Pomerium: Mannerist Motets & Musical Games

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Program: #19-40   Air Date: Sep 23, 2019

Alexander Blachly returns to share the latest recordings from his superb vocal ensemble.

NOTE: all of the music on this program features the Pomerium ensemble directed by our guest, Alexander Blachly. For more information: http://pomerium.us/

I. A Voice in the Wilderness: Mannerist Motets of the Renaissance  Olde Hall Recordings CD OHR 002. 

A Voice in the Wilderness--Mannerist Motets of the Renaissance

Our cover art shows St. John the Baptist in the wilderness in a painting by Bernardino Lanino (ca. 1512-1583). Lanino’s image, as a Mannerist take on a well-known subject (Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same scene), has further dramatized Da Vinci’s already dramatic  setting and lighting by means of heightened chiaroscuro. More importantly, Lanino surprises and shocks us with the nearly naked figure of St. John. As close as Lanino’s painting is in many details to its model, it gives a different overall impression, jolting our awareness and making us wonder at its meaning. By extensive chromaticism and previously unheard-of effects, the Mannerist music on this CD does the same thing.

          In 1914, the art historian Walter Friedlaender, one of the first writers to promote the concept of Mannerism, characterized it as an “anticlassical” style. By that he meant that Mannerist artists used the techniques and ideas of their classical predecessors, but exaggerated and distorted them to create a more expressive and personal type of “unreal” realism. One thinks immediately of Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck or Conversion of St. Paul, in which the figures, especially the horse in the latter painting, have heads that are out of proportion to their bodies, while the bodies are elongated beyond any semblance of reality; yet all the individual elements are painted with such precision in the details that they have an almost photographic quality. As a term used by music historians, Mannerism usually refers today to the musical character of avant-garde works from the late Renaissance that foreshadow the systematic harnessing of emotional effects by Baroque composers. The distortions and exaggerations in this case involve harmonic instability, asymmetries of phrase structure, and unexpected and/or strangely resolved dissonances.

          The earliest pieces in our selection are the daring motets by Giaches de Wert, one of the last of the famous northern composers of the Renaissance who made their home in Italy. Wert, who was stationed in Mantua, spent significant time with similarly-minded composers in nearby Ferrara. Known today for his six books of Italian madrigals, Wert should also be recognized for  his sizable body of sacred music, much of it probably written for Santa Barbara, his patron’s church in Mantua.

          Wert’s motets could fairly be described as sacred madrigals, in that they often adopt the dialogue form and pictorial effects found throughout the Italian madrigal repertoire of the later sixteenth century. Especially impressive is Wert’s large-scale pacing, with dramatic effects well prepared by increasing tension, often followed by calm resolution. Ascendente Jesu, the most spectacular example, illustrates Christ with his apostles in the windstorm on the sea (Matthew 8:23-26). At first, Wert depicts in a simple musical gesture the act of Christ climbing up into the boat. Nothing much is happening as the disciples follow him. Then, suddenly, the windstorm hits and the music churns and swirls with the waves, which slap the boat about and threaten to swamp it, in which event all aboard would drown. It is hard to think of another example of Renaissance music as turbulent as this, with six voices in rapid and extended sycopations followed by a passage in quick dotted notes, some of which are on the beat vying with others off the beat to create a nearly chaotic effect. The disciples are terrified, but Christ has fallen asleep. Waking him up, they cry out, “Lord, save us! We are about to perish!” Christ admonishes them for their lack of faith but then rebukes the wind and the sea. There follows a great calm, which Wert captures in sound just as effectively as, at the opposite end of the pictorial spectrum, he had evoked the storm-tossed waves moments before.

          Equally dramatic is Wert’s musical depiction of John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness (Vox clamantis in deserto), from which our program takes its name. The singers in their highest range loudly cry out “Vox,” then drop down an octave to a pianissimo on “clamantis in deserto.” “Parate!” (Prepare!) they exclaim, then “rectas facite semitas eius!” (make straight his paths!). “Omnis  vallis” (every valley) has prominent voices descending a third and then leaping down an entire octave, while “et omnis mons” (every mountain) has them ascend back up a third followed by a leap up of an octave. So it goes with every verbal image. The “rough” places have a rough melodic bump, highly uncharacteristic of Renaissance vocal writing by any composer active in the earlier sixteenth century. The voices then descend smoothly, the “rough places” having become smooth. “Et videbit omnis caro salutare Dei” (and all flesh shall see the salvation of God) has a particularly sweeping figure in all voices to represent “salvation” for all. While no music published before the seventeenth century included explicit indications of loud and soft, Wert’s dramatic contrasts in Vox clamantis make it clear that he expected pronounced differences of volume in its performance.

          Egressus Jesus was Wert’s most famous work during his lifetime. Telling the story of theCanaanite woman who begged Jesus to cure her daughter, it exhibits musical dialogue so effectively that the listener has no difficulty discerning each change of speaker. At first, the woman calls loudly to Jesus to help her. Jesus makes no answer. She asks again. The disciples cry out indignantly to Jesus to send her away (she is from the despised people of Canaan). Jesus tells her in a soft voice that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She is not rebuffed, but kneels before Jesus and worships him. Jesus tries another approach: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Still not put off, the woman replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Implication: so great is Jesus that the smallest help from him will save her daughter. Jesus cannot help but be moved. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be as you wish.” With these words Wert writes tremendous cascades of notes for all seven voices, creating an overwhelming musical effect.

