The Lacock Scholars
directed by Greg Skidmore
Music by Tallis, Lassus,
Monteverdi, and others
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Our first CD release consists of recordings of some of our favourite repertoire, drawn from the regular series of concerts we give at St Cuthbert's, Earl's Court, in London. The disc itself, therefore, has no unifying theme, and I chose repertoire, in consultation with the singers, that highlights our versatility. The music on this recording therefore mirrors the broad range of our projects to date; while all a capella Renaissance music, it represents nearly a century of polyphonic composition, both sacred and secular, in many different styles, national traditions, languages, and moods.
1: Verbum caro factum est - John Sheppard (c. 1515 - 1558)
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One of our most important motivations when programming our concerts is tying in with the church's year and we have accomplished this in many ways over our last few seasons. This disc's release corresponds with Christmastime, so it begins with two pieces associated with the Nativity of Our Lord. Verbum caro
, this well-known and well-loved Christmas favourite, is a setting of the ninth responsory at Matins on Christmas Day. It articulates the seminal belief of Christian faith, drawn from John's gospel, that the word was made flesh.
Verbum caro factum est
Et habitavit in nobis
cuius gloriam vidimus
quasi unigeniti a Patre
plenum gratiae et veritatis.
Verse: In principio erat verbum
et verbum erat apud Deum
et Deus erat verbum.
Gloria patri et Filio
et Spiritui Sancto.
And the Word was made flesh,
and dwelt among us,
whose glory we beheld,
as of the only begotten of the Father,
full of grace and truth.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.
John Sheppard has been (perhaps erroneously) associated with St Paul's Cathedral as a boy, and the first solid documentary evidence we have points to his appointment as Informator Choristorum
at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1543. He stayed there only a short time, perhaps five years or so, before moving to the Chapel Royal, England's premier musical establishment. There he would have met and worked regularly with Thomas Tallis, who had joined the Chapel in 1543. He stayed employed by the Crown until his death in December 1558, one month after the accession of Elizabeth I. His time there would have corresponded with the most violent musical upheavals of the English Reformations; he arrived during the reign of Edward VI when music was being drastically reformed by Archbishop Cranmer to be simple, protestant, and clear but only a few years later had to adapt to the new (old) style of lavish Catholic liturgical observance once Mary Tudor took the throne.
Sheppard's music survives mainly in one of the most important collections of 16-century English music, a set of manuscript partbooks kept in the library of Christ Church, Oxford known as The Baldwin Partbooks. This is the only source for Verbum caro
and it is lacking its tenor cantus firmus
, which has been reconstructed. Verbum caro
was almost certainly composed during Mary's reign and is characteristic of the style for which Sheppard is most well-known - thick, constant textures in which free imitative counterpoint weaves its way around slow-moving cantus firmus
chant melodies. Sheppard broke from the tradition of his musical mentors John Taverner and the composers of the Eton Choirbook by relentlessly maintaining his thick textures throughout large scale works. His music creates vast expanses of monumental counterpoint.
In our recording of this work, I chose a tempo which is faster than it is often performed. I believe this work contrasts with some of Sheppard's other famous motets, notably his two settings of Libera nos
, in that it is primarily joyful and has an energy forever driving it along. This, of course, corresponds to the text. I imagine 16th-century singers relishing being released from the austerity of Advent on Christmas morning and I'm reminded of my own time singing in cathedrals of the relief and excitement that Christmas morning represented for all of us after trudging through incredibly busy Christmas seasons! In an effort to provide a contrast from the common practice of this music being dominated by the soprano line, which is often referred to in a way I find quite empty as 'soaring' (by those seemingly unaware that the rest of the parts are doing their best to soar too!), we angled our two first sopranos slightly away from the microphones. This, I feel, allows the inner parts to be the engine room of the texture, highlighting with greater clarity how the music works and allowing the top line to shimmer, rather than blast.
2: Nesciens mater - Jean Mouton (c. 1455 - 1522)
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The second work on this disc is also a Christmas piece, setting the text of Matins responsory sung during the Octave of Christmas, the eight days following 25 December. It is now probably Mouton's most famous work, and a piece I believe exhibits perfectly the magic of a particular kind of Renaissance compositional style. Those of you who know this piece will understand to what I refer and I will describe it below.
Nesciens mater virgo virum
peperit sine dolore
Ipsum regem angelorum
sola virgo lactabat,
ubere de caelo pleno.
Knowing no man, the Virgin mother
bore, without pain,
the Saviour of the world.
Him, the king of angels,
only the Virgin suckled,
breasts filled by heaven.
