Three from Hyperion

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Program: #17-46   Air Date: Nov 04, 2017

We will go from the Middle Ages with the Orlando Consort, to the Renaissance and John Sheppard, and lastly to the French, with the sacred music of Couperin.

NOTE: All of the recordings on this program are part of the Hyperion label. For more information:

I. Machaut—Sovereign Beauty (The Orlando Consort). Hyperion CD CDA68134. 

CDA68134 - Machaut: Sovereign Beauty

Miraculously, the poems and music of Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) have come down to us in what is probably a complete state, no doubt owing to the care with which their creator had his works put to parchment in precious illuminated manuscripts. Their beauty may have ensured that they survived the disastrous events which ravaged France during the later fourteenth century. No fewer than six of these manuscripts contain both his poetical and his musical compositions, a few more only his poetical works. Machaut also left us a literary portrait of himself: in several of his narrative works he acts as an observer and commentator on the comportment of noble lovers, and in two stories he even steps to the fore himself as the lover-protagonist. Moreover, at the end of his life he added a prologue to his works in which he formulated his artistic creed. Thus, we have a fairly clear picture of Machaut as an author, whether or not this would have had any resemblance to his real-life person, of whom but scarce documentation remains.
During the first half of his long life Machaut was patronized by the house of Luxembourg, first climbing up to the function of secretary at the court of count John the Blind, who also was king of Bohemia; later he served John’s daughter Bonne. She was married to the future king of France, John the Good, but died in 1349 of the plague. For both father and daughter Machaut expressed a life-long veneration. The patronage was continued by Bonne’s son-in-law Charles of Navarre, and later her sons Philip of Burgundy, John of Berry and Charles of Normandy, who was to become king Charles V. In the meantime Machaut had also acquired canonries in Reims and Saint-Quentin, well-paid sinecures which allowed him to devote his time to the composition of his literary and musical works. During his later years in Reims he arranged the precise order of his works and had them copied in sumptuous books, on command of his various protectors. His artistic achievements earned him a reputation in the fourteenth century as France’s most famous poet and composer. He died in 1377 at a respectable age, having astonishingly survived the dangers of war and plague.

Machaut’s works evoke a refined and elegant courtly society, almost a dream-vision within the cruel fourteenth-century reality of pestilence, war and civil strife; only scattered remarks in his narrative works and the lamentations of his late motets betray his awareness of France’s tribulations. With few exceptions—especially these last motets and his Mass—his works are dedicated to the vagaries and difficulties but also the joys of courtly love. The compositions recorded here belong for the most part to his earlier works, in which Machaut experimented with the genres he had inherited from tradition, such as the lay and motet, and with the various chanson types—virelai, ballade, and rondeau—of which he codified the forms for a long time to come. Within the restrictions of these ‘fixed forms’ he strove to endue each individual work with something ‘foreign and novel’ as he repeatedly expressed it, since that was found ‘most pleasing by the listeners’. Not only the meaning but also the concrete sound of words and rhymes play an important role in his compositions. He was fond of double meanings and wordplays: words that sound identical but have different, even opposed meanings. In his musical style a wealth of little, standardized motifs alternating with sudden leaps are strung together in daring counterpoint to form a colourful mosaic.

The three main song forms were all originally destined for dancing. Only the virelai preserved that character; Machaut preferred to call it a ‘chanson baladee’. It opens and closes with a refrain; possibly we should suppose group performance for the many refrain lines and solo performance for the new verses. Most virelais are monophonic. Their declamation is often fairly syllabic, enlivened by short melismas. The virelai seems to have been much in favour at Bonne of Luxembourg’s court. Four of them can be heard in the present recording. Comment qu’a moy lonteinne (Virelai 5) is based on a thirteenth-century woman’s song, Belle Doette, in which a lady laments the absence of her lover, who has just died in a joust, and promises to remain faithful to his memory. Machaut recasts the song for a man’s voice, as he swears faith to an absent beloved; the melody is clearly inspired by the festoons of the older song. Tres bonne et belle (Virelai 23) is Machaut’s only three-voice work in this genre. Its polyphony is, however, much simpler than that of the ballades and rondeaus. Stricken by his lady’s beauty the lover pledges to serve her, even in spite of her absence and the pesterings of those eternal enemies of lovers, gossipers. Foy porter (Virelai 22), again a testimony of the lover’s loyalty, is remarkable for its short lines of text and the accordingly brief melodic lines, sung in an energetic duple measure. Dame, a qui (Virelai 12) also has short lines, but here they alternate with longer ones; it makes the short ones sound as sobs. In this song the lover complains that he finds no sign of goodwill, let alone of any promise, in his beloved lady, although he does not abandon all hope.

