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Unpredictability day

September 2013

Forty-three singers, seven instrumentalists and seven versatile souls prepared to participate in either capacity came to St Sepulchre, Holborn on Saturday June 15th for a day devoted to the works of Lassus under the direction of Patrick Allies, whom we were delighted to welcome for the first time. The programme was selected so as to give us a view of the range of Lassus’ compositions and to demonstrate his amazing versatility. In the course of introducing the programme, Patrick also remarked on the unpredictability which is a prominent feature of Lassus’ compositions, which gave rise to an observation from one of the singers that we would no doubt provide some unpredictability of our own; which in turn led your reviewer to ponder, along Rumsfeldian lines, whether we would be the source of predictable unpredictability while the music itself was unpredictably unpredictable, or would it be the other way round?

Lassus (1532-94) was born at Mons in Hainault, and soon became widely travelled; by the time he was 22 he had been to Mantua and then Milan, in the service of Ferrante de Gonzaga, to Naples and then to Rome, where he became maestro di cappella at St John Lateran. Following the death of his parents he spent a short time in Antwerp, where his first book of five and six part motets was published in 1556. In that year he was invited to join the court of Duke Albrect V of Bavaria in Munich, and although in later years he journeyed to Frankfurt, Venice, Vienna, Trent, Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna and Rome, he refused all invitations to leave Munich. Indeed he made something of a parade of what might be called his “provincialism”, reminding the Italians, in the dedication of his fourth book of five-part madrigals, that “good Italian music could be written even in far-off ’Germania’ ”.

Lassus, as well as being versatile, was incredibly prolific. His sacred music includes over fifty masses, 101 Magnificat settings, a large number of other liturgical works including four Passions, and several hundred motets. His secular works include almost 100 lieder, 150 chansons and an even larger number of madrigals. Unlike his great (but considerably less prolific) predecessor Josquin, there is relatively little controversy about attribution, due largely, no doubt, to the fact that the bulk of his work found its way into print relatively soon after it was composed. The New Grove lists over eighty compilations printed during his lifetime, and the posthumous compilations include the massive Magnum opus musicum in twelve volumes, containing 516 motets. Magnum opus musicum, which was published in Munich ten years after his death, was assembled by his two sons, both of whom held positions at the Bavarian court from the 1580s onwards.

The first item of the programme was the Kyrie (SATTB) from the Missa Entre vous filles. No doubt it was thought impolitic for the title to reproduce the entire first line of the chanson by Clemens non papa on which it was based (Entre vous filles de quinze ans), the text of which advises those fifteen year old girls not to come to the fountain lest their obvious attractions should cause the singer to lose control. The prevalence of sexual innuendo in the chansons on which parody masses were often based no doubt gave impetus to the determination of the Council of Trent to eliminate the secular element from liturgical music; the activities of clergy and other authority figures featured prominently in that genre. A striking example of this is the parody mass Susanne un jour, published in 1577 and based on Lassus’ own chanson published in 1560 which recounts the tale of Susanna and the Elders (sometimes described as the world’s first detective story) in which Daniel, through the discrepancies in the Elders’ evidence, unmasks their duplicity in accusing her of immoral conduct. This episode is recounted in chapter 13 of the book of Daniel, which appears in the Douai-Rheims bible but not the King James version.

Next came a Marian motet for SSATBarB, Regina coeli, which necessitated some rearrangement of forces, particularly as the baritone part lies considerably higher than the tenor, reaching F on several occasions, whereas the tenor only for one fleeting minim goes above C. In contrast to the mass just mentioned, Regina coeli contains a good deal of melismatic writing. This would no doubt have attracted the disapproval of the Council of Trent, which was also committed to greater intelligibility - indeed, Lassus’ contemporary, Vincenzo Ruffo, published a set of Masses in 1571 “according to Conciliar decree”, avoiding “everything of a profane and idle nature” and composed so that “the numbers of the syllables and the voices and tones together should be distinctly understood by the pious listeners”.