Charting a historical narrative, however loosely, in a concert programme or CD recording is always a tempting organisational scaffold and I admit to it here, albeit it very simply. Renaissance music is, of course, not 'one thing'. When comparing what we think of as 'Renaissance' music with what we think of as 'Classical' or even 'Romantic' music, it becomes very clear very quickly what a blunt instrument the term 'Renaissance' actually is. Renaissance music for us spans more than a century of musical, cultural, and societal change. It covers music written by composers very limited in their ability to communicate and travel, even though they were very often members of the cosmopolitan and educated classes. Much ink has been spilled about the existence of a common 'European' identity during this more-than-century and in music the arguments for and against this are as complex as in any other field. However, there are some basics upon which we can agree. The earliest composers we think of as belonging to the 'Renaissance' began writing in a different, new style in the last few decades of the 15th century. Chief among these pioneers was Josquin des Prez, who acts now as a standard bearer for the first 'school' of this new style, the Franco-Flemish composers. We often think of the Flemish part of 'Franco-Flemish', but Jean Mouton, a leading light of this group, spent the entirety of his early musical life in what is now north-eastern France, in the Burgundian regions of Picardy, Artois, and Boulogne, gaining in experience and fame until he was briefly employed in Grenoble, far away from his northern French roots. This didn't last long, and a visit there by Queen Anne of Brittany, wife of King Louis XII of France, in 1502 (after Mouton had been in Grenoble for less than a year) likely tempted him into her service. This, Mouton's 'big break', was toward the end of his life, however, when he was in his early 40s. From then on, he remained in royal employment at the French court in Paris until his death in 1522, becoming de facto court composer, though no such official position existed and he was never appointed maître de chapelle
Mouton, therefore, with Josquin, are the two earliest composers we feature on this recording. Nesciens mater
is an example of a compositional style that is often associated with these early, northern-European polyphonists - the use of complex (sometimes described as 'mathematical') compositional games or rules or, to use their Latin title, 'canons'. Nesciens mater
of canons! It is an entirely canonic piece, in fact, an eight-voice work, only four voices of which are explicitly written out. Each of these four is to be sung in canon at the fifth as well, thereby making this entire work a strict 'eight in four' canon. Josquin is well known for his use of these compositional games, and there are many different kinds, but his writing is characterised by a laser-like clarity, a simplicity, and a sparseness. The machines he creates are wonderous, but transparent and clear. Mouton's contrapuntal wizardry, very much in contrast, is hid from view. His textures are much more stable and his sonorities richer and more generous. In Nesciens mater
in particular, he creates a logic in how the piece flows, how it breathes, that is not specificially related to the canons themselves. There is indeed variation of texture here, but used sparingly and to great effect, and in the same ways one would find it in an utterly normal, non-canonic piece of imitative counterpoint.
This is one of my very favourite pieces of music, not just from the Renaissance. There is warmth here, intimacy, and comfort. I might be so bold as to say this is a maternal piece of music if you will permit such romantic language. It nevertheless has a shape and a progression. There is real passion here as well. Especially toward the end of the text, a striking contrast is drawn between the very large and powerful and the very intimate and tender, one which appears often in Marian and Christmas texts. We marvel that the 'Salvatorem saeculorum' (Saviour of the world or of the ages) and 'Regem angelorum' (King of angels) would suckle at the breast of a virgin. The piece, likewise, slowly and comfortingly oscilates between grand swells of expansive, generous power and tender, delicate, nurturing embraces. What a masterpiece.
3: Nunc dimittis - Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-55 - 1521)
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Before moving very quickly to music written almost half a century later, we present as our third piece in this collection Josquin des Prez' setting of the Nunc dimittis
, the canticle sung daily at Compline. Any disc attempting to represent Renaissance music broadly would have to include music by Josquin, undoubtedly the most famous forefather of all Renaissance composers.
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine,
secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei
ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
Gloria Patri, et Filio,
et Spiritui Sancto.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart,
according to thy word, in peace.
For mine eyes have seen
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles:
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost.
It is difficult to overstate Josquin's importance in the history of music. Although this practice was popular at the time, he is the only composer I can think of to be most often referred to now merely by his first name! Almost a direct contemporary of Mouton's, Josquin was most likely born in the Hainault region of modern-day northern French and southern Belgium, though his precise family history is unclear. In a similar way to Mouton, though much earlier in his career, Josquin first major appointment was a brief spell in the south of France, at the court of René, Duke of Anjou in Aix-en-Provence. Josquin likely benefited from an automatic promotion when René died in 1481, as all of the duke's singers were transferred to the court of Louis XI and placed in the Ste Chapelle in Paris. There is evidence that Josquin returned to the area of his birth briefly before taking advantage of the fact that his fame had already spread to Italy by taking up employment with Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in Milan. In 1489, now in his late 30s, Josquin moved from Milan to join the papal chapel in Rome, first under Innocent VIII and then under the Borgia pope Alexander VI. While his precise movements over the following decade are unclear, there is tantalising evidence that he was employed by Louis XII of France at the same time as Mouton, around the turn of the 16th century, meaning they would have been daily colleagues. This wasn't to last long, as Josquin went back to Italy to work for Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara for a brief time in 1503 before taking a 'retirement position' (now as a certified musical celebrity with a wildly impressive CV) as provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, within a few dozen miles of where he grew up. This was to be where Josquin would stay for the remainder of his life.
Josquin's output is vast for his time. His fame was equally great, benefiting from but also contributing to the success of the brand new medium of printed music books. Ottaviano Petrucci, the first person to print polyphonic music (the technique for which he claimed to have invented), chose as his third publication a collection of Josquin's masses, the first ever single-composer music print. Josquin's contacts in the French royal court and the Vatican, as well as the ducal chapels at Milan and Ferrara and his head-of-house position at Condé meant that by the end of his life, in the second decade of the 16th century, Josquin would have been a wealthy and comfortable member of the clerical upper middle class. He is regularly mentioned in poetry and letters as one of the great musicians of his day and printed collections of his works were regularly produced and sold throughout the 16th-century all over Europe.
Josquin's Nunc dimittis
highlights the hallmarks of his style and contrasts wonderfully with Mouton's work. For four voices only, Josquin's piece bristles with the sort of restrained energy, intrigue, incision, and clarity that he is known for, often with textures reduces to their bare minimum of duets or trios, and all of the sections very clearly delineated. Despite this, I find there is room for brief passages of a calmer, more comfortable beauty in this piece, especially at the very end when Josquin repeats the opening phrase of text, suggesting this piece was meant more as a multi-purpose motet than a strictly liturgical work. This piece, in a stark contrast to Mouton's Nesciens mater
, is immediately graspable in its inner workings - indeed, it is this glimpse 'inside' the counterpoint that is incredibly exciting and satisfying.
