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Program: #21-21 Air Date: May 17, 2021
A rare Mass by Heinrich Isaac, Sacred Treasures of Spain, and music for the King of Scots: Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV.
I. Heinrich Isaac: Missa Wohlauff gut Gell von hinnen (Cinquecento). Hyperion CD CDA68337.
In Florence, Isaac was one of the ‘Singers of San Giovanni’, who sang at services at the city’s principal religious institutions. Despite an official church appointment, however, Isaac’s activities extended well beyond the purely liturgical. The Medici used the Singers of San Giovanni for their private musical needs as well as for civic representation, and Isaac’s output proves that he was involved in both of these.
O decus ecclesiae combines various components of this nexus. Conceived on an extraordinary scale, the piece shows Isaac at his grandest. It draws its structure from one of Renaissance music’s basic building blocks: the six-note scale fragment known as the natural hexachord (the notes C, D, E, F, G and A). In each of the motet’s two sections, the tenor part systematically assembles and dismantles the hexachord one note at a time, beginning with its lowest pitch. A pedagogical aim cannot be ruled out, though a symbolic one seems more likely. Four additional voices surround this scaffold with a text that praises the Virgin Mary with classicizing imagery, reflecting the world of Renaissance Florentine humanism.
Lorenzo seems to have held Isaac in genuine affection. He smoothed the composer’s integration into Florentine society, while Isaac in turn set his patron’s poetry to music, and may have taught his children music. When Lorenzo died in 1492, the composer memorialized his patron in several works, including Quis dabit pacem populo timenti?. This motet draws on Classical precedent, borrowing lines from a funerary chorus from (Pseudo-)Seneca’s tragedy Hercules Oetaeus. Seneca’s words are supplemented with additional text that explicitly mentions Lorenzo and the Medici. The work is freely composed, without any pre-existent material. Its structure is articulated, rather, through the quantitative poetry of both Seneca and the additions: cadences, changes in vocal scoring, and rests in all voices render the lines and half-lines immediately audible, while the musical motifs often derive their rhythms directly from the longs and shorts of the words in a manner that would gain currency in the German metrical ode tradition of the following century.
Following Lorenzo’s death, Florence’s Golden Age came to an abrupt end. His weak son and heir Piero lost power and was sent into exile in 1494. The Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola took over and instituted a strict and ascetic religious law under which complex music of the kind that Isaac produced was forbidden. Fortunately, a musician of Isaac’s stature was a desirable commodity elsewhere: by the end of 1496, he had gained a new position as court composer to the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I, and he moved for a time to Vienna and Innsbruck. For Maximilian, Isaac was a prestigious import. His appointment offered a chance to put the imperial court chapel on the musical map. For Isaac, Maximilian offered unusually flexible working conditions that allowed him—once the worst of the troubles had passed—to reside in Florence, and to serve the emperor from a distance.
Although Isaac worked at the imperial court in spheres as diverse as those in which he had been active in Florence, his primary task was to provide the court chapel with a comprehensive liturgical repertory. Much of this consisted of new Mass settings and music for the Mass Proper based on Gregorian chant. But other compositional types were involved too, and at some point relatively early in his imperial tenure, Isaac turned to an earlier Mass that he had written in Florence, based on the popular song Comment peult avoir joye?. He may have known the song in monophonic form, and he certainly knew a polyphonic version that his contemporary and rival Josquin des Prez had composed in c1490, probably in Rome. The song’s text expresses a complaint against misfortune typical of its genre, replete with pastoral and natural analogies, and a self-referential observation on music’s (lack of) curative powers. Josquin’s setting treats the song in strict canon at the octave between the cantus and tenor voices. Song-derived material permeates the other two voices as well, creating a homogeneity among the parts that allows the structuring canon to remain hidden in the texture.
Although Comment peult was probably originally French, it was known also in Germany, but with a different text: Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen. Such re-texting—so-called ‘contrafactum’—was a common re-purposing method in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Perhaps it was his discovery that Comment peult was known in German lands in a local version that inspired Isaac to adapt his Florentine Missa Comment peult. The earlier Mass was probably composed around 1490, and is a relatively typical four-voice work. The Comment peult melody is prominent throughout, often in the uppermost voice, and a number of reduced-voice sections treat it lyrically enough to have led some commentators to suggest that they are actually re-purposed song settings that predate the Mass. There are no overarching structuring devices, but several sections employ strict canon.
Nothing would have prevented the imperial court from simply using the four-voice Comment peult Mass as it was. However, Isaac decided to subject the earlier work to far-reaching adaptation and expansion. This involved three processes. First, all but one sections of the four-voice Mass were taken over into the new version. Two of the sections retained their original positions and words, but the rest were stripped of their original texts, re-ordered, and re-texted with different parts of the Mass Ordinary.
