A Saint's Remorse

Lasso’s High Renaissance Masterpiece
By Thomas May

What’s the correct way to refer to one of the most extraordinary musical minds in history: Orlande/Orlando/Roland de Lassus/di Lasso? There’s a Franco-Flemish form and an Italianized one; sometimes the two get mixed together. There’s even a Latin option intended to standardize the situation. The very profusion of variants points to the internationalism and cross-pollination across borders that marked the era of the High Renaissance in Europe.
 
This was a time in which a young musician born in the Netherlandish part of the Habsburg Empire (in what is nowadays Belgium) could find himself posted to positions at major courts and churches in Italy while still in his early twenties, travel back north for a brief spell (possibly in France and even England), and then be lured at around age 26 to join the ambitious court of an aristocrat in Munich (the Duke of Bavaria), where he happily settled for almost four decades until his death in 1594 — while still undertaking trips to Vienna and Italy and picking up on the latest developments in musical style.
 
Such, in brief outline, is the life story of Lasso. (Let’s simplify and stick to the Italian spelling, the one used on the title page of many of his published works, including the first edition of Lagrime di San Pietro.) During his long, productive years in Munich, he became an international celebrity. Lasso was born at just the right time to benefit from the new technology of printing, which disseminated his prolific output at an astonishing rate (about two publications of his music a year). Hopeful young composers traveled far and wide to learn from him — the Gabrielis from Venice may have been among them — and Lasso was honored by emperor and pope alike.






“What you have is the iTunes of the High Renaissance: Everyone is hearing each other’s releases, in different languages, some in pirate versions, and mixing them together,” says director Peter Sellars. “All these versions of Orlando’s name evolved because he was active in different music centers. It feels like today, when there isn’t a single way music has to happen, and everyone is listening to everyone else.”
 
Lasso was particularly revered for the variety and extent of his output across vocal genres (curiously, instrumental music is missing from his vast extant oeuvre), as well as for the depth of his knowledge of the grand tradition of Renaissance polyphony that was just about to reach its end. In the century that dawned a few years after Lasso’s death, the new genre of opera would flourish, and its champion Claudio Monteverdi would pioneer a dramatically different musical language — a language from which modern Western music emerged.
 
Another contemporary artist, the French poet Pierre de Ronsard, raved: “The more-than-divine Orlando … like a bee has sipped all the most beautiful flowers of the ancients and moreover seems alone to have stolen the harmony of the heavens to delight us with it on earth, surpassing the ancients and making himself the unique wonder of our time.”
 
VISUALIZING THE POLYPHONY — Into his swan song, Lagrime di San Pietro, Lasso distilled all of that wisdom, experience, and complexity. “Polyphony of this kind of depth and detail is totally sculptural,” observes Sellars. He notes that Lagrime was composed only 30 years after the death of another towering artist of the High Renaissance: Michelangelo.
 
“You also get this muscular intensity in Lasso’s writing that is reminiscent of this expressive language we know so well, visually, from Michelangelo.” Both artists convey visions of an “embodied spirituality: the muscle of spiritual energy and striving against pain to achieve self-transformation.”
 
“The genesis of this project began in 2011 when Peter and I were working together on Vivaldi’s Griselda at the Santa Fe Opera,” recalls Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Kiki & David Gindler Artistic Director Grant Gershon. “I’ve always been especially moved by the way that he guides singers to connect their deepest and most complex emotions to the music.” Gershon imagined the potential that could be tapped by having Sellars stage an entirely a cappella work, “where there is no buffer between the singers and the audience. The pure sound of the human voice would convey all of the structure, the colors, the textures, and the feeling of a major work.”
 
And Lagrime di San Pietro presented “the perfect piece” with which to try out this approach — but also a set of formidable challenges. Explains Gershon: “The problem that the piece has had over the years is that this highly emotional, even anguished music has historically been performed in a very buttoned down, extremely reverential style. (Frankly, there are several perfectly lovely recordings of the work that are also unbelievably dull.) Peter and I felt that the truth of this music could be unlocked with movement and with an intense focus on the poetry.”
 




 


Lasso’s creation of this complex vocal cycle clearly stands apart within his oeuvre with regard to chronology and purpose. Widely admired and imitated by his contemporaries, that oeuvre encompasses on one side sacred works that are both traditional (masses) and wildly original (the celebrated motet cycle Prophetiae Sibyllarum) and, on the other, heartily profane compositions in multiple languages.

Lagrime di San Pietro comes at the very end — he completed the score with a dedication to Pope Clement VIII on May 24, 1594, and died in Munich on June 14. In that dedication, Lasso remarks that “these tears of Saint Peter … have been clothed in harmony by me for my personal devotion in my burdensome old age.”

