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|Audi benigne conditor, (Hymn for Lent I)
Invocabit me, (Lent I introit)
Super flumina Babylonis, (Motet)
Angelis suis, (Lent I Gradual)
In ieiunio et fletu, (Responsory)
Derelinquit impius, (Responsory)
Stabat mater, (Sequence for Lenten Season)
|Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)
York Graduale (Oxford, MS b. 5 15th cent)
G. P. da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521)
|Audi, benigne conditor, (Motet for Lent)
Emendemus in melius, (Matins Responsory for Lent I)
Christe qui lux es et dies, (Hymn)
Lamentationes Ieremiae, (Secunda pars)
O vos omnes, (Motet)
Timor et tremor, (Motet)
|Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)
William Byrd (1540-1623)
Robert White (1538-1574)
Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588)
Orlande de Lassus
Elizabeth Baber, Kristina Boerger, Melissa Fogarty,
Michele Kennedy, Dominique Surh – sopranos
Luthien Brackett – mezzo-soprano
Robert Isaacs – countertenor
Thom Baker, Neil Farrell, Michael Steinberger – tenors
Jeffrey Johnson, Thomas McCargar – baritones
Kurt-Owen Richards – bass
Commentary on the Program
by Alexander Blachly
Lent was originally a time of preparation for the catechumens (those aspiring to be Christians) preceding their confirmation on Easter Sunday. Like Advent, the period before Easter serves as a penitential season of introspection, confession, and reconciliation, when festive music gives way to more somber sounds. The austerity of Lenten penitence finds musical expression in this evening’s program in Du Fay’s early Renaissance setting of the great Lenten hymn Audi, benigne conditor. The words, once attributed to Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590-604), pray that those fasting over forty days might enjoy the rewards of outward abstinence: the Maker’s forgiveness of sin within. Du Fay’s music alternates odd verses sung to the traditional Gregorian chant melody with even verses sung in a three-part harmonization of the chant melody transformed by paraphrase (heard in the top voice). Like most Latin hymns, Audi, benigne conditor ends with a doxology stanza praising the Trinity.
The ancient Gregorian chant introit for the First Sunday of Lent is cast in the melodically dark Tone 8. The source of the version heard here is a fifteenth-century book of Mass chants now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Mus. Ms. Lat. Liturg. b. 5), a book that transmits the rite of York, which, while nearly identical with the Roman rite for most pieces, exhibits occasional local variants. Also from Lat. Liturg. b. 5 comes the fourth item in our program, the gradual Angelis suis from the same Mass. Angelis suis shares with the Easter gradual Haec dies and a number of other graduals some notable melodic turns of phrase that are among the highlights of the Gregorian repertoire.
Though no Alleluia or Gloria in excelsis sounds in church during Lent, the season’s music expresses in its memorable melodies and harmonies the intensity of the penitential season. Indeed, with the exception of the opening Du Fay hymn, the polyphonic works on our program reveal that the “somber” music of Lent in the later Renaissance was in fact often highly charged harmonically. The theme of exile expressed in the memorable words of Super flumina Babylonis from Psalm 136 (Ps. 137 in the Protestant psalter) is understood in Lent to refer to the Fall of Man and man’s subsequent exile from God. Even Palestrina, who normally shunned coloristic effects in favor of a transcendent calm, sets Super flumina with some melodies outlining diminished intervals and with harmonies that incorporate an occasional telling dissonance to express the Psalm’s themes of loss and deprivation.
Included in the collection Tallis and Byrd published jointly in 1575 with a monopoly from Queen Elizabeth are the two motets by Tallis that follow—settings of responsory texts from the Matins service of Lent I. Thought to be among Tallis’s last compositions, In ieiunio et fletu (text from Joel 2) and Derelinquit impius (text from Isaiah) both show the acknowledged master experimenting with new means of expression at the end of his career. In ieiunio et fletu opens with each of the five voices in turn singing the motif associated with the words “In ieiunio et fletu,” but with each voice entering on a different note of the scale—and with the final voice entering on a note that is not even in the scale defined by the first four voices. Tallis’s highly chromatic and unsettled music seems to have no tonal anchor, as though to express the anxiety of Joel’s “priests,” who argue desperately for God to have mercy on his people, who are his inheritance. Derelinquit impius, similarly, opens with five statements of the motif associated with “Derelinquit impius viam suam,” each starting on a different note of the scale. Passing harmonies that include F-sharp one moment, F-natural a moment later, C-sharp immediatey followed by C-natural, G-sharp vying with G-natural, prevent the music from settling into a single harmonic home; the climax comes at the end when a series of overlapping descending scales continue, and increase, the “multi-tonal” effect established earlier, which is not so different from the simultaneous sounding of different keys in some of Stravinsky’s music of nearly four centuries later.