Second, in the revised work, Isaac split the Mass Ordinary text into significantly more sections than previously. This created space for eight entirely new sections. The new sections differ from the original Mass in using not four voices but six. Six-voice scoring was unusually large in Isaac’s time, and it held considerable fascination for composers of his generation. The imperial court had a particular concern with it: indeed, Isaac’s ability to produce such music may have been among the qualities that made him an attractive hire for Maximilian.
Finally, four of the sections of the original four-voice Mass were expanded. In two of these instances, extra music was added to make them longer. The other two sections were expanded vertically, by the addition of two further vocal parts—a second high one and a second low one—to the four-voice originals.
The resulting six-voice Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen is one of Isaac’s most imposing Mass Ordinary settings: it is among his longest and his most sonically splendid. A kaleidoscope of reduced-voice combinations appears over the course of the Mass, and only exceptionally is the same scoring repeated for adjacent sections. The pre-existing melody is subjected to extensive manipulation: not only is it presented in every conceivable part of the texture, but its canonic possibilities are exhaustively explored, including simple canon at different intervals, two 4-ex-2 canons, a proportion canon, and two climactic 3-ex-1 canons in the final movement.
It is a commonplace that, before fairly recent times, music tended not to outlive its composer. Yet, like many commonplaces, it is not entirely borne out by the evidence, at least in the case of a significant composer such as Isaac. The remaining four motets recorded here all bear witness to this. All are transmitted exclusively in sources from German-speaking lands, implying an origin at the imperial court, during Isaac’s years in the service of Maximilian; and all are found only in sources that postdate Isaac’s death.
Posthumous transmission is not without its perils. Music considered worth preserving was often adapted to new contexts, and sometimes only the adapted versions survive. This is the case with Sive vivamus, which takes words from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. The piece is also preserved with the Marian antiphon text Ave regina caelorum. Neither text is likely the original. The piece is freely composed, in four voices. Its expressive Phrygian mode and low register recall Isaac’s works of mourning, such as Quis dabit capiti meo aquam?.
The remaining three motets are all based on pre-existent Gregorian chant melodies. The rich, five-voiced Recordare, Jesu Christe survives only in a single source, from the 1560s. The piece was originally a Marian offertory, Recordare, virgo mater, but in the context of the Reformation it underwent a process of Lutheranization whereby all textual references to Mary were instead replaced with ones to Jesus. The chant melody is set in canon at the lower fifth between the alto and second tenor parts. Parce, Domine, populo tuo is a brief, four-voice setting of words from the Book of Joel. The unidentified cantus firmus, in the tenor voice, has the character of a psalm tone. Judaea et Jerusalem sets a responsory for the Christmas Vigil, with the chant melody presented in the bass voice. Its authorship is uncertain and not easily resolved. The earliest copy, already from more than a decade after Isaac’s death, attributes it to Isaac’s great contemporary Jacob Obrecht. Some later sources attribute the piece to Isaac. Analysis of the musical style leans slightly in Obrecht’s favour, but is hardly decisive. Whoever its composer, the piece is a fine work, illustrating the best of early sixteenth-century functional liturgical music: firmly rooted in tradition, with long-breathed lines expanded into points of imitation and moments of rhetorical emphasis, it does not simply fulfil its purpose, but illuminates the sacred mysteries of its text from the inside.
II. Music for the King Scots (The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman). Hyperion CD CDA68333.
What we do have, though, is the famous Carver Choirbook, from which all the polyphonic works on this recording, with one exception, are taken. This is one of only two large-scale collections of music to survive from pre-Reformation Scotland, the long-term work of its principal scribe, the Augustinian canon Robert Carver (also known as Robert Arnot), whose name appears in a number of entries in the source. Whether the collection itself had a role to play at Linlithgow is unknown; clearly, however, it was compiled for a sophisticated chapel, almost certainly a royal one. Eight of its twenty-seven works were written by Carver himself in the first half of the sixteenth century, but we have not chosen any of them for this album. Our reconstruction of the palace focuses instead on a slightly earlier period, before the building of an organ within the chapel and the consequent changes to its internal layout. The centrepiece of our recording is a magnificent Mass cycle, found within a layer of the choirbook containing—alongside Dufay’s Missa L’homme armé—works both anonymous and from the mid-to-late fifteenth century. This, along with a companion cycle, has previously been described as either Continental or English, but we now believe the pair to be the oldest surviving Mass cycles of Scottish origin.
