"Most Strange Effects” Sacred Choral Music from the Renaissance
By Thomas May
There’s a touch of irony in the concept of the Renaissance as a specific historical period. An inspired reawakening of respect for an age long past — classical antiquity — is considered one key aspect of the Renaissance attitude, yet that attitude itself was singled out via a backward glance. Not until the nineteenth century did historians construct what we’ve come to think of as The Renaissance, as a period clearly marked off from the “Middle Ages.”
And it’s taken even longer for the vast store of musical treasures created during the Renaissance to be recovered from the oblivion of intervening centuries — a recovery we can credit to the revolution of “early music” awareness. So what period are we talking about? For convenience, but recognizing the arbitrariness of the dates, let’s say the standard 1400-1600, give or take. Just as with quite a few of the composers from this era, there’s no clear-cut date that unambiguously marks the “birth” of the Renaissance: proto-Renaissance traits pop up at various points throughout the preceding centuries.
Still, overall, a major shift in thinking about the art of music, its purpose, and its creators did start manifesting itself around the fifteenth century, paving the way for composers like Josquin des Prez and the others we hear on this evening’s program.
None of this, of course, happened in isolation. The values usually identified with the Renaissance are all very much grounded in the real world of rapid political, social, and technological change. Eventually the implications of the Protestant Reformation and the Copernican revolution alike would shape the High Renaissance and set the stage for the Baroque. And while technological innovations are often overlooked when we think of music history, the invention of printing by itself triggered a paradigm shift, widening the world of music to include a nascent middle class beyond the privileged spheres of the court and church.
In A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), the madrigal composer, publisher, and theorist Thomas Morley defined the new Renaissance conception of the motet by noting that it “requireth most art and moveth and causeth most strange effects in the hearer, being aptly framed for the ditty [words] and well expressed by the singer, for it will draw the auditor…into a devout and reverent kind of consideration of Him for whose praise it was made.”?he religious function of such music remained paramount, but Morley reveals how the perspective has shifted to the human perception of music’s expressive power.
This principle holds for all six composers on our program, represented here exclusively by their sacred vocal music. They span from the emergence of the mature Renaissance in the late fifteenth century to the beginning of its sunset around the turn into the seventeenth century. Moreover, the connection Morley draws between music’s emotional power and the special art of its composer points to a new self-awareness and pride in the profession and its skills.
The name Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) certainly signifies a pivotal point for the music we are celebrating this evening — even if so much about his life and what he actually composed remains frustratingly speculative. Those uncertainties, paradoxically, result in part from Josquin’s very prominence during his career and among his immediate successors.
Frequently compared, in modern times, to Beethoven on account of his formidable reputation as a pathbreaker and natural-born genius who worked in an era of transition, Josquin had the advantage of being able to “brand” himself through the dissemination of printing. A collection of his Masses printed in Venice in 1502 represents the first extant print book devoted to a single composer. His cachet encouraged a large market of printed compositions deceptively attributed to his valuable name.
A major figure of the Franco-Flemish branch of the Renaissance, Josquin was widely traveled and active in Italy and France and versatile in his composition of both sacred and secular music. Tu solus bridges the gap between both realms in a curious way. Not just a self-standing sacred motet, it is also known to be a “substitution motet,” that is, a piece that was used to replace the Benedictus in Josquin’s early Missa D’ung Aultre Amer, published in 1505.
The motet itself likely dates from Josquin’s stint at a court in Milan around the 1470s. Like the larger Mass for which it served as the Benedictus, Tu solus embeds a melody by Josquin’s famous elder (and possibly teacher), Johannes Ockeghem, which had been used to set the worldly chanson text “D’ung Aultre Amer” (“To Love Another”). The original words are even incorporated into the start of the motet’s second part, but reworked as sublime music of praise (for four voice parts). The notion that the composer was simultaneously encoding a message of loyalty to one of his royal patrons is the kind of story that has long adhered to the Josquin legend.
Tu solus is unusual in its use of simple block chords to create an austerely hymn-like texture that privileges the words. The six-voice Marian motet Ave nobilissima creatura likewise takes great care with the art of enhancing the emotions evoked by the text — but in this case Josquin’s eloquent use of imitation and related polyphonic techniques shows why his peers so revered his creative mastery.
Another example of cross-pollination between the sacred and secular spheres lies at the heart of the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner (c. 1490-1545). The nickname comes from “Westron Wynde,” a sixteenth-century song that conveys an exquisite erotic melancholy. Taverner employs a variant version of that tune. Its lyrics: “Western wind, when will thou blow/the small rain down can rain/Christ, if my love were in my arms,/And I in my bed again!” Paul Hillier notes that the use of a pre-existing secular tune as the cantus firmus (the foundation around which a polyphonic structure is woven) had become commonplace on the continent, but for isolated England this was still a rare practice.
Indeed, Taverner’s Western Wind Mass is the first in a trio from the Tudor era — his younger colleagues John Sheppard and Christopher Tye wrote Masses based on the same cantus firmus. (Ralph Vaughan Williams later paid homage as well.) As with Josquin, concrete dates and biographical information about Taverner are scarce, particularly his early years, when he is thought to have composed this Mass. He likely hailed from the north, from Lincolnshire, and was made head of the choristers at the newly founded Christ Church College (then called Cardinal College) at Oxford and later retired north in Sibelian silence.
His Western Wind Mass therefore represents the late flowering of the Catholic choral Mass in England before the onset of the Reformation there — before the tradition was abruptly cut off. William Byrd would have to re-invent it, as an underground move, at the end of the century. In this period English composers typically set four movements of the Mass Ordinary, omitting the Kyrie. For liturgical celebrations, a plainchant setting would be used, with holiday-specific text that varied for each occasion added on.
