top of page

A Methodist Renaissance

November 2013

TVEMF’s autumn programme began with a singing day in Oxford on 7th September, under the inimitable direction of David Allinson. The Wesleyan Methodist Church Hall (next to St Peter’s College, where David studied as an undergraduate) is perhaps not a venue which one would immediately perceive as being imbued with the spirit of the Marian motet, but this cultural disjunct (if such it be) did not in any way detract from our enjoyment of the programme which he had selected.

The composers represented, in order of birth, were Josquin (ca 1450-1521), Mouton (ca 1459-1522) and Gombert (ca 1495-1556/61). This, as David told us, was a period during which, especially in the output of composers who had spent considerable time in Italian establishments (as did Josquin) or the French royal court (as did Mouton) the motet displaced the Mass as the primary form of liturgical music; see Leeman Perkins, Music in the Age of the Renaissance, (Norton, 1999) at p.508, who remarks, rather disparagingly, that such composers “apparently gave greater attention (if not greater care) to motet composition”. The sacred music of all three of these composers is dominated by the motet. The list of works compiled by Peter Urquhart for the Josquin Companion contains 95 motets and 20 masses; over 160 motets, about a quarter of which are Marian, are attributed to Gombert, whereas only ten of his masses survive in complete form, and Mouton, almost equally prolific, is credited by the New Grove with about 100 motets and 20 masses.

Out of this wealth of material David selected Gabriel nuntiavit by Gombert; Ave Maria…virgo serena by Mouton and three motets by Josquin, praeter rerum seriem, stabat Mater dolorosa and inviolata, integra et casta. The authenticity of works attributed to Josquin continues to be the subject of lively debate, but all three of these are in the central group of fifteen motets which John Milsom describes, in his study of Josquin’s motets for five or more voices (Josquin Companion, pp.282-320) as “pieces that might serve as touchstones against which all others can be mentioned”. In the course of identifying the misattributions and opera dubia he recounts at p.308 the remark of Georg Forster made in 1540 that [he remembers] “a certain eminent man saying that, now Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive”. This posthumous activity appears to have been, at least in part, the work of German publishers peddling compositions of doubtful provenance or actual forgeries under his name so that they would sell more readily.

We began with the Gombert piece, in David’s own edition, scored for SSATB. David gave us a brief sketch of his life. He may have been a pupil of Josquin, on whose death (says the New Grove) he composed a deploration. He was a singer in the court chapel of the Emperor Charles V, became maître des enfants in 1529 and was appointed a canon of Tournai cathedral in 1530. Around 1540, he disappears from the record for a while. The source of the story that he was condemned to the galleys for violating a boy who was in the emperor’s service is a book entitled Theonostos by the physician Girolamo Cardano (Jerome Cardan); however, his “swan-songs” (not identified with certainty) induced Charles to rehabilitate him and award him a benefice. Cardano, a Renaissance polymath of considerable stature, had musical interests; among his many published works, which embraced mathematics (he was one of the founders of probability theory and supplemented his earnings as a physician by gambling), astronomy and medicine, was a treatise entitled De Musica which was published posthumously. Cardano’s own career mirrors Gombert’s in a curious way; late in life he was accused of heresy for having cast the horoscope of Jesus and for having written a book in praise of the Emperor Nero; he was briefly imprisoned, but eventually rehabilitated and granted a pension by Pope Gregory XIII.

A contemporary, Hermann Finck, said of Gombert in Poetica Musica (1556) :-
   “he shows all musicians the path, nay more, the exact way to refinement, and the requisite imitative style. He composes music altogether different from what went before; for he avoids pauses, and his work is rich with imitative counterpoint”

One can see this in Gabriel nuntiavit; while the cantus firmus on the usual Ave Maria, gratia plena text is being carried by Cantus II, the other four voices display the imitative counterpoint in pairs, tenor imitating bass and Cantus I imitating altus, though the motifs are varied sufficiently to avoid exact imitation. The writing is fairly syllabic with short melismatic passages. Muriel Hall has kindly provided the following translation of the text:-
   Gabriel proclaimed to Mary, faithfully delivering his message, ‘Hail, exalted one, full of salvation, the grace of the Most High will be sent from heaven into your inmost parts, in the presence of a throng of angels.’ The overshadowing of the Spirit operates unseen; the Mother, the childbearing Virgin, recognises the birth in the mystic dew. Fairest Virgin, bring us help, Lady of the faithful, direct all things, o wisest one.

