La Rue à Dijon: Music from the Courts of Burgundy
Mass for the Feast of St. Philip and St. James
as it might have been celebrated at the ducal chapel of Burgundy on May 1, 1503
Vidi aquam Plainchant
Introit Exclamaverunt ad te domine Plainchant, use of Paris
Missa L’homme armé Pierre de la Rue (c. 1460–1518)
Collect and Epistle Plainchant, use of Paris
Alleluia Stabunt iusi
Alleluia Ite nuntiate fratribus mei
Sancte Philippe Apostole Alexaner Agrigola (c. 1446–1506)
Dixit sanctus Philippus Gilles Binchois (c. 1400–1460)
Missa L’homme armé la Rue
Offertory Confitebuntur Plainchant, use of Paris
Secret and Preface
Missa L’homme armé la Rue
Sanctus & Benedictus
Canon and Lord’s Prayer Plainchant, use of Paris
Missa L’homme armé la Rue
Communion Tanto tempore Plainchant, use of Paris
Post-Communion and Ite, missa est
Delicta Juventutis (Lament for Philip) la Rue
Shannon Canavin & Allison Mondel, soprano
Thea Lobo & Aaron Russo, alto
Jason McStoots & Eric Rice, tenor
Brian Church & Richard Giarusso, bass
Friday, February 25, 2005 at 8 PM
The First Lutheran Church of Boston
Sunday, February 27, 2005 at 3 PM
Cochran Chapel at Phillips Academy Andover
Notes on the Program
When musicians speak of “Burgundian music” or “the Burgundian school” in reference to music of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they are not asserting the primacy of a particular geographic area so much as that of a particular group of patrons, the dukes of Burgundy. Indeed, the Valois dukes of the region, whose dynasty began in 1364, were so successful at acquiring and inhabiting new territory that their courts were seldom located in Burgundy, and few if any of the composers and musicians they employed were from there. (Many musicologists now resist applying the label “Burgundian” to music for this reason.) The Burgundian court under the Valois was initially located in Paris and subsequently in Flanders and Artois; it retained its French language and culture throughout its history, but the music that it produced was distinctly international in style. The dukes maintained a chapel choir and a group of minstrels for the performance of secular music, and these were nearly separate institutions. The centerpiece of our program is chapel music by Pierre de la Rue (ca. 1452 – 1518), a singer and renowned composer in the court of Philip the Handsome (also known as “the Fair”; r. 1493 – 1506), who was the last duke to rule Burgundy as an independent state. We are presenting La Rue’s Missa L’Homme armé, one of two mass settings that the composer based on the then-famous melody, L’Homme armé, which is heard in long notes sung by the tenors or altos throughout the mass. This mass is rarely performed, in part because La Rue’s authorship is not indicated in any of the surviving sources of the work. It is almost certainly by him, however, and we offer the mass in a hypothetical reconstruction of the liturgy Philip would have experienced, so that La Rue’s settings of the various sections of the mass ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) are interspersed with the plainchant singing and scripture recitation that constituted every mass service. Motets by Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400 – 1460) and Alexander Agricola (ca. 1445 – 1506), two other composers employed by the Burgundian court, are included as part of our reconstruction. While such liturgical re-enactment can rarely if ever be claimed as completely authentic, it does afford the listener a sense of how liturgical polyphony was used during the period. After relatively long stretches of plainchant, the polyphony impresses us all the more with its elaborate, interwoven vocal lines and bright colors. Its effect may be regarded as similar to that of stained glass windows in a dark church; in such a space, the impact of the brilliant colors is all the more keenly felt.
In assembling the music for our hypothetical Burgundian service, we imagined a specific context. As a member of Philip’s chapel, La Rue traveled with the duke to Spain in 1501, returning to France in 1503 by way of Burgundian territory; it was one of the few times during the composer’s tenure that the itinerant court was near (if not actually in) the Burgundian capital of Dijon, which remained one of the duchy’s most important administrative centers. (Our program’s title is a French pun reflecting our uncertainty of the court’s exact whereabouts during this period; it can mean either “La Rue at Dijon” or “the road to Dijon.”) Philip’s name day (the day on which the Saint Philip was commemorated) was May 1, and it surely would have inspired the celebration of an elaborate mass by the duke’s chapel choir. In addition, it was the day before the traditional meeting day of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a group of thirty-one knights united in their faith in God, their solemn duty to protect Western Christendom from the Ottoman Turks, their commitment to the chivalric code of conduct, and their alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. Though full meetings of the Order (with all thirty-one knights present) were only convened every five years on average, the Sainte-Chapelle in Dijon, which was the official chapel of the Order, had received endowments to celebrated mass on the Order’s behalf every day of the week with polyphonic singing. With such a confluence of events—Philip’s proximity to Dijon in May of 1503, the Sainte-Chapelle’s capacity as the official chapel of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the conjunction of his name day and the Order’s traditional meeting day on the calendar—it is not inconceivable that Philip’s chapel and the canons of the Sainte-Chapelle in Dijon would have combined forces to celebrate mass.