Both ballade and rondeau soon lost their dance character in the fourteenth century and developed into stately songs with complex polyphony. Simplest in form is the ballade which has only one refrain line at the end of each of its three stanzas, mostly a memorable expression that may be a quotation. The declamation of the text is usually fairly slow, with many melismas. De desconfort (Ballade 8) is sung by an agonizing lover, who sums up his sufferings while nevertheless remaining willing to die, as the refrain tells, ‘En desirant vostre douce mercy’ (‘Desiring sweet mercy from you’). The two-voice work has a very melismatic and impassioned melody, its mode seeking the limits of the contemporary gamut. A much lighter atmosphere reigns in Dame, ne regardés pas (Ballade 9), in which the lover is caught by the lady’s pleasant look (‘Par vostre dous plaisant regart’). The song is characterized by a stubborn dotted rhythm. The experimental four-voice Se quanque Amours (Ballade 21) features a colourful contrapuntal palette, and within the text a rare, almost suspect, jubilant message that nothing can surpass the good and the joy that the lover possesses, ‘Contre le bien et la joie que j’ay’ (‘Compared to the benefits and joy I possess’).

The rondeau, characterized by a compact text with many repeats, was the most intimate type of song. The only rondeau recorded here, the two-voice Quant j’ay l’espart (Rondeau 5), has playful short verses, like many a virelai, but in the music long-drawn melismas with gently sloping lines prevail, expressing the quiet well-being the lover feels.

The lay was known as the most arduous musico-literary genre. A typical lay is monophonic and has twelve double stanzas, eleven of which each have a different metre, rhyme-scheme and melody, the twelfth stanza repeating those of the first. It is a challenge for the poet to find such a variety of metres and rhyme sounds. The attribution of the lay recorded here, Un lay de consolation ‘Pour ce que plus proprement’ (Lay 23), is contested: it is only found in a manuscript written long after Machaut’s death. The poetic form and content are not untypical for Machaut; the musical structure, however, is unique. In this work, in contrast to all other lays, the second stanza of each pair has a new melody. It has been discovered that the two melodies make perfect counterpoint with each other and thus should not be sung in succession but simultaneously. Thus, exceptionally, this is a lay with two different voices. Machaut wrote two three-voice lays but these are both in canon form. The text of the lay divides in two parts: the first six stanzas are a testimony of a lover’s fidelity, but in the second part jealousy and gossip estrange him from his lady; the transition is characterized in the music by a change of metre. At the very end the voice of the lady (or perhaps of the God of love) answers the lover’s complaint, consoling him and promising him joy after his travails.

Like the virelais, Machaut’s motets belong for the most part to his earliest compositions; only the last three can be related to events from around 1358–1360. The other twenty were certainly composed before c1350, but probably much earlier. A typical motet features three different voices and texts in a hierarchic structure. The subject is enclosed in the lowest voice, the tenor, which customarily is a melisma borrowed from liturgical chant; its words usually convey a strong emotion. The melody is rhythmicized in very large note values, forming repeating patterns, called the taleae, and has thus the slowest movement. On this basic layer, a faster moving voice is composed, with a fairly brief poetic text, the motetus; the third voice, called triplum, sounds highest, moves fastest and declaims the longest text. The challenge of a motet was—and is—to find out how the three texts and melodies cooperate in the presentation of, and reflection on, a moral problem.

