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New York Polyphony: Music from Over the Alps

The core of New York Polyphony’s programming is sacred-texted four-voice polyphony of the High Renaissance. The Flemish school has been especially fruitful as it sets voices in very close proximity stacked above one another, much like the individual voices of New York Polyphony. Tristitia obsedit me, an exceptional and little-known work by Clemens non Papa, derives its text from the last writings of the martyred Dominican friar Girolamo Savanarola. Inflamed with reformer’s zeal, this fiery preacher ran afoul of the corrupt Borgian Pope Alexander VI, became ensnared in Florentine politics, and in 1498 was imprisoned, tortured, and condemned to death for heresy. While awaiting his execution, he composed two meditations, one on Psalm 50, Infelix ego, and a second on Psalm 30, Tristitia obsedit me, which was to remain unfinished. Savanarola regretted his inability to withstand the bouts of torture that led him to sign a false confession. These final meditations were his reaffirmation of faith in the face of imminent and certain death and a direct appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness. Published shortly after his death, these and other of Savanarola’s writings, circulated throughout Europe and greatly influenced Christian reform movements, Catholic and Protestant alike, for much of the 16th century.

In his setting, Clemens condenses and conflates passages from the opening paragraphs of Savanarola’s two meditations: lines 1-7 are drawn from the meditation on Psalm 30; lines 7-14 (beginning with the words Infelix ego) from the meditation on Psalm 50. He crafts his selection of texts to create a two-part composition that juxtaposes the depiction of extreme despair in the first half with the rejection of despair and a return to faith in the second half. The music shows the composer at his most extravagantly rhetorical; each phrase is repeated obsessively in closely spaced imitations, and every melodic idea is used for maximum effect. When Clemens began composing his musical setting, presumably sometime in the 1540s, without a doubt he knew the author of these texts and the circumstances that caused them to be written. Whatever the occasion that would have required Clemens, a Catholic priest, to create a musical setting of these words, the spiritual and political implications of the texts and the fervor and vividness with which they were set would not have been lost on his listeners.

Ralph Buxton


The Flemish Renaissance composers who left Northern France and Flanders are known as the “Oltremontani” or those who literally went over the Alps mountain range in the 15th and 16th centuries and were highly influential on the Italian composers they were to meet on the other end of their journey. Many Flemish composers made their names writing and teaching in Italy rather than in their northern homeland. Besides expanding upon the basic compositional techniques of polyphony, they introduced the beginnings of what would become the ubiquitous musical form that is the madrigal. Philippe Verdelot was one of many composers to take his skills to Italy to share his compositional techniques. The greatest known of all Italian Renaissance composers, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina composed a “parody” Mass based on Verdelot’s motet Gabriel archanglus, which tells the story of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. Because of the expansive nature of Verdelot’s original motet, the mass eschews many of the characteristics of the Counter-Reformation we associate with Palestrina, namely brevity and clarity of text-setting.

Adrian Willaert was one of the first composers to begin to challenge the systems of harmony and tuning in the Renaissance later manifest in the works of Lassus and Gesualdo. The motets Pater noster/Ave Maria are published together by Petrus Alamire in Belgian choirbooks with no real evidence that they must be performed together, particularly given that settings of the Lord’s Prayer or Ave Maria would have been sung to plainsong chant in a liturgical setting. These must be private devotional pieces or perhaps studies in composition—both set the chant melody with little variation in the upper voice and use its melodic material for polyphonic imitation. Whatever their motivation, they are extremely satisfying to sing!

Willaert’s lineage of students is highlighted by Cipriano De Rore who is attributed with developing the second generation of madrigalists after Verdelot. We present three madrigals by De Rore. The first sets words of the war hero Alfonso d’Avalos. The second madrigal Mia benigna fortuna sets poetry by Petrarch which carries the vivid imagery of physical love and the allegory of a sensual “death.”  The dramatic text setting, harmonic shifts, and metric changes begin to look forward to the Baroque stylings of Monteverdi. The last of these pieces by De Rore shows the influence the Italians would have on the English Madrigal, though set in French. With references to the “merry month of May” and the singing of the nightingale, many of the Italian madrigals would be “englished” through the advent of publishing and of singing popular songs that would dominate the transition from the 16th to the 17th centuries.  

The first generation of madrigalists was led by Philippe Verdelot who used the combination of simple harmonies and homophonic text setting to begin to separate secular polyphony from the sacred. The poetry of these early composers focused primarily on nature and natural sciences such as the composition of the world as Lassus sets in La nuit froide et sombre. O dolce nocte sets text in a directional manner mirroring the natural rhythm of the Italian language.

We close the program with Clement Janequin’s virtuosic La guerre (“La bataille de Marignan”) which tells in remarkably descriptive detail the story of the Battle of Marignano fought between September 13 and 14, 1515. The “programmatic chanson” is a speciality of Janequin, who composed other similar works like Les cris de Paris, depicting the barkers in the streets of Paris and other noisy aspects of daily life. In La guerre, the first part calls for the listener to listen to the story of this battle. The second part uses curious vocal noise-making to illustrate the battle through text-setting, featuring trumpets blaring, arrows whizzing through the air, and drums beating. The rather comedic storytelling ends with the French cries of “Victoire” while the Swiss exclaim in terrible French “toute frelore bigot!” or “All is lost, by God!”

Geoffrey Williams