If the Order of the Golden Fleece were on Philip’s mind on his name day, it would have been logical for La Rue and his colleagues to perform a mass based on L’Homme armé, the popular tune with a text about “an armed man” or knight. The origins of the melody remain unclear, although some scholars have suggested that it was composed for the Order of the Golden Fleece, in part because it is thirty-one breves (or thirty-one measures) in length, an unusual number that corresponds with the number of knights in the order. The first piece on our program is an intricate setting of the tune that is probably by Robert Morton (ca. 1430 – ca. 1479), an English composer connected with the Burgundian court from 1457 to 1476. Morton’s Il sera pour vous / L’Homme armé presents the melody in the two tenor voices, which toss bits of the tune back and forth while the soprano sings a newly-composed text and melody. The new text jokingly refers to Simon le Breton, a singer in the Burgundian chapel whose retirement in 1464 may have been the occasion for the work. The form of the whole is a rondeau, one of the formes fixes that dominated the chanson in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and Morton’s skillful combination of the L’Homme armé melody with this form results in lively rhythmic play and bright harmonies. Despite the apparent separation of chapel musicians from minstrels on the court’s payroll, it is clear from this work that chapel musicians cultivated and performed secular works at court as well.
Our program continues with a mass for the Feast of Saint Philip and Saint James. According to church tradition, both of these saints were part of the group of twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus to continue his teaching. James, who is in this case James the Lesser, the brother of Saint Matthew, receives no mention whatsoever in the liturgy of his feast-day, while Philip’s interaction with Jesus is very prominent. Since the day fell between Easter and Pentecost, the service begins with the Vidi aquam, the text of which recalls the solemn baptism that occurs during Easter vigil. Next comes Exclamaverunt ad te, the introit proper to the Feast of Saint Philip and Saint James in the use of Paris. Given the Burgundian court’s French traditions, including occasional residency in Paris, it is likely that the Parisian tradition of plainsong was used in the Burgundian court’s liturgy.
The Kyrie and Gloria of the four-voice Missa L’Homme armé follow. La Rue’s mass is noteworthy for combining the L’Homme armé melody—which is heard in long notes (a cantus firmus) in the tenor or the alto—with strict canon between two of the other voices through most of the mass. (Canon is a technique involving exact repetition of melody previously heard in another voice at a fixed time interval.) The Kyrie and Gloria feature canon at the fifth between the sopranos and basses, and the work’s original manuscript source does not reproduce the second canonic voice, so that the basses must read their part from the soprano line. La Rue varies the time interval between canonic entrances for different sections, and he often changes the mensuration (roughly equivalent to meter) as well. In the first Kyrie, for example, the sopranos and basses have only a measure in slow triple mensuration between their entrances, while in the Christe the time interval is four and a half measures in duple mensuaration. The second Kyrie returns to the shorter time interval and meter of the first, but using a mensuration sign that indicates a faster tempo. The Gloria has similar changes to the time interval between canonic entrances and the mensuration. Considering the rigorous constraints La Rue placed upon himself, the effect of the whole is remarkably similar to that of freely composed counterpoint.
Following the Gloria are a brief collect (prayer) and a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. An Alleluia is substituted for the Gradual during Eastertide, so that two Alleluias (rather than the more usual one) are presented in succession in this mass. The first is designed to support the scripture reading that preceded it, while the second announces the reading of the Gospel. In the latter reading, which is drawn from John’s Gospel, Philip’s questioning of Jesus’ relationship to his Father is the main theological interest.
Many stories about the apostles circulated outside of the Biblical tradition, and these apocrypha occasionally became sources for motet texts. Dixit Sanctus Philippus relates Philip’s response to pagan idolatry, a story not present in the Bible. It is a setting by Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400 – 1460), who was active in the Burgundian court from sometime in the 1420s until 1452. We are substituting the work for a plainchant sequence often heard near this point in the mass. It is perhaps unlikely that this work, which was around fifty years old during the reign of Philip the Handsome, would have been performed at our hypothetical mass. On the other hand, the Burgundian chapel choir had an illustrious history and long traditions, and it may well have performed its old repertoire for posterity’s sake. The style of the work is very simple, with melodic formulae and cadential structures similar to those of the mid-fifteenth-century chanson.