          Overwhelming also are the eight voices in Saule, Saule calling out God’s words to Saul (soon to be St. Paul) on the road to Damascus: “Ego sum Jesus, quem tu persequeris!” (I am Jesus, whom you persecute!). In rapidly overlapping figures, the eight voices hurl out the words “quem tu persequeris” to fill the air with a wall of sound. Paul, terrified, can only answer in a whisper, “Domine, quid me vis facere?” (Lord, what do you wish me to do?). Again the eight voices answer in great waves, now all together, “Surge et ingredere in civitatem, et dicetur tibi quid te oporteat facere!” (Rise up and enter the city, and there you will be told what you should do!). Much of Saule, Saule could have been written for six voices, or even five, but to create the powerful impression of the mighty voice of God admonishing his persecutor, Wert elected to enlist the force of eight voices, which together produce the required massive effects.

          As a composer of colorful madrigals, Wert found himself drawn not just to exciting texts but also to those expressing pathos. Vox in Rama takes a passage from Matthew 2:18 that cites Jeremiah: “Vox in Rama audita est, ploratus et ululatus multus, Rachel plorans filios suos” (In Ramah a voice was heard, weeping and great lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children). In Matthew’s view, Jeremiah is prophesying the Slaughter of the Innocents. Wert again writes octave leaps for the voices at the opening words. “Ploratus” and “ululatus” then get especially surprising and evocative harmonies. But the musical climax comes with “Rachel plorans filios suos,” which is set to chromatically descending figures of unusual poignancy. While he must be included among the first composers to use the descending chromatic fourth to symbolize weeping, Wert was certainly not the last. The descending tetrachord,  especially in its wholly or partially chromatic form, would soon become widely used in the armament of rhetorical devices used by composers in the following centuries.

          While Wert’s motets are in effect sacred madrigals, the three works by Monteverdi heard here were first published as actual madrigals, composed at the turn of the seventeenth century to Italian love poetry. Monteverdi began his career as a colleague of Wert’s in Mantua, where he wrote his first opera, Orfeo, in 1607. From then on his main focus would be composing music for the stage. His first published works, the eight books of five-voice madrigals,  already display his keen ear for theatrical effects. Like many other popular madrigals from the end of the Renaissance, Monteverdi’s most famous efforts appeared shortly after their initial publication refitted with sacred Latin words to become “spiritualized” madrigals very much like Wert’s motets. Monteverdi’s arranger was a fine rhetorician from Milan, Aquilino Coppini, who showed both remarkable sensitivity to Monteverdi’s music and impressive skill in creating Latin poetry parallel in meter and rhyme to the Italian originals, often retaining the same syllables, occasionally nearly the same word, at the same place. Thus, the Coppini contrafacts (as musical works endowed with new words are called) allow Monteverdi’s music to be as expressive and precisely wedded to the new words as it is when sung to the original Italian poems. (Pomerium treats the contrafacts as Latin motets, appropriate for a small choir, whereas the original madrigals were intended for a vocal ensemble of just five singers.)

          When sending his three volumes of contrafacts to his friend Hendrik van der Putten in Louvain in 1609, Coppini included a description of how to perform Monteverdi’s music: “[The pieces] by Monteverdi require, during their performance, more flexible rests and bars that are not strictly regular, now pressing forward or abandoning themselves to slowings down, now also hurrying. You yourself will fix the tempo. In them there is a truly wondrous capacity for moving the affections.” 

          Felle amaro was published by Coppini in Milan in 1607, just two years after Monteverdi’s original, Cruda Amarilli, first appeared in his fifth book, in 1605. The words of Cruda Amarilli, from Giovanni Battista Guarini’s Il pastor fido, express a lover’s painful acceptance of rejection: “Cruel Amaryllis, who with your very name bitterly teach me to love, Amaryllis, whiter and lovelier than the privet but deafer and fiercer than the deaf asp: since I offend you by speaking, I shall die in silence.” Coppini finds a parallel sentiment in Christ’s thoughts as he hangs on the cross: “The people have given me bitter gall to drink and vinegar, though I gave them not bitter waters in the desert, but sweet liquid. O deaf, fierce men, why, like a deaf asp, do you wish this on me, even as I now die for your sake?”

          The new musical style of Monteverdi’s madrigals from his Books Four and Five provoked a firestorm of controversy, with the conservative music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi famously condemning their violations of traditional procedures even as the musical public responded enthusiastically to the madrigals’ undeniable emotional power. What upset Artusi, who had heard several of the works later published in Books Four and Five performed in Ferrara in the 1590s, were the dissonances Monteverdi enlisted to express the sentiments of his chosen texts. Here is what Artusi wrote about Monteverdi’s novel clashes: “They are harsh to the ear, rather offending than delighting it, and to the good rules left by those who have estalished the order and the bounds of this science they bring confusion and imperfection of no little consequence. Instead of enriching, augmenting, and ennobling harmony by various means, as so many noble spirits have done, they bring it to such estate that the beautiful and purified style is indistinguishable from the barbaric” (translation by Oliver Strunk).

