A Lily Among Thorns: Renaissance Music of Love & Lament
Mort, tu as navré de ton dart à 4 Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420–1497)
Delicta Juventutis à 4 Pierre de la Rue (ca. 1452–1518)
Absolon, fili mi à 4 Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521) or la Rue
Nymphes des bois à 5 Josquin
Musiciens, chantres mélodieux à 6 Pierre Certon (ca. 1515–1572)
O mors inevitabilis à 7 Hieronymus Vinders (ca. 1500–1560)
Quam pulchra es à 3 John Dunstaple (ca. 1390–1453)
Ecce, tu pulchra es à 4 Josquin
Sicut lilium inter spinas à 4 Antoine Brumel (ca. 1460–ca. 1516)
Nigra sum, sed Formosa à 5 Jean Lhéritier (ca. 1480–after 1552)
Quam pulchri sunt gressus tui à 5 G. P. da Palestrina (1525–1594)
Ego flos campi à 7 J. Clemens non Papa (ca. 1505–1555/6)
Shannon Canavin & Sara Ofner, soprano
Thea Lobo & Aaron Russo, alto
Jason McStoots & Eric Rice, tenor
Brian Church & Darrick Yee, bass
Friday, March 31, 2005 at 8pm
First Parish Church, 349 Boston Post Road, Weston
Sunday, April 2, 2005 at 4pm
Heard House Museum, 54 South Street, Ipswich
Monday, April 3, 2005 at 7:30pm
Swedenborg Chapel, 50 Quincy Street, Cambridge
Saturday, April 8, 2005 at 8pm
First Religious Society, 27 School Street, Carlisle
Notes on the Program
The term “Renaissance” is sometimes problematic when applied to music. As a name for the revival of the artistic and scientific achievements of Classical Antiquity, it is clear enough as an artistic movement in the visual art and literature of the late fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. But Ancient notation was not well understood until the late sixteenth century (and even then not by many), and the early Christian Church had succeeded in suppressing many stylistic elements of ancient Greek and Roman music because it was associated with pagan traditions. Similarly, the early Church also worked to limit forms of musical expression that were overtly sensual, privileging instead an emphasis on the spiritual realm and the hereafter. Our program explores two traditions in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sacred music that contain pre-Christian elements and are thus especially worthy of the designation “Renaissance.” The first is the tradition of the déploration, a setting of a poetic lament for a deceased teacher or patron that often combines the ancient Roman planctus, an exclamation associated with grief, with texts that call upon musicians and classical figures to change into mourning clothes, to cry, and to pray for the deceased. The second tradition is that of setting the Song of Songs, the group of love lyrics in the Old Testament attributed to King Solomon and interpreted, according to various Christian traditions, either as an allegory of God’s love for the Church or for the Virgin Mary. Among several elements that the two traditions have in common is the flattering nature of their poetry: deceased composers are called “patrons of goodness” and “true treasures and masters,” while the woman in the Song of Songs is described as “a lily among thorns.”
Johannes Ockeghem’s Mort, tu as navré de ton dart, composed in honor Gilles de Binchois (d. 1460) and scored for low voices, is a hybrid of the secular ballade and the sacred cantus firmus motet. The ballade is strophic, with three different verses of text set to the same music. Each of the verses is followed by a refrain with the text “Prier (or Priez) pour l’ame!” (“Pray for the soul!”) In the first section of each verse, a newly composed bass line and two cantus firmi (pre-existent melodies in long note-values) derived from Gregorian Miserere melodies accompany a French-texted melody; this section is then repeated with different French text. The second section contains two more Gregorian cantus firmi: both bear Latin texts from obsequy rites that complement the French text in their urging to pray for Binchois’s soul and to grant him eternal rest. Yet the French text also contains elements that are unusual in the context of Christian burial: in the beginning, the allegorical figure of death is addressed directly as one who victimizes by throwing darts, an image strangely reminiscent of Eros or Cupid and typical of classical poetry. The word “Helas!” (“Alas!”) occurs as a kind of planctus, an uncontrolled exclamation of grief descended from Roman songs of lament. This musical monument to Binchois, which also imitates the long, mellifluous lines of his music, thus celebrates him as both a pious churchman and a learned humanist.
Composers often created laments for their patrons as well as their teachers. Pierre de la Rue (ca. 1452 – 1518) served Duke Philip the Handsome of Burgundy from 1492 until the latter’s death in September 1506. Upon Philip’s death, La Rue was likely responsible for the music of his patron’s obsequies, and the motet Delicta Juventutis may well have been composed for that occasion. Perhaps because it was intended for use in the liturgy, its text does not employ French or indeed any of the overt classical elements heard in Ockeghem’s déploration for Binchois. 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.