The Credo of La Rue’s mass offers some of the most interesting counterpoint in the work. Canon continues between the soprano and the bass voices, but La Rue has the voices begin in pairs (soprano-alto and tenor-bass), a procedure he favored in other contexts. The very full texture of the first portion of the Credo is contrasted with two duos on “Et incarnatus est” and “Crucifixus,” both of which lack strict presentation of the L’Homme armé melody, though they employ portions of it. In the first duo, the soprano leads the alto in canonic imitation, and in the second the bass leads the tenor. This shift in leadership from a high voice to a low voice marks a similar shift for the rest of the Credo: for the first time, the bass voice leads the soprano in the strict canon. In addition, La Rue contrasts various textures, creating a remarkable color with the lower three voices at “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” despite the constraints of the strict canon and cantus firmus. Finally, within the theoretical framework of the time, his melodies imply the use of B-flats toward the end of the Credo, despite the fact that the work’s overall modal orientation (mixolydian) includes B-natural. This briefly produces B-flat major sonorities that are darker and warmer than the G-major chords that dominate the mass. This warmth is short-lived, however: the section finishes with a decisive cadential flourish that revisits the B-naturals and bright G-major chords.
The Offertory, sung by the two tenors, begins the second half of our concert. It is then followed by a brief preface that introduces the Sanctus. The representation of the heavenly choirs often inspired Renaissance composers to produce ornate counterpoint, but La Rue’s work is relatively restrained. The canon in this section occurs between the alto and bass voices, with the tenor singing the cantus firmus and the soprano spinning freely-composed melody. After a duo on “Pleni sunt caeli,” a fast triple-meter Hosanna ensues, sending the canon to the tenor and bass, introducing more harmonies that include B-flats, and, at the cadence, a dissonant cross-relation (a moment in which two voice parts are not in agreement about whether a pitch is natural, flat, or sharp). After another duo on “Benedictus qui venit,” the Hosanna is repeated.
The Canon and Lord’s Prayer lead to the Agnus Dei, in which La Rue expands the texture to five voices. All of the voices except the second tenor begin the section in canonic imitation, which obscures the identity of the alto and soprano as canon-bearing voices. The second tenor has the cantus firmus. In the second and final Agnus, the cantus firmus shifts to the alto voice, but otherwise the procedure is much the same. The mass concludes with a triple-mensuration section on “Dona nobis pacem,” and a cross-relation similar to that at the end of the Hosanna is heard at the conclusion of the work.
We have decided to end our hypothetical mass with a work by Alexander Agricola (ca. 1446 – 1506), another renowned musician and composer who joined the ducal chapel of Burgundy in 1500. His Sancte Philippe Apostole is a contrafact (a work that supplies a new text with existing music) of his Ergo sancti martyres, though it is evidently one created under the composer’s supervision, since the work appears in a manuscript prepared in a Burgundian scriptorium. Its text is a prayer to Saint Philip printed in Hortulum animae, a collection that circulated widely and was reprinted numerous times. Its rhythmic intricacy is a hallmark of Agricola’s style, and though the work may well be based on plainchant, a cantus firmus has yet to be identified. The Communion chant that follows quotes Jesus in portions of the day’s Gospel reading, and is followed by a short post-communion prayer. The mass officially ends with the chanting of Ite, missa est (“Go, it is finished”).
Philip the Handsome died in September 1506 in Spain, and La Rue remained there in the service of his wife, Juana, until 1508, finally retiring from the chapel to his native Netherlands in 1516. Upon Philip’s death, La Rue was likely responsible for the music of his patron’s obsequies, and Delicta Juventutis may well have been composed for that occasion. Unlike the Missa L’Homme armé, it is freely composed, and several aspects of La Rue’s mature style are more audible in this work than in the mass. Like his famous contemporary Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450 – 1521), with whom he is often compared, La Rue employs relatively spare textures, pairing voices in imitation, and only unites all four voices to create musical climaxes, often for rhetorical emphasis. Homophony is seldom heard, but when it is (such as at “intercedat pro eo”), it is clearly intended to serve the rhetoric of the text.
Such expressions by La Rue may well have been heartfelt. Philip was a generous patron, and his chapel choir supported some of the finest musicians of the day. With his death, the Burgundian chapel was all but disbanded, and those musicians who remained were subsumed into the imperial chapel when the future Emperor Charles V took title to Burgundy in 1515. While the tradition of the imperial chapel was also a glorious one, La Rue may well have lamented the death of the Burgundian chapel, with its roster of fine musicians and rich tradition, along with that of his patron.
© 2005 Eric Rice