          To reduce a description of Monteverdi’s style to a series of dissonances, however, is to miss much of the point of what he has accomplished. For it is the entirely natural declamation of his five-voice writing, which has all the rhetorical variety of human speech, that stands out as the work of a great musical mind  (not to overlook the memorable melodic and harmonic effects everywhere present). Although five voices, or five voice-parts in a small choir, sing in ensemble most of the time, the music as a whole breathes and moves like the words spoken by a single person. For theorists, though, dissonances were the point of interest. Seventeen decades after Artusi’s complaints, Giovanni Battista Martini, in his Esemplare o sia saggio fondamentale pratico di contrappunto sopra il canto fermo of 1774, was still struck by Monteverdi’s harmonic innovations in Cruda Amarilli, singling out the soprano’s entrance on a ninth after its first quarter-note rest, and the same voice’s downward leap of a seventh in its final phrase.  Tu vis à me abire is Coppini’s “spiritualized” version of Monteverdi’s Voi pur da me partite from Book Four (1603). Coppini’s arrangement appeared in his Terzo libro della musica di Claudio Monteverdi a cinque voci fatta spirituale da Aquilino Coppini (Milan, 1609). The Italian text, madrigal number 83 in Guarini’s Rime, again concerns a lover’s pain of separation: “You are actually abandoning me, hard-hearted soul, and the separation gives you no pain? Alas, this is a cruel death. How can you enjoy it? I am close to my dying hour, yet you seem insensible. What amazing harshness: to be the the soul of someone’s heart but to separate without feeling the least sorrow!” Coppini’s rewrite has Christ addressing a person who rejects him for transitory pleasures: “You wish to leave me, hard soul, yet you don’t see yourself leaving life itself? This is to die most unfortunately. You are happy, but you are destined at the last hour to eternal flames. What extreme duress results when, cleaving to fallen ones, you are separated from eternal glory!” For Monteverdi, the key word in Guarini’s poem was “separation,” which Coppini clearly understood when he kept the same word in his Latin contrafact, replacing “e separarsi” with “et separari.” Monteverdi’s musical evocation of this word is simplicity itself: two voices begin the phrase in unison, moving apart dissonantly by whole step on the word “separate.” No polyphonist of the classic school in the sixteenth century would have done such a thing, but no listener of any era could fail to appreciate the effectiveness of the procedure. 

          Monteverdi’s Piagn’ e sospira, again from his Book Four, shows how classical polyphonic techniques could be reworked to fulfill a Mannerist agenda. The text comes from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme conquistata, where a princess (Erminia) carves her sweetheart’s name (Tancredi) in the bark of various trees, weeping and sighing for having betrayed her people for him, and wetting her crimson cheeks with tears. Monteverdi assigns distinct musical motifs to five phrases of text and then combines and recombines them polyphonically to produce a result similar to a permutation fugue by Bach. Every voice eventually sings all five motifs, sometimes several times. Monteverdi sets the word “Piagn’” (She weeps) to four slow notes ascending by chromatic half-steps. Then a short rest before “e sospira” (and sighs). Next, as the flocks flee the hot rays of the sun to lie in the sweet shade, a descending dotted figure for the “caldi raggi” followed by eight running eighth-notes for “fuggon” (flee). A new motif introduces the words “segnò l’amato nom’in mille guise” (signs her lover’s name in a thousand different ways), followed by an insistent figure on a single repeated pitch for “e de la sua fortuna i grav’oltraggi e i vari casi” (and her fate of suffering and various accidents). At “in dura scorza incise” (she carves in the hard bark), Monteverdi employs a striking descent of a major sixth, all but forbidden in classical polyphony. Once the polyphonic weaving and reweaving of the five motifs has run its course, Monteverdi writes a simple homophonic peroration to the words “e in rilegendo poi le proprie note spargea di pianto le vermiglie gote” (and in rereading her own marks, she wets with tears her crimson cheeks). It is the chromatic nature of the initial figure and its continual reappearance at different pitch levels that creates a Mannerist harmonic instability, the better to express the princess’s grief. Although Monteverdi’s contrapuntal skill recalls the virtuosic manipulation of musical ideas by Josquin and his contemporaries, the unremitting chromaticism endows Piagn’ e sospira with an emotional intensity rarely if ever achieved by any previous polyphonic composer.

          For Coppini, the Biblical parallel to the situation of Tasso’s princess was Peter’s remorse at having denied Christ three times before the cock crowed. “Piagn’ e sospira” becomes “Plorat amare” (He weeps bitterly). The flocks fleeing the hot rays of the sun becomes “and dissolves in quick tears for having denied the Lord, whom he loved.” “Segnò l’amato nom’ in mille guise” is now “To himself he says, ‘O, good Jesus, what have I done?’” “E de la sua fortuna i grav’ oltraggi e i vari casi” is replaced by “And, thinking about the injury and his own wrongdoing.” “In dura scorza incise” has Peter lie down “on a hard rock.” For the peroration, Coppini writes “And whenever he hears the cock crow, he wets with weeping his shame-red cheeks.” So motet-like is Monteverdi’s polyphonic writing in this piece that one is tempted to say that Coppini’s contrafact is even more effective than the originl setting of Tasso’s poem as a madrigal.

