Orlando Chamber Choir: Lamenting Lowlands

Here are my program notes for last Thursday’s concert by the good old Orlando Chamber Choir. I have done only minimal editing–enjoy!

The need to provide rituals at ceremonies for the dead appears to be one of the oldest characteristics of recorded human history—there is considerable archeological evidence that rituals of some sort accompany burials as far back as the neolithic period, 6,000 years ago. And the playing of music as part of these rituals is a practice nearly as old as recorded history. Musical instruments of some sort show up in the early graves of any number of prehistoric sites, with the earliest being dated to 42,000 years ago. It’s a practice that spans cultures as well—from Asia to Africa to the mid-east to Europe and the Western Hemisphere. As far as we can tell, music has been an integral part of death ceremonies for tens of thousands of years, perhaps longer. Roman funerals had both instrumental music and funeral songs as part of the ceremony. Some of these ceremonies are livelier than others, to be sure—jazz funerals in New Orleans are not likely to be confused with a funeral mass at Saint Peter’s.

The emergence of singing as part of such rituals, of course, is more problematic—unlike an instrument, singing leaves little in the way of an archeological record. It’s the Ancient Greeks who can be held responsible, as in so many things, for giving this practice a name. The Lament is a specific form of Greek poetry and, by accounts, music as well. The form shows up in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example. The lament is a particular form of song—it’s a carefully controlled expression of grief. Laments were not always songs, however, and not always associated with funerals—on occasion, they were simply poetic expressions of grief or distress. Over time, laments became associated with specific aspects of the Christian liturgy, including the Book of Lamentations from the Old Testament, which has provided inspiration for a number of composers, particularly during the Renaissance. But laments fit any number of biblical contexts, particularly those of The Psalms. And even more—Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament conveys Adam’s distress at his banishment from Eden, a Biblical event if there ever was one.

But Greek laments, and those of other pre-Christian cultures, encompassed more personal concerns—particularly the grief and distress at the loss of a loved one. In our program, The Lamenting Lowlands: Odes and elegies of the Franco-Flemish Renaissance, we present a group of lamentations, or déplorations, composed by (mostly) Franco-Flemish composers for their teachers, influences or friends. As such, these are pieces that often reflect the composer’s genuine grief at the passing of a friend or teacher. And in many cases, that’s exactly what we get. Josquin des Prez did indeed know and admire Johannes Ockeghem, for example. In other cases the lament appears to have been one based on the respect and appreciation of one composer for another. There appears to be some question as to whether Ockeghem actually knew Binchois, for example. In such cases, the purpose of the lament is to pay homage to the departed for his influence, his goodness (of course), and, in particular, his musical legacy.

By the time of the early Renaissance the funeral, or Requiem, mass, had become an elaborate affair. And many of the composers being presented this evening did, in fact, compose Requiem masses as part of their compositional duties, since most were employed at cathedrals where such masses would be frequent events. But most of this evening’s concert presents other forms of laments—usually chansons or motets. This was a period when forms of compositional expression were expanding. The chanson form, for example, was relatively new when taken up by Burgundian composers, particularly Dufay and Busnois, who used the form as the basis for a number of three or four-part works. Composers avidly adopted the motet as well, whose medieval origins were giving way to a wide range of polyphonic explorations.

But there’s more here. For one thing, these were some of the most famous composers of their time, writing laments for other famous—and often the most influential— composers of their time. And these were composers who were often in competition—albeit, often friendly competition—with each other. Often there was a mentoring relationship, as in the case of Willaert and Gabrieli, or an outright friendship, as between Dufay and Binchois. These were not perfunctory compositions. These were compositions that, in honoring the musical legacy of the departed, attempted to reflect and embody that legacy, as well as the composer’s own compositional abilities.

Moreover, there was a great deal of interaction among composers. They visited each other in a way that musicians one hundred years previously had not. Dufay, who was not particularly unusual in this regard, is known to have visited Laon, Bologna, Florence, Padua, Besancon, Geneva, Basle and Paris, and corresponded with the Medici family, the court at Ferrara, the Duke of d’Anjou, with Burgundian nobles and Italian bankers, and with fellow composers including Binchois, Ockeghem, Regis and the Florentine organist Antonio Squarcialupi—and yet still managed to spend half of his career at his home cathedral at Cambrai. He didn’t get to London, but London managed to get to him.