The two motets presented here are closely related, first of all since in both tenors the same biblical person speaks, namely David: as the Psalmist in De Bon Espoir / Puis que la douce / Speravi (Motet 4), and as the king in J’ay tant / Lasse! Je sui / Ego moriar pro te (Motet 7). Their complex musical construction is also very similar, although the tenor melodies are very different. The tenor word of motet 4, ‘Speravi’, gave Machaut the opportunity to use it in a double sense. In the original Psalm text (Psalm 12) it expresses David’s lasting trust in the Lord’s mercy, although his enemies seem to prevail against him; on its own, however, the Latin verb can also imply ‘I hoped (but do no longer)’. That is the sense which is elaborated in the upper voices, in which allegorical figures help or oppose the lover in his courtly pursuit. At first he was supported by Good Hope but Desire attacks him so strongly that he loses hope. Paradoxically, only by despairing and by complete subjection to the dual wills of his lady and Love can he eventually regain hope for mercy. The obsessive tenor melody consists of only four notes which are constantly interchanging; this motif is taken over in the middle voice, and ultimately also appears in the upper voice, so that eventually it pervades the entire contrapuntal structure, probably as an expression of the lover’s obsession with the struggle between Hope and Desire.


1 Tres bonne et belle [6'01]
2 Foy porter [4'30]
3 Dame, ne regardés pas [6'17]
4 J’ay tant / Lasse! Je sui / Ego moriar pro te [3'13]
5 Se quanque Amours [5'00]
6 Dame, a qui [4'55]
7 De desconfort [5'30]
8 Quant j’ay l’espart [3'40]
9 Comment qu’a moy lonteinne [2'48]
10 De Bon Espoir / Puis que la douce / Speravi [3'09]
11 Un lay de consolation [18’23]



II. John Sheppard—Media vita (Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker). Hyperion CD CDA68187.


John Sheppard: Media Vita

With Media vita we look back well over a millennium to its text, and just under half a millennium to its polyphony. The inexorable unfolding of its carefully planned harmonic scheme is evident from the start. By the time that all six voice parts have entered, the listener knows that they are in for the long haul. This is devotional music par excellence: devotion to the Latin liturgy; devotion to the musical architecture of plainchant; and devotion to kaleidoscopic vocal textures. On one level the music is hedonistic: Sheppard wears his craft on his sleeve, and he delights in combining melodic lines that other composers would not dare to. He weaves his contrapuntal thread through the loom of his musical tapestry with fearless facility, stretching the guidelines of mid-Tudor harmony to their limit. And yet the music’s dissonant moments are sometimes so fleeting that the listener is left questioning their faculties: did I really hear that? Hedonistic, yes, but meretricious, no. The value in Sheppard’s textural pleasure-seeking is that certain aspects of a text’s construction and meaning are elucidated as a result. The transient major ninth, for instance, which occurs in the treble part a minute into the piece when ‘we are in death’ (‘in morte sumus’) is resonantly bitter-sweet—a Passionate moment as well as a passionate one. The major sixth substitution at the words ‘ne tradas’ investigates the subjunctive mood of the verb itself. By sounding the sixth against its own resolution (the fifth) between the two tenor parts, the harmony ‘may’ or it ‘may not’. The close imitation between the treble and both tenor parts at the word ‘fortis’ is strong. The false relation at ‘misericors’ is merciful. And so on, right to the very literal scoring of the ‘Ne proiicias’ section for the four lowest voices (the men of the choir as opposed to the boys). Thereby Sheppard actually shows the old people to the congregation—listen to these old people singing; this section is about old age. When the unadorned plainsong is heard at the Nunc dimittis, the effect is devastating. First, because it reminds us—if we had by any chance forgotten—that the plainchant has been present throughout: a melodic presence whose modal peregrinations have dictated the shape of the polyphony around it. And secondly, because the absence of polyphony makes the heart grow even fonder of it. The Nunc dimittis is heard here both responsorially and antiphonally. Responsorially, when a single voice is answered by many. And antiphonally, when the singing of the boys is pitted against that of the men. The two reduced-texture sections for lower voices (the one lamenting old age, and the other more prayerful) are capped by the section for five voices ‘Qui cognoscis’. Here Sheppard adopts one of his favourite techniques—the gimell (twin); in this case a double gimell. The treble part splits into two, as does the part beneath it. And these four high voices are joined by the lowest voice, the bass, to yield a quite glorious five-voice texture, so unlike the default five-voice disposition of the age. Media vita is an important contribution to Tudor music of symphonic proportions, in the sense of things sounding together. And the opening of the ‘Sancte fortis’ section became a model for Sheppard’s younger contemporaries, not least Robert White in his iconic five-voice Lamentations.
The amount of repetition within Media vita adds to the colossal effect of the music. The ‘Sancte Deus’ (a variation on the Tersanctus, or Trisagion as it is known in the Eastern Orthodox church) is a tripartite incantation whose pillars support the motet throughout. The first two incantations are complete (‘Sancte Deus / Sancte fortis / Sancte Salvator’), whereas the third appearance uses only ‘Sancte fortis / Sancte Salvator’, while the final appearance, which closes the piece, offers only the ‘Sancte Salvator’, a clear indication that a reflective ending is appropriate in performance. To be sure, this is music designed to be sung by liturgical professionals. But though the music’s successful execution requires professional handling, Sheppard’s awe-inspiring slow-moving polyphony can be appreciated by the listener as just that: inexorably sensuous choral writing. Its textual subtlety offers an extra level of engagement above and beyond the noise that the music makes, but at root this is lovely-sounding music.