          With Gesualdo we arrive at the most Mannerist composer of all, and surely one of the most eccentric composers ever. Once he discovered extreme chromaticism during his trips to Ferrara beginning in 1594 to visit and woo his second wife, Leonora d’Este, there was no turning back. He did more, however, than copy the avant-garde composers there, e.g., Luzzaschi and possibly Wert (who had often visited Ferrara for extended visits in the 1580s but was chronically ill in the last years of his life and may not have traveled by 1594). Gesualdo, in fact, invented a new harmonic vocabularly uniquely his own.

          Melancholy, guilt, regret, and sorrow permeate Gesualdo’s music, which may explain why he was drawn to set the 27 responsories for the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday),  an enormous project which he published in 1611 at the end of his life. Theguilt of Peter, the sorrow of Christ, the complicity of those responsible for the crucifixion, the disgrace of Judas’s betrayal: all of these ideas and moods resonated with Gesualdo’s own inner demons: for while the composer, as the prince of Venosa, was beyond legal prosecution for the brutal murder of his first wife (his cousin Maria d’Avalos) and her lover in 1590, he could not escape the torments of his own conscience, continually pricked by the ever-present danger of revenge sought by his wife’s and her lover’s relatives. If remorse and contrition blocked out joy and humor from his later years, they nevertheless appear to have had a positive effect on his career as an artist, for his music grew ever more expressive, emotionally charged, and spiritual. The responsories for Holy Week are Gesualdo’s last and greatest works.

          Having characterized Wert’s motets as pictorial, and Monteverdi’s madrigals as theatrical, we should now call Gesualdo’s responsories “psychological,” for they explore with never-ending variety the contradictions and warring emotions of the human spirit. In monte Oliveti, the first of the 27 responsories, and, like all the rest, written for six voices, takes us to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Christ is praying to God the evening before his crucifixion. “Father, if it is possible, let this chalice [the Old Testament cup of judgment, wrath, shame, and desolation] pass by me. For the spirit is indeed ready but the flesh is weak. [Yet] let thy will be done.” We can be certain, because of how he set to music these and similar words in the remaining 26 responsories, that Christ’s conflicting emotions resonated with Gesualdo. The music opens with one lonely voice singing the word “In,” with the other five then joining in to create a rich and somber harmony that slides periodically to remote tonal regions (G major to B-flat major, A minor to B major). At “Pater” (Father), the six voices sing homophonically, first in  in A major, then, with no warning, in F major. The sudden juxtaposition of unrelated chords will become a trademark of Gesualdo’s in the responsories to follow. Adding to the harmonic instability are the dissonances which develop as voices pursue trajectories that collide, sometimes with clear rhetorical purpose. At “infirma” in the phrase “Spiritus quidem promptus est, caro autem infirma” (the spirit is indeed ready but the flesh is weak), the Altus tries to ascend to G, which the Cantus is already singing, but can only reach F-sharp. The excruciating dissonance doesn’t resolve. Instead the Altus falls back two steps and tries ascending again (successfully), this time by way of F-natural. Some motifs are pictorial, as at “transeat a me” (pass by me), where all the voices in turn get an ascending or descending scale in minims that literally pass by each other. No matter how grinding the dissonance, Gesualdo always ends a major grammatical phrase or sentence with a sweetly resonant full triadic sonority.

          Like In monte Oliveti, the next responsory heard here, Ecce vidimus eum, is from the Matins service of Maundy Thursday. The text, a slight reworking of  Isaiah 53:2, 4-5, was interpreted by Christians as an important prophecy of the “suffering servant,” who “has no beauty. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions. By his stripes we are healed.” Gesualdo sets “Ecce” (Behold) at the opening of this work with all six voices singing a richly consonant G-major chord followed by what in later harmonic analysis would be called a secondary dominant of A in first inversion. This leads to A minor, which immediately becomes A major. Thus, the Bassus ascends from G to G-sharp to A, while the Altus ascends from D to E, falling back to C-natural and then rising to C-sharp. This is not a polyphonic progression that would have pleased Artusi; nor would such progressions become common even many years later. Gesualdo uses this startling harmonic progression to dramatize the words “Behold, we have seen him” as preparation for the strange phrase “non habentem speciem neque decorem” (literally, “not having comeliness or beauty”). To highlight the cruel sentiment, Gesualdo creates an extended and dissonant syncopation in the Sextus voice.

          A verbal description of this work could linger over each marvelous event: the music’s evo cation of sin at “peccata nostra” or of pain at ”dolet” in “et pro nobis dolet” (and suffered for us). But it is at “iniquitates nostros” in the phrase “ipse autem vulneratus est propter iniquitates nostros” (but he was wounded for our iniquities) that we hear the most extraordinary effects. Three times these two words are repeated, the first two iterations with increasing dissonance, especially the entrance the second one, which has the notes A, B, C, and E all sounding at the same time. The third iteration is oddly sweet and gentle, as though signaling the forgiveness of iniquities to come.

