The Renaissance

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Program: #17-25   Air Date: Jun 12, 2017

The remarkable Fra Bernardo label gives us Ockeghem masses, a world premier recording of Manchicourt, and the 16th century reinvention of Latin antiquity.

I. Ockeghem Masses (Beauty Farm) Fra Bernardo CD 1701743. For more information:

OCKEGHEM Masses - beauty farm

One of the most striking features of renaissance music is the ­assiduous re-use of musical material: composers strived more for artful and ingenious re-working than invention. There is no ­better example of this than a short song calling for man to take up arms – L’homme armé. At any rate, this simple but spiritually and politically meaningful melody was employed more often than any other as the so-called cantus firmus in some forty mass settings dating from 1450 to 1600 by almost every prominent composer of the time. Appropriately enough, its martial character serves as a battlefield for each to jostle for position with regard to his predecessor in finding ever newer and more refined techniques of treatment.
Even if the origins of this prodigious tradition may seem relatively unimportant, there are enough convincing arguments to suggest that Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa L’homme armé, composed around 1455, may have been the first of its kind. Primarily, for such a subtle and subversive composer as Ockeghem, it is remarkably simply written: the melody appears straightforwardly in the tenor once each in the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus, twice in the ­Gloria and almost three times in the Credo. In this movement, the melody breaks off after the middle section of its last statement and is also transposed down a fifth. In the Agnus Dei it is even transposed down an octave, bringing it into the lowest bass register so that the final part of the mass sounds altogether darker and, with numerous flat signs, more melancholic. With its lengthy, beseeching duets and sombre ending, the third Agnus expresses a moving plea for peace at the end of a mass on the ­armed man.
Another argument for assigning an early composition date is that the cantus firmus is only seldom taken up (but then quite audibly) in the other voices. In the Credo, a fanfare-like motive is repeated throughout all voices to the words «et iterum» (and He shall come again) and, for the Holy Ghost, «qui cum patre et filio simul adoratur» (who, with the Father and the Son, is together adored) the melody’s striking opening phrase is heard in three voice parts. Both examples can be interpreted as symbolic word painting.
And yet, in comparison with the awkward voice leading of Ockeghem’s Missa Caput (certainly an earlier work) and despite the constraints of the cantus firmus’ four-bar structure, the composer can be seen here developing his own individual style. Melodies appear to float endlessly through musical space, voices are drawn compactly together and then broken up kaleidoscopically into individual lines again; they are rhythmically compressed, speeded up and in the next moment powerfully slowed down once more, as in the second section of the Gloria («Qui tollis») or in the textural diversity of the Sanctus. In any case, the piece was evidently considered worth adding to the repertoire of the 15th century’s most demanding vocal ensemble, the papal choir, at the end of the 1480’s.

Since the 16th century, Ockeghem has been stuck with the reputation (based on only a few works) of being an eccentric experimenter and constructor of canons. Yet his only authentic three-part mass, the Missa quinti toni, would suffice to refute this view once and for all. With its steady rhythmic pace, clear structure and bright modality (the «fifth tone» of the title is a near equivalent of the modern F major) this piece reveals Ockeghem’s calm and lyrical side. Fabrice Fitch admiringly classifies this mass as «understatement»: the smallest phrase spun out in the tenor ­suffices as an opening motif for all five movements. Although apparently freely composed, a «motivic network» of falling thirds and rising scales suggest an inner coherence and, perhaps, a lost model such as a chanson. In any case, it is often reminiscent of the intimate art song of the time, its numerous imitations for example recalling the chansons of Ockeghem’s colleague Busnois.
Specific circumstances surrounding its creation may be responsible for the restrained character and limited number of voices. There again, the work is quite expansive both in length and vocal range, spanning two and a half octaves from the highest note in the descant to the lowest note in the bass. Only a handful of Ockeghem’s three-part chansons («Baisies moy» and «Fors seullement») exceed this range. This results in an unusually wide tonal spectrum, and a clear division of registers makes it easy to follow each individual voice. The freedom of melodic invention and the occasional unexpected inflection show that this is the work of a composer intentionally keeping his abundant imagination in check and, in the second Agnus, where the lengthiest upper voice duet of the whole movement is followed by a shy, note by note bass entrance, unafraid of displaying an underlying sense of humour.
Wolfgang Fuhrmann

translation : Roderick Shaw

Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420 – 1497)
Missa L’homme armé