Dew (noverat nasci rore mystico) is a well-known aspect of Marian symbolism, familiar to us (as Muriel reminds me) from the text Rorate caeli desuper, which is used as the introit for votive masses to Mary during Advent, and the mediaeval carol I sing of a maiden that is makeless (entitled “As dew in Aprille” in Britten’s Ceremony of Carols). Some of us may also remember studying Josquin’s motet Ut Phoebi radiis with John Milsom in March 2013; there, the reference to the dew on Gideon’s fleece (Judges vi, vv. 36-40) has been seen as a prefiguration of Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Ghost (William Elders, Symbolism in the Sacred Music, in the Josquin Companion, p.548) and has also been associated with the Annunciation, the feast for which Gabriel nuntiavit was composed.

Gustave Reese has said of Josquin that “Splendid as are Josquin’s chansons and Masses, it is in his motets that his art is seen at its greatest” (Music in the Renaissance, Dent, 1954). Following the very substantial Gombert opening number, we moved on to one of Josquin’s finest motets, praeter rerum seriem (SATTBB) which fully exemplifies Reese’s comment; remarkably, we had a sufficient number of tenors and basses to divide both voices. It may be that TVEMF is following the recently reported trend (Times, September 26) of large mammal species with low voices (the European bison, grey wolf and brown bear were mentioned) towards coming back from the brink of extinction.

Praeter rerum seriem is sometimes assigned to the Annunciation, alternatively to the Assumption or to Christmas, but the text focuses on the mystery, rather than the announcement, of the virgin birth. Its structure demonstrates Reese’s observation that “in Josquin’s motets, replacing of the old cantus firmus techniques by the device of pervading imitation, that is, by a series of fugue-like expositions, gets well under way”; the cantus firmus in the first part (praeter rerum seriem, parit Deum hominem) is in the soprano and tenor II parts, but by bar 15 the writing has become contrapuntal with the voices dividing into three upper and three lower for nec vir tangit virginem, nec prolis originem before recombining to end the first part with novit pater. Towards the end of the secunda pars, the writing becomes chordal with constantly changing combinations of three voices answering each other for Dei providentia, quam disponit omnia…tua puerperia, transfer in mysteria before uniting for the final salutation, mater ave.

Those two motets took up the pre-lunch session, and we resumed with the second of the Josquin pieces, stabat mater dolorosa (SA[T]TB), in which the middle part is the tenor of Gilles de Binchois’ chanson Comme femme decomfortee, evoking the image of Mary at the foot of the Cross. The editorial note referring to it in the Josquin Anthology edited by Ross W Duffin states that “the part is so sustained that it has been left without text; singers should vocalise on a neutral vowel”. The first tenors were spared the experience of 91 bars of neutral vocalisation, the part being played instead by Richard Whitehouse and Janice Waight. The Mouton Ave Maria…virgo serena (SATTB) is a very substantial work (at 189 bars, the longest item in the programme by some distance). It portrays Mary in an aspect quite different from that of the preceding three pieces, all of which were to do with events in her life; the Mouton motet, with its tracts of pastoral imagery, celebrates her attributes-her supreme sweetness, piety, and gentleness, her accessibility and her role as intercessor. As David said, the music is not word-painting, but an enactment of those attributes. One would, however, like to know the identity of that Theophilus who, in bars 118-132, was brought to grace out of the depths of filth and misery. We returned to Mouton after the tea-beak, but by the time we had rendered it to David’s satisfaction, only 20 minutes or so remained, during which we had a quick run through the remaining item, the five-part (SATTB) inviolata, integra et casta es. John Milsom (Josquin Companion, p.300) compares this to the stabat mater-which, he says “relies upon simple declamation, [while] the other (inviolata) spends most of its time in dazzling roulades of melisma, as if to clothe the Virgin in the musical equivalent of the flowing robes so favoured by the painters and sculptors of that day”. Time did not permit an in-depth exploration of the canonic ingenuity to which John refers elsewhere in that passage, but we did get a taste of its exuberance.

What more can one say, except to congratulate the guiding spirits of TVEMF on having induced David to direct this event, and David himself for having assembled a programme of such varied magnificence and steering us through it with all the erudition and good humour which we have come to expect. In the latter regard, the relatively new gastronomic simile of the hot sausage breath is a welcome addition to the predominantly confectionery-based menu which has evolved in the past. Warm thanks are also due to Nicola Wilson-Smith for having organised the event, and to all those unidentified volunteers who performed the essential ancillary tasks of the day.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

bottom of page