          There are many remarkable passages of chromatic writing in the responsories, but few as stunning as the setting of the words at the beginning of the Repetendum: “Cujus livore sanati sumus” (by his stripes we are healed). Three high voices progress tortuously by chromatic half steps from D minor to E major to represent “cujus livore” (literally: by his bruises). At “sanati sumus,” also repeated three times, all six voices sing in glorious F major. The brief verse, “Truly he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows,” is a quiet moment of revelation sung by the four lowest voices, as though the music itself were a person who has realized a significant truth after having witnessed an eye-opening event. Because the responsory form calls for the end of the respond to be repeated (hence the name Repetendum) after the verse, we hear again the amazing passage at “Cujus livore sanati sumus.”

          The next Gesualdo responsory in our program, O vos omnes, is for Matins of Holy Saturday. The words are from the Book of Lamentations 1:12, interpreted as the words of Jesus at the hour of his death. Gesualdo had previously set this text as an arresting motet for five voices in 1603, but in recasting it for the six-voice ensemble of his 27 responsories eight years later he created an even finer masterpiece. The texture is simpler than that of most of the other responsories, but the power of the writing is greater (recalling Beethoven’s appreciation of Handel for having achieved the most powerful effects with the simplest means). Two slow chords to the words “O vos” open the piece: first, the highly unusual B minor (an essentially forbidden initial sonority in earlier Renaissance polyphony), followed by the equally unexpected B major. The words “Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus” (if there is any sorrow like my sorrow) must have especially touched the melancholic Gesualdo, who for over two decades at the end of his life was practically drowning in sorrow. The top two voices especially stand out: the Cantus for its high descending melody, the Sextus for its persistent chromaticism, changing minor thirds into major ones and vice versa.

          Tenebrae factae sunt is the emotional high point of the 27 responsories. Sung at Matins of Good Friday, this is the moment when Christ cries out to God and then dies. Rarely does any a cappella music produce an effect as monumental as the one Gesualdo achieves when Christ calls out from the cross in a great voice: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” These words begin fortissimo but end piognantly in a prolonged pianissim (not specifically notated, but implied). Especially moving is the Repetendum heard next, where Jesus “having inclined his head, gave up his spirit.” After such an exquisite moment, the Versus comes as a surprise. Christ, who had just given up his spirit, seems to come back to life momentarily, exclaiming in a loud voice (which quickly becomes soft), “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The tender harmonies with which Gesualdo ends this phrase evoke the peacefulness of death.

          A notable example of Gesualdo’s psychological interpretation of his texts comes at the beginning of this responsory, right after the aggressive music for “dum crucifixissent” (when they crucified). While the Altus is singing the word “Judaei” (Jews), other voices simultaneously sing the word “Jesum” (Jesus), even as the Bassus sings “crucifixissent.” From this coincidentoverlapping and blending of victim, victimizer, and deed we may conclude that Gesualdo did not interpret the traditional words of this responsory as a simple justification for anti-Semitism, as some others have done. Perhaps, as a murderer himself, he identified with those who killed Jesus. Yet, instead of condemning them, he seems moved by their humanity. The complexity and subtlety of the musical argument supports even greater degrees of complex interpretation than this, for it is possible to assign a pausible psychological motivation to virtually every musical event in all of the Gesualdo responsories.

          The final Gesualdo responsory in our program, Judas mercator pessimus (“Judas, the most evil merchant”) comes again from Maundy Thursday Matins, where it is the fifth of the nine responsories heard that night. In an opening passage that rivals “Cujus livore sanati sumus” heard earlier, Judas is portrayed here by the three upper voices in sliding, oily chromatic lines that produce harmonies so surprising that we are in danger of admiring the novelty of the writing at the expense of interpreting it as a negative depiction of the betrayer of Christ. Jesus, as the “innocent lamb,” then brings forth, as we have now come to expect, a bright, consonant, six-voice G-major sonority. The passage that most stands out in this responsory comes just before the Repetendum at the words “non negavit Judae osculum” (did not deny Judas’s kiss), repeated three times for emphasis. The final statement of  these words vividly demonstrates Gesualdo’s favored procedure of writing tortured, wildly chromatic lines that collide in extraordinary dissonances and then resolve, almost miraculously, into purely consonant triadic final chords. It should be emphasized that no matter how unprecedented his harmonies, Gesualdo’s polyphonic writing consistently shows a masterful understanding of contrapuntal voice-leading. He also has an unerring ear for the most sonorous spacing of notes sounding together in chords. In another example of Gesualdo’s madrigal training, he sets the first words of the Repetendum, “Denariorum numero” (for a number of coins) in small, insignificant notes for just two voices, illustrating thereby the paltry reward Judas accepted for selling Jesus to those who would have him crucified.

