Three from Hyperion

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Program: #16-33, Air Date: 08/08/16

The wonderfully supportive label for early music gives us new releases from the 13th, 14th, and 16th centuries.

NOTE: All of the music on this program features music from the Hyperion label. For more information:

I. Conductus 3: Poetry and Music from Thirteenth Century France (John Potter/Christopher O’Gorman/Rogers Covey-Crump). Hyperion CD CDA68115.

Conductus, Vol. 3: Music & Poetry from 13th Century France

From This is the last of a series of three Hyperion label albums devoted to the conductus, a medieval vocal genre that, as the booklet notes, has been sorely underrepresented on recordings in comparison with (in the happy phrase of annotator Mark Everist) "the flamboyant organum and the occasionally smutty motets." This is especially important in view of the fact that the conductus, whose genre name is of uncertain origin, was the first medieval genre in which words and music were both freshly composed; the pieces were not built on preexisting pieces of chant. The poetry is nonliturgical and is sacred, but often just barely; sample a piece like Vite perdite (track three), which spends more time and detail on the dissolute life of its protagonist than on his ultimate redemption. One factor that has impeded performances of the conductus has been uncertainty over rhythmic interpretation of the pieces, but the solution chosen here by tenors John Potter, Christopher O'Gorman, and Rogers Covey-Crump makes sense: they reserve the more regular rhythmic modes of medieval music for the "caudae" or tails at the end of the pieces, creating a two-part structure by leaving the main text free in rhythm and very closely connected to the text. The performances here really put across a sense of the text, and they catch the thread connecting the music to other medieval genres: the pieces have between one and three parts, resembling but not imitating chant in the former case and the discant sections of Notre Dame organum in the latter. Like the earlier releases in this series, this will convincingly fill a major hole in most collections of medieval music.

Quo vadis, quo progrederis?
Genitus divinitus
Quod promisit ab eterno
Artium dignitas
Relegentur ab area
Qui servare puberem (monophonic)
Ut non ponam
Qui servare puberem (two-part, unmeasured)
Porta salutis
Ista dies celebrari
Qui servare puberem (two part, measured)
Stephani sollempnia
Beate virginis
Qui servare puberem (three-part)
Heu quo progreditur
Stella serena

II. Guillaume de Machaut: A Burning Heart (The Orlando Consort). Hyperion CD CDA68103.

CDA68103 - Machaut: A burning heart

The courtly element of medieval love-songs often baffles modern audiences with its constant insistence on honour and appropriate behaviour on the one side, and the minimal contact or potential for a meaningful relationship between the protagonists on the other. Secrecy is often at the centre of proceedings: not only must a relationship remain hidden from the rest of the world, even the beloved often remains in the dark concerning the lover’s feelings. An unanswered look—even if withheld with good intention for concealment’s sake—can kill a lover, especially as private conversation is impossible without offending the honour and worth of the beloved, these often being the very characteristics which caused the falling in love in the first place. Furthermore, in a supposedly religious and conservative age, the constant praising of extra-marital relationships in literature, poetry and music—despite their dangers and often calamitous outcomes—seems an unlikely preoccupation. Guillaume de Machaut’s situation in all this may seem even more precarious: while writing in the first person, neither his rather modest social origins nor his position as a cleric and canon at Reims cathedral would allow him to participate in such highly aristocratic and potentially sexual pursuits.
Extra-marital emotional outlet, though, is perhaps less surprising in a culture where marriage was more often than not a political and economic contract rather than romantic choice. A system for regulating it would have been very important. Mismatch between poets’, composers’, and even performers’ biographies and the contents of the performed works is also not an intrinsic problem. After all, even in the current information age we demand romantic emotional authenticity in both the creation and performance contexts, and allow ourselves to be satisfied in those respects despite factual counter-proofs being readily available. Still, the problem of making courtly love work—balancing chastity and honour with sinful lust, let alone sex—is a difficult one to crack.

