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.
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.