From Gramophone: Why has the music of John Sheppard remained comparatively neglected, while works by near-contemporaries Taverner, Tallis, Tye and White have flourished? Could it really be down to simple musical bureaucracy, as Jeremy Summerly argues in his superb booklet notes for this new recording of Sheppard’s magnum opus – the 30-minute Media vita?
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In today’s culture of anniversary-driven programming, is the absence of a definitive birthdate to mark and memorialise really enough to blight a composer’s chances? Or is it an even more pragmatic question of the lack of editions of his work that existed until fairly recently? Or could it, perhaps, be that the same angular, non-conformist polyphony that kept the composer from an Oxford doctorate during his lifetime is still disquieting for listeners more comfortable with the consonance of Tallis?

If it’s the latter, then this new release by Martin Baker and the Westminster Cathedral Choir should go some way towards correcting the problem. While the smaller forces of Contrapunctus bring a wonderfully airy purity and flexibility to their rendition (the best, for my money, of extant Media vita recordings that also include The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico), they ultimately offer something intimate. Westminster, by contrast, match the monumentality of the work’s own structure in a spacious, architectural performance whose physical heft is balanced by a blend so smudgy-soft that the impression is of hundreds of voices all sharing in this musical prayer. The lower key (a full fourth lower than The Tallis Scholars) and the more diffuse tone of boy trebles also help to cradle this emotive text in sooty vocal warmth – much more suited to this meditation on death than halogen brilliance.

Westminster pair Media vita with two other six-voice works by Sheppard: the Marian motet Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and the Missa Cantate. In the generous acoustic of All Hallows, Gospel Oak, the contrapuntal intricacies of both emerge clearly, never lost in Sheppard’s carefully spaced vocal textures. It’s quite possible that 2017 marks Sheppard’s 500th anniversary year. It’s hard to think of a better birthday present than this outstanding recording of three of his finest works.

Media vita
Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo
Missa ‘Cantate’



III. Couperin—L’Apotheose de Lully (Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen). Hyperion CD CDA68093.

CDA68093 - Couperin: L'Apothéose de Lully & Leçons de ténèbres

François Couperin’s artistic philosophy is encapsulated in one telling phrase in the programme of his Apothéose de Lully, where Apollo declares that ‘the uniting of the French and Italian styles must create the perfection of music’. Couperin himself had been born into an organists’ milieu, with its uniquely French sound world. He nevertheless encountered the music of Italy in his twenties, perhaps through the intermediary of his cousin Marc-Roger Normand (the so-called ‘Couperin de Turin’) or at the Italophile court of the exiled James II of England at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. This music was to make such a profound impression on the young composer that, without forsaking his native idiom, he formed a lifelong ambition to exploit the best elements of both national traditions.
The Apothéose de Lully—or, to give it its full title, Concert instrumental sous le titre d’Apothéose composé à la mémoire immortelle de l’incomparable Monsieur de Lully—represents one of the final flowerings of that ambition. Published in 1725, it forms a pair with his Apothéose de Corelli, which had appeared a year earlier. The choice of composers venerated in these works reflects the fact that, for Couperin and many of his compatriots, Jean-Baptiste Lully was the epitome of the French style, just as Arcangelo Corelli was the embodiment of the Italian style.