This period was an extraordinary interesting time to be composing, especially in the Franco-Flemish region. The 15th and early 16th centuries were a period of great experimentation with polyphonic forms, and Northern Europe was a center of this exploration. Following on the cantus firmus tradition developed by English composers in the late 14th and early 15thcenturies, composers adapted and expended the form in a burst of musical creativity. In fact, there was a whole range of musical interactions between England and France during this period—and between Italy and Bruges and Antwerp, and between Burgundy and Avignon. Music got everywhere now, simply because the means of spreading it had improved dramatically.

And while the cantus firmus model receded in importance during the 16th century, it remained a strong characteristic in Requiem masses and other lamentations. This was becoming an established method of honoring a composer—using his music as the basis for a new piece. It’s a tradition that has lasted.

Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474) Ave Regina coelorum 
Our first work by Dufay is unusual, and stands in contrast to most of our other presentations, in that Dufay wrote it for himself. It is a supplication to the Queen of Heaven to have mercy on him, extolling his own piety, and seeking to shorten his time in purgatory. Dufay wrote this work to be sung at his own deathbed. It’s not clear whether that actually occurred—rather, it appears to have been sung instead at the service the following day. Note that the Miserere occurs in each of the four stanzas. This antiphon also presaged the same composer’s Missae Ave regine coelorum, composed towards the end of his life. This work was actually composed in the 1460s, when it was entered into the choir book at Cambrai Cathedral, where Dufay spent much of his career. Dufay’s request that this be sung at his deathbed, famously stated in his will, was even more explicit—this prayer was to be sung by the choirboys and three men. This is a deeply poignant work, amplified by the minor mode if the piece.

Ave regina coelorum, 
Ave domina angelorum, 
 Miserere tui labentis 
 Dufay, ne peccatorum 
 ruat in ignem fervorum. 

Salve radix sancta, 
ex qua mundo lux est orta, 
 Miserere, miserere genetrix domini 
 ut pateat porta coeli debili. 

Gaude gloriosa, 
super omnes speciosa, 
 Miserere, miserere supplicanti 
 Dufay sitque in conspectu tuo 
 mors eius speciosa. 

Vale, valde decora, 
et pro nobis semper Christum exora, 
 In excelsis ne damnemur 
 miserere nobis et iuva, 
 ut in mortis hora 
 nostra sint corda decora.

Johannes Ockeghem (1425 – 1497)
Mort tu as navré de ton dart 

Ocheghem composed this lament for Gilles Binchois (1400-1460) shortly after the latter’s death in 1460. It is unclear whether Ockeghem actually knew Binchois—the only evidence supporting this notion is this piece, and a Mass based on one of Binchois’s chansons. But these practices were hardly unusual, so as evidence it’s not particularly compelling. Nonetheless, this lament clearly represents a respect and admiration for Binchois, with Ockeghem following the increasingly popular motif of incorporating lines from the works of the lamentee. In this piece, Ockeghem exercises his only four-part chanson in a déploration for Binchois, incorporating as the cantus a line from Binchois’s Dueil angoisseux lament—in fact, it appears in two places, at the opening of the counter-tenor, the highest voice, and in the cantus that begins the line Le père de joyeuseté. It is a work full of supplication—Prier pour l’ame (Pray for his Soul) occurs as a regular refrain. But it is also a work full of outright grief—Helas!, Ockeghem cries, plaise vous en pitie, he asks of Death.

Ockeghem was certainly the mentor of Busnois, however, and a vastly influential composer. Over his long career, Ockeghem held several important positions in both Tours, where he held an important administrative post, and for the Court in Paris as Maistre de chapelle de chant du roy, as which he was a highly prolific composer of masses. He was also a canon of Notre Dame in Paris while still in Tours—he covered a lot of ground. He was also renowned as a singer, especially in lower parts, which may account for the richness of these parts in his compositions. Like many of his composing contemporaries, Ockeghem lived a long time, and there is some speculation that his date of birth is actually closer to 1400 than 1425; one of the many laments written following his death complains that he did not live to reach 100.

