Record 1990, Chapel of Irish College, Leuven
Who was this Antoine Brumel? He was a difficult person in every respect and a selfwilled and eccentric composer. A difficult personality is not unusual for a musician, yet his idiosyncrasy was recognized even in his own lifetime.
According to the standards of his time, Brumel's music knows no boundaries, is daring and never strictly academic. Whether this concerns imaginative musical structures, the working-out of counterpoint or the writing of repetitive forms - it is always more or less "outrageous".
The most fascinating of Brumel's works is without a doubt his twelve-part mass ET ECCE TERRAE MOTUS.
Et Ecce Terrae Motus
For Easter day, the Feast of the Resurrection and the celebration of the climax of Salvation history, Antoine Brumel wove a magnificent sonic tapestry: his 12-voiced Missa "Et Ecce Terrae Motus." The piece derives its name from its cantus firmus, an Antiphon for Easter morning Lauds. The Antiphon text describes the moment of Christ's Resurrection: "And behold, there was a great earthquake, and the angel of the Lord descended from heaven (Matthew 28:2)." The miraculous moment and the liturgical solemnity inspired from Brumel one of the most expansive mass ordinaries of the entire European Renaissance. An astounding 12 voices participate (symbolizing the number of Apostles). Three voices often present the cantus firmus in canon (Christ rose after three days; Brumel also uses just seven notes of the Antiphon chant, a "perfect" number). The bass and two tenors frequently sing this symbolically rich cantus firmus in very long note values, supporting a grandiose sonic edifice of slowly shifting harmonic foundations beneath stacked layers of cascading melodic detail. Orlando di Lasso himself knew the mass; he personally directed a performance in Munich around 1470 from its only surviving copy. Different elaborations of canonic and polychoral techniques drive each movement of the mass. The Kyrie movement introduces both Brumel's canonic procedure (two statements of the chant in canon among the last three voices to enter) and his antiphonal contrasts of four- to six-voiced vocal groups in different ranges. Often, the other voices themselves sing in canonic duos or trios above the long notes. After similar initial canonic entries, however, the Gloria eschews the formal device and instead elaborates shifts in rhythmic character. Brumel structures the Credo around three central deployments of the long-note canonic trio: at the first text to mention Christ, in the central narration of the crucifixion and resurrection (marked by rich harmonies just before), and at the introduction of the Holy Spirit. The Sanctus opening presents the most dramatic crescendo from two antiphonal, five-voiced units to nine voices; by the entry of the second chant voice, the outer "free" voices are singing two converging motivic canons and the 12th voice finally enters amid the tumult of all nine free voices hammering the same syncopated triadic motive. Yet the Agnus Dei surpasses it. Here, the composer sets the canon itself in motion, presenting the trio five times each on a higher pitch. This migration manages to stabilize the harmonic shifts of the entire cycle and completes them with a prayerful ascent.
- Timothy Dickey (All Music Guide)
Sequentia "Dies Irae Dies Illa"
This is the first polyphonic setting of the Dies irae text in the history of music. The plainchant is one that remains familiar, having later been set by so many composers, including Mozart and Liszt. Despite the many alterations the tune has gone through over the centuries, it is still clearly recognizable in Brumel's setting.
Unlike much of Brumel's flamboyant, forward-looking music, this Sequentia is deeply archaic in tone, harmony, and method, perhaps showing him at his most humbly pious. The polyphony proceeds in a careful and slow manner, with often only one line moving at a time. It's a subtle medieval syntax which is, for us, fraught with the sense of history. Its power, beyond its sheer eloquence, is to evoke deep feelings of historical nostalgia. In that capacity, this is a very affecting piece. But Brumel's writing here has to be tasted deeply to be enjoyed, since it's not a spicy music, nor one that commands attention. It was after all composed for an audience already assumed to be attentive. It therefore goes about its polyphonic business in a quietly confident, completely unselfconscious way.
The piece begins with some three-part polyphonic writing that is particularly lovely when realized on Renaissance sackbuts or trombones. In fact, a mixed choir of brass and voice is probably the ideal way for modern listeners to hear this music if we are to be won over by it. Generally, Brumel keeps the melodies within small registers, and cadences on bare fifths, giving the whole a pleasantly straightforward feeling. The sections alternate between the three-part polyphony, harmonized chanting of the plainchant, and semi-improvised sections which he's left to the performers' discretion to realize. These alternations make the piece strangely involving, almost essay-like, as it unravels a quiet, poetic argument.
- Donato Mancini (www.allmusic.com)