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Unhackneyed Flemish Music From Musica Sacra


In the final concert of their season, Musica Sacra under its longtime director Mary Beekman presented a concert of “Flemish Choral Music of the High Renaissance” at the First Church, Congregational, on Saturday, May 14. Today the term “Flemish” usually refers to the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of modern Belgium, but sixteenth-century “Flemish” hailed from a wider geographical area, the seventeen provinces under Habsburg rule that included modern Belgium and Luxembourg along with northern France and southern Holland. Since the early fifteenth century, singer-composers trained in the cathedral schools of the Flemish provinces were in demand in courts and chapels all over Europe, and rulers outbid each other in an effort to attract the brightest star musicians to their service. Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594; aka Roland de Lassus or Orlando di Lasso) was born in the Franco-Flemish province of Hainaut, held  positions in Mantua, Palermo, Milan, Naples, and Rome, and ended up in Munich at the Bavarian ducal court, where he served for nearly forty years. A prolific composer of Latin Masses and motets, Lassus absorbed national styles wherever he went, moving easily from Italian madrigal to French chanson to German part song. Saturday’s program included three resplendent Latin motets by Lassus, all for six voices: the psalm settings Cantate Dominum canticum novum (O sing to the Lord a new song, Psalm 98) and Laude anima mea Dominum (Praise the Lord, O my soul, Psalm 146) and the highly rhetorical setting  from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians Cum essem parvulus (When I was a child . . .). Juxtaposing declamatory homophony with imitative polyphony, its conclusion reached an  expressive high point with repeated offbeat entries on the word “caritas” (charity).

A generation older than Lassus, Jacob Clement, known as Clemens non Papa (ca. 1510-ca. 1555), spent his entire career in the Low Countries. One of his few secular motets is a hymn in praise of music, Musica dei donum optimi (Music, the gift of the best god) for four voices. An enormously prolific composer, Clemens was also represented on the program by two five-voice sacred motets, the Marian hymn O Maria vernans rosa (O Mary, blooming rose) and the mournful Adesto dolori meo, a responsory from the Office of the Dead.

The third “star” composer on the program was Claude Le Jeune. Born around 1528 in Valenciennes, then part of the Imperial Low Countries, he settled in Paris and died there in 1600. A Protestant, Le Jeune is known for his numerous settings of the French-texted Huguenot Psalter tunes, but primarily as a leading exponent of musique mesurée à l’antique, a humanist attempt at reviving the ideals of Greek music in which double note values were assigned to long syllables and single values to short syllables. Despite their speculative origins, Le Jeune’s primarily chordal settings of French texts with their lilting rhythms based on alternating groups of two and three are simply delightful, as we heard in the beautiful wedding song Elle n’eust sçeu la chaleur esprouver/D’un feu plus beau (She could not have the warmth of a more beautiful fire) and the dialogue song Las, il n’a nul mal (Alas, he knows no sorrow) on the familiar narrative of the princess whose true love has been imprisoned by her father.

Ten more chansons by seven lesser-known composers rounded out the program. Although all but one were born in the Flemish provinces, service in the various imperial chapels took some of them as far afield as Spain, Italy, Austria, and Bohemia. These composers set French texts following one of two distinct, though often overlapping, traditions: that of the Franco-Flemish motet, with its continuous texture, overlapping cadences in the different voices, extended imitation and canon techniques, and avoidance of exact repetition, or that of the so-called “Parisian” chanson. Those on courtly texts were  characterized by brevity, “singable” phrases and clear cadences, chordal declamation, and use of exact repetition, often of the final poetic line, while those on popular, narrative texts favored imitative patter, dialogue, and refrains. Thus, in Nostre vicaire un jour des feste (Our vicar, one festival day) Annette mockingly compares his lusty singing of the Agnus dei to the braying of her ass, while another narrative crudely records the failed attempt of a mercenary French captain to take the brave city of Antwerp. Tylman Susato’s soulful De mon malheur me puis je bien contenter (Should I accept my unhappiness) is in the classic Parisian courtly vein. In one of the loveliest performances of the evening, Je sui aymé de la plus belle (I am loved by the most beauteous woman) by Jean Guyot  de Châtelet (Castileti), a brief text of four lines was deployed over interweaving contrapuntal lines.

Much of this music might not have survived without the rapid development of music printing during the sixteenth century and the efforts of printer-editor-publishers such as Tylman Susato. A player of wind instruments born near Cologne, he settled in Antwerp, where he produced some twenty-two books of chansons, nineteen books of motets, and three books of Masses along with numerous Dutch songs and psalm settings and dances. These publications included anthologies of composers active in the Low Countries and the Imperial Court along with editions of his own works and those of Josquin, Lassus, Clemens, and Crecquillon.

While many choral groups, presented with the vast repertory of Renaissance music, seem to rely on tried and true selections that turn up repeatedly in printed and recorded anthologies, Beekman is to be congratulated on her choice of a varied and unhackneyed program within a single geographical focus. She elicits sweet, unforced tone and precise intonation from her singers, leads them in flexible phrasing and a supple sense of line, and her tempos seem to be just right. One can only venture a few wishes for future performances by this corps of skilled and dedicated volunteer singers: a little more expressive intensity in the rendition of Latin devotional texts, and more forthright diction to enhance rhythmic definition in French chansons.

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


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  1. I wish I could have been at the concert. Mary is indeed to be commended for her “varied and unhackneyed program.” I would say that about every concert of hers I’ve attended. Surprising and refreshing choices and such responsive singers. I always leave Beekman’s concerts in an otherworldly state–so grateful for her musical genius and for the magical tones she elicits from her talented singers.

    Comment by Carol Henderson — May 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm

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