4: Noel, adieu thou court's delight - Thomas Weelkes (1576 - 1623)
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In an abrupt change, the fourth track on this CD is in English, sets a secular text, and was written by a man born more than a century after Josquin! This may seem a bit of an extreme juxtoposition, and I believe the level of contrast in the music does indeed reflect these wide separations of time, geography, and subject matter. This contrast, however, serves as a reminder, if perhaps a forceful one, of the breadth of 'Renaissance' style I mentioned above.
Noel adieu, adieu thou Court’s delight,
Upon whose locks the graces sweetly played;
Now thou art dead, our pleasure dies outright,
For who can joy when thou in dust art laid?
Bedew, my notes, his deathbed with your tears;
Time helps some grief, no time your grief outwears.
Thomas Weelkes features regularly on most English cathedral choir music lists. His centrality in that recent tradition in particular perhaps blurs the fact that during his lifetime he didn't enjoy the heights of fame or establishment acceptance of his contemporaries Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tomkins. Weelkes possesed a precocious talent as a youngster, publishing his first book of madrigals in his very early 20s and being appointed organist at Winchester College soon thereafter. While there he published two more madrigal books, the second of which contains Noel, adieu thou court's delight
, and contributed his famous As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending
to Thomas Morley's 1601 'Triumphs of Oriana' publication - all before his 25th birthday. A cathedral appointment was surely due and came quickly, as orgnanist and informator choristarum
at Chichester in 1602. He settled into this regular round of music making, got married, and received a BMus degree from New College, Oxford. All was not to remain as promising for long. Over the following 15 years at Chichester, Weelkes was reprimanded with increasing regularity for various offenses ranging from willful absence and dereliction of duty to public drunkenness and even releaving himself from the organ loft onto the Dean of Chichester sitting below. He was described to the bishop as 'a notorious swearer and blasphemer' and, once he was sacked from his job as organist and master of the choristers, would still regularly arrive drunk to sing in the choir 'both cursing and swearing most dreadfully'. By this time he had ceased to publish music of any kind and his service to the cathedral was becoming erratic. He died in 1623, in London, with little public reputation or recognition.
The 'Noel' referred to in the title of this madrigal was Henry Noel, a courtier and member of parliament in Elizabethan London. He is now more famous in musical circles, through his association with Weelkes, Thomas Morley, and John Dowland, than he ever has been as a diplomat, statesman, or political agent. He was the second son of a Leicestershire minor noble family and was a member of Sir Walter Raleigh's circle in the late 1570s when both men had yet to find fame and were on the margins of court, seeking attention and favour. Noel appears to have been much less successful than Raleigh and had continual problems with debt and brushes with the law for various violent offenses throughout his life. He was a keen musician, however, and a Catholic sympathiser, which may explain his association with both Morley and Dowland. Dowland wrote an exquisite set of psalm settings for Noel's funeral in 1597 entitled Lamentatio Henrici Noel
and Morley too wrote a lament (strangely titled Harke; Alleluia
) as 'a reverend memorial of that honourable true gentleman Henry Noel Esquire.'
I believe some of Weelkes' music is distinctly pedestrian. It doesn't surprise me that he is chiefly remembered as a promising young madrigalist who then behaved incredibly badly as his provincial cathedral life wore on. I do submit, however, that there is true genius in some of his output and this piece is an incredible achievement. Present here is the characteristically pictorial treatment of text which I believe sometimes blots the music of his English contemporaries in their laboured efforts to emulate the Italian style, but here Weelkes judges it perfectly, organising his abrupt, alternating gestures of rhythm and mood into one long crescendo of increasing tension, lighter passages only briefly punctuating languid, ceaselessly dissonant, chains of exquisite musical pain. Indeed, even written out silences are used in this madrigal to great effect, and especially toward the end as a device to propel the music forward as opposed to delineate sections. His inventiveness and contrapuntal mastery are all very much on display here and that this is the work of someone in his early twenties is truly remarkable. It is perhaps interesting to note that the edition we used in making this recording contained no barlines. It is our hope that the linear, horizontal stretch of these phrases was aided by this visual reminder.
5: O salutaris hostia a6 - William Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623)
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It is difficult for a choir steeped in the English choral tradition of cathedral and collegiate chapel choir music making not to have a natural affinity with English polyphony. We are no different and regularly perform a wide range of 16th-century English music, including much by William Byrd. As so much of his music is so widely performed and recorded, we thought we might take the opportunity of preparing this disc to record a piece of Byrd that is truly unique and lies well outside what is normally classed as Byrd's 'style'.
O salutaris hostia
quae caeli pandis ostium,
bella premunt hostilia:
da robur, fer auxilium
O saving victim
who opens the gate of heaven,
hostile wars press on us:
give strength, bring aid.
