Missa de Beata Virgine

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Program: #14-47   Air Date: Nov 17, 2014

Perhaps written in Rome, this grand mass by Antoine Brumel is the latest project from the superb Brabant Ensemble.


NOTE: All of the music on this program is from The Brabant Ensemble directed by Stephen Rice. It is on the Hyperion label and is CD # CDA68065.
For more information:


Brumel: Missa de beata virgine, Motets


Nato canunt omnia  [8'19] 
Beata es, Maria  [4'11] 
Lauda Sion salvatorem  [14'03]              
Ave caelorum domina  [4'04]              
Missa de beata virgine                           
Kyrie  [4'14] 
Gloria  [7'35] 
Credo  [9'15]
Sanctus and Benedictus  [6'59]              
Agnus Dei  [5'16]


 Antoine Brumel (c1460–1512/13) is famous for one piece, and otherwise little known and rarely performed today. His Missa Et ecce terrae motus, alias the ‘Earthquake’ Mass, is justly fêted due to its status as the first twelve-voice Mass-setting, and is notable for its vitality of rhythm as well as its almost obsessive repetition of small motivic cells. But the rest of his output is poorly represented in the recording catalogues, an omission which this album aims partially to rectify. His compositions are quite unlike those of his contemporaries in the way in which he handles voices: at times he appears to be conceptualizing a vocal ensemble as a primarily rhythmic entity, creating wild syncopations and using the same figure in different relationships to the underlying tactus so that the straightforward pulse is broken up with cross-rhythms. This is not to say that he lacks lyricism: the Agnus Dei of the Missa de beata virgine and the motet Beata es, Maria, for example, achieve an inward spirituality to equal any of his contemporaries.

Like most church musicians of his generation, Brumel was employed primarily as a singer, though he latterly became a master of choristers and was also a priest. Possibly from the village of Brunelles near Chartres, he is known to have held positions, from 1483 onwards, at the cathedrals of Chartres, Laon, and Notre-Dame de Paris (1498–1500, when he resigned after an administrative dispute). He also worked in Geneva, at the Savoyard court in Chambéry, and from 1505 at Ferrara in Northern Italy, where he was paid the substantial sum of 100 ducats per annum. After the Ferrarese chapel was disbanded in 1510 he remained in Italy and appears to have resided in Mantua. It is possible that he was present at the coronation of Pope Leo X in 1513, but the account is not contemporaneous and he may already have died by this point.

Brumel’s Christmas motet Nato canunt omnia is one of the most remarkable musical works of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, exemplifying magnificently the aesthetic of varietas of which Johannes Tinctoris (1435–1511) was a proponent. Like many a late-medieval piece it is polytextual, featuring a cantus firmus in long notes, whose entries to and departures from the texture are a structural feature. Its text, ‘Joseph fili David’ (‘Joseph son of David’) is a commentary on the main motet text, which at the beginning of the secunda pars ingeniously coincides with it, so that all voices announce the birth of Christ simultaneously.

Within its overall bipartite structure, the piece can be subdivided into numerous smaller sections, usually demarcated by changes of texture. As is standard in cantus firmus works, the tenor’s first entry is delayed, and following the vigorous opening, a low-voice duet lowers the temperature before the reappearance of superius and altus heralds the initial tenor entry (0'59"). The next significant occurrence is the series of leads at ‘subito’, recalling the equivalent excitement in Handel’s Messiah at the words ‘and suddenly there was with the angel …’. Following this section (2'30") the tenor drops out again and a sinuously winding duet and trio section proclaims the supremacy of the king of peace. The tenor re-enters at 3'31" and shortly thereafter a change of mensuration produces a rapid triple time (tempus perfectum diminutum) which completes the prima pars with a brief but joyous ‘Noël’.

The secunda pars is comparatively simple in its structure, being defined by a single if lengthy absence of the tenor. Following the opening ‘Puer natus est’, a brief duet (‘Verbum caro factum est’—‘The word was made flesh’) introduces a section of choral recitative (‘et vidimus gloriam eius’—‘and we saw his glory’). Brumel has been criticized for writing ‘mere recitation’ at times, but here the fluidity and suppleness of the homophony produces a beautiful effect, especially in the context of so substantial and at times frenetic a piece. Following this peaceful interlude, the energetic style returns with another triple-time subsection (‘Magnum nomen Domini Emanuel’—‘The great name of the Lord, Emmanuel’), before the tenor re-enters for a final time (6'44") as the mensuration returns to duple time (strictly speaking, it had never left, as the triple time was here achieved by coloration rather than by a separate mensuration sign as had been the case in the prima pars).

