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GOMBERT: Lugebat David Absalon
JOSQUIN: Absalon fili mi
LASSUS: Missa super Bell' Amfitrit' altera
LASSUS: Laudate Dominum
BYRD: Quomodo cantabimus
de MONTE: Super flumina Babylonis
CLEMENS: Ego flos campi
MOUTON: Nesciens mater
Directed by Markdavin Obenza
The Tallis Scholars Summer School course I attended in Oakham, England, in 2000 cemented my love for Renaissance music. The week-long immersion in Renaissance polyphony was an opportunity for singers from all around the world to sing together and learn about the ancient musical art form. Since then, I have spent my time performing and recording with various Seattle groups (The Tudor Choir, Byrd Ensemble, Compline Choir) and have witnessed, within the Seattle choral scene, a growing interest in the music. It was only after some encouragement by Anne Roberts that I decided to offer a course similar to the Tallis Scholars Summer School. I am convinced this is how we pass on the love for this craft—by inspiring others through these courses so they can carry it forward to the next generation.
I am happy to report that the inaugural course in the summer of 2017 at La Maison Verte in Roujan, France was a success. I hope it is the first of many. The course was mostly made up of singers from Seattle, with a few from the UK and one from Australia. The focus of the course was to prepare and record a CD of Flemish Renaissance music in a beautiful medieval church, L'Église Saint-Laurent. As one who regularly records choirs, I understand that some singers suffer from recording-PTSD due to past horrific recording experiences. This is unfortunate, as the recording session should be the place we make our best music, a product that can withstand many listens. If there is one purpose I have, it is to convince musicians that a positive recording environment yields the best results. This CD is evidence of that.
The main featured composer on the disc is Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594). Lassus is considered the chief representative of the late Flemish style and is one of the most celebrated composers of the late Renaissance. Legend states he was abducted three times for the beauty of his voice, though little evidence exists to confirm the claim. Lassus composed over 2,000 works, though his later compositions, particularly the polychoral motets such as Laudate Dominum and mass setting Missa super Bell' Amfitrit' altera, represent his best writing. It is unlikely Lassus learned the polychoral style in his native Flanders. While Flemish composers scored for eight voices, such as Crequillon’s Pater peccavi (not on disc), they favored uninterrupted counterpoint over double-choir music. Lassus likely developed the polychoral style during his time in Rome, as it was a standard technique employed by Venetian composers. The Venetians themselves seem to admire Lassus’s polychoral masses. Andrea Gabrieli, organist at St. Mark’s Basilica, visited Lassus in Munich in 1562 and many of Lassus’s works were published in Venice.
Franco-Flemish composers were skilled in canonic writing, but few were better than Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522), who was known for his ability to write music of mathematical complexity, especially canons. Mouton composed Nesciens mater, a setting of a Marian antiphon for the Octave of the Nativity scored for eight voices, in a strict quadruple canon. Only four voices are notated and the other four imitate them at the interval of a fifth two measures later. In addition to this incredible compositional construction, the written tenor voice sings a paraphrase of the plainchant melody associated with the antiphon text.
Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) is the superstar of the Flemish Renaissance cast and the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School. While Josquin’s music receives only four minutes on the disc, those minutes are well spent on Absalon fili mi, his best-known work. The four-part motet is a meditation on King David’s Lament for his son Absalon. Josquin was so famous and widely admired that many anonymous compositions were attributed to him by copyists, probably to increase their sales. Musicologist Joshua Rifkin proposes that Absalon could be one of these, suggesting contemporary composer Pierre de la Rue (c.1460-1518) as a possible composer.
Misattribution is also part of the story with Nicolas Gombert’s (c.1495-1560) own setting of David’s lament. Gombert’s motet Lugebat David Absalon was originally attributed to Josquin. Gombert’s version is scored for eight voices and is a contrafactum of two of his chansons (where the composer substitutes one text for another without making substantial changes to the music). The motet is filled with beautiful imitative descending lines (classic lament painting) and the pleading repetition of “O fili mi” (O my son!), making it one of the most moving Renaissance settings of David’s lament.
Super flumina Babylonis and Quomodo cantabimus came out of a remarkable musical exchange between Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) and English composer William Byrd (1540-1623). According to 18th-century musical antiquarian John Alcock, Monte’s Super flumina, a setting of Psalm 136:1, 3, 4, 2 (Vulgate), was sent in 1583 to Byrd, who continued the Psalm setting and composed Quomodo (Psalm 136: 4-7), beginning with the fourth verse set by Monte. The fourth verse of the Psalm, which both composers set -- “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” -- possibly reflects the desire of both to practice Catholicism in an age when it was not permitted. The two composers knew and respected each other. Monte traveled to England in 1554 as a member of the chapel of Prince Philip of Spain and may have met Byrd during his visit.
We know the least about Thomas Crecquillon (c.1505-1557). He was born in the Low Countries, became a priest and a member of the chapel of Emperor Charles V as either a singer or chapel master, and died in 1557, likely in a plague outbreak in Béthune. Crecquillon’s Ego flos campi, based on a text from the Song of Songs, was written for the Marian Brotherhood of Our Lady. Crecquillon features the Brotherhood’s motto, “Sicut lilium inter spinas” (As the lily among thorns), prominently in the seven-voice motet as homophonic statements within a predominantly polyphonic texture.