As with his contribution to the structural development of poetry and music, his position as cultural conduit between earlier and ensuing generations, and his influence over the development of Ars nova musical style, Machaut is now seen also as a pivotal figure in shaping notions of the meaning of ennobling courtly love. He did, of course, write more standard courtly texts depicting the state of love or the process of falling into it. These tend to appear in songs with short poetic structures, and are represented here by the generalized lover’s suffering of Helas, pour quoy se demente et complaint (Rondeau 2, track 4) and the by-then already age-old convention of the kindling of love through the lady’s gaze in Vos dous resgars, douce dame, m’a mort (Rondeau 8, track 11). There are works referring to carnal love, even when the desire isn’t acted upon: the probably early Tous corps / De souspirant / Suspiro (Motet 2, track 3) presents such a case, where the lover languishes ‘with desire’ every time he sees his lady, suggesting the ‘mercy’ looked for has a physical aspect to it.

Nevertheless, Machaut’s personal contribution to the courtly love phenomenon is in the formulation (and examination in poetical practice) of a system of courtly love in which joy is derived from a kind of unselfish loving, strongly based on the Boethian concept of good living freed from the vicissitudes of fortune. This practice removes the link between joy and sexual consummation or its expectation, enabling honourable courtly love to coexist with marital obligations, or other such situations where even an idealized consummation is out of the question. Good love then becomes an internal challenge for each lover.

The beloved becomes an ideal, which, at times, can be separated from his or her specific actions. The couple can still support each other and offer each other a measure against which to judge their success, but actual presence or direct relationship is not, strictly speaking, required. While each can bestow joy or suffering through their interaction, reciprocation or rejection of love, it is up to each lover to maintain their own good love, from which they can derive joy even when suffering separation and denial. The lover’s adoration becomes closer to religious devotion towards the Virgin Mary or Christ.

A distillation of these attitudes can be found in the abstract idealization of Esperance qui m’asseüre (Ballade 13, track 5), as well as in Tuit mi penser (Virelai 28, track 9), where even though burning desire features, the lover insists he will never wish to seek reward from his lady. This also makes sense of the self-righteous assurance of Se mesdisans en acort (Virelai 15, track 7), where slanderous gossip is dismissed, even goaded, by a lady’s voice as neither party has committed anything blameworthy, not in deed or even in thought. Similarly, the insistence on maintaining honourable love after rejection can be read as constructive rather than futile. The strength of this commitment can be seen not only in inexplicable rebuff such as is found in Se je me pleing (Ballade 15, track 12), but even in cases of active and less courtly confrontation such as Plus dure que un dyamant (Virelai 31, track 10) or the rather venomous Une vipere en cuer (Ballade 27, track 8). The other extreme, of course, is the experience of fully blown courtly love without the beloved’s knowledge. This is the case in Hé, dame de vaillance (Virelai 1, track 1), and can be read also into Helas, pour quoy se demente et complaint with the lady’s inability to hear the lover’s complaint, or more positively in Esperance qui m’asseüre and Tuit mi penser.

When reciprocation of love occurs, secrecy and the sharing of each other’s confidence in the personal journey towards good love replaces the physical contact, or the expectation of it. This gives importance to the translation of the love experience from the internal and personal into the real world where relationships can materialize. Secrecy does not have to be a chore: it can be transformed into a game, even one that includes more than just the two lovers. The game can involve the act of love: after all, complaining about the inability to declare love, to sing or compose, or about the lady’s inability to hear such complaints becomes self-defeating when presented in the form of a publicly performed song. Alternatively, the puzzle can revolve around the identity of the beloved. While the dedication of music and poetry is still read as a powerful romantic gesture, hinting at a lover’s identity within a secretive but inquisitive courtly environment can be a dangerous act if the relationship is essentially carnal. After all, audiences faced with a puzzle-song are bound to try and decipher it, and are practically invited to do so in performance, as well as when such works are incorporated into presentation manuscripts. Instead, in Machaut’s blameless system these hints act as an invitation to the wider audience to partake in the joy of ennobling love rather than as a masking technique.

