Sacred Lassus I: Missa pro defunctis

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Program: #09-13   Air Date: Mar 23, 2009

Our longest single-composer series--over 50 hours of chronological material--was dedicated to the genius from Mons, Roland de Lassus, (also known as Orlando di Lasso and Orlandus Lassus). We begin our three-part series on his scared music with his setting of the Requiem Mass.

Preservation of this program is made possible by a generous grant from Kenneth Martin.

We begin a six-part series in collaboration with the Belgian Tourist Office and the Embassy of Belgium in Washington, D.C., including Belgian performers and composers.

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Sacred Lassus I: Missa pro defunctis

From Goldberg:

ROLAND DE LASSUS (1532 -1594)

At the age of eight and a half years he was admitted as soprano to the choir of the church of St. Nicholas in his native city.

He soon attracted general attention, both on account of his unusal musical talent and his beautiful voice; so much so that he was three times abducted. Twice his parents had him returned to the parental roof, but the third time they consented to allow him to take up his abode at St-Didier, the temporary residence of Ferdinand de Gonzaga, general in command of the army of Charles V and Viceroy od Sicily.

At the end of the campaign in the Netherlands, Orlandus followed his patron to Milan and from there to Sicily. After the change of his voice Orlandus spent about three years at the court of the Marquess della Terza, at Naples. He next went to Rome, where he enjoyed the favour and hospitality, for about six months, of Cardinal Archbishop of Florence, who was then living there.

Through the influence of this prince of the church , Orlandus obtained the position of choirmaster at St. John Lateran, in spite of his extreme youth and the fact that there were many capable musicians available. During his residence in Rome, Lassus completed his first volume of Masses for four voices, and a collection of motets for five voices, all of which he had published in Venice.

After a sojourn of probably two years in Rome, Lassus, learning of the serious illness of his parents, hastened back to Belgium only to find that they had died. His native city Mons not offering him a suitable field of activity, he spent several years in travel through France and England and then settled at Antwerp for about two years.

It was while here that Orlandus received an invitation from Albert V, Duke of Bavaria, not only to become the director of his court chapel, but also to recruit capable musicians for it in the Netherlands.

For thirty-four years he remained active at Munich as composer and director, first under Albert V, and then under his son and successor, William V. The imperial document conferring the honour is remarkable, not only as showing the esteem in which the master was held by rulers and nations, but particularly as evidence of the lofty conception on the part of this monarch of the function of art in the social economy.

Lassus's great and long-continued activity finally told on his mind and caused a depression and break-down, from which he at first rallied but never fully recovered.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from the Hilliard Ensemble's recording Lassus on ECM (ECM CD 1658).

The Missa pro defunctis (Requiem a 4, published 1578)

--Responsorium: Memento mei Deus ("Remember me, O Lord")
--Introit: Requiem aeternum ("Grant them eternal rest, Lord")
--Graduale: Si ambulem ("Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death")
--Offertorium: Domine Jesu Christe ("O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory")
--Sanctus & Benedictus
--Agnus Dei
--Communio: Lux aeterna ("Let everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord")
--Antiphon: In paradisum ("May the angels receive thee in Paradise")

Prophetiae Sibyllarum

from the notes by John Potter:

Lassus went to Italy at the age of twelve in the service of the Mantuan court of the Gonzagas. His earliest compositions are thought to date from his time in Naples and Rome between about 1550 and 1555. Lassus clearly knew the music of Cipriano da Rore, whose highly chromatic madrigal Calami sonum ferentes he used as a model for his own motet Alma nemes and it is possible that he was in Rome at the time of the great debate on chromaticism between Lusitano and Vicentino in 1551. Both these theorists were trying to establish the nature of the ancient Greek music, the former (who was judged the winner) using the evidence to support a diatonic (and conservative) compositional method, and the latter proposing a more radical chromaticism. The young Lassus was on the side of the radicals, and within a few years of this great debate had produced the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, which were copied in the composer's own hand soon after his arrival in Munich. The partbooks contain pictures by the court painter Hans Mielich of each of the Sibyls, and of Lassus himself aged about 28.

