Recording 7-9 september 1988
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Flemish music works its apprenticeship in the "Cappella", a body which is annexed to a cathedral church or to a court, and whose members alongside their technical mastery possess specific functions, as civil servants, bureaucrats, ecclesiastical dignitaries or as diplomats: it is in this context that the musical craftsmen, fired by a new desire for self-affirmation and personal prestige, are imbued with a humanistic education in the widest sense of the word, marked professional and organizational talents, a remarkable mobility on a European scale, which within a few decades will lead to the codification of an international style. The polyphony of Flanders has long suffered the prejudice of those who see in it only calculation, artifice and a gratuitous taste for experiment; whilst this element is admittedly present in some extreme examples of Flemish-Burgundian musical art, we should be wary of making a priori generalisations and note rather that, in the more representative personalities, the tendency towards complication far from declining into sheer cerebralism is never in fact an obstacle in the search for expressivity. From 1492 to the end of the century numerous musicians from northern Europe were active at the courts and Cappellas of Italy; these continual and reciprocal contacts between two cultural worlds gave to Italy the science of Flemish counterpoint, for which it gave in return a completely latin Stimmung, thus tempering the technical severity of northern Europe with the melodic sweetness and lightness of rhythm that belong to the sunny climes of southern Europe. One such composer is Guillaume Dufay, master in his generation of the Franco-Burgundian school: after his studies in Cambrai, he was in Italy as early as 1420 in the service of the Malatestas of Pesaro and Rimini. Tracing his travels, which were indeed numerous, we find him in the papal Cappella in Rome from 1428 to 1433, then in Florence and later in Bologna where the pope had sought refuge from the disturbances; from 1437 to 1444 in Turin in the service of the court of Savoy, and finally, with various intervals, he settles in Cambrai. Dufay's sacred production includes, among other pieces, about twenty motets and ten complete masses, apart from numerous fragments. The masses of his youth (Missa Sancti Jacobi, Missa Sancti Antonii Viennensis) still follow the model of the three-voice messa in discanto or messa cantilena, with the highest voice (the "superius") taking the melodic lead over the two lower voices which perform an instrumental role; but from his Missa Caput (circa 1440) and in the later masses "Se la face ay pale", "L'homme arme", "Ave regina coelorum" and "Ecce ancilla Domina" Dufay adopts and perfects the model of the messa ciclica or messa su cantus firmus, using four voices (superius, altus, tenor, bassus) in which the different sections of the Ordinary are elaborated on a melody borrowed from the Gregorian or non-liturgical repertoire or composed anew; this kernel motive, initially entrusted to the tenor and scored with long notes, ranges over the entire vocal web by means of the various processes of imitation of the canon (crab, inversion, augmentation, diminution), thus transforming the organism into a sound architectural structure held up by the firm construction that the composer wishes to design.
In the mass "Se la face ay pale" (composed perhaps for the wedding of Charlotte of Savoy to the Dauphin Louis of France around 1450) Dufay uses as the cantus prius factus the melody of one of his own profane chansons for three voices, which Besseler dates at after 1430 but which van den Borren believes belongs to a later period. At the beginning of each of the five parts the composer indicates the treatment of the tenor part ("Tenor crescit in duplo", Tenor ter dicitur", "Primo quaelibet figura crescit in triplo, secundo in duplo, tertio ut jacet" and so on); it is a technique that scholars define old-fashioned, since it reworks the already obsolete isorhythmic principle borrowed from French fourteenth century Ars Nova. Because of its length the melody of the ballade is often subdivided into three segments: such that the first two form the basis of the first 'Kyrie', whilst the third appears in the second 'Kyrie' (in the "Christe" episode the cantus firmus is silent. In the 'Gloria' and the 'Credo' Dufay respects the tradition of leaving the opening phrase in cantus planus: in the first piece the tenor enters on the words 'Adoramus te', and appears three times with rhythmic variations; in the same way the tenor voice appears three times in the 'Credo'. The motive is once again presented in sections in the 'Sanctus': the first section at the beginning of the piece, the second in the first 'Hosanna' (which is followed by a three-voice 'Benedictus') and the third in the second 'Hosanna' (only in 'Pleni sunt coeli' is the cantus firmus temporarily suppressed). The structure of the 'Agnus Dei', in three parts, is identical to that of the 'Kyrie', with the cantus firmus absent in the second 'Agnus', Throughout the mass the tenor remains substantially rigid, with little influence on the other voices which proceed independently, without forming a compact and homogenous polyphonic web. The thematic unity is, however, guaranteed not only by the use of a single melody that circles through the various sections but also by the presence of a Headmotive, which is found at the beginning of all five pieces and appears, in other parts of the mass as well, twenty times altogether. A certain Italian influence can be detected in the clarity of the harmonies, in the careful dosing of sound volumes and in the expert balance given to the vocal parts which are often set in contrasting pairs and in the increasingly visible inclination towards contained expressivity. In the sacred or political and celebratory motets Dufay generally follows the path marked out by his predecessors, both in the use of polytextuality and in the choice of isorhythm, though this is not the only procedure used by the Burgundian composer who at times opts for the freer cantilena style that he has already perfected in his masses. The 'chansons courtoises', striking in their extraordinary use of colour and nascent sense of tonal harmony, follow the old pattern of two matched higher voices with a third voice providing support: the vast majority are love songs in ballad, rondeau or virelai form and communicate refined sensitivity coupled with remarkable literary culture.