The motet Absolon, fili mi has been the subject of considerable controversy. In one surviving version, it is scored impossibly low and employs an unprecedented number of flats, in turn presenting problems of harmony and interpretation. Its authorship is also uncertain, given to both Pierre de la Rue and Josquin des Prez. The text is derived from three Biblical passages, each of which deals with the lament of a father on the death of a son: 2 Samuel 18:33, in which David laments the death of Absalom; Job 7:16, in which Job mourns the death of his son; and Genesis 37:35, in which Jacob mourns the death of Joseph. The occasion for this work remains uncertain, though the most likely is again the death of Philip the Handsome (1506), who was survived by his father, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The work’s opening, with its many poignant repetitions of “Absalon, fili mi!” (“Absalom, my son!”), again recalls the uncontrolled cries of grief of the Roman planctus. The final section of the work involves a kind of harmonic descent on the text “non vivam ultra, sed descendam in infernum plorans” (“Let me live no longer, but descend into hell, weeping”), imitating the text’s meaning through the use of musical elements — an example of word painting.
Nymphes des bois, Josquin’s déploration in honor of Johannes Ockeghem (d. 1497), was probably influenced by Ockeghem’s Mort, tu as navré de ton dart. In addition, it exerted considerable influence on later déplorations. The text is by Jean Molinet, a poet of considerable renown in the period. Death, personified as Atropos and described as having “trapped” Ockeghem, is not addressed directly. Expert singers are grouped together with classical figures such as “wood-nymphs” and “goddesses of the springs,” all of whom stand in opposition to death. However, the poem focuses on the musicians, both Ockeghem and his mourners. It contains three imperatives directed at the mourners: “Change your voices,” “Dress yourselves in clothes of mourning,” and “cry great tears from your eyes.” The opening soprano melody quotes the Kyrie of Ockeghem’s Missa Cuiusvis toni, an act of homage that later composers were to imitate in their déplorations. The cantus firmus, heard in the second tenor, presents the introit melody for the mass for the dead, which bears the text “Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine” (“Grant him eternal rest, O Lord”). Josquin recasts the mode of the original chant from Lydian to Phrygian to make it conform to his somber counterpoint. In the second section of the motet, the imperatives are directed at composers who considered themselves Ockeghem’s disciples, Josquin and “Pierson” (Pierre de la Rue) among them. Josquin completes the cantus firmus at the conclusion of the first part, and keeps the second tenor silent until the last line (“Requiescat in pace, amen”). The more intimate four-voice texture thus sets the portion of the poem that is directed to the four composers in particular instead of “musicians of all nations.”
Pierre Certon composed his Musiciens, chantres mélodieux in honor of Claudin de Sermisy, his older colleague at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, who died in 1562. Three aspects of Certon’s work look back to Josquin’s déploration in honor of Ockeghem. First, Certon employs a French text, which had fallen out of favor in such laments in the intervening sixty-five years. Second, he sets the text in a deliberate fashion that suggests a slow tempo by dividing diphthongs into syllables, making “musiciens” four syllables just as Josquin made “nations” three. Third, he quotes the Agnus Dei of a mass by Sermisy, just as Josquin quoted the Kyrie of a mass by Ockeghem in his Nymphes des bois. As in previous déplorations, Certon also employs a plainchant cantus firmus, an archaic procedure by the time of Sermisy’s death. All of these features suggest that Certon emulated Josquin’s work in an effort to create a timeless musical monument to his older colleague. This work survives in five of six part books; Eric Rice created the hypothetical sixth part in the version performed in our program.
Almost nothing is known of the life Hieronymus Vinders (ca. 1500 – 1560) except that he may have been a student of Josquin. His seven-voice O mors inevitabilis in honor of the latter master combines two plainchant cantus firmi from the office and mass for the dead, respectively. The Latin text of the other voices is derived from an inscription on a monument to Josquin that formerly stood in the Church of St. Gudule in Brussels. The texture of the piece occasionally recalls that of Josquin’s works, but also reflects the more densely-packed texture of the next generation of Franco-Flemish composers. Vinders briefly interrupts the texture with call and response between the voices for rhetorical emphasis on the imperative “dic” (“say”).
The tradition of the déploration continued until the end of the sixteenth century, but the new musical style of the baroque period ultimately proved incompatible with such monumental structures as cantus firmus motets. Laments are relatively common in baroque music, but works that emulate the style of a deceased composer in the manner of a déploration are rare. Indeed, such emulation generally becomes rare in later times, reflecting as it does the particular affinity of Renaissance musicians for the rhetorical strategies of imitatio, the imitation of ancient masters, which in this case meant their teachers rather than the composers of Antiquity.