A SPECIAL KIND OF MADRIGAL — In terms of genre, the numbers comprising Lagrime are classified not as motets but as madrigale spirituali — a term that straddles the usual distinction between vocal compositions for the sacred (motet) and secular (madrigal) spheres. Motets, composed in Latin, were suitable for use in liturgy; madrigals set words in the vernacular language, frequently involving erotic and pastoral topics, and were intended for private courtly or academic gatherings (much as the first, court-produced operas) or, when the topic related to a public figure or occasion, for ceremonial contexts. Yet while taking advantage of the innovations (and lack of restrictions) of the secular madrigal, “spiritual madrigals” were devoted to religious topics. They were not suitable for liturgical usage, however — by definition, such madrigals set vernacular rather than Latin texts.
 
For Lagrime, Lasso found his text in a devotional epic by the Italian Renaissance poet Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568), who came out of the great Petrarchan tradition. (Like Lasso, incidentally, the humanist Petrarch devoted his art to secular and sacred causes — his poetry praising the Virgin Mary inspired Lasso’s contemporary Palestrina to write a famous set of madrigale spirituali.) Tansillo, curiously, had been on the Vatican’s Forbidden Index. His Lagrime obtained an official pardon from the Pope. Although Tansillo died before managing to complete the epic, the published Lagrime is a lengthy collection of eight-line stanzas in ottava rima (the rhyming scheme ABABABCC), from which Lasso chose 20 for his madrigal cycle.
 
PETER’S THREEFOLD DENIAL — The dramatic content centers around a topic that will be familiar to anyone who knows J.S. Bach’s Passions, where it occurs as just one episode within the long sequence of the Passion story (though it inspires one of the most moving moments in the St. Matthew Passion — the alto aria “Erbarme dich”). It’s the topic of several masterpieces in painting as well, by such artists as Rembrandt and Caravaggio. The Gospel narratives of the Passion recount the Apostle Peter’s fearful reaction to the terror of the night of Jesus’ arrest. Three times he denies knowing the accused — exactly as Jesus during the Last Supper had predicted Peter would do, “this very night, before the rooster crows.” This is of course the very Peter who would be claimed as the founder of the Catholic Church, the first in its succession of popes. Tansillo’s poem unfolds as a highly wrought, emotional sequence of self-accusation and remorse for what cannot be undone, as the elderly Peter attempts to come to terms with his anguish. The imagery is elaborate, its references to mirrors and reflections revealing a characteristic Renaissance preoccupation, and boldly figures what transpires in the central image — the communication through Jesus’ transfixing glance on the Cross — to the unspoken knowledge shared by lovers.
 






The cycle Lasso fashions from this resembles a psychodrama, a kind of psychological Stations of the Cross Peter endures internally: the eternally present moment of betrayal and the recollections of a man approaching and longing for death intersect as he seeks reconciliation, realizing he can never forgive himself but can rely only on divine grace. Lasso gives Peter — and us — no easy answers, and no easy way out. He concludes the cycle of 20 stanzas from Tansillo’s poem with a 21st number [madrigal] from another source: a Latin motet by the 13th-century French poet Philippe de Greve representing the final word from Jesus himself (“Vide Homo, quae pro te patior” — “See, O man, how I suffer for you”). Here Jesus only reaffirms what has been tormenting Peter: the knowledge that his betrayal has caused more “inner agony” for the savior than his outward suffering on the cross. Even the repetitive rhyme scheme for all eight lines enhances the sense of recursive entrapment. Through his overall tonal scheme using the old church (i.e., Gregorian) modes, Lasso further underscores the sense of irresolution by omitting some of those eight modes as he progressively cycles through them; for this final motet he shifts to a mode outside the normal system. You don’t have to understand the musicological jargon to hear the remarkably austere impact of the final number.
 
Structurally, Lagrime also reflects the kind of theological numerological symbolism that is so all-pervasive in Bach’s masterpieces. Each stanza is written for seven separate parts. (Some performers opt to complement the voices with instruments, citing performance practice of Lasso’s era.) Seven is the number of perfection and creation, but also a number with a dark side, as in the Seven Deadly Sins. Three is the number of the Trinity, but it, too, has a negative shadow in the three times Peter denies Jesus. Lasso’s overall cycle comprises 3 x 7 stanzas (yielding 168 lines of poetry, a sum evenly divisible by 7).
 
