THE GOLDEN AGE OF POLYPHONY
Motet, Benedicta es, celorum regina, 6vv
Josquin Desprez (ca. 1451-1521)
|Motet, Preter rerum seriem, 6vv
Motet, Ave verum corpus, 6vv
Gloria, Missa L’homme armé sexti toni, 4vv
Hymn, Vexilla regis prodeunt, 4vv
Motet, Exultavit cor meum, 6vv
Agnus Dei, Missa L’homme armé sexti toni, 6vv
Kristina Boerger, Martha Cluver, Melissa Fogarty, Michele Kennedy, Dominique Surh – sopranos
Luthien Brackett – mezzo-soprano
Neil Farrell, Peter Gruett, Michael Steinberger, Christopher Preston Thompson – tenors
Jeffrey Johnson, Thomas McCargar – baritones
Kurt-Owen Richards, Peter Stewart – basses
Commentary on the Program
by Alexander Blachly
Among the many treasures in the music collection of the Library of Congress are printed partbooks containing sixteenth-century Masses, motets, and madrigals, the sources for some of the greatest musical works of the “golden age of polyphony.” Today’s concert focuses on choral works preserved in this collection, featuring music by Josquin Desprez, Palestrina, Lassus, Andrea Gabrieli, and Victoria, with one fifteenth-century work (the introit from Ockeghem’s Requiem Mass) as an example of what came before, as well as one work from the early seventeenth century (Giovanni Gabrieli’s motet Exultavit cor meum) as witness to what came after. The majority of pieces in the program are transmitted in books on display today in the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Auditorium.
The first music printed from movable type dates from 1501. Following the lead of Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice, who pioneered the process, printers quickly set up music presses in France and Germany as well as in other cities in Italy. Instead of the large “choirbook format” of fifteenth-century music books that an entire choir could sing from, the printed books were small and limited to individual voice parts. Thus, a music print from the sixteenth century normally included between four and eight oblong partbooks, each one labeled by range, e.g., “Cantus,” “Altus,” “Tenor,” “Bassus,” with additional voices identified as “Quintus,” “Sextus,” etc.
The single most prominent feature in sixteenth-century polyphony, evident in nearly every musical genre, is “pervasive imitation,” a style of composition in which one voice follows another, singing the same melodic motif or fragment, but normally starting on a different pitch. As one listens, it becomes apparent that all the voices in the ensemble participate in the imitative process. As a result, imitative polyphony achieves a sonic depth akin to the visual depth in contemporaneous paintings with vanishing-point perspective. When judged by all the polyphonic music in the Western tradition, imitative polyphony statistically represents an unusual style of music, though it was copied from time to time by such later composers as Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Most music from before the sixteenth century had been hierarchical, with faster motion in the top voice(s), supported from below by notes in slower motion. Music from after the sixteenth century, too, tended to be non-homogeneous, nearly always featuring a single melody or duet accompanied by instrumental harmonic support. Unlike most later music, polyphony from the golden age could be and often was performed without instruments.
The earliest piece in today’s program is the introit from Ockeghem’s Requiem Mass. The plaintive quality of the simple three-voice texture results from the sound of the Lydian mode (final on F with many B-naturals) and the archaic double-leading-tone cadences. One becomes aware of Ockeghem’s trademark harmonic ambiguity almost immediately.
Next chronologically are the pieces by Josquin Desprez, whom Martin Luther admired above all other composers, famously quipping that Josquin “could make the notes do as he wished, whereas others had to do what the notes required.” The two imposing six-voice motets that start each half of our program, Benedicta es, celorum regina and Preter rerum seriem, most likely date from Josquin’s time as a member of the papal choir in the Sistine Chapel in the 1490s, where monumentalism was the preferred style in all the arts. The Missa L’homme armé sexti toni (Mass based on the “L’homme armé” tune in the sixth tone) shows Josquin at the top of his form, writing masterful sequences and canons. Petrucci printed this work in his first volume of Josquin Masses in 1502. Agnus III ends the Mass with fireworks, expanding to six voices, with two two-voice canons at the minim above a slow-moving forward-backward canon in the lower voices (where one of the lower voices slowly sings the first half of the “L’homme armé” melody backwards in long notes, while the other lower voice slowly sings the second half of the melody forwards at the same time).
Petrucci printed the Missa Malheur me bat in his second volume of Josquin Masses of 1505. It, too, displays extraordinary contrapuntal artifice. Agnus II features a canon at the semibreve for two voices at the second (one voice begins on D, the other on E, singing the same melodies in a close chase). The canon intensifies when it shifts into triplets. Agnus III again ends its Mass with fireworks, expanding to six voices, again with two two-voice canons at the minim accompanying the other voices, which slowly sing the melody and countermelody of the original “Malheur me bat” chanson.
Palestrina, Lassus, and Andrea Gabrieli were almost exact contemporaries, each a master of contrapuntal suavité. If Gabrieli’s style seems less arresting, it is only because Palestrina’s magisterial transcendence and Lassus’s rhetorical energy overshadowed all others’ efforts. The Kyrie and Gloria of Palestrina’s six-voice Missa Sine nomine (“without a name,” meaning that its motet or chanson model, if there was one, is not known) deserve special notice as works that Johann Sebastian Bach performed in Leipzig in the eighteenth century, supplying them with a figured bass for continuo instruments.
Victoria mastered his art during twenty-two years as singer and organist in various churches in Rome but spent the last twenty-four years of his life first as choirmaster, then as organist, in his native Spain at the royal convent in Madrid. Although his most most prolific years were in Rome, where it is thought he knew and may have studied with Palestrina, Victoria never relinquished the affective harmonies of his Spanish heritage.
The latest piece in our program is by Giovanni Gabrieli, nephew of Andrea and like him a musician in Venice at St. Mark’s Cathedral. For performance from the balconies overlooking St. Mark’s main crossing he composed many works for double and triple choirs, with singers often accompanied by organs, cornetti, and sackbuts. Exultavit cor meum, from a collection printed in 1612, is for a single six-voice choir. Even when sung a cappella, it reveals a quasi-instrumental quality because of its many fast repeating notes and an advanced harmonic language, where voices moving toward cadences sometimes collide. Though some remnants of the sixteenth-century (from now on known as the “stile antico”) survive, Gabrieli’s music belongs stylistically to a new era that capitalized on the emerging language of functional harmony and idiomatic writing for instruments.