The working of such hiding/revealing is most apparent in Cinc, un, trese (Rondeau 6, track 2), where the numbers repeated spell out ‘e, a, n, j, h’, for either the masculine ‘Jehan’ or feminine ‘Jehanne’. Despite the personal and emotional tone of the text, scholars have understood it as celebrating a royal wedding and have offered four occasions between 1350 and 1360 when appropriately named known patrons of Machaut were married. If this reading is correct, he must have expected the puzzle to be solved, otherwise the true meaning of what first appears to be a secretive love-song would have been entirely lost on the people for whom he wrote it. While the identity of the lady referred to through her coat of arms in Pas de tor en thies pais (Ballade 30, track 6) remains a mystery to us today, such references would have been much easier to decipher at the time.

As Machaut’s non-carnal love attracts celebration rather than chastisement, deciphering the conundrum does not bring dishonour but bestows status on both the praiseworthy (usually) lady and the puzzle-solvers (due to their ability and connection with her). In the process, a social bond is created within a wider circle of people ‘in the know’ who now become confidants of the lovers. This process—of forming social bonds through the appreciation and decipherment of cultural artifacts—can be seen as one of the primary goals of medieval ‘art music’ (that is, music not designed to fulfil an external function such as signal or dance). This exclusivity had many layers. The first issue is having access to these songs, and means for having them performed. While wider circulation did occur, Machaut took pains to collect his complete works in large, beautiful presentation manuscripts, most of which ended up in the collections of various branches of the French royal family. In performance, casual and accidental listeners would be excluded from full participation through their lack of shared cultural background, awareness of the games played, and musical and intellectual training.

While the puzzle element of Cinc, un, trese and Pas de tor en thies pais would have been immediately evident, other conundrums remain covert. The polytextual motet, for example, is a hard enough genre to decipher at the simplest of times, offering numerous in-built layers of meaning and structural subtlety. As such, it is in its very design an exclusive art form. A work such as Aucune gent / Qui plus aimme / Fiat voluntas tua (Motet 5, track 13), though, takes this much further. Its fundamental tenor part follows the normal pattern of borrowing, adapting and rhythmicizing a chant melody. Machaut here makes an early experiment with four-part rather than three-part motet writing, adding a second slow-moving, textless voice to the texture, reversing the rhythms given to the tenor, pushing the possibilities of his inherited notational system. In the upper voices, twenty-two of the forty-three lines of their combined texts quote or paraphrase five different poems by three thirteenth-century poets. The most important quoted poet is Thibaut de Champagne (Machaut’s region of birth), King of Navarre, who through his fame and social status acts as both a poetic and social authority figure. Some of these adaptations follow the essence of their sources, while in others their meanings are reversed. This work can, of course, be enjoyed without knowledge of any of this, but the more one knows, the wider its terms of reference become, and the deeper the meanings it imbues. In its original context, the ability or failure to recognize these borrowings separated listeners into different circles of knowledge and intellectual comradeships, reaffirming the relative status and cultural worth of belonging to any one of them.

Such techniques are by no means confined to the motets. Both Esperance qui m’asseüre and Se je me pleing involve the reuse of older texts and music, most clearly at their refrains which in the ballade form provides a ‘punch-line’ at the end of each strophe and are here given an audibly different character from the rest of each song. Se je me pleing was subsequently reused as source material for other composers, with new versions adding voices to the original two-part texture, or taking the song’s first and last lines, swapping them over, and composing a new middle. The more verbose virelais and melismatic rondeaux involve other kinds of play on listeners’ expectations. While different in character and structure, they do share expectation-building, unifying and subverting techniques which not only propel the music forward, but can act as subtextual devices to those in the know. The virelais, with their long texts and regular refrain/strophe alternation, tend towards monophonic settings with quick syllabic delivery. The rondeaux’s short lyrics, with inbuilt irregularity in refrain length and repetition structure, tend towards polyphonic settings with a very low word-to-note ratio. Techniques found in both genres (as well as in the ballades) involve surprising harmonic shifts and frequent changes in the application of accidentals, as in Se mesdisans en acort or Vos dous resgars, douce dame, m’a mort, or the intensive reuse and subtle manipulation of melodic gestures, as in Hé, dame de vaillance, Plus dure que un dyamant or Cinc, un, trese. Play with rhythmic structures is most clear when they are destabilized through extensive syncopation, and as polyphony is conducive to such games, it is found more often in the rondeaux and ballades. In this recording, this is most apparent in Vos dous resgars, douce dame, m’a mort and Une vipere en cuer.

