Three from the Renaissance

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Program: #18-12   Air Date: Mar 12, 2018

From the Brabant Ensemble, sacred music of Obrecht; music of Loyset Compere for the Duke of Milan, and sacred music of Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Leonora d’Este.

I. Compère: Missa Galeazescha (Odhecaton/Paolo da Col). Arcana CD A436.

Missa Galeazescha. Music for the duke of Milan


During the reign of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-76), Milan experienced an extraordinary musical era. In the 1470s, the Duke set out to form a ‘famous and worthy choir’, recruiting a ‘goodly number of singers from beyond the Alps and from various countries’. He soon assembled a musical ensemble that boasted some of the most celebrated musicians in the Franco-Flemish polyphony of the day, from Italy and beyond. The Duke brought into being a new kind of polyphonic mass, a cycle of motets called missales to replace the traditional ordinarium, with texts attributing special importance to the worship of Our Lady of Grace and Mercy, much beloved by the Sforza family. A masterpiece of the genre is the so-called Missa Galeazescha for five voices, composed by Loyset Compère and performed here by an ensemble inspired by the impressive size of Galeazzo Maria Sforza’s cappella. This recording brings together four vocal-instrumental groups.

From first thing to understand that the Missa Galeazescha is not a mass as you might know it, it is a set of motets in honour of the Virgin written to replace the movements of the mass ordinary. So for example the motet ‘Ave Sponsa Verbi summi’ is given “instead of the Offertory”. In addition we are offered four motets by the rather shadowy Gaspar van Weerbecke also from a cycle of settings of texts to the Virgin. His style is quite different from Compère and his motet ‘Mater digna Dei’ is one of the most beautiful pieces on the CD.

Odhecaton is a group of twelve male voices and their sound is opulent and yet almost abrasive at times. But a large group of musicians have been called in to present this unique set of works. You will see below that the sacred works have been split sometimes by instrumental ones, wind pieces and organ music. Liuwe Tamminga plays four pieces on a fifteenth century organ at a church in Bologna, at its best I feel in Weerbecke’s Virgo Maria. The seven members of the Ensemble Pian&Forte, open and close the CD playing sonatas (really fanfares) by one Heinrich Lübeck, they consist entirely of trumpets with a timpanist. La Pfarescha is a four strong group playing two shawms and two trombones and La Reverdie are a mixed group of five mainly string players but with Doron D. Sherwin playing cornetto. These two latter groups accompany the voices (an idea not always to everyone’s taste) most of the time creating generally an amazingly consistent and sumptuous blend.

Duke Galaezzo Maria Sforza was murdered in the church of Santo Stefano, Milan, on December 26th 1476. He was a notoriously cruel and harsh leader, but he did spend an inordinate amount of money on music recruiting the very best of singers in Milan and the surrounding area but he chose Loyset Compère from northern France, also known for his secular pieces and Gaspar van Weerbecke from Belgium to be his court and chapel composers. In addition Alexander Agricola was a singer for about three years in the Duke’s chapel. The Duke was attempting to replicate the very highest standards found in other court chapels and cathedrals of Europe.

These motets by Compère, which the Duke is likely to have commissioned, operate on several levels; I will touch on this only briefly here but it’s worth knowing a little as it demonstrates that this is a composer, so little known and overshadowed by figures like Josquin, worthy of greater investigation. The texts tend to be divided into groups of four lines with often, four lots of four lines in each. The second and fourth groups are often set in triple time, always adding a happy variety. Also, to quote an excellent booklet essay by Daniele V. Filippi entitled ‘A Precious Patchwork for the Duke’, the tenor lines sometimes have a “collage of pre-existing melodies, taken from sequences and other songs” He lists a few but adds that “others have not yet been identified”. On several occasions I feel I could hear the ‘L’homme Armé’ melody so popular for mass settings at that time and fragments of the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ plainchant.

One wonders why the recording dates from 2005 but has had to wait until this autumn (2017) to be released, surely Arcana can’t have been waiting for Compère’s 500th anniversary next year! All very irritating for the performers I should think.

The recordings made in San Petronio of the organ and the brass pieces have a wondrously ringing acoustic. This is a magnificent church, which I saw only recently, in the centre of the city. In the other venue in Belluno the voices feel a little too close and the instruments rather recessed but it does have a sense of space and depth.