Mort tu as navré de ton dart 
le père de joieuseté. 
En desployant ton estendart 
sur Binchois, patron de bonté. 
Son corps est plaint et lamenté 
 Qui gist soubs lame. 
Hélas! plaise vous en pitié. 
 Prier pour l’ame. 

Retoricque, se Dieu me gard. 
Son serviteur a regreté 
Musicque, par piteux regard. 
fait deul et noir a porté. 
Pleurez hommes de feaulté 
 L’homme sans blame: 
Vueillez vostre université. 
 Prier pour l’ame. 

En sa jeunesse fut soudart 
de honnorable mondanité. 
Puis a esleu la milleur part 
servant Dieu en humilité. 
Tant luy soit en crestienté 
son nom est fame, 
qui detient de grant voulenté. 
Prier pour l’ame. 

Cantus Firmus: 
Miserere, Miserere pie Jhesu 
domine dona ei requiem 
Quem in cruc redemisti 
precioso sanguine 
Pie Jhesu Domine dona ei requiem. 

Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474) En triumphant de cruel Dueil 
Dufay’s lament is fairly representative of the form of most of his songs, most of which reflect a late medieval style. It is a four part work in the form of a ballade, with a cantus firmus tenor bearing the melody. This work is often considered to be a lament for Binchois, although, as Reinhard Strohm has commented, “there does not seem to be a musical allusion to Binchois, and the textual quotation is rather hidden, which would make this a very private statement.”

En triumphant de Cruel Dueil, 
Dueil Angoisseux est mon accueil 
Et tout mon bien n’est que martire, 
Et ne saroie mon mal descripre 
Ne dire ce dont je me dueil. 

Triste Plaisir, mon seul recueil.
M’acompagneira a son vueil 

Et me fera plorer pour rire 
 En triumphant de Cruel Dueil: 
 [Dueil Angoisseux est mon accueil 
 Et tout mon bien n’est que martire.] 

La mort sera mon seul escueil 
Maiz que je soie en ung sercueil 
Prestement bouté, sans plus dire; 
N’autre ne quiers je avoir pour mire 
Pour m’avancer ce que plus vueil. 

 En triumphant de Cruel Dueil, 
 [Dueil Angoisseux est mon accueil 
 Et tout mon bien n’est que martire, 
 Et ne saroie mon mal descripre 
 Ne dire ce dont je me dueil.] 

Josquin des Prez (1450 – 1521) Nymphes des bois,   Absolve quaesumus 
Josquin’s gloomy Nymphes de bois is his arrangement of poet Jean Molinet’s déploration on Ockeghem’s death in 1497. Ockeghem may have been Josquin’s teacher and mentor, although evidence for this again apparently relies on some of Josquin’s early works that included a number of borrowings from Ockeghem. Nymphs, goddesses, fellow composers are all called on to mourn Ockeghem, that vrai trésorier de musique, which itself is a possibly playful reference to the fact that Ockeghem controlled the money at Paris and Tours. As Ockeghem had done in Mort tu as navré, Josquin uses a borrowed chant melody, the Requiem Aeternam, for the tenor cantus firmus line, which, much like Ockeghem’s, seems almost archaic with its long notes. Josquin has another homage in mind as well; perhaps in acknowledgement of Ockeghem’s legendary bass singing prowess, Josquin includes some aggressively lower registers in all five parts.

Nymphes des bois, déesses des fontaines,
Chantres experts de toutes nations, 
Changez voz voix tant clères et haultaines 
En cris trenchans et lamentations. 
Car Atropos, très terrible satrape, 
A vostre Ockeghem attrapé en sa trappe. 
Vrai trésorier de musique et chief d’œuvre, 
Doct, élégant de corps et non point trappe. 
Grant dommage est que la terre le couvre. 
Acoustrez vous d’habits de deuil 
Josquin, Pierson, Brumel, Compère, 
Et plourez grosses larmes d’œul : 
Perdu avez vostre bon père. 
Requiescat in pace. Amen. 