It is clear that each work can combine a variety of distancing and alluring techniques, designed to titillate, as well as to affirm status and strengthen societal bonds. Viewed in this light, the insistent repetition (with slight variation) of courtly love themes and a choice selection of accompanying musical gestures is transformed from a bewildering oddity in our modern context into a coherent and meaningful cultural flow in its original surroundings, complete with a discernable and useful social application.

Hé, dame de vaillance [3:32]
Cinc, un, trese [3:35]
Tous corps / De souspirant / Suspiro [2:47]
Helas, pour quoy se demente et complaint [3:54]
Esperance qui m’assuëre [4:54]
Pas de tor en thies pais [6:19]
Se mesdisans en acort [4:31]
Une vipere en cuer ma dame maint [6:20]
Tuit mi penser [3:29]
Plus dure que un dyamant [6:29]
Vos dous resgars, douce dame, m’a mort [5:12]
Se je me pleign je n’en puis mais [5:02]
Aucune gent / Qui plus aimme / Fiat voluntas tua [2:53]

III. Alonso Lobo: Lamentations (Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker). Hyperion CD CDA68106.

CDA68106 - Lobo: Lamentations & other sacred music

Alonso Lobo has gained modern fame as the composer of Versa est in luctum, an exquisite and moving funeral motet on the death of Philip II of Spain. But Lobo was not a ‘one hit’ composer. All his works deserve attention, finely wrought as indeed they are. Six Masses and seven motets were published in 1602 at the Royal Press in Madrid. Of an original print-run of one-hundred-and-thirty copies, twenty-one have been located in our time. These and other works (in manuscript) are presently conserved at Rome, Toledo, Seville, Segovia, Lerma (Burgos) and elsewhere in Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Central America.
Alonso Lobo was baptized on 25 February 1555 in Osuna, a town some fifty miles from Seville. His musical talents took him to Seville Cathedral as a choirboy under the tutelage of Francisco Guerrero. He progressed as a young man to holy orders and to a canonry at the Collegiate Church at Osuna. His reputation spread, and in his mid-thirties he was offered the post of assistant and probable successor to the ageing Guerrero. The Seville Chapter granted him the post without the usual formal tests of musicianship. He stayed there two full years from the autumn of 1591. In 1593 Lobo was elected maestro de capilla at Toledo, Primatial See of Spain, an appointment of great prestige. After ten successful years, he returned to take charge at Seville Cathedral in 1604, where he stayed until his death in 1617.

Lobo’s Masses contained in his sole printed collection are, all but one, based on motets by his mentor and hero, Francisco Guerrero. Three are for four voices (one is on Palestrina’s O Rex gloriae), and one for five (with clever canons, aptly, being upon Guerrero’s Prudentes virgines). The two most imposing Masses are for six voices: Beata Dei genitrix and Maria Magdalene. The latter is based on Guerrero’s extensive motet Maria Magdalene et altera Maria (published in 1570), which has a text that is a unique compilation and adaptation of Mark’s Gospel story (16: 1–2 & 5–6) and the liturgical spin-offs such as the Easter Matins Responsorium II with its added ‘Alleluias’. The six voices are twin trebles, alto, tenor and two bass parts, one really a baritone. When Lobo took this work as his model he kept the vocal scoring precisely. Modern choirmasters have rejoiced in this spread of vocal resources.

Guerrero’s motet is composed of series of melodic points that are worked in imitation, some plainly, some in inversion, others stretched or compressed, all frequently animated with ornamental running figures. These are the materials that Lobo transforms into a great edifice that is his own, but one that remains his homage to the older master. The opening phrases of the motet are striking, and it is to them that Lobo frequently returns. The process of reinvention is all-pervading, but we may pick out how Lobo adopts and adapts the ‘Alleluia’ ending of Guerrero’s first half and transforms it into the ‘Amen’ to close his Gloria. The repeated ‘Osanna’ section that completes both Sanctus and Benedictus is a transformation of the polyphonic web into what is now called compound triple time, spiced with syncopation as the voices clamour for attention, displacing their accents and misbehaving with the pulse.