William Byrd and Thomas Tallis are by a considerable margin the two most well known of the English polyphonists. Much is known now of Byrd's biography and I would encourage the reader to either get a brief precis from reading a Wikipedia article
or two or consult one of the many excellent accompanying notes to various discs of Byrd's music, perhaps starting with the many recordings made by The Cardinall's Musick. Byrd was equally famous in his own day, known and recognised as a leading musical figure in England at the end of the 16th century, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a protégé, friend, business partner, and legal beneficiary of Thomas Tallis, a favourite of Elizabeth I, and very much an establishment success story in the way Thomas Weelkes wasn't. At the very same time, Byrd's firmly held Catholic beliefs put him always at odds with the Elizabethan political order. There is little I can say here that will further enliven the debate about what it must have been like to be a famous, well-respected, successful, and prolific - but ultimately still 'dangerous' - recusant Catholic musician in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
Personally, the oft-repeated (and perhaps now tired?) narratives regarding Byrd's recusancy were never what drew me to his music. I have always been struck by how his biography seems often to be used as a tool to make his music appear more intriguing, sexy, or audacious. While there is much in his output that can indeed be described using these words, I find it always more fruitful to look at the music itself and develop a relationship with it on its own terms. One of the most identifiable traits of Byrd's style, though it evolved considerably over his lifetime, has long been for me a sense of musical confidence and ease. There is a competance, a technical mastery that Byrd exhibits in his work that seems particularly English - an effortlessness, smoothness, and sweetness. This is often breathtakingly beautiful and serene but can be equally well applied to deeply felt and meaningfully expressed emotions as it can to 'merely pleasing sounds'. Byrd's many penitential motets are among some of the most moving works of music I know. I submit, however, that in virtually all of his music there is a sense of accomplishment, an aesthetic of class and quality.
His O salutaris
for six voices is one of the rare works where this certainly is not
the case! This is precisely why I love it. While academic consensus is not complete on the issue, it is widely believed that his six-voice O salutaris
setting is one of the first pieces of music Byrd wrote, either as a teenager or in his very early twenties, perhaps as a technical exercise. Though Byrd published the vast majority of his output throughout his life, this work is only contained in mansucript sources. It is a canonic work; three of the six voices follow one another strictly and the rest are freely composed. One need only hear this piece once to grasp how it stands outside what we have come to expect from Byrd's stylish, polished, and poised counterpoint. This music is extreme! While English ears have become accustomed to some pretty jarring dissonance, known as 'false relations', the level to which this piece tears itself apart at the seams is, in my experience, unmatched - perhaps with good reason. The fascinating thing about this is not that Byrd 'made mistakes' when composing this music, but he in fact appears to have purposefully given himself problems to solve. Putting aside for a moment the freely composed voices, the very second phrase of the canonic melody clashes with the first phrase, both immediately as it enters in the leading voice (while the following voices are still on the first phrase), but also toward its end, as the following voices enter - that single, short phrase clashes with itself! This is true of the third phrase as well, and in various ways, all the rest of the phrases in the canonic melody. Byrd wrote these clashes into the fabric of this music as a first step - and then proceeded to write three other freely composed voices which clash even more! I find it very hard to believe he didn't know what he was doing, as the 'mistakes' are so blatant, numerous, and happen at such a foundational level in the structure of the music. In my estimation, it makes sense as indeed a cheeky experiment, a youthful challenge to himself, or perhaps as a method of showing off just how audacious he could be. While I don't think this music says much that is profound about the human condition (whereas some of Byrd's other works certainly do!), I love this piece for its strangeness, for its humour, for taking us to the limit of what we think English polyphony might sound like, and, in its own way, for its display of contrapuntal mastery, if only in picking up the pieces of something it itself broke!
6: Ch'io t'ami e t'ami più de la mia vita - Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643)
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In the unfolding task of exhibiting the breadth of our repertoire in this CD recording programme, we have covered two of the most common, conventional areas or repertoire themes encountered by any group interested in the Renaissnce - Franco-Flemish and English polyphony. The Italian madrigal, however, as a genre, is every bit as central to the story of music history as the Franco-Flemish flowering of the early 16th century and the expressive experiments undertaken by its champion, Claudio Monteverdi, are the equal of any other outpouring of emotion in music, English or otherwise.
Ch’io t’ami e t’ami più de la mia vita,
se tu no’l sai, crudele,
chiedilo a queste selve,
che tel diranno
e tel diran con esse
le fere lor’e i duri sterpi e i sassi
di quest’alpestri monti,
ch’i’ho sì spesse volte
intenerito al suon de’miei lamenti.
Deh! bella e cara e sì soave un tempo
cagion del viver mio, mentre al ciel piacque,
volgi una volta,... volgi
quelle stelle amorose,
come le vidi mai, così tranquille
e piene di pietà, prima ch’io moia,
che’l morir mi sia dolce,
e dritt’è ben che, se mi furo un tempo
dolci segni di vita, or sien di morte
quei begl’occhi amorosi;
e quel soave sguardo,
che mi scorse ad amare,
mi scorg’anco a morire;
e chi fu l’alba mia,
del mio cadente dì l’Espero or sia.
Ma tu, più che mai dura,
favilla di pietà non senti ancora;
anzi t’inaspri più, quanto più prego.
Così senza parlar dunque m’ascolti?
A chi parlo, infelice? A un muto sasso?
S’altro non mi vuoi dir, dimmi almen: “Mori!”
e morir mi vedrai.
Questa è ben, empi’Amor, miseria estrema,
che sì rigida ninfa
non mi risponda, e l’armi
d’una sola sdegnosa e cruda voce
sdegni di proferire al mio morire.
I love you and love you more than my life.
If you do not know it, cruel one,
ask these woods,
who will tell you,
and so will the wild beasts,
the rough scrub and the stones
of these alpine mountains,
which I so many times
have softened with the sound of my lamenting.
Ah, my beauty, my dear one and once my so sweet
reason for living, while it pleased heaven;
turn once more,... O turn
those loving eyes on me,
as you used to, so calm
and full of pity, before I die,
so that my dying be made sweet.