          Just as the responsories were the last works composed by Gesualdo, the final work in our recording was the last music composed by Lassus. Vide homo serves as the epilogue to the composer’s setting of 20 of the 42 Italian poems from Luigi Tansillo’s cycle, Il lagrime di san Pietro (“The Tears of St. Peter”). The Latin text, possibly written by Lassus himself, purports to be Christ’s dying words from the cross. Moment by moment the music shifts from one idea to another, mostly by way of dialogue between the higher and lower voices, each group seemingly incapable of more than half a statement (e.g., high voices: “See, O man”; low voices: “what I suffer for you”). When all seven voices sound at once, they create a more massive effect, as at the words “there is no suffering like that which torments me” and “when I find [mankind] to be so ungrateful.” Here we experience the full power of the anticlassical impulse, with every phrase weighted by harmonic tension, every note crucial to the slow, inexorable unfolding of the complete musical statement. By using each semi-cadence to introduce a new phrase sung by a diffeent group of voices, Lassus creates the effect of a single, continuous musical idea that extends through four entire minutes in Pomerium’s performance. Vide homo thereby seems to move outside of time to embody Christ’s enduring distress at mankind’s never-ending shortcomings. —Alexander Blachly


In monte Oliveti  

Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1561-1613)



Felle amaro  

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1623)   



Vox in Rama 

Giaches de Wert (1535-1596) 



Ecce vidimus eum        

Giaches de Wert   



Tu vis à me abire

Claudio Monteverdi 



Saule, Saule

Giaches de Wert



O vos omnes                                            

Carlo Gesualdo   



Ascendente Jesu                                     

Giaches de Wert   



Plorat amare                                    

Claudio Monteverdi   



Egressus Jesus                                       

Giaches de Wert   



Tenebrae factae sunt                               

Carlo Gesualdo   



Vox clamantis in deserto                      

Giaches de Wert   



Judas, mercator pessimus                      

Carlo Gesualdo   



Vide homo



II. Musical Games of the Renaissance: A Century of Musical Ingenuity, 1410-1510.  Olde Hall Recordings CD OHR 004. 

Image result for Musical Games of the Renaissance: A Century of Musical Ingenuity, 1410-1510

            “Musical Games of the Renaissance: A Century of Musical Ingenuity, 1410-1510,” began as a musical complement to an exhibition of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century hand-painted playing cards mounted at The Met Cloisters in early 2016. On February 21 of that year, Pomerium first presented a public performance at The Cloisters of a program that included all the works recorded here. The performance was in the Fuentideña Chapel, which adjoins the room in which the playing cards were exhibited. The juxtaposition of cards and music made clear that Renaissance society’s fascination with games—well known from fourteenth-, fifteenth-, and sixteenth-century images of people playing cards, dice, and chess—also extended to musical composition. In fact, composers found the musical notation of the time an apt medium in which to engage in musical games involving scales, note values, canons, and symbolism. Musical games entertained and challenged performers, but they could also embed serious hidden meanings.

            Baude Cordier notated his famous “picture song,” Belle, bonne, sage, in the shape of a heart (shown on page __ of this booklet). Dating from ca. 1410, on the borderline between the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, this piece looks for all the world like a medieval valentine to an unnamed sweetheart. The lyrics indicate, however, that it is being delivered on New Year’s Day rather than February 14: “On this day when the year renews itself I give you the gift of a new song in my heart.” The heart in question is both Cordier’s physical heart in his chest and his notated heart “which presents itself to you” as an audio-visual token of affection.

            Equally famous is Baude Cordier’s other picture song, Tout par compas, often referred to as his “Circle Canon” (shown on the front cover and page __ of this booklet). Tout par compas has symbolic meaning, referring to the Trinity, as indicated by the notation of the refrain 33 semibreves in length. (3+3=6, the only perfect number in the decad; 3x3=9, the number of ranks of angels in heaven; and 33 equals the number of years Christ lived on earth.) Tout par compas also refers to heaven/eternity by its circular staves drawn with a compass, the symbol of the architect—including the heavenly architect who created the universe.


            Both picture songs are complex notationally but surprisingly tuneful in performance—yet not so tuneful as to exclude some intricate, fast-paced counterpoint and flamboyant rhythmic exclamations as carryovers from the so-called ars subtilior style of the late fourteenth century.

            All of the pieces on this CD, though different in many respects, will be seen to share in some way in Baude Cordier’s game-like approach to the creation of Belle, bonne, sage and Tout par compas. Importantly, every piece charms, no matter how complex the texture or how obscure the key to solving a musical puzzle. Our ears, therefore, as well as our eyes, help us appreciate the intellectual climate in which such works arose.

            The Kyrie and Gloria from Isaac’s Missa Argentum et aurum (“Silver and Gold”) show the composer in an adventurous mood. As an unusual experiment, the first Kyrie is so arranged that each voice sings notes of just one value: dotted breves in the top voice, dotted semibreves in the Altus, dotted longs in the Bassus, and dotted maximas in the Tenor. All voices declaim melodies that echo the Gregorian chant on which the entire Mass is based, a German version of the antiphon Argentum et aurum for Vespers of the Feast of Peter and Paul, June 29. We will be hard put to find another example of a texture like this in all of Renaissance music. To make the opening Kyrie even more unusual, Isaac has the slow dotted semibreves in the Altus cutting across the beat, so that it seems as though the music is out of sync with the conductor. The Christe transitions to more normal Renaissance motion in its three voices, with notes reinforcing the beat rather than cutting across it. The tempo, as a result, seems to speed up in a mathematical proportion. Isaac makes the three voices sound like four by having the Bassus alternate phrases in two ranges an octave apart, as though each phrase for low basses is echoed by high baritones. The Gloria which follows features the “Silver and Gold” melody sounding at several different speeds: extremely slowly in the Tenor at the beginning of the movement, then faster and in several different ranges later on. The most striking moments occur when the theme is in its faster guise, first in the Tenor, then in the Bassus, while in the background a harmonic “loop” in the other voices produces a repeating cadence with which the chant melody occasionally produces dissonant collisions.

