IN: Reviews

The Sound of Franco-Flemish Art

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Pastores quidnam vidistis? Shepherds, what did you see? Embarked on a world tour in celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Tallis Scholars docked chez nous last night and invited a packed audience to enjoy the distinctive sound-world of Renaissance Franco-Flemish-music. The ensemble anchored the nativity-themed program with a mass by Jacobus Clemens non papa (c. 1510 — c. 1550), interspersing works by both earlier and later composers between the sections of the mass as though to show us how Franco-Flemish music blossomed into an international style that kept evolving through the fractious events of the 16th century. A substantial booklet provided us with texts in both Latin and English translation, as well as thoughtful notes by James Potter, explaining the symbolic importance of the lowly shepherds on Christmas night. The theme of the shepherds, moreover, connects the music to the devotio moderna: the pietist movement that emerged in the Low Countries, fostering literacy and sanctifying daily labor. A key notion of the Modern Devotion is that we must imaginatively project ourselves immediately into the sacred story, becoming direct witnesses, identifying with Christ and saints, or shepherds, in a personal way. By choosing to anchor Boston Early Music Festival’s St. Paul’s Church, Cambridge concert in the music of a composer who was poised historically between Josquin des Pres before him and Palestrina after him, the savvy Director of the Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips, vividly called our attention to the aesthetic fertility of Franco-Flemish Art.

Jacob Clemens lived all of his life in Flanders, including in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch/Bois-le-Duc, where Hieronymous Bosch had lived before him. As soon as all ten Tallis Scholars (SSSSAATTBB) began performing the two-part Motet that Clemens composed on the Shepherd theme, Pastores quidnam vidistis?, they drew us into the marvelous transparency of his musical vision. Perfectly clear voice-lines filled the high vaults, mysteriously blending as though sustained by an invisible celestial pedal. Not a single voice stuck out. The seamless beauty of the collective effect prevailed — yet we heard the “linear realism” that we see visually in Rogier van der Weyden’s paintings, with every angular fold of cloth and every detail vibrantly rendered in sound.

The same combination of detail and seamless unfolding continued when the Scholars turned to the parody mass that Clemens composed on of his motet, Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis. In this more solemn context, imitation techniques emphasized the marriage of personal piety and communitarian tradition, especially in the opening Kyrie section. Transparent flow, dignity and restraint, beauty in simplicity and strength in humility, characterized the performance throughout, powerfully sanctifying ordinary life through the indirect symbolism of the Shepherds.  

Italian artists credited Flemish artists with a unique capacity to blend realism and piety. Through his close association with the newly founded Jesuit order, Tòmas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) appreciated the spiritual appeal of the Modern Devotion, but the context of the Counter-Reformation in Rome and in Spain prompted him to treat the Shepherd theme, Quem viditis pastores?, with more bodily expressiveness, as though aiming to press the flesh into redemption, saturated with sin and promise. As the Scholars interpreted it, otherworldliness decreased, warmth and a hint of Mannerism emerged. Instead of Van der Weyden, Memling or Quentin Mastys, we heard a more voluptuous sound-world, more full-bodied, twisting with surprising new experimental rhythms (justifying the Bronzino Nativity reproduced in the handout). Victoria, the Scholars implied, aimed at impact.

In contrast, the Scholars gave Portuguese composer Pedro de Cristo’s motet on the same theme an unexpected pastoral feel, with lovely elements of folklore and rusticity. Pedro de Cristo (1545-1618) , the Scholars implied, inflected Franco-Flemish realism into something closer to naturalism. Giovanni Croce (1557-1609), in turn, who pioneered the Venetian School of polychoral polyphony, set the Shepherd theme to music with two choirs (SSATB times 2). The Scholars lovingly brought out the liberating humanism of Croce’s approach. Piety was pushed into the background, music for the sake of human pleasure took front and center stage. Joie de vivre rang out into joie de chanter – Christmas is a human holiday that celebrates good cheer and friendship, the joy of being alive on this earth, the sheer fun of all of the new things that we can do with music. With Croce, Franco-Flemish polyphony has migrated into beneficial entertainment, at the edge of Venetian opera.

The second half brought these subtle inflections into greater focus. Returning to Clemens non papa’s Missa pastores, the Scholars outdid themselves in their performance of the Credo. Here, Clemens’s distinctive ability to abstract from the words of the Nicene Creed and to create a blended atmosphere that soars and yet remains, that flows in time while somehow enduring stably in space, drew us powerfully into being “in the world but not of it,” communicating to us what Modern Devotionists called the “grace of devotion.” The ten voices fully brought out the narrative character of Clemens’s Credo section, with its hints of word-painting, and its musical form of imitatio Christi, in turn forceful and dolorous, sober and vast, making faith audible as an experience that passeth understanding.

At this point the artistic director inserted two works to help us hear the contrast between the dawn of Franco-Flemish polyphony with Jacob Obrecht (1457-1505) and its proto-Baroque evening with Peter Philips (1560-1628.) Both composers set Salve Regina to music ― almost a century apart. To my ear, the performance of the Obrecht Salve Regina was the highlight of the evening. The Scholars did full justice to the majestic freshness of Obrecht’s piece. Combining archaic features (plainchant) and new departures in polyphony, Obrecht’s motet felt like a spell. Keeping it lapidary and grave, humble and supplicating, the Scholars rose to very special heights in their rendition. In this work, we heard the very essence of the Devotio moderna how a new yearning for purity kindled a new trust in salvation and a new self-confidence among carpenters and cobblers, weavers and town magistrates. 

In contrast, the English composer Peter Philips, who remained Roman Catholic after England’s break with Rome and fled to the Continent, imbued his own setting of Salve Regina with nostalgia. The cult of the Virgin had been abolished in England, her statues removed. Much like modern city dwellers who discover nature when it’s already too late, Philips cast the Queen of Heaven in a sort of posthumous radiance, tinged with regret and intimations of Romanticism. The contrast between the two works gave us a vivid sense of the religious drama that ushered in our modern scientific age.

Returning to Clemens’s Mass of the Shepherds (so to speak), the Scholars concluded by emphasizing the midway synthesis of elements that Clemens represents. Clemens harnessed imitation polyphony with a very distinctive restraint to create a perfect balance between Tradition and Renewal, Collective worship and personal salvation. In the Benedictus section, the Scholars beautifully “made us wait” for the Night of the Nativity, turning us into vigilant shepherds whose daily piety and willingness to watch patiently over our flocks at night help to usher in the promised Age of Grace. In the final Agnus Dei, the transparency of the singing was so beautiful and so intense as to evoke Jan Van Eyck. The Van Eck aesthetic was further bolstered by a generous encore featuring Jean Mouton (1459-1522), whose Salva nos, Domine the Scholars rendered with emphasis, again, on transparency — as though wishing for us to drink at the clear sources of early modern music.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A brilliant review of what must have been a standout program among the riches of early music for the season in the Boston area. I truly wish I had known about the concert, a disadvantage of living 90 miles away. A longtime lover of sacred polyphony, I have always perceived the association of the purity of Northern Renaissance Art with the Franco-Flemish School, and this review is particularly striking. Thank you.

    Comment by Robert Humberston — December 10, 2023 at 12:57 am

  2. An extraordinarily rich commentary which compares Flemish music to the far better-known paintings of the time, and gives us a vision of the unitary devotional impulse of the entire culture. The contrast with non-Flemish composers brings these reflections into even clearer focus.

    Comment by Hoyt Rogers — December 19, 2023 at 10:46 am

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