And it is right that as once
I read life, now I should read death
in those beautiful eyes,
and that the sweet glance
that witnessed my love
should now witness my death;
and that she who was my dawn,
should of my fading day now be the Evening Star.
But you, more harsh than ever,
not a spark of pity do you now feel;
rather thy harshness increases the more I plead.
Have you no word to answer me?
To whom do I speak, unhappy one? A dumb stone?
If you wish to say nothing else, at least say , ‘Die!’
and you will see me die.
This, O villainous love, is the extreme of wickedness,
that such an unyielding girl
answers me not, and you arm her
with only scornful, cruel words,
yet scorn to pronounce my death.
Claudio Monteverdi is yet another giant figure in the history of music. So far, this CD programme has only contained music by two others whose influence could even possibly be construed as similar to his, and it is really only Josquin who is his equal, Byrd's music not being revolutionary as much as just exceptionally good. Many now look to Monteverdi as the 'father of modern music'. In the narratives surrounding the transition from 'Renaissance' to 'Baroque' in music, Monteverdi is without a doubt the leading figure. Leaving aside the fact that these narratives are often simplistic, in Monteverdi's own use of the phrase 'seconda pratica' to differentiate what he was doing from a 'prima pratica' he identified, he self-consciously and undeniably asserted that he was trying to take music forward, find a new way. This 'new way' was to become, centuries later, our default and unquestioned understanding of how music works - what it's for - and it laid the foundations for opera and programmatic orchestral music. Monteverdi's 'seconda pratica' is about how music relates to words, and crucially that the words should be 'mistress' of the harmony - or more broadly, that the abstract musical gestures composers use (notes, rhythms, harmonies, compositional structures) should be conceived of as 'serving' a text or an idea or an emotion. Monteverdi's thinking leads very logically to the idea of 'affect', a central concept in the Baroque conception of music, that it should literally excite identifiable and specific emotions within those listening to it. Music was not something to be understood or appreciated only, but something primarily existing to cause a change in the listener's emotional
Monteverdi was born in Cremona, the son of a doctor. His talent was obvious very early; he published his first collection of music in Venice when he was 15 years old. While no record survives of his being a chorister at Cremona cathedral, his teacher Marc'Antonio Ingegneri was maestro di cappella
there. His first major musical position was among the court musicians of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, which he took up in 1591. His boss there was Giaches de Wert, a giant of late 16th-century madrigal composition and another formative influence on Monteverdi. In Mantua, Monteverdi's career began to pick up speed. He published five madrigal books while there, and was eventually promoted to the top job in the duke's musical establishment in 1601. His first opera Orfeo
received its premier in Mantua in 1607 but very quickly after this Monteverdi's wife fell ill and Monteverdi left court to attend to her in Cremona. Her death in September of that year was a blow for Monteverdi. From this point on, Monteverdi's relationship with his Mantuan masters seems to have taken a turn for the worse and after numerous attempts to resign and some hidden attempts to gain favour elsewhere in Italy, he was dismissed by the new duke, Francesco, in July 1612. A very famous man at this point, he didn't need to wait long back in Cremona for a new opportunity and in August of 1613, he applied for and was appointed maestra di cappella
at likely the most famous church in northern Italy, the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. Monteverdi spent the final 30 years of his life in Venice working at San Marco but was also very active in opera and other musical activities in town. He continued to write madrigals, sacred music, operas, and incidental music for various dramatic and court occasions, as well as taught singing, brought up his children (one of whom also was a musician, despite Monteverdi's attempts to force him to study law), and became an ordained priest. His death came shortly after the completion of his last work, his great opera L'incoronazione di Poppea
, in 1643.
was published in 1605, in his fifth book of madrigals, when Monteverdi was still employed at Mantua and during a time of incredible creative output for Monteverdi. It was in the preface to this book that Monteverdi first uttered in print the phrase 'seconda pratica', as a defense against an attack on his (and others') unconventional use of dissonance, tonal coherence and organisation, and other compositional devices which had begun some years earlier by the conservative music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi. This 'controversy' is now famous among undergraduate music students the world over, but sometimes the music itself is secondary to the theoretical arguments. This book contains other famous madrigals such as Cruda Amarilli
, Era l'anima mia
, and Questi vaghi concenti
but I believe Ch'io t'ami
is a truly special achievement. The text comes from Il pastor fido
a very famous play by Giambattista Guarini, who Monteverdi knew. Published as three separate madrigals in the 1605 print, it is nonetheless a triumph of large-scale, sectional organisation and dramatic progression and shows off perfectly all the sorts of new ideas that might have made Artusi so upset. There is pictorial representation of the text in places, as an homage to the mid-century practices of Monteverdi's youth and his first boss, de Wert. Monteverdi's characteristically risky and modern treatment of dissonance also appears. There are repeated lengthy passages of homophonic text declamation, something Monteverdi also pioneered, offering the performers and their listeners access to the dramatic and emotional core of the text itself, stripped to an absolute minimum of contrapuntal distraction. More importantly, however, there is an undeniable sense of emotional authenticity, passion, and almost urgency in this music. Monteverdi needs
you to understand and feel this music. The single character in this drama (many of Monteverdi's great madrigals are actually best conceived as mini opera scenes) is thrown violently from one state of intense, internal experience to another: pleading, anger, remorse, nostalgia, desperation, resignation, as though his life depends upon it. The final section, from 'Questa è ben, empi’Amor, miseria estrema' (This O villainous love, is the extreme of wickedness) to the end, is, I believe, an absolute masterstroke. Reading the text itself, one might expect Monteverdi to engage in crashing dissonance, fast rhythms, accusatory gestures. He knows, however, that this text comes at the end of an emotional roller coaster ride for his character, one that he has also just subjected his audience to. For me, Monteverdi here is expressing the strange (and for outsiders, very poignant) feeling at the end of brutal argument between lovers, when they both realise it can't go on - this really is the end of their relationship and all the moments of ecstacy, agony, comfort, pain, and everything in between it has brought with it. Especially if one still loves the other, all of a sudden, the anger, spite, and vitriol are overcome by sadness and - in fact - a warmth, or a memory of safety and succour. The battle has been so intense and the loss so great that all that is left is a memory of togetherness that can now never be relived. The piece doesn't shout its way to a conclusion; there are no slammed doors and dramatic exists. This, then, is real
emotional loss, truly felt and meaningfully understood, expressed in notes, rhythms, and text on a page of music. In short, a total miracle.