PARED DOWN SIMPLICITY — For this staging, Gershon and Sellars decided to perform with three singers on a part resulting in an ensemble of 21. “We wanted the size of the ensemble to balance the need for clarity and transparency of the individual voices with the idea of this also being a community coming together,” explains Gershon. “We also talked about keeping a real simplicity to the whole look and feel, without any set or props or extra performers. Peter’s work with the singers would be complemented by Jim Ingalls’ lighting and some chairs onstage; the wardrobe is basically shades of grey — clothes that look like they could come out of anyone’s closet.”
 
“This is music that has a real austerity,” Gershon adds. “Lagrime is old composer’s music, like the late Beethoven string quartets or the Adagio from Mahler’s Ninth or Tenth. Things are stripped away, until there is nothing extraneous: there are very few melismatic passages.” For Sellars, Lagrime is composed “with an incredible concision, with sheer essence and focus. There’s a harmonic density but at the same time it’s stated as simply as possible, without a single extra note."

We know that in his final years Lasso had been ailing, seeking relief for a condition described as “melancholy,” and he even dedicated one set of his madrigals to the court physician who took care of him.
 
“At this point in his life,” according to Sellars, Lasso “does not need to prove anything to anyone. He is [composing Lagrime] because this is something he has to get off his chest to purify his own soul as he leaves the world. It’s a private, devotional act of writing, but these thoughts are now shared by a community — by people singing to and for each other.”
 
While the Lagrime project represents his first time staging an entirely a cappella performance, Sellars considers it a continuation of themes he has been recently revisiting in his collaborations with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen involving choral works by Igor Stravinsky. For the conclusion of Salonen’s tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, Sellars staged Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex as a double-bill, and the conductor and director reprised it just last month to crown a Stravinsky series with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London.
 
So it’s not surprising that Sellars suggests parallels with his new staging of Lasso’s work in the “cathedral-like space” of Walt Disney Concert Hall. As in the Stravinsky double-bill, in Lagrime the chorus “carries the drama forward” — drama according to the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy, says Sellars, “which I could also call an African understanding, where an individual crisis is also a crisis of the community. Even though we hear one man’s thoughts, it is the community that absorbs them and has to take responsibility: a collective takes on this weight of longing and hope.”
 
INNER DIALOGUE, LIGHT, AND DARKNESS — That interplay between the individual and the collective has suggested thrilling possibilities for staging. For Sellars, “the voice is not something disembodied but is part of the body which is testifying. The sheer physical intensity of the singing joins with this collective dawning through the inner dialogue of the composition, as these voices have their moments of revelation.”
 
And beyond the Stravinsky, Lagrime can be viewed as a continuation of Sellars’ engagements with the Passion story, from his acclaimed stagings of the classic Bach Passions to his work on contemporary variants by John Adams (The Gospel According to the Other Mary, in whose world premiere the Master Chorale and Gershon took part) and Kaija Saariaho (La Passion de Simone, recently reintroduced in a chamber version as part of this past summer’s Ojai Festival).
 





PETER SELLARS



Lagrime has one foot in this world and one foot in the next world — it’s music written by somebody who is in pain,” says Sellars. “It shares the giant discovery of lighting in Renaissance painting that was echoed in poetry and music: this understanding that light and darkness are deeply intertwined in God’s creation and are necessary for each other. Taken together, they create chiaroscuro. That’s how we perceive depth.”
 
Through all of its pain, says Sellars, the challenge in Lagrime “is directed towards oneself. Instead of challenging the world, you challenge yourself — that is the real meaning of jihad in Islam, the war within yourself. In an analogous act to Michelangelo’s and Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Lasso has created this host of recording angels who can detail the fluctuations and razor-edge refinements of his art, his moral quandaries, and lifelong regret for failed moments. That crystal clear, relentlessly honest moment is a crisis known to every human being on earth. In the case of Lasso, he can’t forgive himself, but the music is suffused with a divine compassion and illumination that reaches the very heart of hell.”
 
The result of this powerful collaboration turned out to make a milestone in the history of the Master Chorale. “What neither Peter nor I could fully anticipate was the overwhelming emotional vulnerability that our singers would bring to this project,” says Gershon. “Ostensibly this piece is about Peter the Apostle and his lifelong sense of remorse over denying Jesus before the crucifixion. What we came to realize as we all worked together is that Lasso was delving into much more universal themes surrounding growing old, losing the things and people that we care about, experiencing extreme shame and regret but also some possibility of benediction. We all came away from the initial performances of this work convinced of two things: that Lagrime di San Pietro is one of the towering masterpieces of Western music, and that this project represents for each of us some of the most important work that we have ever embarked upon. This is a piece that people need to hear, to see, and to experience.”

Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blog at memeteria.com.
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