As it happens, both composers feature in the narrative related in the movement titles of the Apothéose de Lully. For much of the work, Couperin’s famed réunion des goûts manifests itself less as a blending of national styles than as a juxtaposition of them. After all, the central figure here is Lully. Hence the opening movements are almost entirely in the French style, its languorous sweetness and simplicity emphasized not only by parallel motion in thirds and sixths but also by the profusion of delicate ornaments (agréments) and avoidance of strong dissonance. In the elegiac first movement, marked ‘gravement’ (track 1), Lully is represented in the blissful Elysian Fields, performing with the ‘musicianly Shades’ (‘Ombres liriques’). There follows a graceful, dance-like air portraying the same scene (track 2). Mercury arrives, his winged flight depicted by undulating semiquavers, and warns Lully that Apollo is about to appear (track 3). Apollo’s descent is rather more stately; as god of music, he gives Lully his violin and offers the composer a place on Mount Parnassus (track 4). Subterranean rumblings are then heard representing Lully’s contemporaries, envious of his success (track 5). Their subsequent ‘Plaintes’ are expressed in sighing melodies for ‘flutes or violins, very softly’ (track 6).

All these opening movements evoke the character of instrumental symphonies of the kind that still featured in the French operatic idiom established by Lully some fifty years earlier. This is particularly so of the two that represent his resentful contemporaries: the subterranean rumblings in the first are modelled on the pulsating quavers that characterize the shivering of the ‘cold people’ in Lully’s Isis (1677), while the ‘Plaintes’ in the second bear a striking resemblance, even in the choice of key, to the ‘Plainte de Pan’ from the same opera.

Once Lully has been wafted to Mount Parnassus (track 7), the character of the music changes markedly. The next movement, headed ‘Bitter-sweet welcome given to Lulli by Corelli and the Italian Muses’ (track 8), includes several typically Corellian features—a walking bass in solemn quavers, and pungent interlocking suspensions for the upper instruments. The Italians’ arrival is reflected in the notation itself: this movement is headed ‘largo’ rather than ‘lentement’; the quavers are marked to be played equally, in the Italian manner, rather than as notes inégales; and even the clefs are changed from the so-called French violin clef (G on the bottom line) to the standard treble clef favoured in Italy (G on the second line up). Yet Couperin cannot resist enlivening the melodic lines with French-style dotted rhythms, rapid tirades and abundant ornaments. The elegant simplicity of the native style returns, as do the clefs (marked ‘clés françoises’), when Lully gives thanks to Apollo in a graceful movement dominated by parallel thirds (track 9).

It is at this point that Apollo persuades Lully and Corelli that the ‘perfection of music’ can be achieved by a union of French and Italian styles—the famous réunion des goûts with which Couperin’s name is nowadays indelibly associated. The combination of styles is illustrated literally in the remaining seven movements: in each of these, the highest of the three lines is notated in the French violin clef and allotted to ‘Lulli’, while ‘Corelli’ plays the middle one in the treble clef. These movements all illustrate the stylistic integration espoused by Apollo-Couperin, but to different degrees. The ‘Essai en forme d’Ouverture’ (track 10) adopts the format of a Lullian overture, beginning with the characteristic dotted rhythms in duple metre and continuing with a more contrapuntal section in triple time, based on a pithy initial arpeggio figure. While the predominant style is French, Couperin incorporates Italianate triplet figures in the opening section, and these recur in the short recapitulation at the end of the movement.

The two ensuing airs are solo duets played by the featured composers. Each movement comprises an elegant melody, abundantly ornamented, and an accompanying line incorporating Italianate sequences in flowing quavers. In the ‘Air léger’ (track 11), it is ‘Lulli’ who plays the upper line, while Corelli takes the lower. Their roles are reversed in the ‘Second Air’ (track 12), which is markedly more Italian, with bold melodic leaps and touches of expressive chromatic harmony.