Little agreement exists concerning the origin and date of composition of the Song of Songs (i.e., the most excellent song), which bears an attribution to King Solomon in the first line of its text. The Song is a collection of lyrics totaling fewer than two hundred verses that likely survived in an ancient oral tradition. Scholars have noted that the style of poetry displays a kinship with a genre of love lyrics found in ancient Egyptian collections. Extravagant imagery appealing to the senses of smell, taste, and touch, along with detailed descriptions of the male and female body and stylized terms of endearment (dove, sister, king) link the Song to other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The Song was probably codified into its final canonical form around 450 – 400 BCE. The acceptance of this group of sensual love lyrics into the Jewish canon has resulted in various attempts to explain its meaning in religious terms. Christianity explained the Song as an allegory, often linking it with God’s love for humanity in general and the Virgin Mary in particular. As the cult of the Virgin expanded during the Middle Ages, parts of the Song were sung at various Marian feasts. In the case of the feast of the Assumption, for example, it serves as the central Biblical text, since Mary’s Assumption into heaven is not described in the Bible.
John Dunstaple’s Quam pulchra es, which was composed in or before 1430, is the most declamatory of his pieces: nearly all the syllables of its text are heard simultaneously in all voice parts (a texture known as homophony), with careful attention to word accent. The piece also demonstrates the English predilection for thirds and sixths that was to influence Continental composers so strongly in middle third of the fifteenth century. It was used in conjunction with Marian celebrations, particularly Assumption, in the Sarum rite, the Christian liturgy in use in England at the time; the text is that of a Sarum responsory.
The next three motets on the program date from the first half of the sixteenth century. Josquin’s Ecce, tu pulchra es demonstrates the composer’s subtle use of texture. He begins with pairs of voices, occasionally thickening the texture with a third voice, until he finally brings all four vouces to bear at the second iteration of “Ecce, tu pulchra es,” emphasizing the text further with a homophonic texture. Such textural play characterizes the entire piece. Antoine Brumel’s Sicut lilium inter spinas demonstrates his interest in diminutive forms at the end of his life. It makes use of imitation at its opening, but is largely homophonic thereafter, with clear presentation of the text and harmony that may reflect the composer’s experience in Ferrara toward the end of his career. Jean Lhéritier’s Nigra sum sed formosa is much more expansive, engaging in the mostly imitative style of the Franco-Flemish generation after Josquin. Occasionally, the voice leading in such imitative textures creates cross-relations, moments of piquant dissonance in which two of the parts are not unanimous in whether they treat a certain pitch as natural, flat, or sharp.
In 1584, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina published a cycle of motets for five voices based on carefully selected texts from the Song of Songs. In the book’s dedication he renounced his youthful interest in madrigals and, at least implicitly, in sensual texts. Modern scholars have been tempted to see this retraction as somewhat disingenuous in light of the book’s contents, but Palestrina likely read the Song of Songs in strictly allegorical terms. The text of Quam pulchri sunt describes a woman’s body, proceeding systematically from her feet to her belly (the next motet in the cycle proceeds from her belly to her head). Each phrase of text receives a new snippet of melody that is heard as the subject of imitation. The piece ends with a melodic flourish at “valatus liliis,” musically depicting the “surrounding” mentioned in the text.
Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s Ego flos campi was written upon the composer’s departure from the Marian Brotherhood at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which had engaged him for several months in 1550 as a singer and composer-in-residence. Three aspects of the piece point to the circumstances of its composition. First, the text consists of three verses from the Song of Songs, which was employed as the standard Biblical text in Marian liturgies (since many of the events of Mary’s life that the Roman Catholic Church venerated were not discussed in the gospels). Second, the use of seven voices is unique in Clemens’s work and represents the number of Mary’s sorrows and joys. Finally, the phrase “sicut lilium inter spinas” (“as a lily among thorns”), the Brotherhood’s motto, receives prominent homophonic treatment—first in the high voices, then in the low, and finally in the entire choir—in an otherwise primarily imitative context.
As Clemens’s setting demonstrates, the Song of Songs presented a special opportunity for Renaissance composers to express feelings of earthly love in combination with ecclesiastical traditions. Whether one reads the language of the Song as metaphor for God’s love for the Church or the Virgin Mary, or simply as love poetry, these settings are stunning works of music within the humanist tradition of the period very much worthy of the designation “Renaissance music.”
© Eric Rice 2005