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Emulation and Invention in Renaissance Polyphony


Boston Early Music Festival’s concert with Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars on March 27 in St. Paul’s Church, Harvard Square was crafted to demonstrate both the biographical interconnections among Flemish composers of the High Renaissance and the variety of compositional approaches available to them within the confines of sacred vocal polyphony.

Singer-composers from Flanders and northern France dominated high-art music in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Trained in the art of complex polyphony in choir schools of the major cathedrals and collegiate churches of the north, they fanned out across Europe to staff court chapels and cathedral choirs in France, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Known to each other more often than not, these elite musicians honored one another through a practice of assiduous emulation and competition. Basing a new composition on an existing work paid homage to an older colleague and at the same time demonstrated one’s skill at adaptation and invention.

A three-voice chanson, Dittez moy toutes voz pensees (“Tell me all your thoughts”), by Loyset Compère opened the program and provided the title for the concert. A rondeau refrain in the late Burgundian courtly tradition, its four short lines were set to long sinuous lines artfully sung by two altos and a tenor. One of the leading chanson and motet composers of the late 15th century, Compère served Galeazzo Maria Sforza in Milan in the 1470s, then the French king, Charles VIII, and accompanied when he invaded Italy in 1494. The slightly younger French composer Jean Mouton also served at the French court, accompanying Francis I at his meeting with Pope Leo X in 1515, and at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. (No self-respecting ruler of the Renaissance could hope to make an impressive appearance without his attending musicians.)

Mouton based an entire Mass Ordinary cycle on the tenor melody of Compère’s chanson. Here eight singers – two on a part — were engaged in four-voice polyphony, the top part sung by male and female alto representing the male falsettos of a Renaissance choir. Employing a more forthright tone than some early-music choirs, the Tallis singers nevertheless skillfully brought out the contrast between the sparsely-texted, melismatic Kyrie and the declamatory “Gloria” and “Credo,” with its hushed chords on the words “Ex Maria Virgine.” Further textural contrast was provided by the duets in the “Benedictus” and three-voice sections in the “Pleni sunt coeli” and “Agnus Dei,” which Phillips assigned to solo voices.

Nicolas Gombert was a singer in the court chapel of the emperor Charles V from 1526 to 1540. Much admired by his contemporaries for his densely-written polyphony based on pervading imitations, he may have been a pupil of Josquin Des Prez. In his eight Magnificat settings, odd-numbered verses are sung to one of the traditional “Magnificat” chant tones (Tone II in this case), while polyphony, consisting of interlocking points of imitation based thematically on the chant tone, takes over the even-numbered verses in a series of six mini-motets. Here the choir included sopranos as the highest part, a welcome contrast in tone color to the low tessitura of the Mouton Mass. Another kind of contrast appeared in the crystalline transparency of an “Ave Maria” by Josquin, an early work from around 1480 famous for the perfection of its style. Each sentence of the rhymed text is introduced by a new point of imitation, generated by the rhythm of the text and  successively contrasting high and low voice pairs, high and low trios, and four-voice sections with utmost clarity.

The full complement of 10 singers appeared in the performance of Jean Mouton’s five-voice setting of another Ave Maria poem. More densely polyphonic than Josquin’s Ave Maria, the motet concludes with chordal invocations on “O Maria dulcissima, O Maria piissima, O Maria mitissima” that brought out the Tallis Scholars’ perfection of tuning in hushed tones. Josquin’s six-voice motet on a mystical Marian text, Praeter rerum seriem, was the final work on the program. Two equal bass parts give this piece its darkly solemn tone, enlivened toward the end by a section in triple time before returning to the initial duple meter.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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