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Peripheral penitence

July 2016

Trawling through my archive, I came across the first review that I wrote for Tamesis about an event at the United Reformed Church, Ickenham. It took place on 26 April 2008, was directed by David Allinson, and explored the work of some composers whom he described as inhabiting the liminal area between Josquin and Willaert. On 25 June 2016, we went on another expedition with David, this time to a geographically peripheral, rather than a compositionally liminal area.

Portugal, from its days of maritime power, colonial expansion and monopoly of the spice trade enjoyed (says the New Grove) a considerable musical interchange with Spain and Italy, and that same source tells us that Portuguese composers favoured the parody mass, often using Palestrina as their model. John III of Portugal (reigned 1521-57) was a patron of music and schools of composition existed at Coimbra and Evora. However, the great flowering of Portuguese sacred music took place not in the days of its power and prosperity, but in the century which included sixty years of subjection to Spain following its defeat at the battle of Alcantara in 1580 and saw its economic decline. Nevertheless, nourished by the teaching of Manuel Mendez (1547-1605), a leading figure at Evora, and the patronage of the duke of Braganza (later John IV of Portugal, who reigned from 1640-56, and was himself a composer), a galaxy of composers, three of whom, all remarkably long-lived, were represented in David’s programme, produced a substantial body of sacred music.

However, just as he did eight years ago with the almost unknown Philip van Wilder, David produced another rabbit out of the hat with the even more obscure Aires Fernandez, who is mentioned in the New Grove in a list of ‘other leading sixteenth-century composers…none of [whom] cultivated a style that was distinctly national’.
According to the website, nothing is known about him except that he lived at the end of the sixteenth/beginning of the seventeenth century and that such of his few works as survive have been preserved as manuscripts from the Royal Monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, now in the University library there.

We began the programme with his six-part motet (SSAATB) circumdederunt me dolores mortis; the text is from psalm xviii, vv. 4-5. The idea of being compassed about by the pains of death is conveyed by the voices in succession singing the opening motif until, by bar 6, all six parts are engaged, shortly after which the pains of death become the pains of hell, expressed in a short homophonic passage with major/minor shifts. The pains of death then continue their encompassment in a more rapidly moving section, after which the second theme of the text is introduced with the laying hold on the unfortunate victim (praeocuperaverunt me) by the snares of death (laquei mortis) which are pictured in a sequence of descending figures, quietly but relentlessly entrapping the victim and dragging him to his inevitable death, the second altos playing a particularly conspicuous role in the final stages of that process. On the Hyperion recording released in 1994 the work takes 2 minutes 45 seconds to perform, and your reviewer would lay a small wager that there is no other work extant which has packed so much human despair, with such consummate workmanship, into less than three minutes. As David said, it is a little masterpiece-though perhaps not to be recommended to persons of a nervous disposition.

Project Fear continued with unabated vigour in the second item of the programme, Felipe de Magalhães’ six-part (again, SSAATB) Commissa mea pavesco in which the sinner is awaiting judgment with no doubt justified trepidation. Felipe de Magalhães was born near Evora in or about 1571 and died in Lisbon in 1652. His brief biography in the New Grove portrays a life of unbroken success, from being Mendez’ favourite pupil at Evora to his retirement in 1641 from the post of mestre of the royal chapel, on his full annual salary of 80,000 reis and five motos of wheat. His works include Cantum ecclesiasticum for 3-5 voices, an eight-part mass, and six motets for five or six voices.

The motet begins with a firm statement of the transgressions (commissa) followed by increasingly melismatic passages illustrating the onset of fear (pavesco). David drew our attention to the mirror shapes which pervade the piece, an interval in one voice being followed by its mirror image. This happens in the very first bar where the interval E-C in A1 on the syllables com-mis is overlapped by E-G in S1 and the figure is then promptly repeated in reverse order by S2 and A2.. The volume is turned up in a mainly homophonic section depicting the sinner before the judgment seat, beginning to blush at the memory of his transgressions. So far, all is fear and trembling, but his final plea for leniency (noli me condemnare) is infused with defiance-as David said, when encouraging us to produce the appropriate stridently nasal vowel in condemnare, it is meant to be a snarl, not a cup of tea with the vicar.

After lunch, we turned our attention to Manuel Cardoso. The date of his baptism is recorded as 11 December 1566 and he died in Lisbon in 1650. He was enrolled in the choir school at Evora and, like de Magalhães, was taught by Manuel Mendez. He secured the patronage of the future John IV, dedicating his first book of masses (published in 1625) and a collection of motets to him. The parody masses in his first book are all based on motets by Palestrina, but those in the second book (published 1636) are based on motets by John himself. We first sang the Agnus Dei I (SATB) and II (SSATB) from his Missa Veni Domine, which David (from whose edition we sang) described as ‘dark and wintry’. The additional voice in Agnus Dei II (S2) sings the text veni Domine et noli tardare throughout, while the remaining four voices develop the usual dona nobis pacem theme. We then had a fairly brief encounter with the Kyrie from Cardoso’s Requiem (SSAATB, but with the Christe in four parts, SSAT) and with the chant in the upper parts.

The last composer represented in the programme was Duarte Lobo (ca. 1565-1646). Another of Mendez’ pupils, he became maestro di capilla at Evora before taking up a series of posts in Lisbon. The New Grove says of him that he was ‘one of the leading Portuguese exponents of the polyphonic style, notable in particular for the ease with which he combined mastery of learned counterpoint with refined and expressive interpretation of the texts’. The motet pater peccavi (SSATB), with its text from the parable of the prodigal son, is a short and powerful expression of the prodigal’s self-abasement, beginning quite slowly and broadly to set the scene, but gathering pace after et coram te, peccavi, with more rapidly moving and ascending phrases in the lower three voices as he finally confesses his unworthiness to be called his father’s son.

Penitence was presented in a different context by the final item of the programme, an extract from Cardoso’s Lamentations for Maundy Thursday, the text being Lamentations i., vv.6-7. Here it is the impoverishment and desolation of Jerusalem which is being expressed, though there is a brief touch, almost of levity, in the depiction of her princes becoming like rams, but the funereal atmosphere is soon restored as they are unable to find pasture and flee without strength. The setting of v.7 conveys a profound sense of loss and isolation as the enemies of Jerusalem mock her in her weakness. The day concluded with a reprise of the three motets, circumdederunt me, commissa mea and pater peccavi.

This was another of the highly successful events which have taken place at Ickenham and, once again, we are deeply indebted to David for a fascinating and informative tour through a very much neglected tract of the musical landscape. Warmest thanks are also due to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising the event, David Fletcher for producing the music, and the providers of refreshments.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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