It is possible that Lassus was inspired to set the Sibylline verses by a visit to Cumae sometime during his years in Naples. There is no evidence that he went there, and he would not have seen the actual cave of the Cumaean Sibyl as this was not properly excavated until 1932, but he could have seen the remains of the temple of Apollo or one of the old Roman tunnels where it was thought that the Sibyl, silent since the third century BC, had had her lair. Even today this strange volcanic landscape to the north of the Bay of Naples has a menacing magic about it (Lake Avernus, where Orpheus entered the underworld, is close by). It is not over-fanciful to imagine the young humanist musician recalling the power of such a place when he came to make his own contribution to the new music a few years later. It seems that originally there may have been just one much-travelled ur-Sibyl, who, possibly as early as the 8th century BC established localised cult centres in the Mediterranean area and Asia Minor (perhaps when she was no longer capable of travelling herself). These eventually became Sibyls in their own right. The origin of the term 'Sibyl' is unknown, but it came to mean a prophetess associated with a particular centre, where doom-laden utterances in Greek hexameters would be issued. These verses have mostly not survived. From about the third century BC the Hellenized Alexandrian Jews began to appropriate the medium for their own anti-Roman purposes, and it is these writings that were in turn revised and added to by the early Christians to become the pseudo-Oracula Sibyllina, which fortell the birth of Christ and were much commended by Augustine and others. Interest in the Sibyls resurfaced in the late fifteenth century, with several examples of paintings or wood-block prints accompanied by a line of prophesy. The first appearance of the Latin verses used by Lassus is in a Venetian print of 1481, and Lassus probably used the 1545 or 1555 prints of these texts. During the later middle ages and renaissance the Sibyls were favourite subjects for religious sculpture and painting, and the high point of their journey from pagan ramblings to Christian symbolism came when Michelangelo put five of them oh the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel alongside seven Old Testament prophets.

The words for the introductory Carmina Cromatico are probably by Lassus himself, the title referring to the complex dissonances and tuning of this extraordinary work. It is the shortest of the collection, and tonal disorientation begins almost immediately. The tenor begins 'Carmina' on G, which would lead the listener to expect the Mixolydian mode; in fact a C chord is inserted before one on G, after which we reach the word 'chromatico', where Lassus takes off into B major, C sharp minor and E major in rapid succession, makes a brief rhetorical pause and then jumps to F sharp minor, completely destablizing any potential tonal centre. In the first eight bars there are chords on all but one of the twelve chromatic semitones. This is word-painting in excelsis. The homophonic texture enables Lassus to express the text with the immediacy of renaissance rhetoric, while the continually shifting pitch-centres prepare the listener for the bizarre mixture of pagan hysteria and Christian epigram which are to come. Yet despite this apparent verticality, the piece has a strong linear element, suggesting that Lassus was not only the complete master of his materials but that he was aware of the problems his singers would have. The individual lines are quite melodic, with parts crossing to avoid consecutives or awkward vocal leaps (no one ever has to sing a tritone). The piece only stays in tune if sung with just intonation, in effect negotiating each chord individually, and this is much easier to achieve if the singers have, a line which evolves musically. In fact, the overall shape of this little introduction has an almost physical dimension to it, as the chords gradually shift their way upwards before descending in the last two bars. Perhaps Lassus had in mind the difficult path from the sea to the Sibyl's cave at Cumae.

The Sibylline Prophesies were a gift from the young Lassus to his patron, and were not published until after the composer's death. Lassus, who was fluent in all the compositional techniques of his day, put aside extreme chromaticism and did not return to it. Such music, known as musica reservata, was unique, and performances were reserved for cognoscenti such as the king of France who was so astonished when he heard them in 1571. They are among the finest expressions of a renaissance musical ideal: an attempt to recover from an imagined past a fusion of rhetoric and chromaticism, in which Lassus stretched the compositional boundaries of his own time and laid down a challenge to performers of ours.

--Carmina Chromatico
--Sibylla Persica
--Sibylla Libyca
--Sibylla Delphica
--Sibylla Cimmeria
--Sibylla Samia
--Sibylla Cumana
--Sibylla Hellespontiaca
--Sibylla Phrygia
--Sibylla Europaea
--Sybilla Tiburtina
--Sibylla Erythraea
--Sibylla Agrippa

Composer Info

ROLAND DE LASSUS (1532 -1594),

CD Info

ECM CD 1658

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