The four Mass movements Taverner did set are expertly proportioned, each accommodating a ninefold repetition of the “Westron Wynde” melody despite their varying text lengths — it’s easy to pick up in the top voice line (of four) early in the Gloria. The total of thirty-six repetitions migrates among the voice, “though never in the alto,” remarks Hillier. This unifying device, he writes, is “counterbalanced by a seemingly endless source of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention in the freely composed voices, each variation introducing some new color or opening a new perspective onto the melody itself.”
Back on the continent, Orlando di Lasso (c. 1532-1594) earned enormous fame at the climax of the Franco-Flemish Renaissance. Though born in modern-day (French-speaking) Belgium, Lasso traveled widely, like many Netherlandish composers, spending important periods in Italy (hence the Italian form of his name) and settling ultimately on a cherished position at the Duke of Bavaria’s court in Munich.
Lasso also benefited from the new era of printing, which did so much to internationalize music. Even ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, he developed a status reminiscent of the earlier Josquin: “like a bee [Lasso] has sipped all the most beautiful flowers of the ancients,” the poet Pierre de Ronsard rhapsodized, “and seems lone to have stolen the harmony of the heavens to delight us with it on earth…”
The sacred motet O Crux Splendidior, set for six voices, gives a moving example of the aesthetic of this extraordinarily prolific composer. Published in 1568 as part of Selectissimae cantiones, it is Passion music meant for Good Friday that clearly illustrates the new emphasis on emotionally expressive music — music expressing the emotions, that is, of the text. The fluency of the writing in addition reminds us that many of these composers had rich experience as singers and chorus masters themselves. (Lasso preceded Palestrina as kapellmeister at the papal church St. John Lateran in Rome and was initially brought to Munich as a tenor.)
The music of Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) and William Byrd (c. 1539-1623) accompanies a story of revolutionary cultural change that was mandated from the top down, with the onset of the English Reformation instigated by Henry VIII. On the program that launched his tenure with the Master Chorale, music director Grant Gershon included Tallis’s Elizabethan Spem in alium, a choral edifice whose astounding polyphonic complexity betrays familiarity with what was happening on the continent.
Yet essential to Tallis’s success across the seismic ideological shifts of four monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, “Bloody” Mary, Elizabeth I) was his ability — perhaps not unlike that of Dmitri Shostakovich in a later era — to accommodate changing demands from on high about what sort of music should be written. The four-part If Ye Love Me is an Anglican sacred anthem for Communion setting the English translation of words from the Gospel of John. Unlike the garlands of polyphonic melody from earlier years, Tallis here voices the strict call under Edward VI for Protestant simplicity, writing in a chordal style that maximizes textual clarity.
Both Tallis and Byrd, whom the older composer mentored, were privileged insiders, members of the central musical establishment: the Chapel Royal (where they also shared duties as organists). Queen Elizabeth even granted them a joint monopoly to have their music printed — such printing having arrived notably late to the island. Yet Byrd’s story can read like a political thriller.
While he, too, was able to adapt to the expectations of an official composer, Byrd remained a devout Catholic, surviving into the reign of James I. He was a recusant — one subject to state penalties for refusing to attend services of the Church of England — yet he became a favorite of the highly musical Queen. Byrd dangerously associated with Catholic dissenters but he was chosen to compose Elizabeth’s patriotic poem celebrating the English victory over the Armada. And in the great choral works of his last decades, when he retired to a recusant community in the country, Byrd defiantly published three settings of the forbidden Catholic Mass (for underground celebrations considered treasonous), creating his most psychologically complex works.
The sprightly English Psalm setting Sing Joyfully, its top-heavy texture SSAATB well-tailored to the mood, is of the vintage of his Anglican Mass setting, The Great Service. These highly public works for the establishment, observes Tallis Scholars founder Peter Phillips, contrast with the inward-directed ethos of the Catholic Masses, featuring lines that “push outwards through studied declamation of the texts, suitable for performance before a big crowd.”
The text of Laudibus in sanctus — drawn from another Psalm, this time a Latin paraphrase of Psalm 150 — shows off Byrd’s masterful blend of techniques, including polyphonic imitation, as well as the more-recent trend of word-painting “madrigalism” — as in the shift to triple meter at “laeta chorea” when the worshiper praises God through dance. Byrd chose this motet to place at the head of his second collection of Cantiones Sacrae, printed in 1591.
With Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), we reach the end of the High Renaissance on the continent, where composers were coping with the imperatives of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which were also directed at textual clarity. Victoria, who also became a priest, was at the epicenter of this development in Rome — he may have trained with Palestrina — before returning to his native Spain to serve as organist and personal chaplain to Philip II’s sister, Dowager Empress María. Composing only sacred music, he led a quiet life, withdrawn in the convent of his patroness and thus far removed from the courtly life of a Lasso or the public spotlight of a Palestrina.
The sacred four-part motet Vere languores (text from Isaiah) expresses the pathos of a devout Catholic appropriate to Good Friday. Victoria amplifies the intensity through contrasts between chordal style and polyphony and creates a mystical atmosphere with unexpected harmonies.
Gaudent in coelis, a brief, four-part motet written as an antiphon for the Magnificat, shows a more festive side of Victoria, though without forsaking his intensity. His contrapuntal construction — notice the imitation first from the inner voices, followed by the soprano and bass — still keeps the audibility of the words he sets in focus. It’s no surprise that this composer, a favorite of founder Roger Wagner, is one for whom the Master Chorale has long shown a special affinity.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.