Given the known proclivities of Linlithgow’s overlord, King James IV, the present cycle may well have found a place in the king’s devotions. Saint Katherine seems to have held a special place in his observances, as we will see below. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the famous tale of James being warned of his impending death at Flodden by a spectre takes place in the St Katherine aisle of Linlithgow Parish Church. That the warning came from the saint is rendered the more likely given her particular reputation as an intercessor. This derives from her imploration to Christ at the moment of her own death (in the words of The Golden Legend): ‘I beg of you that anyone … who invokes me at the moment of death or in any need may receive the benefit of your kindness.’ We know that James celebrated Masses for Saint Katherine in the chapel at Linlithgow Palace, having given significant funds for the celebration of her feast there in both 1490 and 1497.
We know also from surviving records that James more generally had ‘chapele geir’ and ‘organis’ in the royal chapel at Linlithgow, originally transporting these as necessary from the other royal chapels, in Stirling and Edinburgh, but eventually having them permanently installed. The king spent many important occasions there, and was present particularly often for Easter, including—as a sixteen-year-old—in 1489, and again in the 1490s, most probably for the first official use of the new chapel; his last Eastertide visit occurred in 1512, the year prior to his death on the battlefield at Flodden, and perhaps the occasion for his putative spectral warning. The treasurer’s accounts show that he often spent Yuletide in Linlithgow too, seemingly visiting the palace frequently during the most important occasions in the Christian calendar.
The music recorded here is dedicated to the veneration of Christianity’s two foremost female intercessors. The first of these is clearly the Virgin Mary—more on this below—but the second, Saint Katherine, is a virgin martyr who yields in weight of medieval veneration only to Christ’s mother. King James IV’s particular veneration of Katherine centred on a healing well in the village of Liberton, just outside Edinburgh, which he visited no fewer than fifteen times between 1502 and 1512. The legendary origins of the well have been traced to James’s ancestor Queen Margaret, consort to King Malcolm. The story goes that the queen had been presented, by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land, with a vial of healing oil from Saint Katherine’s shrine at Sinai. On accidentally dropping the vial, the queen was amazed to see the emergence of a spring of black, oily substance. The viscous substance came to be seen to have healing powers, capable of curing rashes and scabies.
Missa Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento—the ‘Catherine Wheel Mass’, as we have taken to calling it—has only recently had its structural chant identified as belonging to a responsory for Saint Katherine of Alexandria. The work is both strange and beautiful; its underlying structure mirrors that of contemporary Mass cycles from south of the border, but its surface details, like those of its companion, the Missa Rex virginum, are quite unlike anything else from the period. It makes frequent use of the octave-leap cadence, which would seem to be a rather antiquated feature for a Mass of c1460, and of a particular kind of floridity that seems on the one hand redolent of the slightly later Eton repertory, and on the other quite distinctive. Its opening movement is missing two folios, robbing us of half of the voices of its opening movement, which we have refashioned in a reconstruction for this recording.
We place the Mass here in the context of a series of snapshots, as it were, from a succession of alleged Saint Katherine’s day devotions at Linlithgow. Our proceedings begin with the extraordinary Matins responsory itself—its bewildering musical machinations vividly recalling those of the famous wheel on which the saint was tortured—which, quoted in the tenor, forms the basis of the Mass. The Sarum introit for Saint Katherine, Dilexisti iustitiam, serves to usher in the glorious polyphonic Mass cycle itself, its movements heard without interruption. Following this, we fast-forward to Vespers, with one of the Carver Choirbook’s elaborate and brilliant settings of the Magnificat, alternating its polyphonic verses with chant set in a four-voice formulaic succession of intervals following the ‘fourth kind of faburdoun’ discussed in the mid-sixteenth-century treatise on the ‘Art of Music’ and known as the ‘Scottish Anonymous’. We end proceedings, as every liturgical day would have ended, with a Marian antiphon following Compline, calling in this instance on the famous Ave Maria, mater Dei by William Cornysh found in the Eton Choirbook. In doing this, we invite comparison with music from that great collection with which our Carver selections stand in oblique comparison. At the same time, moreover, we invoke the English repertory whose representatives also found their way into the Carver book, the expression, perhaps, of Anglophile influx brought with Margaret Tudor, the elder daughter of Henry VII of England and wife of James IV from 1503 until his untimely demise a decade later.
III. Sacred Treasures of Spain (London Oratory Schola Cantorum/Charles Cole). Hyperion CD CDA68359.
Bernardino de Ribera’s first major position was as maestro at Ávila Cathedral. Among his charges in the choir there were the young Tomás Luis de Victoria and Sebastián de Vivanco. Ribera went on to become maestro at Toledo Cathedral and then at Murcia Cathedral, where he had sung as a boy when his own father had been maestro. The six-part Dimitte me ergo seems on the surface to belie its desolate text, the music being written in a major mode. However, there is a tender sensitivity in the sparingly crafted lines, and at ‘ad terram tenebrosam’ the voices descend into the silent void.