As well as the essay mentioned above, there is another, equally fascinating, by Agnese Pavanello entitled ‘Sforza Polyphony between the Court and Duomo’. Compere’s music is still little known so if this period is favoured by you then I advise that you snap up this CD without much further thought. All texts are given and well translated.

Gary Higginson

Heinrich LÜBECK (c.1500)
1. Sonata No. 100 [2:07]
Gaspar van WEERBECKE (c.1445-1516)
2. Virgo Maria [2:28]
3. Ave, stella matutina [2:27]
Alexander AGRICOLA (c.1445-1506)
4. Ave Domina sancta Maria [4:09]
5.Missa Galeazescha: Loco Introitus. Ave, Virgo gloriosa [3:08]
6. Missa Galeazescha: Loco Gloria. Ave, salus infirmorum [3:15]
Johannes MARTINI (c.1440-1498)
7. Toujours bien [1:17]
8. Missa Galeazescha: Loco Credo. Ave, decus virginale [3:08]
Johannes MARTINI:
9. La Martinella [3:07]
10. Missa Galeazescha: Loco Offertorii. Ave, sponsa verbi summi [3:30]
Alexander AGRICOLA:
11. Tota pulchra es [2:25]
12. Missa Galeazescha: Loco Sanctus. O Maria [3:18]
13. Missa Galeazescha: Ad elevationem. Adoramus te, Christe [4:29]
Alexander AGRICOLA:
14. L’homme banni [02:04]
15. Missa Galeazescha: Loco Agnus. Salve, mater salvatoris [2:53]
Gaspar van WEERBECKE:
16. Christi mater, ave [2:32]
Alexander AGRICOLA:
17. Ave, pulcherrima Regina [2:44]
18. Missa Galeazescha: Loco Deo gratias. Virginis Mariae laudes04:00
19. Ave Maria gratia plena [5:14]
Heinrich LÜBECK:
20. Etzliche Punctenn aus einer Sonade [1:35]
Gaspar van WEERBECKE:
21. Mater digna Dei [3:39]
Heinrich LÜBECK:
22. Sonata No. 6 [1:44]

II. Jacob Obrecht: Missa Grecorum & Motets (Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice). Hyperion CD CDA68216.

CDA68216 - Obrecht: Missa Grecorum & motets

Why is the Missa Grecorum so called? Disappointingly, nobody knows for certain. Thomas Noblitt, in his introduction to the New Obrecht Edition used for this recording, alludes to ‘the efforts of a number of scholars over a period of many years’ to determine its origin, but these were to no avail. It would seem most likely that the melody that forms the Mass’s structural cantus firmus was of secular origin, at least if the rhythmicized form in which it appears most frequently here is representative of the tune as he knew it. Another possibility, though one that has never been substantiated, is that the ‘Greek’ connection arises from the practice at the Vatican of reading the Epistle and Gospel in Greek at Eastertide; since the Mass quotes the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes in addition to its cantus firmus, this idea may have some credibility—even if the connection is a tenuous one, Obrecht never having been active in Rome.

The ‘Grecorum’ melody is heard most obviously in the Agnus Dei, where in the central trio section the upper voice sings it complete. As Edgar Sparks notes in his book on cantus firmus works, the clarity of the tune’s statement enables Obrecht’s manipulations of it elsewhere in the Mass to be clearly understood, despite its obscure origins. And these manipulations are extensive, even by the standards of this composer who, alongside his older contemporary Johannes Ockeghem, is famous for the ingenuity and intricacy of his mathematical techniques. The most obvious of these is augmentation—the quintessential cantus firmus presentation, whereby the structural melody is given in much longer note values than the free voices that surround it. The opening section of the Gloria illustrates this procedure most clearly, with the tenor singing the final, G, followed by repeated Ds while the altus and bassus repeat a free melody around it. A more subtle transformation of the melody occurs in the ‘Et resurrexit’ section of the Credo, where it appears inverted, first in retrograde form and then forwards. Inversion and retrograde are also found in the Agnus Dei, in the first and second sections respectively. And at the beginning of the Credo (‘Patrem omnipotentem’), the order of the notes is derived from their values, with the longest sung first, followed by breves, semibreves, and so on. (All of these procedures are noted by Sparks.)

