In 2010 the Cappella Pratensis recorded a disc (review
) with music performed in Rome under the papacy of Leo X who ruled from 1513 to 1521. The present recording could be considered its counterpart as it is devoted to music performed at the Sistine Chapel one generation earlier, around 1490. At that time Josquin Desprez was the most famous composer in Europe, and the main representative of the Franco-Flemish school. He was active as a singer in the Sistine Chapel from 1489 until at least 1494.
The programme here comprises pieces from his oeuvre which are certainly authentic and were probably written in Rome. It is extended with music by some of his lesser-known contemporaries: Marbrianus de Orto, Gaspar van Weerbeke and Bertrandus Vaqueras, who were all singers in the Sistine Chapel at the end of the 15th century.
Weerbeke was of Josquin's generation and also born in Flanders - in the town of Oudenaarde. It is not known for sure when he went to Italy, but there is documentary evidence that he was in Milan in the early 1470s. His employer, Duke Sforza, sent him back to recruit singers. In the winter of 1480/81 he went to Rome, where he became a singer in the papal choir until 1489. He returned in 1500 and remained in Rome until 1509. The number of his works which have been preserved is not that great: eight masses, two Credos, about twenty motets, some motet cycles, a Magnificat and a set of Lamentations, plus a small number of secular pieces. One of the features of his oeuvre is the variety of composition techniques which he adopted. The three pieces on this set bear witness to that. Dulcis amica Dei/Da pacem
quotes the plainchant antiphon Da pacem Domine
. It is scored for five voices, but includes various two-part passages. In this motet Weerbeke makes use of hemiolas. Sequential writing dominates Ave regina coelorum
, whereas dissonances appear in the Agnus Dei
from the Missa Princesse d'amourettes
. The cantus firmus of this mass is a chanson which has been lost.
Bertrandus de Vaqueras was probably from southern France; his last name may refer to the place of his birth. It seems that he or his family had some ties with northern regions, and especially Flanders. The first evidence of his presence in Rome dates from 1481 when he acted as a contrabass singer in the choir of S Pietro. In 1483 he joined the papal choir, a position he held until his death in 1507 or earlier. His output is very small: two masses, two Credos, three motets and an untexted chanson setting. The motet Domine non secundum peccata nostra
, a piece for the Lenten period and for Ash Wednesday, begins with passages for two voices and is then extended to four. On this disc it is immediately followed by Josquin's setting which has basically the same texture. Vaqueras' motet was his only printed composition.
Marbrianus de Orto's original name was probably Dujardin, but he himself used the Latin name De Orto. It is likely that he was born in Tournai in Flanders. It seems that he started his career as a member of the household of Ferry de Cluny, cardinal-bishop of Tournai. In this capacity he travelled with his employer to Rome in 1482; the next year Ferry died, and De Orto was appointed as singer in the papal chapel. Sometime in the first half of the 1490s he went to Nivelles, a town south of Brussels, where he had become dean of the collegiate church of Ste Gertrude. From 1505 onwards he had close contacts with the Habsburg-Burgundian dynasty. His output isn't that large, but his status as a composer is confirmed by the printing of five of his masses by Petrucci in Venice in 1505. The masses are considered the most important part of his oeuvre.
The chanson L'homme armé
was one of the most popular in the renaissance, and was often used as cantus firmus for mass settings. This production includes two, one by De Orto and the well-known setting by Josquin. In his liner-notes Jesse Rodin explains that both settings are technically complicated. He notes several remarkable features in De Orto's setting, such as the fact that the cantus firmus is quoted in all voices. There is also reference to metrical irregularity which turns up time and again. The latter often "effects a continuous hemiola, as in the Christe (...), where the tenor sounds as if it is constantly "off the beat" even though it is really just "on" its own, separate beat". De Orto's compositions are also characterised by a particular density, such as Ave Maria gratie
. That density is even increased through the use of canon-technique in the hymn Lucis creator optime
and the Gloria from the Missa ad fugam
As this project's purpose seems to be to give an overview of the kind of music performed in the Sistine Chapel at the end of the 15th century, Jesse Rodin has chosen to extract movements from various Josquin masses. In the case of the Missa La sol fa re mi
that goes so far as singing just one section from the Credo, whereas from the Missa Fortuna desperata
only the first part of the Sanctus and the first Agnus Dei are given. This approach is unsatisfactory, but as these works are available complete in other recordings it’s not too much of a blemish. As far as the former mass is concerned, Rodin explains the various techniques Josquin used, and then adds that these are difficult to hear. That relates to an aspect of renaissance polyphony which can be quite frustrating for listeners. They read about sophisticated techniques which composers used and then are unable to recognize them. It is unlikely that composers were aiming at an 'audience' able to hear what they had done. The singers knew very well that, in the end, the music was not written for an earthly audience to be enjoyed or admired, but to the honour of God ... and the reputation of their employer, lest we should forget.
The only anonymous liturgical piece, a setting of the Credo
, was probably not written in Rome, but in Milan, and was added to the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel. It is relatively simple as was common in Milan.
The American ensemble Cut Circle was founded in 2003 by Jesse Rodin, an internationally renowned expert on 15th-century music who participates in the New Josquin Edition. Last year he published a book on Josquin and the Sistine Chapel. The present recording can be considered a musical illustration of his book. It seems to be the first recording by this ensemble, and it is most impressive. The singing is excellent throughout, and all the members have fine voices which are perfectly suited to this kind of repertoire. The many episodes for reduced forces reveal their individual skills. The transparency, even in the most dense pieces, is remarkable. Rodin is not afraid to create some pretty strong dynamic contrasts. The closing sections of Josquin's Missa L'homme armé
are good examples. The cantus firmus in the Sanctus probably makes its presence unduly felt; I wonder whether that was the composer's intention.
The liner-notes are highly interesting with a useful comment on every single piece. Rodin has been very helpful by indicating the time when the things he describes made their appearance. Nobody interested in renaissance music should miss this production which thoroughly deserves to be a Recording of the Month
Johan van Veen