Josquin’s five-voice Stabat mater was judged during his lifetime to be one of his greatest works. It features prominently in the magnificent musical anthology known as the Chigi manuscript (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Chigi C VIII 234, copied by the Alamire workshop ca. 1501); it is also found in an anthology copied in the same scriptorium ca. 1515 (Brussels, Bibliotèque royale, MS 215-216) of music for the newly authorized feast of the Seven Sorrows—a feast that until 1903 was celebrated on the Saturday before Passion Sunday. Liturgically, the Stabat mater text still figures prominently in both Lenten and Seven Sorrows (now September 15) devotions. To serve as an anchor voice, or cantus firmus, for his setting, Josquin chose the tenor of a French chanson by Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460), Comme femme desconfortée, sounding in slow motion. By situating Binchois’s greatly augmented voice, singing its French words, in the middle of four other voices singing the Stabat mater poem, often in declamatory fashion, Josquin sacralized the French words, which are now to be understood as the words not of a bereaved lover but of the anguished Virgin Mary: “Like a woman in agony, distraut above all others, I am one who has no further hope in life and cannot be consoled.” The particular genius of Josquin’s setting is that he makes each change of pitch in the slow-moving cantus firmus appear inevitable, even as he achieves unusually moving harmonic effects to evoke the Virgin’s grief.
Lassus sets the same Lenten hymn as Du Fay, Audi, benigne conditor, but now as a motet in two large sections comprising two stanzas each (omitting the doxology Stanza 5). First appearing in print in 1568, Audi, benigne conditor figures among Lassus’s relatively early works (the earliest date from 1555, the latest from 1594). Lassus did not set words carelessly. This motet shares with the composer’s six-voice motet Ave verum corpus harmonies expressive of an intense devotion.
In the jointly edited anthology in which Tallis included his In ieiunio et fletu and Derelinquit impius, Byrd positioned Emendemus in melius as his first motet, which scholar Joseph Kerman takes to be an indication that Byrd thought especially highly of this work. Set almost entirely in homorhythm (chordally), with five voices declaiming the Lenten responsory text simultaneously, Byrd achieves a moving, emotional result by virtue of his exquisite harmonies. Only at the very end do the individual voices speak independently, as they sing the words Libera me (“liberate me”).
Byrd’s unusual setting of the Lenten hymn Christe qui lux es et dies, which survives only in the so-called Dow Partbooks of 1581-88, takes Robert White’s setting of the same hymn as a model. Both composers present the traditional chant melody in an unbroken chain of breves, with all other voices set to the same rhythm, in effect “harmonizing” a chant that is still sung in chant rhythm. Unlike White, Byrd puts the chant melody in the Bassus in the first polyphonic verse, in the Tenor in the next verse, in Contratenor in the verse following, then in Medius, and finally in the top voice, the Superius. As unusual as the procedure are Byrd’s continually surprising harmonies, which one might almost mistake for those of a composer living centuries later.
Robert White was recognized as one of the leading composers in the Chapel Royal during the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603). Though a Catholic, he, like Byrd and Tallis, wrote Anglican sacred music to English words but was also allowed to write motets and Lamentations in Latin. Scholar David Mateer has referred to White’s two settings of Lamentations as “particularly fine,” adding that they “represent a high point of Elizabethan choral music.” The Lamentations heard here, for five voices, survive uniquely in the retrospective anthology copied by Robert Dow in the 1580s, well after White’s death. In the Contratenor and Tenor partbooks Dow inscribed the following tribute, somewhat garbled in syntax but clear enough in meaning: “Non ita moesta sonant plangentis verba Prophetae, Quam sonat authoris musica moesta mei,” which translates as “Not so sad do the words of the weeping prophet sound [referring to Jeremiah’s Lamentations] As does the music of my author.”