The ways in which Obrecht derives musical material from his tenor are reminiscent of those employed much later by the composers of the Second Viennese School; and it is no accident that Anton Webern wrote his doctoral dissertation on the music of Obrecht’s contemporary, Heinrich Isaac. But interesting as these formal procedures are, they form no more than the underpinning structure on which the composer weaves his counterpoint. The effect on the listener is generated far more by aspects such as variations in harmony and texture, and other purely musical techniques. In this Mass, Obrecht brings to bear what Rob Wegman describes as the composer’s mature style, in which a new level of musical development and long-term proportion is achieved.

The Kyrie is a compact movement which begins with a texture close to homophony. The tenor sings the ‘Grecorum’ melody and in the first Kyrie the outer voices construct a slightly elaborated harmonization around it. In the Christe the texture reduces to a trio, with longer note values offset by a diminished mensuration signature (so the tactus moves from the semibreve to the breve level). The second Kyrie retains the diminished mensuration but returns to the shorter note values of Kyrie I, thus generating the most rhythmically active texture heard so far. It is also more contrapuntal than the first Kyrie, though the imitation is suggested via melodic shape rather than direct repetition of motifs.

As noted above, the Gloria begins with a full statement of the cantus firmus in long notes; the surrounding texture builds up from a single voice to a full sonority over the course of three imitations of the samecmotif. This pattern is characteristic of the movement as a whole, with phrases such as the surging upward scale on ‘Glorificamus te’ permeating the texture. Obrecht uses homophony sparingly, articulating the structure at the two phrases beginning ‘Qui tollis’. Most notable perhaps is the final subsection, from ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, where triplet cross-rhythms are introduced, after which the name of Jesus is passed from voice to voice at the top of the texture. As with many Gloria settings of this period, the movement finishes in a vigorous triple time from ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, with a hemiola Amen.

The Credo begins in recitational style, narrating the text up to ‘descendit de caelis’ in a remarkably compact forty-nine breves. The texture is full nearly throughout this opening section; it is followed by a customarily restrained ‘Et incarnatus’, in which the upper voice does not venture above B flat. The ‘Et resurrexit’, unsurprisingly, is far more vigorous, with a recurrence of the unison and octave imitation patterns seen in the Gloria. ‘Et ascendit’ is painted with upward scales exploring the top register of the outer voices, before the texture subsides once more at ‘et mortuos’. The section of text affirming belief in the Holy Spirit is omitted, cutting directly from ‘cuius regni non erit finis’ to ‘Confiteor unum baptisma’. Here the ‘Jesu Christe’ motif from the end of the Gloria reappears, before this movement—also like the Gloria—concludes with a brief and rumbustious triple-time section. The texture, rather unusually, reduces to three voices for the last seven breves of the piece, as the final tenor note C does not harmonize with the G tonality of the polyphony.

With its four sections plus repeated Osanna, the Sanctus constitutes the longest musical span of this Mass setting. The Pleni and Benedictus sections are both trios, thus alternating textures of four and three voices; the Benedictus in fact reduces further to an upper-voice duet for over half of its length, with the bassus returning only for the last nine breves. Obrecht again makes use of differing mensurations, beginning in a duple tempus imperfectum, with the tenor singing the ‘Grecorum’ melody in augmented note values; the Pleni and subsequent sections revert to tempus imperfectum diminutum, implying (as in the Kyrie) a somewhat more rapid tempo. In the Agnus Dei, the texture again alternates between quartet and trio between the three sections; like the Kyrie, this movement is less imitative than the longer intervening parts of the Mass. The third Agnus once again employs triplet figuration, though this time not all the voices participate, generating complex cross-rhythms. Here the cantus firmus is found in the lowest voice (though still notated in the tenor partbook of Petrucci’s print), and in inversion.

