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.