Absolve quaesumus, another motet for five voices, is unusual in many respects. First of all, it has no specific object of veneration—rather there is a space for someone’s name to be inserted. There are, unsurprisingly, various theories over who the work would have been in honor of, ranging from Obrecht to Philip the Fair, who died in 1506. However, since a definite name is not known, the dating of this piece remains problematic. This is a chanson, like Nymphes des bois, and a very funereal one at that, a prayer for the absolution of the soul. The structure of this piece resembles that of Nymphes, in its use of Requiem Aeternam in the cantus firmus tenor line, and in its envoi, set apart from the main body of the piece in its style and solemnity.

Absolve quaesumus, Domine, 
animam famuli tui [NN], 
ab omni vincula delictorum; 
Ut in resurrectionis gloria, 
inter sanctos et electos tuos 
resuscitatus respiret. 
Per Christum Dominum nostrum, Amen. 
Requiescat in pace. Amen. 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, 
Et lux perpetua luceat eis. 


Nicolas Gombert (1495 – 1560)
Musae Jovis 

Gombert occupies a historical position somewhere between Josquin and Palestrina, and it has been suggested that this is one reason why Gombert’s work is often overlooked. During his lifetime, however, he occupied several important musical positions, including maitre des enfants of the chapel choir for Charles V in Spain, and later canon at the Cathedral of Tournai. Unlike most of the pieces in tonight’s performance, this work ends on an optimistic note—Josquin entering Jove’s presence in triumph. Nonetheless, the work is characterized by a certain dissonance as a tool for expressing grief. Musae Jovis appears to have been composed in the 1530s, well after Josquin’s death in 1521, and is based on a poem by Jean Geerhart. It nonetheless has certain “earlier” attributes, especially the Circumdederunt me tenor cantus firmus line, with its long notes beginning on E rather than the expected F, a technique used by Josquin in Nymphes des bois. Gombert used the cantus firmus technique only rarely, which simply reinforces the importance of its use here.

Gombert produced a wide range of music, including masses, motets (about 140 of which remain, and for which he is particularly known), other large polychoral works, and a number of chansons. And while Gombert’s ambitious use of imitation engendered admiration from other composers of the period, it did not survive well the dictates of the Council of Trent in the 1540s, which was to a great extent responsible for the simplification of liturgical music that followed. Gombert’s music still represents some of the most ambitious polyphony of the period.

Musae Jovis ter maximi
 Proles, canora plangite, 
Comas cypressus comprimat: 
Josquinus ille occidit, 
Templorum decus 
Et vestrum decus. 

Saevera mors et improba, 
Quae templa dulcibus sonis 
Privat, et aulas principum, 
Malum tibi quod imprecer 
Tollenti bonos, 
Parcenti malis. 

 Apollo sed neccem tibi 
Minatur, heus, mors pessima: 
Musas hortatur addere 
[Instructus arcu et spiculis 
(Musasque ut addent commonet)] 
Et laurum comis 
Et aurum comis. 

Josquinus (inquit) optimo
Et maximo gratus Jovi, 
Triumphat inter caelites 
Et dulce carmen concinit, 
Templorum decus, 
Musarum decus. 

 Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis 
Dolores inferni circumdederunt me.

Josquin des Prez (1450 – 1521)
Ave Maria 

This is probably Josquin’s most famous motet, a prayer to the Virgin for her mercy. In this piece, Josquin appears to have nearly perfected his compositional style, with its canonical opening, followed by more harmonic inter-weavings and temporal changes. Written around 1485, it’s a relatively early work in Josquin’s canon—in fact, it appears to be his earliest dateable work. It’s not strictly a lament as such—there is no one being memorialized. It is, however, a highly representative example of why so many of his contemporaries wrote laments in Josquin’s name. This piece was so popular several other composers, including Ludwig Senfl, wrote parody versions of it, and in this instance Ludwig Daster (1525-1589) took Josquin’s four-part original and turned it into a six-part work, the one we are performing this evening.