The Apothéose de Lully concludes with a trio sonata entitled ‘La Paix du Parnasse’ (tracka 13-16), its four movements labelled ‘gravement’, ‘vivement’, ‘rondement’ and ‘vivement’. To symbolize this new-found accord in the Muses’ abode, the two melodic lines are marked to be played respectively by ‘Lulli, et les Muses françoises’ and ‘Corelli, et les Muses italiénes [sic]’. Couperin deliberately classifies the piece as a ‘Sonade en trio’ rather than ‘Sonata’, explaining that, because of complaints by the French Muses, ‘we should henceforth say Sonade, Cantade, in speaking their language, just as we say ballade, Sérénade, &c’. For better or worse, Couperin’s campaign to Frenchify these Italian terms fell largely on deaf ears. By contrast, his synthesis of national styles, experienced at its most sophisticated in this trio sonata, was to create a musical language of infinite refinement and emotional power, one that remains his enduring legacy.

In the Catholic liturgy, the Office of Matins on the three days before Easter includes passages from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in which the Hebrew prophet mourns the destruction of Jerusalem. As this Office traditionally began at midnight and entailed the gradual extinguishing of candles, it became known in Latin as ‘Tenebrae’ (‘Darkness’), hence the French term ‘ténèbres’. In Couperin’s France, however, these Holy Week ceremonies began during the previous afternoon; his three Leçons de ténèbres for the ‘Premier Jour’ were thus performed not on Maundy Thursday but on Wednesday of Holy Week.

These Leçons de ténèbres à une et à deux voix were written some time between 1713 and 1717. In his elegantly engraved printed score Couperin tells us that he had earlier composed three of the other Tenebrae lessons ‘at the request of the Nuns of Lxx’ (i.e., the royal abbey of Longchamp, west of Paris). Moreover, he had evidently completed the remaining three but had not yet had time to have these engraved. Alas, he never did so, and the manuscript sources for the unpublished lessons doubtless perished when the abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres belong to a peculiarly French style of Tenebrae setting that originated in the ones composed by Lully’s father-in-law, Michel Lambert. In such works, the prophet’s words are set in a declamatory style interspersed with astonishingly intricate vocalises. These settings demanded virtuoso singers, and fashionable convents such as Longchamp would hire star performers from the Paris Opéra for the occasion. Lecerf de la Viéville was among those who did not approve:

Praise is heaped upon singers who sing a lesson on Good Friday or a solo motet for Easter from behind a curtain, which they pull open from time to time to smile at friends in the audience. People go to hear them at a particular convent. In their honour, the price normally paid at the Opéra is charged for a seat in the church.
Yet if this description suggests that Couperin’s three Leçons de ténèbres are conceived in a merely theatrical spirit, nothing could be further from the truth. They certainly require singers of the highest calibre, but they are also among the most eloquent and impassioned works in his entire œuvre.

For the most part, Jeremiah’s words are set in a declamatory manner that owes less to the recitative of French opera, with its fluctuating metres, than to the sacred Italian monody of the previous century; nevertheless, the severity of the mainly one-syllable-per-note setting is relieved by abundant ornamental detail, whether in the form of delicate agréments or in expressive efflorescences on particularly emotive syllables, all requiring supreme vocal control. Moreover, Couperin deploys a colourful harmonic palette that enhances the grief-laden imagery of the text. He also organizes certain sections into clearly audible forms, either by the use of recapitulated passages, as at ‘Quomodo sedet sola civitas’ in the first lesson, or by a chromatic ground bass, as at ‘Recordata est Jerusalem’ in the second.

It was traditional in settings of the Lamentations to precede each verse of the Latin text with the initial letter in the Hebrew Bible. Like innumerable predecessors, Couperin sets these as lengthy vocalises—a perfect foil to the declamatory writing of the verses. Musically, they are among the highpoints of the set, especially those in the third lesson, where the two voices interlock in achingly poignant suspensions. Is it too fanciful to interpret these as stylized evocations of the grieving Jeremiah’s ululations?


(L') Apothéose de Lulli
(3) Leçons de ténèbres


Composer Info

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377), John Sheppard, François Couperin

CD Info

CD CDA68134, CD CDA68187, CD CDA68093.