By Thomas May
The Echoing Past
One of the concepts that organize this season’s programming involves the evolution of national styles and traditions in music and how these reverberate in the work of modern-day composers. During the 15th and 16th centuries, parts of northern France as well as the bordering regions of what are now the Low Countries produced several generations of composers — the so-called Franco-Flemish School — whose stylistic innovations laid the groundwork for the High Renaissance in music.
Along with the obvious connections between this “early music” and French composers of more recent times who have taken inspiration from the former, our program explores the varied expressions of the French sensibility in sacred and secular contexts. The striking contrast of attitude between these idioms, as Grant Gershon observes, is characteristically French, “to the point that, even if you don’t know the words, you can immediately tell what is sacred versus what is secular.” The contrast can be heard just as clearly in the examples from Duruflé and Ravel as it can in the differences between Josquin’s Mass and the 16th-century French chanson.
Missa de Beata Virgine
The fact that Josquin des Prez’s reputation and influence alike remained so actively widespread throughout Europe for generations after his death has, ironically, made it all the more difficult for scholars to ascertain even the most basic facts of his life and career. An imposing cult around Josquin soon emerged and had the side effect of encouraging a stream of false attributions to his valuable name. Josquin, after all, benefited from the recent invention of movable type printing, which helped promulgate his remarkably wide ranging output across later sectarian lines. Thus Martin Luther famously singled out the Catholic Josquin as “the master of the notes, which must do as he wants, while other composers must do what the notes want.” The cranky Josquin, anticipating a much later image of Beethoven, became the prototype for the composer as born genius: a true artist rather than anonymous craftsman.
The Missa de Beata Virgine gives us a radiant example of the qualities that made Josquin into a brand name. These center around guiding principles of clarity and order which ensure an organic correlation between musical shape and expression and the rhythms and semantic sense of the text. Music and meaning reinforce each other as intimately as Josquin’s imitative polyphonic lines dovetail gracefully around one another — notice, for example, the pronounced shift in mood in the special verses honoring Mary in the Gloria. Yet along with Josquin’s sense of logic comes a pleasure in the art of constructing and varying his vocal textures.
The last three movements, in fact, employ five parts, while the first two resort to four-part vocal lines. Scholars cite this as evidence that this particular Mass represents a composite assembled from separate movements written at different times. The title refers to the use of plainchant sources for the Mass Ordinary intended for Marian devotion. Typically, Josquin develops this material through multiple techniques involving imitation and canon so as to spin seamless textures across all the vocal registers — what is known, in general, as “paraphrase” style.
Duruflé’s Backward Glance in the Motets
Despite his long career, the ever self-critical Maurice Duruflé published only 14 separate works. Thus more than a decade passed between the first version of his beloved Requiem and his next composition, the Four Motets of 1960. Like Josquin, Duruflé bases these a cappella pieces on tunes from the treasury of Gregorian chant. The juxtaposition of his concise, eloquent motets with Josquin’s Mass sheds fascinating light on the issue of musical values that transcend fundamental stylistic shifts. Duruflé seems to tap into the purity and clarity that came to characterize Josquin, though his much simpler textures are suffused in a lusher harmonic guise.
Best loved of the Motets (originally published in a different order) is “Ubi caritas,” which is associated with the liturgy of Holy Thursday. Its lucid arch form reserves the sopranos for the middle section before tapering to a reprise of the opening, with its five-part texture of altos and divided tenors and basses. “Tantum ergo,” drawn from St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn “Pange Lingua” to celebrate the Eucharist, echoes the flowing serenity that pervades “Ubi caritas.” For the Marian “Tota pulchra es,” Duruflé confines himself to the women’s choir, while “Tu es Petrus” resounds with joyfully animated rhythms.
Chansons of the 16th Century
Much as Josquin’s influence was amplified by the advent of the printing press, this technology likewise enhanced the popularity of the polyphonic-style secular song as it evolved in France throughout the 16th century — thanks especially to the success of Parisian music publisher Pierre Attaingnant. Clément Janequin, by far the most famous writer of such chansons, featured prominently in Attaingnant’s publications, but the roster of fellow practitioners over the next few generations is as wildly diverse as the selections representing the genre which we hear this evening. Some, like Janequin, focused their attention on the chanson, while for others — including Josquin himself — it was simply one genre among many, balanced by a large output of sacred music.