However, Duke Albrecht was no religious zealot and Lassus, according to the New Grove, is known to have been stubborn about changing things in Munich to conform with new ideas coming from Rome. Where Lassus resorted to a syllabic style, this was often dictated by court requirements for a brief Mass, and the third item on our programme was the Gloria from the shortest of them all, the four-part Missa Venatorum, for use on days when the court went hunting. It appears that the quarry would get about twelve minutes’ start. In the 43 bars of the Gloria there are only four where there is more than one note to a syllable.

Next came Omnes de saba venient, for 2 x SATB, the Gradual and Offertory from the Mass of the Epiphany. There is little melismatic writing in this piece, but after the declamatory opening announcing the arrival of the kings, it becomes quite light and playful as it depicts the offering of the gifts of the kings of Tharsis and of the isles, of Arabia and Saba (gold and incense, but, unlike the Magi, no myrrh) before swelling into the long climax of the 14-bar Alleluia with which it ends. This was followed by the other polychoral item in the programme, the Sanctus from the Missa Bell’ Amfitrite altera. The source on which this Mass, published in 1610, is not known, but it may be that the title alludes to Venetian maritime supremacy, since in early Greek mythology, Amphitrite was the wife of Poseidon, and later poets (for example, Ovid) used her name as a personification of the sea. As in Omnes de Saba, there is little syllabic writing but the texture is constantly changing as the two choirs coalesce and divide.

The sixth item was the only piece of secular music in the programme, the chanson Bonjour, mon coeur for SATB with text by Lassus’ contemporary Pierre Ronsard (1524-87), generally regarded as the chief of the group of French Renaissance poets known as La Pleiade which also included Joachim du Bellay. Leeman Perkins (Music in the Age of the Renaissance, Norton, 1999, at p.938) says of this piece that “with only minor deviations the work’s texture and declamation are consistently homophonic and both prosody and syntax are reflected in the clearly articulated structure of the music”. The poet’s greeting to his love is adoring and respectful (ma toute belle, ma mignardise…mes delices, mon amour) and devoid of any overt sexual connotation.

We then returned to the Ordinary of the Mass. Having sung a Kyrie, a Gloria and a Sanctus from Masses in three contrasting styles, we were introduced to the Agnus Dei from the five-part Missa Pro Defunctis, published in 1589. This mass is based on plainchant and has the curious feature that there are bass intonations of the words “Agnus Dei” after each section of the text - those words are not sung by the choir at all. It may be that it was composed for the funeral of Duke Albrecht V, who died in 1579, though there is another (four-part) Missa Pro Defunctis published in 1584.

This diverse and fascinating programme ended with one of Lassus’ most famous motets, the six-part (SAATTB) Timor et tremor, published in 1564. The word- painting, though economical, is expressive throughout, from the initial musical realisation of the fear and trembling that has come over the petitioner, to the final calling upon the Lord that he shall never be confounded - twelve bars of rhythmic contrasts to picture the confusion, then the texture broadens into a C major chord, followed by a crunch between the Cs and Ds in the two alto parts before the triumphant G major chord which brings an end to the confusion. All in all, an immensely enjoyable and rewarding day spent in exploring the work of a major Renaissance composer who has not, as far as your reviewer’s recollection goes, featured to any noticeable extent in recent TVEMF events. It was a great pleasure to be directed by Patrick for the first time, and our warmest thanks are due to him for guiding us with patience and good humour through a demanding programme, to David King for organising the event and to David Fletcher for organising the music. Thanks also to all the unnamed volunteers who checked us in, made name tags available, provided and dispensed refreshments, and cleared up.

Finally your reviewer tenders his apologies for any errors and omissions as well as the fact that the review is an issue late. This was due to a computer crash the day before the original review was due to be submitted, causing a total loss of the script, which was about 80% complete at the time. Fortunately, with the aid of the manuscript notes and the music itself, it has been possible to reconstruct the bulk of what had been lost without undue difficulty.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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