The Flemish composer Roland de Lassus, or Orlando di Lasso in the italianised form of his name, may along with Palestrina and Victoria justly be considered one of the great masters of musical art in the sixteenth century by virtue both of his extraordinarily prolific production (about 2000 compositions including more than 50 masses and a thousand or so motets) and of the variety of genres and styles that he used. Van den Borren on the basis of documents and dedicatory letters hypothesises that Roland de Lassus was born in Mons (in what is now the Belgian province of Hainault) probably in 1532. From the local chronicler we learn that he was a child chorister in the church of St. Nicholas. At the age of thirteen his beautiful voice won him a place in the retinue of the Viceroy of Sicily, Ferdinando Gonzaga and thus he had the opportunity of visiting France and Italy where he was deeply impressed by the court celebrations and by the magnificent liturgical ceremonies in the musical cappellas of Milan and Mantua. Around 1549/50 he travelled to Naples in the suite of the nobleman Costantin Castrioto and here he first come across the new "commedia dell'arte" which inspired in him a collection of light, witty Villanelles, one of which is the well-known serenade of the lansquenet "Matona mia cara".
In 1553 during the papacy of Julius III Lasso was the choir master of St. John Lateran. His activity in the Lateran choir was, however, of little significance for the composer's musical education: more fruitful was the fact that he frequented the house of his patron, Cardinal Altoviti, and was thus able to meet his contemporary De Rore and to enter into contact with the refined Roman nobility, which nurtured the madrigal. In 1555 at the age of 23 Lasso's first publication "ll Primo Libro di Madrigali" appeared in Venice and was such a succes that it saw twelve reprints in the course of its author's lifetime. In the same year he left Rome and went to Antwerp, a town in Flanders that was famous for its cultural life and musical activity as well as for its music publishers, who were the equal of those of Venice, Tylman Susato, the famous north-European publisher, who dealt with the most important musicians of the age, played an important part in the formation of the young composer; indeed it was Susato's printing press that published in 1556 his "ll primo libro di Mottetti a 4 & 5 voci" (First book of Motets of 4 & 5 voices), a work which at the time was considered a sort of ideological tribute to the emperor Charles V and to those who sustained the catholic faith. Unable to find a permanent position in Flanders, Lasso departed for Munich in autumn 1556 and went into the service of Duke Albert V, the Magnanimous. The Bavarian capital was to become the definitive base for his activity, though his journeys through Europe continued, bringing the composer into contact with different musicians, ideas and musical styles, and enabling him to broaden his cultural horizons, providing him with a rich basis of experience upon which he could build his own musical style. No sooner had he been taken on than Lasso, in homage to the duke, set about the composition of three cycles of sacred works: the Prophetiae Sibylarum, the Lectiones sacrae ex libris Hiob and the Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales. The first two were the result of Lasso's own spontaneous inspiration, whilst we know for certain that the Penitential Psalms (composed in 1559) were expressly commissioned by Duke Albert. To express clearly the high consideration in which the duke held Lasso he gave dispositions that the psalms were to be reserved "for the private use" of the court chapel but recompensed the composer with a sum that was three times greater than the amount necessary for the purchase of the house that stood on the site of the present-day "Platzl". In 1563 the duke commissioned the Munich painter Hans Mielich to illuminate the two precious volumes containing the psalms, now in the Bavarian Staatsbibliothek. Not until four years after the dukes's death did Lasso decide to pass the psalms to a publisher and in 1584 they were published in small-format part books and had a second edition in 1600. In his dedication to Bishop Philip of Regensburg, son of the late duke, Lassus briefly illustrates the work which had been so dear the duke indicating "plus minus" the period in which the psalms had been composed and praising the Bishop's family for having granted permission for their publication. These wide-ranging compositions, the Penitential Psalms, embrace a variegated, polychromatic vocality: frequent use is made of contrasts between sections with different numbers of voices and of "polychoral" organisation in the polyphonic texture that is divided into opposing blocks. Little use is made of imitative counterpoint, this being limited generally to the Gloria which concludes each psalm. More than real melodic imitation the Penitential Psalms contain a consistent tendency towards the reproduction by the various voices of the same rhythmic model. The polyphonic weave is characterised by plain, simple phrasing, verging on the homorhythmic - which is, let it be said, common in this musical context - quite in keeping with the profoundly mystic and meditative nature of the holy scripture which forms its text. The few "madrigalisms" that are found in the work, all of which eschew the expressive "extremes" of the genre, discreetly underline the key words in the text. The vocal treatment is extremely rich in variety: from the splendour of the "ripieno" of all five voices to rarefied transparency of the "bicinium" (only two voices), the deeper of which proceeds not in imitation of the first but more in the role of a melodic bass. Although in the strict sense of the word the Penitential Psalms are not "cyclical" they do present a precise structural pattern based on the ancient Gregorian modes: each pair of psalms is composed (with the necessary transposition) respectively in the Dorian, Phrygian and Lydian modes, with the seventh psalm concluding the series in the Mixolydian mode.
We have no precise knowledge of the particular mystic value that the Bavarian court attributed to the Penitential Psalms - though even when they were being composed Lasso had created a veil of mystery around them - and the complex structural relationships that obtained between textual content and musical form are still not clear: one thing is certain - even today they exude an air of mysterious liturgical sacredness which is admirably served by the meditative tone and "private" nature of the music.
Cristina Santarelli - Alberto Olivero
(English translation by Timothy Alan Shaw)