The final subsection gradually winds up the tension via a series of repeated descending phrases in the superius, each beginning a fifth above the final and cadencing on it; later (at 7'04") the formula is transposed up one tone and used in alternation with the original pitch. In the last few bars (7'38") a new rising phrase is substituted, which builds sequentially into the final ‘Noël’, which concludes with perhaps the longest false relation ever written, lasting a longa (four semibreves). The piece as a whole stands as a virtuosic demonstration of Brumel’s compositional technique, which juxtaposes radically differing styles and textures to create a glittering musical collage.

The motet Beata es, Maria is unlike the remaining pieces presented here in being based on a lauda spirituale, the genre which flourished in Italy from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries and which was often sung by members of religious confraternities, outside the formal liturgy. As the musicologist Jennifer Bloxam has noted, Brumel’s setting is also related to two earlier works, by Loyset Compère (c1445–1518) and Jacob Obrecht (1457/8–1505). The latter was published in the same volume as Brumel’s (Motetti libro quarto, 1505) by the earliest printer of polyphony, Ottaviano Petrucci. Both begin with a presentation of the lauda melody in the tenor voice and in triple time, and both proceed to words from the litany ‘O Christe, audi nos’. Brumel is more systematic than Obrecht in returning to the litany text as a form of refrain, though all three composers repeat the text ‘O Christe, audi nos’ to complete the motet. As Bloxam aptly remarks, Brumel’s Beata es, Maria is ‘a consummate synthesis of Franco-Flemish contrapuntal craft with the light, tuneful, rhythmically vivacious, vertically oriented Italian style of the polyphonic lauda’. Particularly effective are the contrasting duets between upper and lower voices.

The sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem is one of the four such texts that were permitted to remain within the Roman liturgy after the reforms of the Council of Trent. Written in or around 1264 by St Thomas Aquinas, the text is a contrafact of an earlier sequence, Laudes crucis, by Adam of St Victor (d1146). Aquinas’s text was produced to order for the new feast of Corpus Christi, and celebrates the divinity of the transubstantiated host. In modern chant books, the sequence melody is printed with an opening minor third (the first line thus sounds e–g–a–g–c–b–a–g), but evidently Brumel knew a different version, since all four voices of his first verse begin with a fourth, d–g. Indeed, the piece as a whole is an extremely close paraphrase of the plainsong. The verses are almost always paired: Brumel sets the odd-numbered verses, and in nearly all cases the following even-numbered verse repeats the same musical material.

It is surprising, then, that in its main source, Petrucci’s Motetti B (1503), the work appears for much of its considerable length to be paraphrasing chant one or two verses adrift from the model. Brumel’s fourth polyphonic section might be expected to set verse 7 of the chant, but (according to Petrucci) sets verse 9, and (to simplify slightly) the piece continues in this fashion until verse 19, where the sequence text begins to alter its metrical pattern, this and subsequent stanzas containing four lines of text instead of three. Here the Petrucci version comes back into line by means of a musical repeat: verse 17 in Petrucci is the same as verse 3.

Previous editors of the piece have stated that this phenomenon represents a creative rethinking by Brumel of the sequence genre, introducing a thematic return so as to strengthen the formal elements of the piece. No account is taken, however, of the effect of the even-numbered verses in performance, nor is any plainsong printed in these editions (in Corpus mensurabilis musicae, volume 5/v and Monuments of Renaissance Music, volume xi). A full discussion of the issues raised in editing this piece cannot be undergone here, but in brief I believe that the disjunction between paraphrased chant and text is erroneous, and presumably introduced during the publication process. The reason that a musical repeat is necessary in the first place is that the melodic pattern of the sequence changes at verse 5: instead of verses 5 and 6 sharing a melody, then 7 and 8 sharing another, as is the case elsewhere in the chant, verses 5 and 7 are the same—and evidently Brumel composed only one polyphonic setting of this melody—and verses 6 and 8, which are also identical (apart from a small change in the poetic metre) are not set at all since they were intended for monophonic singing. The version recorded here is thus a reconstruction of an inferred original, in which the repeat occurs in verse 7 and all plainsong verses correspond to the melody paraphrased in the polyphonic verse immediately preceding.

