One of Europe’s most extraordinary ruling dynasties, the Hapsburgs ruled greater or lesser portions of Europe from the 11th century until 1918, their heyday coinciding with the supreme musical flourishing of the 16th century. Their rule saw a particular increase during the reign of Maximilian I (son of Fredrick III, Duke of Austria, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) – secured first by his marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 and then by the union of their son Philip “the Handsome” with Joanna “the Mad” of Castille. Thus his grandson Charles V essentially ruled Spain, Germany, Austria, Burgundy, and the Low Countries, before he in turn divided his territories between his son Philip II and his brother Ferdinand of Austria in 1555-56. As these successive generations enlarged their power and territory, they gathered around themselves the leading composers of the day.
Maximilian’s most notable court composer was Heinrich Isaac, whom he appointed in 1497 and who remained in his employment until the composer’s death in 1517. Though he was often overshadowed in his lifetime by the renowned Josquin, a famous letter advising the Duke of Ferrara on the appointment of a court composer in 1503 is revealing: “[Isaac] is of a better disposition… and he will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants him to.” Duke Ercole favoured prestige over reliability and hired Josquin; meanwhile, in Maximilian’s service, Isaac’s Virgo prudentissima is a good example of a piece written to order: it was composed for the Reichstag of 1507 which confirmed Maximilian’s position as Holy Roman Emperor, and was performed under the direction of a certain “Georgius”—Jurij Slatkonja, who was Maximilian’s first Kapellmeister and can therefore be considered the founding director of what is now the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Rather unusually, he even receives a mention in the motet, the text of which is a somewhat unwieldy one written for the occasion—and one at which a less obliging composer might perhaps have protested! Isaac’s motet is a work of stunning grandeur, employing a musical language which is both strikingly individual, yet self-consciously influenced by the music of the previous generation: full sections with monumental block chords and slow-moving harmony alternate with florid, virtuosic passages for reduced forces.
Meanwhile at the Burgundian court, the Grande Chapelle had in 1492 acquired a new member: the Flemish composer Pierre de la Rue. He remained when, two years later, Maximilian relinquished his regency and his son Philip assumed control of the Burgundian lands. Philip was to die young in 1506, and it is thought that this was the occasion upon which Absalon fili mi was composed. The text of this motet, taken from the Old Testament account of King David’s lament upon the death of his son Absalom, was a text often chosen to lament deceased prince (an interesting comparison can be made with the numerous settings of When David heard by English composers upon the death of Prince Henry in 1612). De la Rue’s setting is striking in its dark harmonic colours, reaching for the distant chords of D flat and A flat at points of particular emotional intensity. The common misattribution of this piece to Josquin indicates that it was popular in its day. De la Rue stayed on for two years in the employment of Philip’s increasingly insane widow Joanna for the purpose, it seems, of comforting her with his soulful music.
Maximilian died in 1519, having outlived his son, and his court and titles passed directly to his grandson Charles V. Charles was comparatively uninterested in maintaining his grandfather’s court musicians, preferring to focus his patronage on his father’s Grande Chapelle. The Grande Chapelle (or “Capilla Flamenca” as the Spaniards knew it) certainly flourished during Charles’s reign. At this point the Low Countries produced the bulk of Europe’s finest musicians, and the fact that this entourage accompanied Charles on his travels ensured that the Flemish musical style was influential throughout the empire, while the Capilla became known as the finest musical establishment of its day. One of its most gifted composers during this period was Nicolas Gombert, a chapel singer from 1526 until his abrupt removal from post in 1540. One account gives the rather unsavoury explanation that he was sentenced to penal labour in the galleys for violating a child in his care, but that he eventually managed to gain Charles’s pardon by composing his “swansongs”—supposedly a reference to his Magnificat settings. This account is not unproblematic (could he have found the time or place to compose while in the galleys?) but the eight Magnificat settings—one for each of the church modes—are certainly works of distinction. As was common in such settings, the Magnificat primi toni consists of polyphonic verses alternating with plainsong; in this instance Gombert uses textural variation to give the work an overarching sense of structure; after two four-voice verses, he reduces the forces to three parts, before rebuilding the texture, adding an additional part for each verse, until the grandiose conclusion of the Gloria in sumptuous six-part polyphony.