1 Kyrie
2 Gloria
3 Credo
4 Sanctus
5 Agnus Dei

Missa quinti toni

6 Kyrie
7 Gloria
8 Credo
9 Sanctus
10 Agnus Dei

II. Pierre de Manchicourt: Missa reges terrae (The Choir of St Luke in the Fields/David Schuler). MSR CD MS 1632.


Pierre de Manchicourt has emerged at last from the shadows and taken his place among the group of Franco-Flemish composers who dominated the European musical scene during the second third of the 16th-century. His name, now included on a list of luminaries that includes Jacobus Clemens non Papa, Thomas Crecquillon, and Nicolas Gombert, adds to the portrait of those significant composers who held prestigious positions during the lives and reigns of Charles V and Philip II. Manchicourt was active in Burgundy and Spain, had many of his motets and chansons published during his lifetime, and was one of the most famous composers of his time. The majority of his works were published by Pierre Attaingnant, who included his music in no less than fifteen of his collections. In 1539, Attaingnant devoted his fourteenth book of motets entirely to Manchicourt, an unusual feat in an age when most motet collections featured a variety of composers. The collection was immensely popular and was reprinted in 1545. By 1600, Manchicourt was largely forgotten.

So what happened to him? Most likely a combination of things: Manchicourt’s compositional style had a relatively short life span – old-fashioned by 1570 and outmoded by the end of the 16th century. The new philosophies of the counter-reformation were influencing composers and defining new trends and styles in the composition of church music, while, at the same time, royal patrons such as Philip II eagerly embraced the liturgical reforms emerging from the Council of Trent. Those reforms, combined with his interest in a hands-on approach to musical management issues within his chapel, led Philip in particular to search out and collect music by more modern composers like Guerrero, Rogier, and Victoria. Additionally, Manchicourt’s tenure in the Philip’s Court Chapel – the famed Capilla Flamenca – was tragically short, which may not have allowed Manchicourt sufficient time to leave a more remarkable legacy of more modern works. That some of the music from his years with Philip remains unedited may allude to the rapidity with which his compositions were stored and forgotten.
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It is easy to be seduced by the beauty and challenge of these compositions. The inner harmonic and rhythmic architecture of the six or eight voices, the surprising dissonances, the daunting yet satisfying acrobatic phrases, and the sheer loveliness of experiencing in an intimate way how all these components work joyously together makes this music a delight to perform. Manchicourt, at last, has been discovered and appreciated. Even after all this time, and the lengthy exile into obscurity, his music remains as magnificent and evocative today as it undoubtedly was at the court of Philip II.

David Shuler is Director of Music and Organist at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York City, where he oversees an extensive music program. In addition to an active children’s chorister program, a professional choir sings masses and motets from the fifteenth century to the present day at the principal services of the church throughout the year. The choir is featured in an annual concert series of early music, and has made numerous recordings. Shuler is also the Music Director of the Dalton Chorale in Manhattan. In addition to his work with historically informed performances of early music, Shuler has been active as a champion of contemporary music, having premiered organ works of Charles Wuorinen, William Albright, Ralph Shapey, and Gunther Schuller, among others. A Fellow of the American Guild of Organists, he was awarded the certificate at the age of 22, being one of the youngest organists ever to achieve this distinction. Shuler recently completed a term as President of the Association of Anglican Musicians. Educated at the Eastman School of Music, Columbia University, and the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, David Shuler studied organ with David Craighead and Leonard Raver, composition with Joseph Schwantner, Samuel Adler and Gunther Schuller, and conducting with Amy Kaiser.

