These are the notes we distributed at our "Earthquake mass" concert
The main work in tonight’s concert is the missa et ecce terrae motus (and behold the earth moved) by Antoine Brumel. This mass must be one of the most significant yet rarely performed works from the entire Renaissance. Famous in its day and remembered reverently for several generations after, in modern times it is extremely rarely performed. It is, in fact, a very difficult mass to prepare and perform. It is written in 12 parts, and with the exception of the 3 soprano parts (which follow ranges typical for boy trebles of the time), the remaining parts are extremely wide ranging. The first “alto “ part is so low in places, and the basses so frequently sing in the tenor range that it is hard to imagine how it was originally performed. In tonight’s concert we have tackled these problem by using a mixture of altos and tenors on five of the middle parts, and inviting guest singers to join our regular line up. We are very grateful to these friends who have endured several weeks of very taxing rehearsal, singing in ranges they didn’t know they had(!) - and altogether making it possible for us to present this glorious masterpiece.
But to put Brumel within his proper context, it is important to know that he was part of a revolutionary “school” of composers broadly referred to as the Franco Flemish movement, whose chief exponent was the great Josquin des Pres, Brumel’s own teacher, and including also both Obrecht and Gombert. Spanning the period from the 15th into the early decades of the 16th centuries, this school comprised composers mostly born in France and the Low Countries, but was pan- European in its spread. Italy, with its rich patronage in both court and church, formed the natural home for so many of these musicians. Characteristically, they composed vocal music in Latin, French, German, Dutch and Italian, and doubtless spoke them all fluently too.
The earliest of tonight’s composers, Jacob Obrecht, was himself Dutch and was born around 1450. Like many composers of the time he was also a singer and choir director working as far afield as Utrecht, Bruges, Cambrai and Ferrara – where he died of the plague in 1505. His output included secular as well as a large number of Latin masses and motets.
Obrecht set the Salve Regina text no less than 3 times (in versions for 3, 4 and 6 voices). We are performing his 6-voice setting. This is in a style known as alternatim, where verses of plainchant alternate with verses set in polyphony. Yet even in the polyphonic verses, the chant melody can be heard not only in cantus firmus (long sustained notes in one part), but clearly in the other parts as well using the more modern technique known as imitative counterpoint, where phrases are imitated between the various voices. The rich sonority of the piece owes much to its scoring, with the unusual inclusion of 3 soprano parts, which can often be heard in canon.
In fact canon will be very evident in much of tonight’s concert (remember London’s burning!), and no more so than in Josquin's great canon in 24 parts, Qui habitat. Born a Frenchman, Josquin spent most of his life in Italy, working in Milan, the Vatican, Florence and Ferrara, though he ended his life in Brussels. A hugely prolific composer in every genre, he was also a singer, director and a great teacher. One pupil said of him: “..he did not keep his pupils back with long and useless instructions, but taught them the rules in a few words through practical application in the course of singing…”
Although a prolific composer of masses, it is in his motets that’s Josquin’s greatest skill is seen. Many are highly expressive in their setting of the texts, and very modern in their use of imitative counterpoint rather than the older cantus firmus technique. The 4 part Ave Maria is one of his best known works. It has a radiantly clear texture with much paired imitation (pairs of voices imitating each other) and flowing melodic phrases which develop the plainsong upon which it is based. Even the canon that ends the piece is clear and melodic and expressive of sublime adoration. Qui Habitat, on the other hand is far more conservative in style. In form it is a quadruple canon with each canon divided into 6 equal voices. Pieces written in so many parts were extremely rare at the time, and what makes Josquin’s work so extraordinary is the extent to which he is able to include so many passages with all 24 parts going at once. Clearly, managing so many parts would necessitate the use of very simple harmony – whole passages circling around a single chord – but the individual phrases are often angular and unpredictable and lead to some extreme passing dissonances.
Another Frenchman, Antoine Brumel, worked at Chartres Cathedral and Notre Dame in Paris, but like his teacher Josquin he eventually settled in Ferrara. His surviving works include 16 masses, but Et ecce terrae motus is quite unlike anything else from this period. Although based on a short phrase from the Easter plainsong antiphon for the office of Lauds, the rythmic vitality and contrasts in scoring gives it a very secular feel. Yet it is important to remember that the use both of secular models for sacred works (often popular songs like L’Homme armé) or even sound effects imitating battles in several mass settings, was not at all uncommon at this time.
Like Josquin, Brumel was another master of canon, though in this mass it’s use is mainly restricted to a 3 part canon in long notes between the 1st two tenor parts and the 3rd bass, acting much like a cantus firmus, and a solid root for the harmony. As with the Josquin canon, the harmony is often quite static, but the rhythmic complexity is quite astounding. There is very little imitative counterpoint, but more short figures thrown around the parts with great rapidity. In the movements with more text, the gloria and credo, he even used passages with most of the parts flowing in the same rhythm (homophony) or even moments of chanting in near speech rhythm (falso bordone) so that in the end these movements are no longer than the more intricately set kyrie or sanctus.
Nicholas Gombert, was also possibly a pupil of Josquin, and again, although born in the Low Countries he travelled widely around Europe: France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria. Ten of his masses survive, but his greatest output was of motets. In his music the imitative style of Josquin is melded in to a dense and rich web of sound. Like Josquin, though, he could also write in clear simple textures, as his Ave Maria illustrates. It forms a gentle foil for the extravagances of Brumel’s earth moving drama.
With Giaches de Wert we move forward another generation in time. Yet again, although he was Dutch by birth, he worked mostly abroad, and like his predecessors spent some time at the court of Ferrara. His chief post however was at Santa Barbara in Mantua, and it was for this establishment that most of his sacred music would have been performed. Egressus Jesus is a dialogue motet, that is one that tells a biblical story in quasi-dramatic style. In this case it is that of the woman who approached Jesus begging him to cure her demon ridden daughter. The woman is represented by the higher voices, while Jesus by the lower. All of the voices join together in the final stirring passage in which Jesus extolls her great faith. In such motets it is clear to see the antecedents of the later oratorio.
© Deborah Roberts May 2002.