This abstruse but consequential point aside, Brumel’s setting of Lauda Sion is notable for its variety of approaches to the task of elaborating a chant melody. As well as altering in texture (verses 15 and 17 are duets) and metre (verse 23 is in triple time) the piece strikes a wide range of affective poses, with a progression from the laudatory and almost pugnacious opening verses towards a more contemplative approach to the sacred Body of Jesus. The relation of polyphony to the plainsong melody is always a close one, in which each note of the sequence is heard, usually in the tenor voice, with minimal elaboration until the final cadence where a much more substantial flourish can be expected. The other three voices usually imitate the opening of the plainsong lines (generally at the unison or octave rather than other pitches) but then diverge in order to create a constantly fluctuating, patterned texture, which comes together for cadences only rarely other than at verse-ends. Later in the piece, verse 21 ‘Ecce panis angelorum’ (‘Behold the bread of angels’), the point at which metaphorically the Host is revealed, is treated in hushed homophony, following which verse 23 is a suitably subdued prayer for Christ’s protection. Brumel’s polyphonic Amen, however, briefly reignites the martial spirit of the piece’s opening.

Ave caelorum domina is the title in Petrucci’s Motetti C (1504) of a piece which in its other source, a Vatican manuscript, begins ‘Ave cuius conceptio’ (‘Hail, you whose [immaculate] conception’). The text of the two versions is largely the same apart from its opening, and it would appear that the latter is the original, which was amended in the Petrucci print. Possibly the reason for this would have been the fact that Petrucci’s editor, Petrus Castellanus, was a Dominican, and this order did not at that time accept the validity of the Immaculate Conception. Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, the Petrucci version would have circulated in a way that the manuscript did not, and has therefore been selected for recording here. Elements of the text will be familiar from Josquin Des Prez’s famous Ave Maria … virgo serena, of which the present text is a part. Certain aspects of the musical style, also, are shared with Josquin, notably the tendency towards pair imitation (two voices in duet followed by the same cell repeated by the other two voices at the upper or lower octave). Brumel, however, as is usually the case, is less Apollonian than his great contemporary. The opening duet lasts only two bars before the altus and bassus enter on the third word, creating an immediate sense of supplication towards the Blessed Virgin. The remainder of the first stanza is largely contrapuntal, turning towards the secondary modal centre of B flat at the altus/bassus entry on ‘Nova reples’. Brumel alters the texture at stanza 2 (‘Ave cuius nativitas’—‘Hail, whose birth’) with homophony followed by varied duets. Mary’s ‘pious humility’ is evoked in stanza 3 by triple time, reducing to almost complete stillness at ‘Cuius annuntiatio’ (‘whose annunciation’). The final section is introduced with pair imitation, moving to quasi-homophony (a chordal texture but with some variety of rhythm) at the transition into the sixth stanza, which underlines the seriousness of the poem’s Mariology with slow chords, before the final Amen injects a little more rhythmic vitality.

Brumel’s Missa de beata virgine is thought to be a late work, dating from around 1510 or possibly slightly later still. It forms part of a genre of Marian Masses which are all based on plainsong—but not the cycles of related Mass Ordinary chants that are familiar from modern chant books. Instead, Brumel chooses to elaborate the melodies now known as Kyrie and Gloria IX, Credo I, Sanctus IX, and Agnus Dei XVII. Other composers who contributed to the Missa de beata virgine tradition (who include Josquin, Pierre de La Rue, Cristóbal de Morales, and Palestrina) differed slightly in their selection of chants. The modality of Brumel’s plainsongs varies: the Kyrie is in mode 1 (Dorian), the Gloria in mode 7 (Mixolydian), the Credo in mode 4 (Hypophrygian), and the Sanctus and Agnus in mode 5 (Lydian), and consequently the ranges are different, in the polyphony as well as the chant. In this recording the Gloria and Credo have been transposed down a tone in relation to the other movements, in order to restore parity of ranges. It is also worth noting that, like other composers, Brumel includes Marian tropes in the texts of the Gloria and Benedictus: these additional praises of the Blessed Virgin were forbidden after the Council of Trent.