The Choir of St. Luke in the Fields is the resident vocal ensemble at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York City’s historic Greenwich Village. Under the direction of David Shuler since 1988, the Choir regularly performs masses and motets dating from the 15th century to the present as part of the church’s liturgy. They appear frequently in concert, and are known for their historically informed performances of early music. The Choir presented the North American premieres of Georg Phillip Telemann’s St. Matthew Passion (1746) in 2003 and St. Luke Passion (1748) in 2013. In 2011, the ensemble gave the first New York City performance of C.P.E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1769). Excerpts from their 2009 Music at the Sistine Chapel concert were featured on an ABC news documentary aired in May of that same year, Secrets of the Sistine - Michelangelo’s Mystery. In addition, the Choir has presented a number of premieres of new works, including the New York premieres of Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe and Missa Syllabica and Dan Locklair’s Brief Mass. The ensemble has garnered consistently high praise in the press for their concert performances.


I. Kyrie
II. Gloria
III. Credo
IV. Sanctus & Benedictus
V. Agnus Dei





III. Virgin and Child (Contrapunctus/Owen Rees). Signum CDSIGCD474.

SIGCD474 - Virgin and Child

Devotion to the Virgin Mary produced much of the most glorious music of the early Tudor period in England. That devotional world of prayer to the ‘glorious mother of God’ as our mediator, manifest not least in regular sung devotions centring on splendid polyphonic votive antiphons, was suppressed by the Protestant regimes of King Edward VI and his sister Queen Elizabeth, although between their reigns it enjoyed a new flowering under Mary Tudor. The Elizabethan state’s antipathy to excessive veneration of Mary makes it striking that a good deal of the Marian polyphony composed under Henry VIII and Mary Tudor survives in Elizabethan manuscript sources, the greatest of which is the ‘Baldwin partbooks’, copied during the 1570s and 80s by John Baldwin, a member of the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor and later of the Chapel Royal. On this disc, the second in our series featuring music from the Baldwin partbooks, we present some of the finest examples of Marian polyphony copied by Baldwin, encompassing a wide variety of styles, and with a particular focus on texts celebrating Mary as mother of God, and on the Virgin and her Child.
For example, the prayer Mater Christi set by John Taverner during the reign of Henry VIII opens with a plea to Mary as the ‘most holy mother of Christ’ to ‘move your son to kindness’, so that the singers of the prayer and those listening may dare to pray to her Son directly in the second part of the motet. Taverner enhances the rhetorical impact of the prayer through repetition: typically, the upper two voices first sing a phrase of text (such as, near the opening, ‘virgo sacrata Maria’), and then the three lower voices repeat the same music in an enriched form. Alongside these antiphonal passages Taverner deploys a panoply of textures, ranging from chordal declamation to rich five-voice counterpoint, used climactically to end sections of the motet and most gloriously of all at the concluding ‘amen’, where those who know the familiar version of the motet will notice that Baldwin copied a strikingly decorated final cadence. Among the chordal exclamations in the piece are the invocations of Jesus by name, marked—as was typical during the period—by sustained chords, a musical equivalent of genuflexion.