Wegman’s proposed chronology of Obrecht’s Mass output places Missa Grecorum among works composed circa 1490, though there is no firm dating of the work before its publication by Petrucci in 1503. The composer, born in Ghent in 1457 or 1458, remained in the North throughout his career until accepting a position at Ferrara in 1504 in succession to Josquin Des Prez. This was an unfortunate career move, since his patron Duke Ercole I died early in 1505, and the now unemployed Obrecht fell victim to the plague that summer. His career in the Low Countries had been a successful one, if also somewhat chequered in terms of his relationship with employers. He moved frequently between several posts: those that detained him more than briefly included choirmaster at the South Netherlandish town of Bergen op Zoom, just north of Antwerp (1480–84 and 1497–98), St Donatian’s, Bruges (1485–90 and 1498–1500), and Our Lady, Antwerp (1492–97 and 1501–3). While changing jobs and even returning to previous ones on occasion was not out of the ordinary, Obrecht does appear to have been unusually footloose. He found time to write a very substantial quantity of music, however: thirty Mass settings are firmly ascribed to him, with another five conjecturally attributed by modern scholars, and a similar number of other sacred works, principally motets, along with another thirty or so secular songs. The present recording aims to bring previously unrecorded works (including Missa Grecorum) to a modern audience, alongside one of Obrecht’s finest and best-known motets, and one Mass movement that has recently received an attribution to the composer from Rob Wegman.

Salve regina a 6
1 Salve regina misericordiae
2 Ad te clamamus
3 Eia ergo, advocata nostra
4 O clemens
Missa Grecorum Kyrie eleison
5 Kyrie eleison
6 Christe eleison
7 Kyrie eleison
8 Gloria in excelsis Deo
9 Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe
10 Credo in unum Deum
11 Et incarnatus est
12 Et resurrexit tertia die
13 Sanctus
14 Pleni sunt caeli
15 Osanna in excelsis
16 Benedictus qui venit
17 Osanna in excelsis
18 Agnus Dei I
19 Agnus Dei II
20 Agnus Dei III
Mater Patris / Sancta Dei genitrix 1 Mater Patris, Nati nata
21 Mater Patris, Nati nata
22 Ab aeterno generatus
23 Virgo mater, mater Dei
24 Cuius sacrata viscera a 4
O beate Basili / O beate pater 5 O beate Basili / O beate pater
25 O beate Basili / O beate pater
26 O beate pater Basili
27 O virum digne colendum / Invisit sanctus sanctum
28 Agnus Dei

III. Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun, and Musician (Musica Secreta & Celestial Sirens/Laurie Stras & Deborah Roberts). Obsidian CD717.

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter: Princess, nun and musician


In 2015, early music festivals all over Europe celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the sixteenth century’s greatest composers, Cipriano de Rore, maestro di musica at the court of Duke Ercole II of Ferrara. But in 1515, another musician was born in Ferrara,
with all the advantages of wealth, but with a singular obstacle to forging a reputation as a composer: she was a princess, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter.

On 24 June 1519 Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara and daughter of Pope Alexander VI, died, ten days after giving birth to her ninth child. She was buried in the Clarissan convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, dressed in her habit of a Franciscan tertiary. She left her grieving husband, Duke Alfonso I, and five surviving children, including two daughters, the newborn Isabella and the four-year-old Eleonora, or Leonora.

As Isabella did not survive her mother for long, Leonora was left the only legitimate Este woman in Ferrara while she was only a small girl. With no senior female family member into whose household she could have been placed, it is likely that Leonora was brought up in the convent where her mother lay interred. She formally entered Corpus Domini in 1523, at the age of eight, and became its abbess by the age of nineteen. It is clear that her vocation was also her decision, and she vigorously defended her choice against the displeasure of her father. Alfonso would, of course, have preferred to use her as collateral in the complex web of political marriages that sustained fragile alliances between the ruling families of the Italian peninsula.

Like all her family, Suor Leonora was a melomane, and throughout her relatively long life her musical needs were met financially by her father, brothers, and nephews – the dukes and cardinals of Ferrara. Many payments for keyboard instruments and their decoration, music copying, and music paper remain in the ducal accounts. It could well be that one of the reasons Suor Leonora chose to enter Corpus Domini was that it offered her the opportunity to concentrate on her musical activities, relieved of the responsibilities of marriage and procreation borne by a secular princess. But she was not completely shut off from the outside world. She was friends with the greatest musical theorist of her age, Gioseffo Zarlino, who credited her as the inspiration for his last monumental treatise, the Sopplimenti musicali. She was admired by other illustrious musicians, including Nicola Vicentino, who praised her knowledge and practice of esoteric music theory, and her nephew’s maestro di cappella Francesco della Viola, who dedicated his first and only book of madrigals to her. We have yet to fully appreciate her role as an advisor to her brothers and nephews, although it is clear that they held her in high esteem, and drew on her wisdom and influence: it was to her that her brother Ercole II turned to care for his own daughters during family crises.