7: Missa pro defunctis a6: Introitus & Kyrie - Duarte Lobo (c. 1564-9 - 1646)
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From the centre of cultural innovation in the first part of 17th-century (Mantua, Venice and composers like Monteverdi, poets like Guarini, great patrons such as the Gonzaga dukes, etc) we take a brief sojourn into what might be called the cultural countryside. Portugal in the early 17th-century was in many obvious ways 'marginal' in a European context. Though there are certainly ways of challenging this narrative (and some of my yet-to-be-completed doctoral research was an attempt at such a challenge), it would be difficult to find a greater contrast between two genres of 17-century music: a Monteverdi madrigal and a Requiem mass setting by Duarte Lobo.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem
Exaudi orationem meam
Ad te omnis caro veniet.
Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon them
A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Zion
And a vow shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem
Hear my prayer
All flesh shall come before you.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Very little is known of Lobo's biography. He was born in the late 1560s and was a chorister at the Cathedral in Évora, a small town about 70 miles east of Lisbon. His association with this institution is to be noted, as it is now regarded as the centre of a long and fruitful tradition of Portuguese musical education in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Portuguese 'Golden Age' of polyphonic composition was just coming into its own when Lobo arrived and he would eventually go on to be its foremost representative. His teacher there was Manuel Mendes, who is now primarily known as the man who, in around 1580 or so, would have had three exceptionally talented young boys in his care at Évora, all roughly the same age: Duarte Lobo, Manuel Cardoso, and Filipe de Magalhães. These three men would all go on to achieve a level of renown not enjoyed by many Portuguese composers before them and few after. This fame was not great by Monteverdi or Josquin's standards. I mean chiefly that they were able to print their works and Duarte Lobo in particular was able to have his works published internationally, at Jan Moretus' very prestigious Plantin house in Antwerp.
After his studies as a boy and adolescent, Lobo left Évora to briefly take up a position as maestro de capilla
at the Hospital Real in Lisbon until, in about 1591, he was appointed maestro
at Lisbon Cathedral. He would remain employed there for almost 50 years.
Portugal during Lobo's lifetime was united with the rest of Iberia under the rule of the Spanish Hapsburg kings, beginning with Philip II in 1580 and lasting for 60 years. 1580 was around the time that Magalhães arrived at Évora; and the three musical boy geniuses would have been more interested in their counterpoint homework than the fact that Portugal was losing its independance. However, this political change was indicative of the fact that the glorious days of Portuguese world dominance and empire from about a century earlier were very much in decline. This had an impact on the musical education Lobo received and subsequently on his musical influences and on his style. When you hear these two movements from his Requiem, I'm sure you are reminded of the work of Tomás Luis de Victoria and his famous 6-voice Requiem mass of 1605. Other composers such as Palestrina or maybe even the earlier Spanish composers Guerrero or Morales perhaps come to mind. It might be surprising, therefore, to discover that this mass was published in 1639, when Monteverdi was in Venice sitting down to start work on Poppea
. It is striking to realise that Duarte Lobo and Claudio Monteverdi could very well have been direct contemporaries. This 'conservatism' in the wonderful polyphony produced in Portugal in the first half of the 17th century has been identified and written about rather a lot, and there are some pedagogical and philosophical theories as to why this happened, but it is remarkable nonetheless.
My response to this music when I first heard it as a teenager growing up in Canada was immediate and intense. While I didn't have a hugely sophisticated understanding of the topography of the Renaissance polyphonic landscape, I could sense something in it that wasn't quite the same as Palestrina or Victoria. There was something else, a spice, an inventiveness, even a harmonic richness or expansiveness. I'm convinced, and some of my doctoral work could be construed as providing evidence for this, that there was
some foreign, very up-to-date music filtering into Portuguese musical life as the huge changes that brought about the Baroque were taking place elsewhere and that this music was studied, if not imitated or fully assimilated. While harmonic exploration is more obvious in the work of Manuel Cardoso, it is present in Lobo's style, as are more emotive responses to the text, uses of different textures in a more overtly dramatic style, and other hints at Baroque thinking. This music is definitely not
what I would call 'Baroque', but there is something in it that hints at a more lavish approach Victoria would have used. Musical style is an incredibly slippery concept, but this unique, enigmatic flavour in Portuguese polyphony has captivated me now for many years. Of the three famous composers, I always return to Duarte Lobo as I feel there is a depth of musical understanding and a wisdom about his music that Cardoso's fireworks can't replace. This Requiem mass, and these two movements in particular, contain moments of utterly exquisite beauty I think are not matched anywhere, by anyone. This is almost the logical extreme of what Renaissance polyphony can be - poised, calm, powerful, masterfully conceived but simple, utterly moving, and inexplicably beautiful.