Cristóbal de Morales was the most influential Spanish composer of his time, and a sign of the esteem in which he was held is demonstrated by the fact that Guerrero, Palestrina and Victoria all wrote works based on his own. Born in Seville, he was maestro at Ávila, then at Plasencia Cathedral, before departing for Rome where he sang in the Papal choir for ten years. On returning to Spain, he became maestro at Toledo before moving to his final position as maestro at Málaga Cathedral. Peccantem me quotidie is a powerfully vivid setting of a penitential text containing brief moments of polyphonic writing but ultimately always returning to earthbound homophonic movement. The steady descent of the parts at ‘in inferno’ is contrasted with the freely rising quavers at ‘et salva me’.
Melchor Robledo sang at the Royal Chapel in Granada before being appointed maestro de capilla at Tarragona Cathedral, and subsequently at Zaragoza. This extensive setting of the Salve regina alternates polyphony with the solemn ‘Salve’ chant, using the version in common usage in Spain during the sixteenth century, here taken from Luis de Villafranca’s plainsong instruction book, published in Seville in 1565. The two outer polyphonic sections are in six parts, while the inner section (track 9) uses just the four upper parts. Robledo’s approach to the harmonic contradictions that sometimes arise as a result of the modality is to allow space for both, giving rise occasionally to distinctive and colourful moments.
Juan Esquivel—or Esquivel [de] Barahona as he was sometimes known, in accordance with the Spanish custom of adding his mother’s family name—was prebendary and chapelmaster at the Cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo, where he had been a chorister as a child. For much of his career, his patron was Don Pedro Ponce de León, the Dominican Bishop of Ciudad Rodrigo. Esquivel based a number of parody Masses on motets by Guerrero, who was clearly a respected influence. Ego sum panis vivus is a concise yet beautifully rendered setting of a Corpus Christi text, concluding with a joyful ‘Alleluia’.
In addition to singing together as boys in the choir at Ávila, Sebastián de Vivanco and Tomás Luis de Victoria both went on to the seminary. Vivanco held three cathedral positions: at Segovia, Ávila and finally Salamanca. It is interesting to note that when a statue of Saint Teresa of Ávila was commissioned during the nineteenth century by the people of Ávila to mark her 300th anniversary, the names of other historical Ávilans of note were inscribed on the pedestal. Vivanco, not Victoria, was the only musician included, giving us a sense of the esteem in which he was still held. Dulcissima Maria is a highly expressive motet in honour of Our Lady.
Following his choristership at Ávila Cathedral, Victoria later travelled to Rome to study for the priesthood. After ordination, he lived for a time with St Philip Neri, forming a lasting relationship with St Philip’s Oratory. After some years in Rome, he returned to his native Spain as chaplain to King Philip II’s sister, the Empress María, at the Descalzas Reales in Madrid where he was also chapelmaster. Of the two settings of the ‘Hail Mary’ accredited to Victoria, no Renaissance sources exist of the popular Ave Maria a 4, so we cannot be confident of its authenticity, despite it commonly being ascribed to the composer. The Ave Maria a 8, certainly by Victoria, sets an extended version of the text. The double choirs, initially deployed antiphonally, combine to create rich and sonorous textures. O quam gloriosum, a motet for All Saints, was written during Victoria’s time in Rome, when he was organist at the Aragonese church, Santa Maria di Monserrato. Famed for its verve and drive, this popular motet’s unrelenting energy pauses only briefly at ‘amicti stolis albis’ as the righteous are clothed for heaven.
Alonso Lobo began his musical career as a chorister and later as assistant to Guerrero at Seville Cathedral. He was then appointed maestro at Toledo Cathedral before returning to serve in the same position at Seville for the remainder of his years. Versa est in luctum was written upon the death of Philip II and is considered to be one of the masterworks of the period—a fitting tribute to a Catholic king and patron of this golden era. And perhaps O quam suavis est, a ravishing six-part setting of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s text, could be considered Lobo’s own crowning glory of the Siglo de Oro.
1. Regina caeli
2. O Domine Jesu Christe
3. Ave Virgo sanctissima
4. O sacrum convivium
5. Dimitte me ergo
6. Peccantem me quotidie
7. Salve Regina
8. Ego sum panis vivus
9. Dulcissima Maria
10. Ave Maria a 4
11. Ave Maria a 8
12. O quam gloriosum
13. Versa est in luctum
14. O quam suavis est
Heinrich Isaac, Josquin Des Prez, Francisco Guerrero, Bernardino de Ribera, Cristobal de Morales, Melchor Robledo, Juan Esquivel, Sebastian de Vivanco, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Alonso Lobo
Hyperion CD CDA68337, Hyperion CD CDA68333, Hyperion CD CDA68359