in: Reviews

April 3, 2012

Splendor of Hapsburg-Burgundian Court Music


The splendor of the Hapsburg-Burgundian courts in the early 16th century provided the context for a concert by Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, Scott Metcalfe, director, on Friday evening, March 30th, at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. Under the umbrella title “Music for Three Sovereigns,” the program consisted in part of sacred motets from a collection printed in 1520 and drawn from the repertory of the court chapel in Vienna of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy, Maximilian also became heir to Burgundy and the Low Countries, whose prosperous city churches had long nurtured the best singers and composers of high art polyphony. Maximilian’s daughter Marguerite established her own brilliant court with its own musical establishment at Malines, where she ruled first as regent for her young nephew Charles V and later as governor of the Low Countries. Marguerite had her own scriptorium for the copying of luxury manuscripts both for her own use and as gifts. One of these was sent to Henry VIII and his queen, Catherine of Aragon. This manuscript contains no less than five settings of the last words (delivered in Virgil’s Aeneid) by the third sovereign of the program, Dido Queen of Carthage.

Joining Blue Heron’s roster of eleven singers were three instrumentalists: Michael Collver, cornetto, and Mack Ramsey, Renaissance trombone, with director Scott Metcalfe playing a vielle (fiddle). Early music performance practice, since it first burst onto the recording scene in the 60s and 70s, has been subject to changing tastes as well as to ongoing scholarship. Colorful instruments that were assembled to accompany Renaissance polyphony were later banished in favor of all-vocal performance of sacred and secular polyphony. (Strict adherence to this practice came to be known in some circles as the “English a cappella heresy.”) More recently, documentary evidence has shown that wind instruments in particular quite often played along with choirs in sacred polyphony, either doubling voice parts or occasionally replacing them.

The opening work on the program, Inviolata, integra, et casta es, Maria, by Josquin Des Prez, is based on a plainchant melody in the tenor that was doubled by the trombone. Following the tenor in strict canon at the fifth above, the alto was doubled by the cornetto, a hybrid instrument with a conical bore, a cup mouthpiece like that of a brass instrument, and finger holes like those of a recorder. Both instruments enriched and clarified the texture of the ensemble without overshadowing the voices. In this exquisitely crafted piece, the rising opening motive of the chant melody is anticipated in the other three voices, artfully blending strict canon with free imitation. As counter-motive, a simple descending scale is heard four times in the top voice in close counterpoint with the bass.

After serving the Medici in Florence, the Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac entered the service of Maximilian in 1497. His motet O Maria, mater Christi for four low voices was performed by eight singers who skillfully negotiated its flexible contrapuntal lines in varied pairs and trios and shifting meters, concluding with joyful declamation on the words “that we may possess heavenly joys,” and a seemingly endless melisma on the final “O Maria.” Another grouping of eight singers assembled for the motet Beati omnes, an intricate setting of Psalm 127 for four voices by the Swiss-born composer Ludwig Senfl, who called himself a pupil of Isaac and after his death took his position at the Vienna court chapel.

Jacob Obrecht was the son of a town trumpeter who spent most of his life in his native Flanders but became one of the most celebrated composers in Europe in the late 15th century. His five-voice motet Salve crux is based on two plainchant melodies as cantus firmi and employs all the virtuosic contrapuntal techniques of  Franco-Flemish polyphony in shifting vocal combinations, rhythms, and meters. Equally virtuosic was the performance of the five male soloists, singing without conductor and perfectly tuned and attuned to one another.

Four different groupings of soloists were assembled for the performance of four settings of Dido’s lament, all composed probably around the same time at the Habsburg-Burgundian court. The setting by Johannes Ghiselin set forth each of Virgil’s four lines syllabically before dissolving into melismatic endings, while Alexander Agricola’s featured continually interweaving and overlapping lines. Josquin Des Prez appears to have borrowed the entire top part of his setting from that of the French composer Jean Mouton in an act of competitive emulation. The rhetorical and dramatic highlight of this sequence was heard in Josquin’s setting of the wonderful lines “Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum” (Rumor, of all evils the swiftest), which appear earlier in the Aeneid and depict the spread of the news of Dido’s love for Aeneas. Here the text is meticulously illustrated with increasing frenzy as Rumor, small and fearful at first, mounts up to heaven and joins the clouds.

Instrumental performances of two three-voice songs from Marguerite’s songbooks showed off the virtuoso capabilities of the trio of cornetto, trombone, and vielle. Both songs belong to the type known as motet-chanson, combining a secular French poetic text with a sacred Latin cantus firmus that can be construed as a commentary on it. Taking the cantus, or texted voice, Michael Collver executed elaborate yet tasteful flights of ornamentation on the cornetto, duetting with Scott Metcalfe’s more restrained tenor line on the vielle. Mack Ramsey’s Renaissance trombone, much less strident than its modern counterpart, provided the cantus firmi. The evening ended on a triumphant note with the performance by the full ensemble of Isaac’s six-voice Virgo prudentissima (Virgin most wise), celebrating both the Assumption of the Virgin and Maximilian’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor with an ambitious classicizing text and equally magnificent polyphony, enhanced by the support of trombone and cornetto.

Now in its 13th season, Blue Heron has evolved over the years into one of the most successful advocates for Renaissance music in the country. Friday’s program was no exception. Focused on the fairly restricted context of Hapsburg-Burgundian patronage, it offered a pleasing variety of genres and ensemble groupings, performed with immaculate tuning and a clear sense of line. The handsome program provided full texts and translations, and the informative and readable program notes were supplemented by an excellent pre-concert talk on instrumental practice in Renaissance cities and courts by musicologist (and horn player) Keith Polk.

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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