8: Musica dei donum - Orlande de Lassus (c. 1530-32 - 1594)
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If Josquin 'began' the Renaissance polyphonic era, Monteverdi 'ended' it, and Byrd perfected it (for the English, at least!) what else is there? There is Lassus! By far the most prolific of polyphonists, Lassus sprang from the Flemish tradition, but conquered everything he touched. Lassus defied categorisation and adapted himself to any musical situation. He wrote in four languages (or five if you believe his own claim to have set Dutch texts, none of which survives), every possible liturgical genre you can imagine, and a huge amount of secular music (including many rather bawdy chansons). His was an active, irrepressible musical mind.
Musica Dei donum optimi
trahit homines, trahit deos:
Musica truces mollit animos
tristesque mentes erigit.
Musica vel ipsas arbores
et horridas movet feras.
Music, the gift of the supreme god,
draws men, draws gods:
Music makes savage souls gentle
and uplifts sad minds.
Music moves the trees themselves
and wild beasts.
There is a story about Lassus as a boy that his voice was so beautiful he was abducted from his church choir three times. There doesn't appear to be any evidence for this. Howvever, we know he left his birthplace of Mons in Hainault, which is approximately 30 kilometers away from Condé-sur-l'Escaut where Josquin had died about 10 years ealier, in 1545 (aged 13) in the service of a minor noble in the Mantuan court, Ferrante Gonzaga. With him he traveled to Mantua, Palermo, and Milan. More employment followed in Naples and Rome, where he was appointed maestro di cappella
at San Giovanni in Laterano, one of the four most prestigious churches in that city, in his very early 20s. Perhaps this was too early for such a major appointment and he left Rome about a year later to return to his native Low Countries. He spent a few years in Antwerp, including working with the well known music printer Tylman Susato, who produced Lassus' first publication in 1555 and would later print a large amount of his work. Lassus made his final move a year later, joining the chapel establishment of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich. He began as a tenor and was promoted to kapellmeister
in 1563. After having spent so much of his early life travelling, he had evidently had enough and was very happy in Munich, as he stayed employed in the Munich Wittelsbach court until his death more than 30 years later.
It is perhaps remarkable that Europe's most famous musician, which is what he would become, would choose to stay in Munich, north of the Alps. He traveled at the behest of his employers but never seriously considered leaving permanently, despite offers from Dresden and even perhaps the French royal court in Paris. Both Andrea and later Giovanni Gabrieli traveled to Munich and spent time with him, and he developed close friendships with Albrecht, the duke himself as well as his successor Wilhelm. Toward the end of his life, he was afflicted with a 'melancholia hypocondriaca' and I believe some of his most wonderful music comes from his later years. Musica dei donum
is contained in his last motet publication, entitled Cantiones sacrae sex vocum
(Sacred songs for six voices) and appeared in 1594, the year of his death. The text is anonymous, though had been set by at least Clemens non Papa, Jacob Handl, and Nicolas Rogier some four decades earlier, as those pieces appear in Susato prints from the mid 1550s. As Lassus was with Susato at that time, perhaps this is where he encountered the text. It must have stayed with him, and whenever he composed the work, he saved it for his last public offering. Technically, this isn't a sacred text but instead an ode to music itself and its mysterious, comforting, and restorative powers.
It is also my favourite piece by Lassus. The text itself sets the scene; it is soft, strange, the imagery vivid, but almost intoxicating. Verbs like 'trahit' (draws or leads or tempts, perhaps?) and 'mollit' (softens, smooths) and movet (moves, but presumably used here both literally and figuretively) conjure this strange world of comforting warmth mixed with mystery and sensuality. The music does precisely the same; it breathes and caresses, swells and recedes, moves one way and then the other. There is a huge amount of technically sophisticated skill on display here for those who wish to look, in how Lassus treats his recurring musical theme setting the word 'musica', but I am drawn in (appropriately) by the endlessly deceptive cadence points and the murky, free, and spontaneous way the piece moves from section to section. Lassus is a master of writing music you can't quite follow while never becoming completely disoriented and this piece imbues that stylistic trope with a sort of melancholy but tender and loving glow. This is music written by an old man thanking music for what it gave him.
Musicians of course love music about music and perhaps I'm being overly sentimental, but I think music and its power belongs to and affects everyone. Lassus understood that he had a mastery of its techniques but not of its power; he knew how it worked but didn't know why it worked that way. He was able to write this mystery into Musica dei donum
in such an insightful but ultimately humble way. I think this piece is one of greatest musical achievements I know.
9: Suscipe quaeso - Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585)
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The last three pieces on our disc represent for me a process of rounding off and of coming home. A collection of music such as this, which seeks to display the broad range of our capabilities and give you a flavour of what sort of music we have performed over more than a dozen concerts in two years was always in danger of being eclectic, to phrase it generously. For the group, however, these last three pieces really do represent music that is very special for us and progressing toward Tallis to finish, as an English composer, brings us full circle, both in relation to the Sheppard with which the disc begins but also in terms of our natural home in English polyphonic music. Our first concert, in September 2014, featured exclusively English music and we have performed much of it in our concerts.
Suscipe quaeso Domine
Scelera mea non defendo;
peccavi, Deus miserere mei;
peccavi, dele culpas meas gratia tua.
Si enim iniquitatis recordaberis,
Quis enim justus qui se dicere audeat
sine peccato esse?
Nullus est enim mundus in conspectu tuo.
Accept, I ask, Lord,
the voice of one who confesses.