A particularly imposing example of such a vocal acclamation is heard at the words ‘ave Jesu’ in Robert Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia, where its appearance is highlighted by an unanticipated shift in harmony. This monumental votive antiphon to Mary represents an even older musical world than does Taverner’s motet, the world of grandiose polyphony most famously represented by the repertory of the Eton Choirbook copied at the opening of the sixteenth century. In such English works divisions between sections of text are usually marked by a change to a new combination of singers. These sections each defined by their particular vocal scoring are on a much larger scale that the antiphonal contrasts in Taverner’s Mater Christi. Thus Fayrfax sets the first of the eight stanzas for the highest three voices, and the next to the lowest three, while for the third he marks the entrance of the full ensemble with another of the chordal ‘bows’ at ‘ave’. But despite its use of this long-established English method of constructing the piece by means of scoringsections, Fayrfax’s writing also anticipates the more direct communication of text heard in Taverner’s Mater Christi: floridity of the kind found in many Eton-Choirbook works has been stripped away much of the time, so that the text is declaimed with simple lucidity by each voice. The most unadorned writing achieves a crystalline and poignant quality, as in the extended duet between soprano and tenor for the ‘Ave plena gratia’ stanza in the second half of the motet, although the music takes flight into soaring melisma as the penultimate syllable of the stanza is sung. Fayrfax’s relatively austere treatment of much of the text contrasts with the floridity of the text itself, heard for example in the extraordinary succession of superlative adjectives (‘nobilissima’, ‘dignissima’, etc) ending every line of the first three stanzas, a construction which Fayrfax emphasises by suspending the musical flow at many of these line-endings. In the first five stanzas the author of the text found manifold ways to impart the same message: Mary’s fourfold status as daughter of God the Father, mother of God the Son, bride of God the Holy Spirit, and handmaid of the Trinity. The praise of Mary as bride links this text with the Song of Songs, that great love-poem of the Old Testament, Christian interpretations of which frequently identified the female beloved therein as Mary.

The Song of Songs is the source for the text of Robert White’s Tota pulchra es. White was a chorister at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the mid 1550s, and went on to hold a succession of positions as Master of the Choristers, at Ely Cathedral, Chester Cathedral, and finally at Westminster Abbey until his death in 1574. Although his composing career thus extended across the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, it is likely that some at least of his Latin-texted works were written during the reign of Elizabeth’s elder sister, Mary. Tota pulchra es is one of four pieces on this disc which represent the strong English tradition of composing richly-textured polyphony around a plainchant cantus firmus moving steadily in semibreves, and thus lending the music a majestic sense of perpetual flow. With this unvarying cantus-firmus ‘tread’ and the more active counterpoint in the free voices as the norm, moments of relative stasis and calm in White’s piece achieve a special quality, as at the tranquil setting of ‘imber abiit’ (‘the rain is over’), and the beginning of the final invitation to the beloved, ‘Veni de Libano, veni coronaberis’ (‘come from Lebanon; come, and you will be crowned’).

This technique of cantus-firmus writing is employed also in White’s setting of another Marian antiphon, Regina caeli laetare, included on this disc. This ebullient Eastertide text calls on Mary ‘Queen of heaven’ to rejoice at the resurrection of the Son she bore, the celebratory message marked textually by the recurrent ‘alleluias’ and musically by the joyful chiming dialogues between the two equal upper voices. The acclamation of Mary as Queen of heaven at the opening of the text is at odds with the official attitudes of the Elizabethan church, in which the great feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—celebrating Mary’s bodily ascension into heaven—had been removed from the Calendar. Either, then, White’s Regina caeli is an early-career piece dating from the reign of Mary or—if composed under Elizabeth—it would not have received liturgical performance, as the Marian antiphon during the Easter season.

