is much simpler; there are few accidentals and no ‘exotic’ harmonies or rhythms. He refers to the original melody throughout and, for emphasis, he brings the choir together for the opening and at ‘Ora pro nobis’; or reduces the number of singers to just two parts at ‘Portare’. Palestrina’s work is for many, the epitome of Renaissance music. In this motet we can see why; on the page there seems to be nothing extraordinary about this piece but there is sublime beauty in its understatement.

Maundy Thursday – 24 March 2016

Palm Sunday – March 20, 2016

Schein: Ingrediente Domino, Pitoni: Christus Factus Est,
Sweelinck: Vide homo
Victoria: Missa Simile est regnum coelorum

Schein (1586-1630) was the Thomaskantor in Leipzig a century before the great JS Bach. Although he never left Germany, he adopted the ‘Italian style’ that was so beloved by his successor. “Ingrediente Domino” is a complex piece with much rhythmic interest; the piece often juxtaposes ideas, for example, “Osanna” is sung by the sopranos whilst the rest of the choir sing “clamantes” then the roles are reversed.

Like Schein before him and so many since, Pitoni (1657-1743) was devoted to the music of Palestrina. He moved to Rome as an infant and, apart from a couple of brief sojourns in Assisi and Reiti, he remained there all his life. Over his incredibly long career (he was organist at the basilica of San Marco, Rome for over 60 years) he produced a vast output of music varying in style from what could, unkindly, be called Palestrina pastiche to music that could stand comparison in style and quality to some of the works of his contemporary Handel. Christus Factus Est is a short motet which borrows from both styles. After an imitative opening he emphasises various words by extending them. Then he suddenly transforms the texture: the choir sings simple harmonies as in a hymn only to return to the imitative style of his exemplar.

Sweelinck (1562-1621) may have been the least travelled of our four composers. He was, and is, famous for his keyboard music which travelled across Europe: it was published and played in London, Sweden and Italy as well as his native Holland. The motet “Vide homo” is a setting of a poem by the thirteenth century Parisian, Philippe de Greve, made famous as the final movement in Lassus’ last composition “Lagrime di San Pietro”: the Tears of St Peter. In this poem we hear of Jesus’ torment: the inward suffering from the betrayal was even more painful than being pierced by nails.

Like many Spanish composers of his era, Victoria (1548-1611), travelled from his homeland to Rome. He stayed in Rome for twenty years but after becoming ordained as a priest, he returned to Madrid to be the chaplain to Dowager Empress Maria, the daughter of Charles V. Whilst in Rome he wrote and published the “Missa Simile est regnum coelorum”, based on the motet of his compatriot, Guerrero. Victoria’s vast and varied output looks back towards the past masters and prepares us for the Baroque. This mass setting takes us on this journey through time, starting with the Kyrie, which closely follows the template motet. However, as we progress through the movements of the mass we are taken further from the original to a final Agnus Dei in two choirs that would not be out of place in the Baroque splendour of Venice.

Lent V – 13 March, 2016

Victoria – Asperges Me
Manchicourt : Missa “Surge et Illinare”
Clemens : Fremuit spiritus Jesus

1510 was a tumultuous year for the Roman Catholic Church. The Papal states were at war with France and the scene was set for a famous diplomat: Florence sent Niccolò Machiavelli to France. Into this cauldron of religious fervour two great composers appeared: Pierre de Manchicourt from northern France and Jacobus Clemens from what is now Belgium.

Manchicourt worked in France before settling in Spain, his music changed as he heard new techniques and incorporated them into his music. Although Clemens was, perhaps jokingly, called “not the pope”, he never visited Italy and he lived most of his life close to his birth place.

This week we don’t hear the difference between the music of the north and the south in the European of the 16th century; rather we hear the youthful exuberance of the young Manchicourt – the “Missa Surge et illuminare” was published before he was 25 – contrasted with the music of the mature Clemens – the motet “Fremuit spiritu Jesus” was published just 2 years before his untimely murder in 1556.

Both composers ‘fill the page’ with notes; the gap between imitative entries is short; and the rest they allow the singers is as short as possible.

In Clemens setting of the Raising of Lazarus, the second part repeats Jesus’ call ‘Lazarus come out!’ whilst the story unfolds around them. In the first part we are taken, with Jesus, to where he wept at the tomb of Lazarus. In the second part he shares his sorrow with the sisters of Lazarus but we end with the uplifting command of Jesus. Clemens adds to the emotional text with many complex and ambiguous harmonies. This motet was clearly much loved; two years after its publication around the time of Clemens’ death, Lassus wrote a motet on the same text with clear references to his predecessors’ setting.

By contrast, Manchicourt’s setting of the mass contains few accidentals and the chords are clear and the mode a very decisive Hypodorian. As befits a mass based on the Advent text of ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come’, the Agnus Dei ends, like the Clemens, with an uplifting final cadence.

Advent 1, 2015

Dvorak Mass in D

Gombert Missa Je suis desheritée

Palestrina Missa Aeterna Christi Munera