Should we consider Alonso Lobo a master of great originality and innovation? The answer must be negative. Consider him one of the last exponents of the tradition that we admire as Renaissance Polyphony, and the answer must be strongly positive. All his music is finely made. Some of it rises above the conventions of beauty into a realm of great inspiration, on the level of his friend Victoria’s best. Beyond Lobo’s superb motets, his Lamentations have recently emerged from obscurity.

Alonso Lobo composed two sets of Holy Week Lamentations, Lessons I & II at Matins (Tenebrae) of Holy Saturday. The second of these survives in unperformable fragmentation in a severely water-damaged choirbook at Toledo Cathedral. Lobo’s music for the First Lesson survives in the archive of Seville Cathedral, in a choirbook written in 1772 by Juan Ossorio, singer and music scribe (apuntador). Late though this unique source is, there is no reason to doubt the attribution to Lobo. Ossorio gives the Latinized ‘Ildephonso Lupo’ on the title page, and ‘Alphonsi Lobo’ on the recto of the first opening. The music is consistent with Lobo’s personal style. That Ossorio made this copy demonstrates that these Lamentations were still in use in 1772. They show Lobo using his powers of expression in the long vocalizations of the Hebrew letters and in the short bursts of concise declamation in the verses. The letters Heth, Teth and Iod, bereft of their Hebrew acrostic purpose, serve, in the Latin liturgy, as section-markers, sung to a few notes in the plainchant formulae. Lobo uses these as moments of contemplation and repose. He is in a long tradition of elaborating these interludes, and his are among the finest. In this set, they get longer and more intense in expression as the work progresses. The melismas at the three settings of Iod seem like ritual weeping in music, akin to the Spanish tradition of funerary llantas. In contrast, Lobo collects his voices from their polyphonic web to deliver clear homophonic declamation, spiced with brief syncopation and verbal patter, in the verse ‘Sedebit solitarius’ … ‘He will sit in solitude’. Twice Lobo sets a verse for just four voices. This is especially effective when the penultimate section is followed by the full weight of grand sound in the final plea, added to Jeremiah by the Church: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God.’

There are nine motets attributed to Lobo existing in two manuscripts (at Lerma and Segovia) that were copied for instrumentalists, wind bands usually of cornetts, shawms, sackbuts and dulcians (cornetas, chirimias, sacabuches y bajones). Two of these exist in distinctly different versions. All the eleven motets were stripped of their texts, leaving only the first few words as titles. One of them had no identification at all until Douglas Kirk, editor of the Lerma Codices, spotted that it carried the Spanish plainchant melody for Regina caeli laetare paraphrased in the top voice. It can safely be attributed to Lobo. It is clearly one of his many tributes to his admired friend Francisco Guerrero, whose similar version was published four times between 1555 and 1597. It proved easy to restore the text of this Eastertide Marian Antiphon, with its recurrent bursts of ‘Alleluia’.

The summertime Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated with great processions and lavish spectacles, very colourful and often noisy. But devout contemplation of the miraculous Eucharistic transubstantiation was central to the liturgical worship on that day. The words of Thomas Aquinas inspired many composers, not least William Byrd, and here, to complete this recording, we have Alonso Lobo at his best, weaving a kind of celestial tapestry with his six voices criss-crossing in a kind of angelic ecstasy. O quam suavis est, Domine is the first of the seven motets included in the Liber Primus Missarum of 1602; they follow the Masses in a section entitled Moteta ex devotione inter Missarum solemnia decantanda—‘Devotional motets for singing during Solemn Masses’.

Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599): Maria Magdalene et altera Maria

Alonso Lobo (1555-1617):

Missa Maria Magdalene
Regina caeli
O quam suavis est, Domine

Composer Info

Guillaume de Machaut, Alonso Lobo, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

CD Info

CDA68115, CDA68103, CDA68106.