Ave Maria, Gratia plena,
Dominus tecum, Virgo serena. 
Ave, cuius Conceptio, 
Solemni plena gaudio, 
Caelestia, Terrestria, 
Nova replet laetitia. 
Ave, cuius Nativitas 
Nostra fuit solemnitas, 
Ut lucifer lux oriens 
Verum solem praeveniens. 
Ave pia humilitas, 
Sine viro fecunditas, 
Cuius Annuntiatio
Nostra fuit salvatio. 

Ave vera virginitas,

mmaculata castitas, 
Cuius Purificatio 
Nostra fuit purgatio. 
Ave, praeclara omnibus 
Angelicis virtutibus, 
Cuius Assumptio 
Nostra fuit glorificatio. 
O Mater Dei, 
Memento mei. Amen.

Hieronymus Vinders (16th century) O mors inevitabilis 
Little is known about Vinders, who was employed in Ghent in the 1520s, but who left behind snatches of some marvelous music. His only surviving music consists of a number of choral pieces, the most famous of which is O mores inevitabilis. Written on the death of Josquin, with whom Vinders may have been a student, it is for seven voices, an unusually large number of parts. Vinders combines two plainchant cantus firmi with a text drawn from an inscription on a monument to Josquin that stood in Brussels at the time. It is often performed with Gombert’s Musae Jovis, as in this performance. This is sad music written to go with a sad text. One of Vinders’s masses, Missa Stabat Mater, was based explicitly on one of Josquin’s motets.

O mors inevitabilis,
 Mors amara, mors crudelis, 
Josquin des Prez dum necasti, 
Illum nobis abstulisti, 
Qui suam per harmoniam 
Illustravit ecclesiam. 
Propterea tu musice 
Dic requiescat in pace. Amen.

Cantus firmus: 
 Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, 
 Et lux perpetua luceat eis. 

Jean Richafort (1480 – 1547)
Requiem in memoriam Josquin Desprez 
The only full Requiem mass in tonight’s performance, Richafort’s Requiem (Missa pro defunctis), written in honor of Josquin, beautifully typifies the full Requiem masses of the period. Richafort himself occupied important musical posts in both France and in Bruges, and may have actually studied with Josquin. Much of his music has survived, including a number of motets, in addition to two masses, of which this is one. Richafort’s debt to Josquin is obvious, and he freely acknowledges it, including parody elements in each of the mass movements. The opening builds majestically, with a gradual unfolding of lines and harmonies; then we move to a faster section during the Gradual, after which the intensity again escalates in the Offertory, again with some clashing harmonies. These are the two longest sections of the Requiem, and carry the weight of the piece. And while each movement is based on plainchant, the Mass is also based on one specific work by Josquin, Nymphes, nappés (also based on plainsong melodies.) There are also allusions to several other Josquin works, as well as those of Gombert and Vinders. Our performance of the mass closes with a contemplative Communio. Richafort’s influence was significant—many of his contemporaries, including Mouton, Morales, Gombert and Palestrina, based some of their own masses on Richafort’s music.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, 
et lux perpetua luceat eis. 

Circumdeferunt me gemitus mortis; 
Dolores inferni circumdeferunt me. 

Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion, 
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem. 
Exaudi orationem meam; 
ad te omnis caro veniet.

Si ambulem in medio umbrae mortis, 
Non timebo mala; 
Quoniam tu mecum es, Domine. 

Virga tua et baculus tuus, 
Ipsa me consolata sunt. 

 C’est douleur non pareille.

Domine Iesu Christe, Rex gloriæ, 
libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum 
de pœnis inferni et de profundo lacu. 
Libera eas de ore leonis, 
ne absorbeat eas tartarus, 
ne cadant in obscurum; 
sed signifer sanctus Michael 
repræsentet eas in lucem sanctam, 
quam olim Abrahæ promisisti et semini eius. 

Hostias et preces tibi, Domine,
laudis offerimus; 

tu suscipe pro animabus illis, 
quarum hodie memoriam facimus. 
Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam. 
Quam olim Abrahæ promisisti et semini eius. 

Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine, 
cum sanctis tuis in æternum,
quia pius es. 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, 
Et lux perpetua luceat eis; 
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum: 
Quia pius es.