The chanson, for all its distinct character, could even supply material for the kind of “paraphrases” which Josquin perfected in the realm of sacred music. Along with the latter, the chanson shares the Renaissance preoccupation with a congruence between music and text, between sound and sense. In Et la la la — the identity of the composer who went by the nickname Ninot le Petit remains disputed — we find a graceful interplay between polyphonic imitation and homophonic, chordal harmony which becomes a model for chanson style of the 16th century. The remarkably versatile Orlande de Lassus — an international, well-traveled master of the High Renaissance — illustrates the emphasis given to lucidity of texture, as well as the importance of the choice of texts: in this case, a lyric by “the prince of poets,” Pierre de Ronsard. A wistful text by the same poet serves here as inspiration for François Regnard, brother of an even more famous composer.
Jacob Clemens non Papa (from the generation immediately before Lassus) brings out the naughty wordplay of Jaquin Jacquet, suggesting the vernacular sources of the chanson. A number of chanson composers, like the priest Séverin Cornet, had formative experiences in Italy, and a mutual influence from the Italian madrigal is often noticeable. The chanson also provided occasion to indulge in a kind of virtuosic wit, as we find in the patter rhythms of Pierre Passereau’s Il est bel et bon. Antoine de Bertrand, who became a victim of the violent religious strife later in the century, strikes a different tone in his response to the daring poetic challenge of Olivier de Magny’s dialogue sonnet set in the underworld. Active in Italy for part of his career, Dominique Phinot anticipates the full flowering of the renaissance in Lassus and Palestrina with his darkly textured, sensitive music for Pleurez mes yeux.
Our sampling of chansons concludes with pieces by two of its best known exemplars. The prolific Claudin de Sermisy composed a good deal of sacred music, but that hardly held back his fancy in setting the delightfully bawdy text Martin menait son pourceau by Clément Marot, one of the era’s most popular poets. Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux, meanwhile, takes the notion of sound-sense correspondence to a programmatic extreme with its double entrendre of imitation—including the imitation of nature’s creatures.
Ravel’s Ironic Nostalgia in Trois Chansons
Like Le Tombeau de Couperin, which Maurice Ravel also produced during the First World War, Trois Chansons, composed in the winter of 1914-15, turns to the French musical past, adopting it as a mask to filter the intense emotions of these traumatic years. Ravel reaches even further back than the baroque (the source for Le Tombeau) to trigger his imagination in this only example of a cappella work from his published catalogue.
Ravel clearly aligns himself with the chanson tradition as practiced by Janequin — even to the extent of writing his own lyrics to further link music and text. This set of three songs traces a simple but elegant arch form: the outer ones dramatize an ironic sense of childlike wonder and fairy tales, while the second chanson, more ruminative and purely lyrical in character, suggests a tragic allegory of the ongoing war (in which Ravel himself was soon to enlist). “Nicolette” alludes to the word-painting ingenuity of Ravel’s forbears with episodic vignettes that add spice to the song’s sequence of encounters. “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis” uses solo voices in tandem with wordless choir, enhancing its lyrical purity with touching harmonic nuances, while the concluding “Ronde” gives a nod to the folk-like impulses of the chanson with its rhythmic verve. Through the syllabic exuberance of the choral writing, Ravel revels in his inventive catalogue of haunting wood spirits.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Generally, Josquin is credited with developing an aesthetic which, in hindsight, is understood to align with the sort of Renaissance humanism being advanced around this time in literature, philosophy, and the visual arts — though aspects of the older style of his predecessors coexist alongside his innovations.
Duruflé uses the term “motet” with more or less the same connotation that it had in Josqin’s time (as opposed to its medieval usage): i.e., the setting of a hymn or prayer text in Latin intended for liturgical purposes but not part of the Ordinary of the Mass. The chanson, by contrast — another genre in which Josquin composed — belongs to the realm of secular music and is comparable to the Italian madrigal of the high Renaissance, with its emphasis on colorful word painting.