My crimes I do not defend;
I have sinned, O God have mercy on me;
I have sinned, do away my offences by your grace.
If then you remember iniquities,
who could bear it?
Who then is so just to dare to say of himself
he is without sin?
For no one is clean in your sight.
Another reason to allow Tallis' music the privilege of closing our collection, for me personally, is that he is my favourite English composer. There are many reasons for this, one of which is as a result of his extraordinarily long life and the breadth of English styles he mastered, and in many cases dominated or came to define. Nothing is known of Tallis' birth and the first record we have comes from 1530, indicating that he was employed as organist at Dover Priory, a modest musical establishment. This would have been when Tallis was in his mid 20s. When in his early 30s he was associated with the much more musically active St Mary-at-Hill church in London and in 1538, he took up a position at Waltham Abbey, in Essex. After the Abbey was dissolved, Tallis became one of the first singing men employed at the newly secular Canterbury Cathedral, but it is likely that his association with the Chapel Royal had already begun by this time, perhaps already while he was first in London at St Mary-at-Hill. In 1543, he moved to full-time employment at court and would remain employed by the crown until his death more than 40 years later. By the time William Byrd likely joined the Chapel Royal as a boy chorister (although direct evidence of this is lacking), in the late 1540s, Tallis was already in charge of teaching the boys keyboard and composition and his close friendship with Byrd would last for the rest of his life. Henry VIII was on the throne when Tallis joined the Chapel Royal, and Tallis' central role in the music at court meant he would witness all of the extraordinary political, religious, cultural, and certainly musical upheavals which would follow through the turbulent mid-century at first hand. Because Tallis was already an experienced composer when these began, it is possible virtually to chart the entire English Reformation through his music. Far from struggling under the austerity of the extreme Edwardian musical reforms or showing any rust when Mary again sanctioned the more lavish music of Tallis' youth, or failing to strike the delicate balance required by the Elizabethan Settlement, his genius was ever-present. Tallis excelled on small scales, his famous If ye love me
actually being one of my favourite musical miniatures despite its omnipresence, and of course displayed his skill on the grandest of all canvasses, in his 40-voice Spem in alium
, an Elizabethan work.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, Tallis was already in his 50s. William Byrd would not rejoin the Chapel Royal until 1572, and the ambitious younger composer, with Tallis, almost immediately petitioned Elizabeth for a greater source of income. In 1573, she granted to Byrd and Tallis jointly an exclusive licence to print and publish music in England and their first (and only) joint venture was produced in 1575, Tallis being a very
old man by then, perhaps already in his 70s. This single collection, containing 17 motets each by the two men, one of which is Suscipe quaeso
, was the first music book to be printed in England and contains some of the most exquisite work either composer would produce. Interestingly, it contains necessarily youthful works by Byrd, a man keen to make his mark in London, but came at the very end of Tallis' life, nevertheless confirming that the older man's powers were in no way fading. Dating Tallis' compositions is notoriously difficult, but it is speculated that much of the music Tallis published in 1575 was written late in his life, close to the date of publication, and certainly during Elizabeth's reign. Whether Suscipe quaeso
itself is one such piece, is unclear. Scholars argue about whether it may have been written for a ceremony conducted in 1554, during Mary's Catholic restoration, in which England was formally absolved of having sinned by leaving Rome. While this interpretation would make sense of Tallis' choice of text, and some structural similarities between Suscipe quaso
and Tallis' wonderful Missa Puer natus est nobis
, a work definitely composerd for Mary, have also been noted, there exist no manuscript copies of the piece other than ones obviously copied from the 1575 print and there are some stylistic considerations which point to a more sophisticated approach to the text, one more influenced by Byrd's flexibility of texture and structure.
If I were to enter the debate, I would side with those advocating a later date. There seems to be something about this work that suggests a culmination of his life's work, something final, polished, but full. There is chromaticism reminiscent of In ieiunio
. There are moments of constant, full textures of unbelievable intensity such as are found in Videte miraculum
. There is heavy use of homophony and the text is very clear to the listener, techniques Tallis began mastering decades earlier. What I find most extraordinary is that he adds new techniques as well, gestures I believe make this piece stand out from his other works. Chief among these is the way in which the piece opens, which always leaves me staggering. There are seven voices in this work and Tallis introduces this thick texture in the most magnificent way. The imitative melody he chooses is long, at 11 semibreves. After a full 30 semibreves have passed in this piece, only four parts have entered. He here decides to bring the final three voices in as a strict canon with the first three, an echo of the very beginning of the work, except that the third of these canonic voices is in fact the second bass part and enters an octave lower. This results in the final voice, the second bass, entering a full 42 semibreves after the work has begun (which is usually notated as 21 bars in modern notation) and the effect is wonderous. The piece here is well and truly underway, with the six freely wheeling voices above suddenly underpinned and supported by this bass entry which articulates the expansive phrase from the very beginning in full. The piece then proceeds to astound the listener at every turn, section by section, until building to an incredible climax to finish. It is a tour de force, an undeniable display of Tallis' total mastery of polyphonic composition and musical expression.
It is also incredibly fun to sing! This perhaps is the best reason why it is fitting that this work should bring our first CD recording to a close. We are a group who throw ourselves entirely into our music, this music from centuries ago, music we have chosen to specialise in and devote concert after concert to. We believe that the best performances of Renaissance polyphony are those in which the performers themselves commit entirely to the vivid emotional life of these pieces, and express for the audience the joy and meaning we gain from squeezing everything we can out of them. For us, singing polyphony is intense, powerful, urgent, and moving and we look forward to continuing to share these experiences with you.