It was said that Josquin’s Mille regretz was one of Charles’ favourite songs. Indeed, when the music teacher to Charles’ children made a vihuela arrangement of the song, he entitled it La canción del emperador (“The Emperor’s Song”). That Gombert also wrote a setting of the same chanson is perhaps further evidence of the song’s popularity in Charles’ household, not least as Gombert’s version is essentially a six-voice re-working of Josquin’s original. Gombert replaces the powerful simplicity of the earlier composer’s work with a more involved contrapuntal texture spread over a wider range of voice parts, and some affectingly luminous harmonies. Charles’s tastes may or may not have been influenced by those of his aunt, Marguerite of Austria, who was responsible for his upbringing after his father’s death; apparently she had a keen penchant for mournful chansons.
One work whose occasion is in no doubt is Cristóbal de Morales’ festive motet Jubilate Deo, commissioned in 1538 by his employer Pope Paul III, to celebrate the peace treaty signed that year between Charles and Francis I, King of France. Whoever wrote the text ensured that the Pope received plenty of credit for the two parties’ reconciliation. The motet employs a cantus firmus consisting of the word “gaudeamus” (the incipit of the plainsong Gaudeamus omnes in Domino), repeated in the first tenor part throughout the motet – eight times in the first part and ten times (of which six are in diminution – at double speed) in the second part of the piece. Around this weaves varied and exuberant polyphony giving thanks for the “lasting peace” brought about by the treaty. Sadly the treaty was to be short-lived, but Morales’ ceremonious piece is one of enduring appeal.
Even more opulent is Crecquillon’s festive motet Andreas Christi famulus, which seems likely to have been written for a meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece (of which Charles was a member) in 1546. That year a new ceremonial rubric had been introduced stating that a motet should be sung after Vespers and Compline on the feast of St. Andrew (the Order’s patron saint); Crecquillon, as Charles’ court composer at the time, was as likely as anyone to have been called upon to compose something suitable. The glorious eight-part texture, with its rich harmonies and a plethora of ingratiating false relations, would doubtless have befitted such an occasion, as would the text, a compilation of antiphons for the feast of St. Andrew.
Clemens’ motet Carole magnus eras was most probably composed three years later for the enacting of the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, whereby Charles determined that the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries would be inherited by his son Philip II. Although cast in the form of a motet, there is nothing sacred about this ceremonial text, which addresses Charles in fairly unmeasured terms of adulation and speaks of the increase of his rule through his son, who, as part of the deal, would of course also inherit the revered Capilla Flamenca. Somewhat ironically, given the jingoistic spirit of the text, a significant part of Charles’s Kingdom passed not to Philip but to Ferdinand, and Philip’s rule over the Netherlands was to prove neither happy nor peaceful, though in his beloved Spain he presided over a period of unrivalled prosperity.
On British soil, Philip II is best remembered for nearly making England a Hapsburg nation through his marriage to Mary Tudor. In the event, their union proved childless and on Mary’s death the throne passed to her half-sister Elizabeth, whose Navy defeated Philip’s Armada three decades later. Nonetheless this connection may provide a link with Thomas Tallis’s much-loved motet Loquebantur variis linguis: one theory holds that Loquebantur is amongst a small number of pieces intended for performance by the joint forces of the Capilla Flamenca and Mary’s Chapel Royal. Its unusual seven-part scoring (shared in Tallis’s oeuvre with only the large scale motet Suscipe quaeso and Missa Puer natus est, whose Gloria is included in this programme) hints at forces larger than the usual Chapel Royal configuration. Meanwhile the text-—at first glance a Pentecost responsory concerning the giving of the Holy Spirit as related in Acts—could alternatively be read as a witty depiction of the singers’ difficulty understanding each other! Likewise, the constant stream of clichéd false relations—the work’s most striking feature—could either be seen as a colourful depiction of the clamour of Pentecostal tongues, or as a friendly jibe at the Flemish compositional style. It’s a plausible theory, but unproven. Returning to Philip, Alonso Lobo’s sublimely beautiful motet Versa est in luctum takes us to the end of his life: it was composed for the occasion of his funeral in 1598.