Jacobus Vaet (1529 – 1567) Continuo lacrimas (in mortem Clemens non Papa)
Surprisingly little of Vaet’s music is currently in catalog, despite his significant role at the end of the Franco-Flemish period, including his appointment as Kappelmeister to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who presided over one of the most musically active courts in Europe. (Maximilian had married Maria of Burgundy, hence the Burgundian connection.) He was best known for his motets during his lifetime, apparently composing over 70 of them. He was also known for his tendency towards parody works, both of his own compositions and those of others, including Josquin, Jean Mouton, Clemens non Papa and Christian Rore, among others. This piece, a lament for the passing of his good friend Clemens non Papa, borrows from Clemens. The exact circumstances of Clemens’ death are unknown, but the text of Continuo lacrimas implies some ambiguity, and whether the implications of violence are real or metaphorical remains unknown. Note also that Vaet’s piece was actually written several years after Clemens’ death, which apparently occurred in 1555 or 1556; Vaet’s text dates from 1558. Vaet uses the introit from the Gregorian Requiem Mass, Requiem aeternam, as the cantus firmus for this piece. Vaet’s own (premature) death inspired musical tributes from a number of composers, including Jakob Handl and Antonius Galli.

Continuo lacrimas cantores, fundite fluxu, 
nam periit vestri lausque decusque chori. 
Est nimis inclemens vis ac violentia fati, 
Quae tam clementi parcere dura negat. 
Clementem tamen omnipotens
Deus ipse juvabit 

Ut mortem vincat, qui nece victus erat. 

Cantus firmus: 
 Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine 
et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Andrea Gabrieli (1532 – 1585)
Sopra la morte d’Adriano 

Gabrieli, like Vaet, was born some 140 years after the birth of Dufay, and the compositional style that he embodies represents a significant distance from Dufay. We’re in a different era here—the later Renaissance is in full flower, and the Italian style that Gabrieli embodies has replaced the Franco-Flemish style that has dispersed following the absorption of Burgundy into France. Northern influences are still there, particularly that of Lassus, whom Gabrieli met and became friends with on his 1562 journey to Germany. Still, Gabrieli, under Adrian Willaert’s influence, moved away from the contrapuntal style associated with Franco-Flemish composers into the more open, mixed choral/instrumental combinations that came to embody the Venetian school at St. Mark’s, where Gabrieli held the post of organist. Willaert introduced, and Gabrieli furthered, the antiphonal style, where composers wrote for two facing and often alternating choirs.

Sopra la morte d’Adriano is Gabrieli’s setting of a poem written by Anonio Molino on the death of Willaert, who was Gabrieli’s teacher, and the maestro di capella at St. Mark’s from 1527 to 1562. The poem is interesting in its use of greghesca, a mixture of Venetian dialect and Greek—it comes from a volume of pieces written by Molino under a pseudonym, Manoli Blessi, for which Molina created the fantasy language (and an appropriate pseudonym.) A number of composers accepted Molino’s invitation to set these pieces to music. Gabrieli in fact set several, including this work, and also dedicated his second volume of madrigals to Molino.

Text— from Di Manoli Blessi il primo libro delle greghesche, Venice, 1564, Antonio Molino

Sassi, palae, sabbion, del Adriano lio;
Alleghe, zonichi, herbazi chie la stèu;
Velme, palu, barene, chie scundèu;
L’orstregha, ‘l cappa e’l passerin polio;
E vui del valle pesci e d’ogni rio
E del mar, grandi e pizuli chie sèu;
Scombri, chieppe, sardun, chie drio tirèu;
Le syrene, dunzell’e ch’a Mario.

E vu, fiume, chie deu tribute al mari,
Piave, Ladese, Po, Suil, Brenta et Ogio,
Vegni cha tutti canti a lagrimari
La Morte d’Ardian, del chal me dogio,
Chie no’l porà mie versi plio lustrari
Cu’l dulce canto dchie rumpre ogni scogio.
O megà los cordigio!
Del mundo tutto, Chy serà mo chello
Chie in armonia del par vaga cun ello?