The other two cantus-firmus works on the disc—Tallis’s Videte miraculum and Sheppard’s Verbum caro—are among the greatest masterpieces of this English genre. Tallis’s extraordinarily long career extended from the 1520s until 1585 and so encompassed the entire period of religious change in England from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth. Videte miraculum, which might date either from Henry’s reign or Mary’s, ranks as one of the greatest expressive works of Tudor music. Its text—for the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary—celebrates the miracle and mystery of the virgin birth, and Tallis’s music evokes both mystery and wonder, highlighting the opening repeated declamation of the word ‘miraculum’ by placing a dissonance on its stressed syllable each time. The music reaches a passionate climax as the free voices ecstatically repeat the name of Mary at the end of the second section of polyphony. In the polyphonic responsory genre to which this piece belongs the polyphony falls into three sections, which are initially sung without a break. After the plainchant verse, the second and third sections only are repeated, and after the plainchant Gloria the third section is heard for a final time. Sheppard’s Verbum caro has the same form, but the affect of the piece contrasts with that of Videte miraculum: this is an exultant setting of the famous account of the Incarnation from the beginning of St John’s Gospel, and would have been sung at Matins on Christmas Day. Counteracting the duple metre maintained by the chant, Sheppard sets up triple rhythms in the free voices to achieve ‘natural’ declamation of such phrases as ‘cuius gloriam’, ‘quasi unigeniti’, and ‘plenum gratiae’. Sheppard was a colleague of Tallis’s in Queen Mary’s Chapel Royal, and had previously served as Informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Standing at the pinnacle of the great Marian motets of the Tudor period is Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa Dei mater. Its text consists of a series of nine acclamations to the Virgin, each beginning with the word ‘gaude’ (as each of the seven acclamations of the Ave Dei Patris filia text begins with ‘Ave’). The opening verses salute Mary as mother of God and as heavenly queen, enthroned above the angels. As was common in such Marian texts, the latter part of the text focuses on Mary’s role as merciful mediator on behalf of wretched sinners and the condemned. Tallis’s handling of this monumental textual edifice is full of drama and contrast, achieved through manipulation of scoring, pacing, and harmony. In accordance with the traditional English practice heard also in Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia, the piece begins with modest forces, two differently scored trios (each setting one of the nine verses of the text), but the second of these suddenly expands into six-voice writing to reflect the word ‘omnia’ (‘all things’) at the end of the second verse of text, and the full six-voice writing continues for the next two verses. For the ‘Gaude Virgo Maria’ verse Tallis employs that most distinctive of English polyphonic techniques, gimell, dividing each of the upper two parts to create a texture of four interweaving high voices which are then joined by the bass. The next verse, for three middle voices, is among the most harmonically colourful and expressive passages of the motet, with striking chromaticism used to highlight Mary’s ascension in both body and soul, and plaintive writing for the concluding supplication to her as mediator on our behalf, ‘most wretched sinners’. This verse ends with a melismatic climax leading straight into the next dramatic ‘Gaude’ salutation, for all six voices. The penultimate verse considers ‘the eternal sufferings of hell’, evoked by Tallis with another gimell, this time involving divided basses. From this vision of the infernal realm the last verse—again for the full forces—moves to our hope of attaining heavenly bliss with Mary’s aid, and Tallis generates thrilling crowning points at ‘adesse regnum caelorum’ and—through an uplifting brightening of the harmony—in the closing moments of the ‘Amen’.

Where we rely on the Baldwin partbooks as our sole surviving source for a piece, the tenor part has to be restored editorially, since unfortunately the tenor book is missing from the set. This situation applies to the setting of the Latin canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Tallis, of which the latter was included on our previous recording of works from the partbooks, and the Magnificat features on the current disc, with a fresh reconstruction of the tenor part by myself. The Magnificat was (and is) among the most frequently sung Marian text in the liturgy, forming the canticle at Vespers and the first canticle at Anglican Evensong. The text originates in St Luke’s Gospel, as the words spoken by Mary during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, when the infant John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth acclaims Mary in the words incorporated in the Ave Maria: ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Tallis’s setting of the Magnificat is a very fine but rather curious one. When composers of this period wrote in imitative style, they chose or devised one motive for each phrase of the text they were setting. However, Tallis lavishes a superabundance of material onto the verses of the Magnificat which are set in polyphony (the other verses are left in plainchant), so that many phrases of the text are set twice over, with a different motive or texture each time. Indeed, the piece gives the impression of a ‘show-case’ of common imitative formulae. But despite these oddities it is a setting of great energy, drama, and power.


Ave Dei patris filia

Sheppard, J:

Verbum caro factum est


Gaude gloriosa Dei mater

Magnificat for 5 voices

Videte miraculum


Mater Christi Sanctissima

White, Robert:

Tota pulchra es

Regina caeli


Composer Info

Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420 – 1497), PIERRE DE MANCHICOURT (c.1510-1564), Fayrfax,J. Sheppard, Tallis, Taverner, Robert White,

CD Info

Fra Bernardo CD 1701743, CD MS 1632, CDSIGCD474