White’s prevailing approach to composition, also adopted by Tallis and Byrd, was to introduce the voices of the choir one after the other in imitation, building up the texture from a single voice to five voices, occasionally with one or more voices briefly echoing one or two others, then to juxtapose these passages of contrapuntal independence with passages in which all the voices sing together in the same rhythm. Josquin Desprez had already mastered this approach at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but the English composers of the second half of the century practiced it with an identifiably national harmonic sensibility, making a virtue of alternating B-flat and B-natural, E-flat and E-natural, F-sharp and F-natural, and C-sharp and C-natural in rapid succession (heard earlier in this program to fine effect in the two motets by Tallis). When the technique involves more than one voice, musicians call the interaction a “false relation.” When it is in a single voice it is regarded as linear chromaticism. The English sound is notable for its harmonic richness, evident also in White’s Lamentations at the changes of tonal center whenever the text moves from one statement to another.
Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian by birth, served Queen Elizabeth I as a courtier on and off for sixteen years, beginning in 1562. When he wasn’t in England he is known to have worked for the French royal court and the duke of Savoy and to have spent time in Rome and Bologna. He was highly valued everywhere for his musical skills, but his efforts to navigate between Protestant England (where he was suspected of harboring Catholic sentiments) and the Inquisition in Italy (where he was suspected of being a spy for the English crown) led to a troubled career. The text of O vos omnes, taken from one of the verses in the Lamentations of Jeremiah set by White, is sung as the fifth responsory of Holy Saturday Matins, on which occasion the Old Testament words are understood to be Jesus’ as well.
Orlande de Lassus was the most famous composer in Europe during most of his career and by far the most productive. Only occasionally did he write highly chromatic music, his Timor et tremor of 1564 being one of those occasions—and a notable one at that. The text is a collection of verses from Psalms 55, 57, 61, 71, and 31. When Alfonso Ferrabosco’s setting of the same verses was published in the Sacrae cantiones…de festis praecipuis totius anni (“Sacred Songs…for the Major Feasts of the Whole Year”) by Catharine Gerlach in Nuremberg in 1585, it was one of several motets listed under the heading “Dominica Palmarum et de Passione Domini” (appropriate for Palm Sunday and Passiontide). It may be fair to assume, therefore, that when Lassus’s setting was published in the same city 21 years earlier, it likewise was intended to be sung at the end of Lent.
Though Lassus’s music generally may be said to stand at some remove from the peaceful calm of Palestrina and the other composers of the Roman school, in Timor et tremor the contrast reaches new heights. Lassus was drawn to the Psalms as a source of inspiration all his life, yet the extremity of the emotions in the verses chosen here inspired a work that can only be called Mannerist, in that it enlists exaggeration of Lassus’s usual procedures for greater emotional impact. Throughout this extraordinary motet the voices sing loud, then soft, then loud again as the music veers from one tonal center to another, evoking in turn the sentiments of “fear and trembling,” “dread,” “mercy,” “trust,” and “damnation” (“let me not be confounded”). The climax comes at the end, when the sopranos sing a series of rapid-fire sycopations in their highest range to the words “non confundar,” while the lower voices provide an anchor against the storm-tossed waves above them. This is about as far a cry from Palestrina’s unhurried style as Renaissance sacred music could get in the year 1564. Only with the polyphonic works of such later Mannerists as Giaches de Wert and Carlo Gesualdo would sacred music again reach comparable heights of extroversion.
Tonight’s program shows that the stylistic range in sacred music extending from the early Renaissance (Du Fay’s Audi benigne conditor) to the late Renaissance (Lassus’s Timor et tremor) is considerable. What all the works in question have in common is a commitment to counterpoint, especially imitative counterpoint, where the voice-parts function as truly independent melodies following strict rules for the preparation and resolution of dissonance. The result is complex music that avoids superficiality, that shows endlessly inventive effects achieved within its restrictions, and that because of its prevailingly serious mood seems especially well suited to intensifying liturgical devotion. It is understandable, therefore, why the Renaissance, especially the sixteenth century, has long been known as the Golden Age of Polyphony, referring particularly to the music composed for liturgical enrichment.