As with much of his music, Brumel’s Mass is notable for its fidelity to the plainsong, which suffuses the polyphonic texture throughout. What makes this piece unique, however, and characteristic of Brumel, is his manner of using the voices at times almost percussively, so that rhythm becomes the defining element of the music. The whirling Amen to the Gloria and the rapid stretto at ‘gloria tua’ in the Sanctus are the two most obvious instances of this, but even in the Kyrie the final sequential passage and the brief triple-time section in just the altus voice (0'34") illustrate how lively the musical texture can become in his hands.

The Kyrie makes use of three different mensurations: tempus imperfectum, tempus imperfectum diminutum, and tempus perfectum, which become equivalent to 4/4, 2/2, and 3/2 in modern notation. There is a clear distinction between integer valor and diminished mensurations in this Mass (in modern terminology, time signatures such as C and ?, which though still in use derive from the medieval principle that a stroke through the signature usually halves the value of the notes). We have attempted to observe this distinction, hence the much more rapid feel of the Christe in comparison with the two Kyrie sections.

The Gloria, being a hymn of praise, offers plenty of opportunity for the type of boisterous rhythmic play in which Brumel excels: as early as ‘Laudamus te’ the voices are used in stretto, though phrases such as ‘Domine Deus’ are set in a more restrained fashion. The first trope, occurring at 2'20", is ‘Spiritus et alme’, the most common such accretion to the Gloria text in pre-Tridentine liturgies. ‘Qui sedes’ begins the gradual build-up to the climax of the movement, with a brief, duetting triple-time section followed by rhythmic syncopations at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. Further tropes elaborate the Marian aspect of the attributes of Christ that are listed in this section: ‘For you alone are holy, sanctifying Mary. You alone are the Lord, ruling Mary. You alone are most high, crowning Mary, Jesus Christ’. After a further triple-time section for ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ the final Amen begins with more duets in extremely close stretto (this is perhaps Brumel’s trademark) which develops into a three-note phrase, thus destabilizing the pulse entirely before the music somehow wrenches itself into an emphatic final cadence.

Credo I, the plainsong basis of the next movement, is characterized by an upward auxiliary or neighbour-note figure of a semitone, e–f–e, which opens many of the phrases of both chant and polyphony, creating a strongly unified form despite the span of nearly ten minutes. Due to the length of the text, the recitation style is used to good effect, for instance at ‘Deum de Deo’ and, as so often, at the most sacred moment of the Credo, the ‘et incarnatus’. Triple time is also introduced for ‘qui locutus est per prophetas’ and the final ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’.

The Sanctus begins with a placid triadic motif, again derived from the chant, in tempus perfectum (3/2 time). This gives way to a melismatic duet between altus and bassus for the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ (‘The heavens are full’), which somewhat unusually is divided from the ‘et terra gloria tua’ (‘and the earth of your glory’) which completes the grammatical statement. As already noted, ‘gloria tua’ produces some of Brumel’s bounciest rhythms, once again subverting the metre by bringing voices in per arsin et thesin—on the upbeat and the downbeat. The Benedictus features the final trope of the Mass, describing Jesus as not only blessed but also the Son of Mary. Brumel provides a second Osanna after the Benedictus rather than repeating the first, perhaps because the Sanctus Osanna is dovetailed into the polyphony rather than beginning a new section. This second Osanna is in triple-time once more, though conceived more sedately than some.

Finally, the Agnus Dei is divided into the three sections that were customary in this period (up to about 1520). The first is based around a descending scalic motive; the second is a duet in which more scalic motion is heard, this time upwards and in semiminims. The final section is once more in triple time, first featuring very long held notes in tenor and bassus with superius and altus duetting above, before a final stretto section (‘dona nobis’) which again breaks up the regular pulse before a final cadence is asserted.

Composer Info

Antoine Brumel (c1460–1512/13),

CD Info

CD # CDA68065