The convent of Corpus Domini already had a musical heritage, bequeathed to it by one of its Clarissan founders, Caterina Vigri, who became St Catherine of Bologna. Vigri believed that singing and playing could be meditative practices that brought the heart and mind closer to God. As mistress of the novices at Corpus Domini in Ferrara, and then again in Bologna, Vigri used song as a medium for the spiritual instruction of her young pupils. She was passionate about the recitation of the Office, and if she saw any of the girls flagging during the night-time chanting of Matins, she would revive them with dried cherries and raisins that she kept in a little bag by her side. Vigri lived her life accompanied by the music of the soul and of the heavens, and as she lay dying, her novices gathered around her, and sang laude to say farewell.

Suor Leonora, then, lived in a community where music was an integral, essential part of daily life, and her interest was also fed by the musical activities of her brothers’, nephews’, and even nieces’ households. From very early on in her tenure, she ensured that an organ was placed in the convent chapel, suggesting that polyphony was used, particularly in the monthly bello offitio said in memory of her father. Near the end of her life she was concerned to ensure that Corpus Domini’s musical establishment was secure, and persuaded her brother Cardinal Ippolito II to commit, by contract, the rental income from city property for the upkeep of the convent’s chapel organ. It perhaps seems strange that no witness record of Corpus Domini’s music survives. Nor does any trace of Suor Leonora’s compositions, but this could be explained by her noble status. Both Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, declined to own their compositions in print because it was unseemly for them to be seen to be entering into the commercial world; how much more unseemly, then, for a noble nun to distribute her music in any fashion.

In 1543, the Venetian printer Girolamo Scotto issued a volume of five-voice motets, the Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata. There are no composers attributed at all in the print – which makes it one of the vanishingly small number of completely anonymous music publications from the sixteenth century (Gonzaga’s and Gesualdo’s among them). It is entirely possible that the book’s anonymity conceals a noble and nunly origin: the motets it contains are clearly intended for nuns’ use, and appear to have originated in a Clarissan convent. While some of its motets are imminently suitably for liturgical use, the materna lingua book contains others that could only have been used as private meditative prayer, perhaps inspired by Caterina Vigri’s musical devotion. And although there is no definitive proof, the book’s music suggests that its composer had access to the music composed by musicians in the Ferrarese ducal chapel, including the reuse of material that we otherwise know was composed for the private use of Suor Leonora’s brother.

While the evidence is strong, we cannot be incontrovertibly sure the materna lingua motets are by Suor Leonora. And yet, this is extraordinary in its own right. Clearly technically very accomplished, the music nonetheless has a distinct character, full of surprising dissonances and extraordinary sonorities. Suor Leonora would have been able to study the music of her father’s and brothers’ maestri, and possibly even to have studied with one of them, Willaert; but she is unlikely ever to have heard their music performed by the singers of the chapel. This may be why the soundscape of the materna lingua book is so startling and so original.

Suor Leonora outlived her brothers Duke Ercole and Cardinal Ippolito; she survived the catastrophic earthquakes that decimated Ferrara in 1570 and 1571, and oversaw the refurbishment of Corpus Domini before dying just after her sixtieth birthday in July 1575. This concert marks the five hundredth anniversary of her birth, and the first at which we have attempted a comprehensive sample of the motets we believe were the product of her learning and piety.

© Laurie Stras


  1. Angeli archangeli troni, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  2. Iste est Joannes, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  3. O beate Christi confessor, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  4. Angustiae mihi sunt, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  5. Felix namque es, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  6. Angelus Domini descendit, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  7. Sicut lilium inter spinas, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  8. Ave sanctissima Maria, motet
  9. Hodie Simon Petrus, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  10. Salve sponsa Dei, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  11. Veni sponsa Christi, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  12. Ego sum panis vitae, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  13. Suscipe verbum, virgo Maria, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)
  14. Tribulationes civitatum audivimus, motet for 5 voices (Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata)

Composer Info

Loyset Compère, Heinrich LÜBECK (c.1500), Gaspar van WEERBECKE (c.1445-1516), Alexander AGRICOLA (c.1445-1506), Johannes MARTINI (c.1440-1498), Jacob Obrecht, Leonora d’Este

CD Info

Arcana CD A436, Hyperion CD A68216, Obsidian CD717