             Antoine Busnoys’s motet, In hydraulis, honors Ockeghem (his teacher?) as a modern Pythagoras (Prima pars) and a modern Orpheus (Secunda pars). It can be dated to ca. 1464. The poem that Busnoys sets, which he undoubtedly wrote himself, reviews the famous proportions corresponding to the pitches of the scale that people since antiquity had credited Pythagoras with discovering. These shape the structure of the music in fascinating but mostly inaudible ways. One feature, though, is audible: the two-pitch cantus firmus, sung in this performance to the word Vale (“Farewell!”). Heard in long notes on the pitches D – C - D, followed by a – G – a, followed by d - c – d (and then in descent, d – c – d, a – G – a, D – C – D), the cantus firmus thereby outlines vertically the famous Pythagorean numbers/intervals: 2:1 (octave), 3:2 (fifth), 4:3 (fourth), and 9:8 (whole step). Some of the same numbers also occur horizontally, as the cantus firmus after each ascent and descent shortens its notes by a Pythagorean proportion for the next ascent and descent.

            From the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we have over forty polyphonic Masses based on L’homme armé, the most famous tune of the Renaissance. The earliest known polyphonic work to incorporate the melody is the rondeau Il sera par vous conbatu/L’homme armé, an ingenious and witty song  dating from around 1460 that makes fun of a singer in the Burgundian chapel choir named Simon Le Breton. Above L’homme armé, sung in tandem by two lower voices, the upper voice praises the sixty-year-old Le Breton, whom the song jestingly identifies as a terrifying warrior who will crush the fearsome Turk with a celery stick. Nothing, of course, could be more absurd than for an aged singer armed with a frail vegetable to be praised as a fierce soldier. Alejandro Planchart has made a strong argument in favor of attributing this amusing song to the most brilliant composer of the mid-fifteenth century, Guillaume Du Fay.

            About the origins of the L’homme armé tune, little is known. Its notation in the mensuration (meter) of ª, nearly obsolete by 1450, suggests that it may predate its first polyphonic setting by several decades. No surviving source preserves it in a monophonic form. At some point L’homme armé became the theme song of Philip the Good’s Order of the Golden Fleece, which the duke founded in 1430. Perhaps not coincidentally, the order had 31 chevaliers, and the L’homme armé tune lasts exactly 31 semibreves in some settings. Though the “armed man” of the song was initially identified with “the Turk” of the Islamic East, who was constantly threatening to overrun Europe, and is so identified still in Il sera paar vous conbatu/L’homme armé, by the time of the first L’homme armé Masses a year or two later the armed man had been transformed into Jesus doing battle against Satan. The L’homme armé Mass tradition immediately became the site for a compositional rivalry, with each Mass attempting to outdo its predecessors in ingenuity.

            Our program presents two Mass movements that show how great the difference could be between two pieces based on the L’homme armé melody. Ockeghem’s L’homme armé Mass is possibly the earliest of all such works, dating from ca. 1462-64. The entire Kyrie movement lasts just over two minutes and sounds surprisingly concise for the sometimes prolix Ockeghem, with the tune in slow motion clearly audible in the Tenor voice. Ockeghem’s unusual arrangement of mensurations in the three sections of the Kyrie could lead to misunderstanding, but the composer evidently had in mind a straightforward sequence of tempo relationships, with the tempos of Kyrie I, Christe, and Kyrie II in the non-cantus firmus voices all derived from a constant minim (smallest note value). Josquin’s L’homme armé Mass in the sixth mode, his second in the genre, is considerably later than Ockeghem’s sole effort. Like many of Josquin’s other works, it cannot be precisely dated, but the evidence from the many sources in which it survives points to the period around 1500. Notated for low voices, with much of the Superius notated with alto or mezzo-soprano clefs, its Bassus frequently descends to notated low E-flats. The low clefs locate the L’homme armé cantus firmus on F, but only the Superius and Altus have ranges that dip significantly below F, i.e., sixth mode. The Tenor and Bassus have ranges that extend up an octave above F and almost never below it, i.e., fifth mode. Whether the low pitch in which the Mass is notated indicates an intention for it to be sung in a low register, with altos voices singing the Superius, is not clear. The Gloria is sung here a minor third higher than notated (with sopranos on the Superius). This movement manifests the features we associate with Josquin as a mature master: close imitation engaged in by low as well as high voices, extended sequences, strong harmonic motion, a dramatic change of texture at “Qui tollis” (when the L’homme armé melody moves from the Tenor to the Bassus), and powerfully unfolding counterpoint from start to finish.

            Musical puzzles in the early fifteenth century tended to focus on notational tricks, especially those involving various signs of proportion to indicate that the notes affected moved in sometimes complex or unusual mathematical ratios to other notes. Yet already a more purely musical type of puzzle was coming into vogue: canons—in which two or more voices sing from the same written notes but interpret them differently (as either higher or lower than notated, faster or slower, upside down or backwards, and most often with staggered entrances). A mastery of canon established a composer as worthy of the highest praise. Cordier’s Circle Canon presents puzzles of both types. The top voice, and to a lesser extent the Tenor, present a virtual gauntlet of puzzling proportional signs to indicate the durational relationships to be discovered by the performers. But the top voice is also a strict canon at the unison, with its rondeau poem instructing the “comes” (companion voice) to pursue the “dux” (leader) at a distance of three tempora (breves). Thus, this piece looks both forward to the Renaissance in its exploitation of canon and backward to the fourteenth century in its notational complications.

