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Exultemus (Let us rejoice) for Lassus


Eight male members of the period vocal ensemble Exultemus presented a concert of music by Orlande de Lassus (or Orlando di Lasso, 1530/1532—1594) at the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge on May 14, repeated on May 15 at the First Lutheran Church of Boston, where Exultemus is in residence. In fact this octet is an expanded subset of the group: according to its Website, only countertenor Martin Near, the music director since the 2009/10 season, is a core member. The other gifted singers on this occasion were countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, tenors Matthew Anderson and David McSweeney, baritones Brad Fugate and Thann Scoggin, and basses John Profit and Ulysses Thomas.

Lassus is said to have been “one of the most prolific and versatile of 16th-century composers, and in his time the best-known and most widely admired musician in Europe.” Born in Flanders, he became a musician in the ducal court of Mantua when he was a teenager. From there he entered various court services in Rome and Naples, and after a brief period of return to Antwerp, fetched up in Munich in 1556 for the rest of his life in a ducal court where Italian musicians were increasingly hired. So who’s to say whether Flemish or Italian influences are most prominent in his music? In fact he used both styles as they suited his purpose. Indeed, no doubt at his urging, in 1555 the Antwerp printer Tylman (Tielman) Susato published a mixed collection usually referred to as Lassus’s ‘Opus 1,’ with two entirely different titles, the first in Flemish for distribution in the North, and later, in Italian, (using the same music plates), destined to be marketed in Italy. Lassus’s subsequent collections were published all over Europe wherever there were printers with music fonts.

His versatility was clearly evident in Exultemus’s programming of well chosen and beautifully balanced selections from literally hundreds of the composer’s vocal works. There is no way to know when most of these were written, and hence nearly impossible to present his music chronologically. Yet Exultemus nearly managed to do this, having done their homework extremely well, represented in their modest program notes.

The centerpiece of the first half comprised five selections from the four-voiced motets, Prophetiae Sibyllarum, from a manuscript source of about 1560. The sung Prologue (in Latin) explains: “These are songs which proceed chromatically. They are the poems in which the twelve Sibyls, one after the other, once sang the hidden mysteries of our salvation.” All twelve poems are in dactylic hexameter, set in the most chromatic of Lassus’s music — presumably to heighten the mystical nature of the poetry. The direction of chromatic change is almost always upward, further enhancing the inspirational effect.

I have to say that here, and often elsewhere, the singers tended to drag behind countertenor Martin Near’s direction, apparently to revel in their gorgeous sounds while letting diction go astray, particularly word endings. The group stood in a semi-circle, with Near approximately in the center, depending on the voicing. If one wanted to understand the text, which became difficult to follow in the program without vocal cues, then one simply watched Near’s mouth, which emphasized the shapes of the words. (I was sitting in the third row, where hearing was certainly not a problem.) On the other hand their well-matched voices really did make gorgeous sounds, with nary a slip in intonation, even in this difficult chromatic music.

The program opened with “Lectio Octava” from the composer’s Sacrae lectiones ex Propheta Job, another collection of about the same period, this one published in 1565. The text comes from the depths of Job’s rages and also from his hope that he will be redeemed — very strong stuff. Not a sibilant, in almost every word, was heard in the three verses, a worrisome omen. In a brilliant stroke, however, Exultemus presented another “Lectio Octava” from a second collection of readings from the Book of Job and written almost twenty years later. The text is the same, but set in two verses instead of three. This appeared midway through the second half of the program, so there was no chance to compare them. I must admit: I haven’t been to a library to do my homework on this one. (I don’t know of an article that compares them either.) But I’m happy to say, diction had improved.

The rest of the first half included a French chanson from the first version of  Lassus’s ‘Opus 1,’ “Susane un jour d’amour solicitée” (from the Book of Daniel) in which Susanna tells two old men leering at her that she would rather die an innocent. This was followed by a German drinking song, “Der Wein, der schmeckt mir also wohl” (“Wine tastes good to me”). Here the diction was far better, partly because of the boisterousness of the song, and partly because German is a more explosive language anyway. These were both sung by a smaller group: countertenor Pagenkopf, tenor Anderson, baritone Scoggin, and bass Profit, with the addition of baritone Fuggate in the first and tenor McSweeney in the second. The first half ended with a villanesca from the Italian version of ‘Opus 1,’ “No giorno t’haggio havere intra ‘ste mane” (Someday I shall catch hold of you). Each verse of two lines ends with the rollicking refrain, “Fugimi quanto voi” (Run from me as much as you want), sung with a clear sense of taunting, relishing the repetition.

The centerpiece of the second half comprised five excerpts from Lagrime di San Pietro for seven voices, the last published works by Lassus, written when he was said to be in a “religious melancholia.” They set texts of the Neapolitan poet Luigi Tansillo (1510–1568), focusing on St. Peter’s feelings at the Crucifixion and about his denial. The title page of the collection calls these works motets; others have referred to them as madrigals. They make use of a “call-and-response” device, contrasting high and low voices, usually within the same poetic line, sometimes overlapping. The second half began with “Salve Regina misericordiae,” a four-voiced motet (sung by all eight) from his Beatissimae Virginis Mariae, published in 1586. Although a motet, its character is more like a chant in falsobordone style, ending on an open fifth. This was followed by the short “Musica, Dei donum optimi” for six voices, from Lassus’s last motet collection, Cantiones sacrae (1594), and another drinking song, “Ad primum morsum” (At the first bite, if I do not drink, I am dead) from the same collection, vigorously sung, as you can imagine.

The final work, “O la, o che bon eccho!” is from his Libro de villanelle, moresche, et altre canzoni, published in 1581, but probably written many years earlier. The key word here is “echo.” Thus the octet split into two quartets, one remaining in the chancel, and the other moving quickly to the rear balcony, while Exultemus General Director and founding soprano Shannon Canavin made some announcements. Many smiles ensued as the gentlemen tried out the echo effects (as directed by the text), bade their farewell, and then sang, “Basta! Basta!” (Enough! enough!), to much applause.

One brief comment about the space: with its gently pointed (not arched) ceiling over the narrow nave, this church is a superb venue for intimate music-making, where huge crowds are not expected.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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