Masters of Contrapuntal Music

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Program: #06-03, Air Date: 01/09/06

The evolution of counterpoint was one of the themes of the 2005 Festival, and Paul van Nevel with his Huelgas Ensemble take us on a tour of the 15th century with the famous (Dufay, Josquin) and the rare (Forestier, Kerle).

We continue our long and fruitful association with our partners at Radio Netherlands in presenting a series of concerts from the Holland Festival of Early Music at Utrecht. Please visit their web site, which will provide more in-depth information about the music and performers we hear as well as more information about the festival:

NOTE: All of the music on this program is performed by the Huelgas Ensemble directed by Paul van Nevel, who writes:

"In recent years people have come to realise more and more that improvisation played an important role in the performance practice of the past centuries. However, the improvisation we hear in performances of early music today, is usually restricted to a simple embellishment of an existing melody or an improvised accompaniment. But improvisation is so much more. Already in the eleventh century improvisations were made on Gregorian chant, a technique which resulted in the organum style, playing such a decisive role in the development of polyphony. Even in the sixteenth century, when polyphony had become most complex, it proved possible to improvise according to certain rules. Each singer had the cantus firmus in front of him, therefore this type of improvisation was called super librum or contrappunte alla mente, ‘counterpoint off by heart’.

"This evening we will not hear actual improvisation, but compositions which bear traces of this contrappunte alla mente. The most striking influences of improvised counterpoint in the compositions on this programme are the at times hallucinating repetition of short motives and the unexpected, fanciful turns which naturally occur in improvisation, which the composers deliberately adopted in their written music. Curious caesuras which occur when singers get stuck in their improvisation and wait for a new entry, can also be heard. The most complex piece with the largest number of voices on this programme is the Agnus Dei from the twelve-part Missa Et ecce terrae motus by Brumel. Brumel did not make it easy for himself in this composition: he did not divide the twelve voices into groups, as was often done in polyphony, but he gave each voice its own part. In the Agnus Dei the cantus firmus is used in two ways: as a three-part canon, clearly a result of contrappunte alla mente, and as the upper voice in the middle section. By following the cantus firmus in this music, the listener can get a clear impression of what contrappunte alla mente used to be: an exercise in controlled improvisation."

Three contrappunti on secular canti firmi:

1. Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512/3):

Fors seulement a 4
cantus firmus in tenor

Agnus Dei a 4
c.f. in tenor en bassus

(from: Missa Berzerette savoyenne, c.f. by Josquin)

2. Mathurin Forestier (active approx. 1500-35)

Agnus Dei
(from: Missa Berzerette savoyenne, c.f. by Josquin)

Two contrappunti on a hexachord:

3. Jacobus de Kerle (1531/2-1591):

Agnus Dei at ut-re-mi-fa-so-la a 7
c.f. in 6th voice, 5th voice in canon

4. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594):
Agnus Dei from Missa ut-re-mi-fa-so-la a 6 & 7

c.f. in cantus II & altus III

Two contrappunti on liturgical canti firmi:

5. Johannes Ghiselin (active 1491-1507)

O Florens Rosa a 3
c.f. in tenor

6. Antoine Brumel

Agnus Dei a 12
(from: Missa Et ecce terrae motus)

7. Alexander Agricola (1445/6-1506):

Gaudeamus omnes a 2
c.f. in tenor

Virgo sub ethereis a 3
c.f. in tenor

Agnus Dei a 4
c.f. in discantus, tenor and bassus

(from: Missa In myne zin)

Three liturgical canti firmi:

8. Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474):

Gaude Virgo Mater Christi a 4
c.f. in tenor

Composer Info

Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512/3), Mathurin Forestier (active approx. 1500-35), Jacobus de Kerle (1531/2-1591), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), Johannes Ghiselin (active 1491-1507), Alexander Agricola (1445/6-1506), Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474)