            In the printer Ottaviano Petrucci’s third book of Josquin Masses of 1514, the different movements of the Missa Di dadi show augmented durational values in the Tenor voice by way of dice printed in the margin. For the Sanctus, heard here, one die shows five dots, another shows one dot, to indicate that semibreves are augmented in performance in a ratio of five to one (the 5:1 augmentation applies only to semibreves, though, smaller values being augmented instead in a 2:1 ratio). Evidently thinking it would be difficult for the purchasers of his third book of Josquin Masses to decipher how the 5:1 ratio was to be achieved, Petrucci printed a “resolution” of the puzzle right beneath the original notation:


            Elsewhere in the Di dadi Sanctus, Josquin seems concerned primarily with games of clever counterpoint. Thus in the two-voice Pleni, the prevailing meter is the equivalent of modern 3/2, with three semibreves to the perfection (measure). Soon the Altus begins a long, ten-note descending scale all in dotted semibreves, such that there are only two large notes per measure, each large note three minims in duration. The Bassus, singing only minims at this point, either gets caught up in the new meter of the Altus or else causes the Altus to move in its dotted semibreves—it’s not clear which. But no sooner has the Bassus established its own three-minim patterns than the Altus reverses direction with a ten-note ascent all in undotted semibreves. The Bassus, highly syncopated, shifts back to its original meter of minims arranged two plus two plus two. Josquin here shows his unending fascination with pushing and tugging notes into patterns in conflict with the underlying metrical organization. Throughout the remainder of the Pleni, duos for various combinations of the Superius, Altus, and Tenor engage in brief, intricate “fugae” (voices chasing one another with the same melodic figures). The Osanna is a dense exercise in counterpoint surrounding the Tenor, which presents the chanson melody on which the entire Mass is based—the tenor voice of Robert Morton’s N’aray-je jamais mieulx—just as Morton originally notated it (and as it appears visually in the Tenor voice at the beginning of the Sanctus—before being subjected to the augmentations specified by the dice). If the Pleni can be called an exploration of abstract counterpoint, the Benedictus is even more of one, with figure after figure serving as material for ingenious rhythmic exercises, each faster in contrapuntal intricacies than the former and mostly in strict canon.                                 

            The Missa Di dadi is thought to be an early work, even though it first appeared in Petrucci’s print when Josquin was probably in his 60s. In its undisguised fascination with the musical possibilities of abstract counterpoint, one might think the Sanctus in particular unsuited to accompanying the greatest mystery in Christian ritual: the transubstantiation of wine and bread into Jesus’ blood and flesh. Certainly some sixteenth century priests thought as much. One Italian bishop, Bernardino Cirillo by name, was particularly upset with Josquin’s Missa Hercules dux Ferrarie, which he singled out, along with two other Masses, for failing to “sway each hardened mind to piety.” What piety can be gathered from such music? he repeated, evidently including all such pieces that placed a premium on the skillful manipulation of musical material. It was not that Cirillo was oblivious to masterful technique. In the realm of painting, he praised Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel for the skill with which they were executed. Nevertheless, he would have preferred that the various nude figures had been painted “in the loggia of some garden, where [they] would have been more appropriate.” We ourselves might well wonder with Bishop Cirillo how, exactly, Josquin’s Missa Di dadi, and other similar feats of musical skill, were meant to heighten the religious experience of congregants hearing them in a sacred ritual. As perplexing as that question might be, we have no trouble admiring such pieces for their purely musical brilliance.—Alexander Blachly






Argentum et aurum (Gregorian chant)

Regensburg 4307 (1501)



Missa Argentum et aurum, Kyrie, 4vv 

Henricus Isaac (ca. 1450-1517) 



Missa Argentum et aurum, Gloria, 4vv                                                

Henricus Isaac     







Belle, bonne, sage, 3vv                                                     

Baude Cordier (fl. ca. 1410?)     

(Boerger, Adams, Steinberger)








In hydraulis, 4vv                                                              

Antoine Busnoys (d. 1492)     








L’homme armé                                                                                      




Il sera par vous conbatu/L’homme armé, 3vv             

Guillaume Du Fay? (ca. 1397-1474)

Eaton, Adams, Steinberger)



Missa L’homme armé, Kyrie, 4vv                        

Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410?-1497)     




Missa L’homme armé sexti toni, Gloria, 4vv   

Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521)







Tout par compas, 3vv 

Baude Cordier     

(Boerger, Eaton, Adams, Steinberger)







       Missa Di dadi, Sanctus, 4vv

Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521)     


Composer Info

Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1561-1613), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1623), Giaches de Wert (1535-1596), Regensburg (1501), Henricus Isaac (ca. 1450-1517), Baude Cordier (fl. ca. 1410?) , Antoine Busnoys (d. 1492), Guillaume Du Fay? (ca. 1397-1474), Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410?-1497), Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450-1521)   

CD Info

CD OHR 002, CD OHR 004