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Orlando Consort: Love’s Command—Sacred Poetry & Music

The Orlando Consort’s core repertoire of polyphonic music spans an enormous period of time, from around the early 11th century through to the middle of the 16th century. Or to put it another way, we sing music that covers just over 50% of the entire time that western composers have been writing down harmonized music.
This is one reason why we get frustrated on those occasions when ‘early music’, and perhaps medieval music, in particular, is categorized as a single body of work. It can lead to an assumption that we are dealing with a narrow and limited stylistic palette, in comparison with the music of later ages that evolved with relatively rapid and increasingly frenetic developments in sounds and techniques.

Orlando Consort
Orlando Consort at St. Mary the Virgin, photo by Rob Davidson @2017

The fact is that within the entity that is labeled ‘early music’, there is a huge variety of styles that are marked by imagination, beauty, sophistication, complexity, invention, and more. 

Far from being basic, the development process was complex: as just one example, if some of the oldest pieces sound ‘wrong’, it is often because we are merely taking a condescending modern perspective. A piece may sound simple, yet that can be because the technical wizardry required in order to achieve that perfect result has been delivered with an almost magical effortlessness. Our preconceptions can often catch us out. I, for one, would have sworn on first hearing that some of the music written at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th century must have been written in the middle of the 20th century. The program presented in this concert does not portray a quantifiable moment in musical history with a dramatic new stylistic development. Indeed, it explores more of a personal hunch.

While I would argue, as above, that the music the Consort sings contains within it an extremely rich and diverse range of musical techniques, it is much harder to discern specific attitudes on the part of the composers to the setting of words. At times, word-setting appears to be arbitrary, as if words are added to music as an afterthought. Even in some of the wonderful medieval song repertoire, such as the works of the great poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut, there may be a ‘sympathy’ between the lines of the music and the emotions of the text, but there is no discernible word-play as we might understand it if we were to fast-forward to the music of a composer like Carlo Gesualdo.

That largely remains true of the early 16th century, the period from which the sacred music for this program has been selected. So much music from previous times operated within something of a straightjacket determined by the standard texts of the liturgy such as the Mass, the Magnificat, or even a Requiem Mass.

But such was the spirit of the age —the Renaissance, the Reformation—that composers were now empowered to set a much wider range of texts, such as the lyrical Biblical settings of the Song of Songs and the Lamentations.

The boundaries of sacred and secular began to blur—hence the adoption of the title “Love’s Command” for this program— as exhibited in the setting of poetry by humanist writers and in the tributes to recently deceased fellow composers. With such incredible poetry to act as an inspiration, the response was supremely beautiful music characterized by free-flowing lines and sensuous harmonies. Even if word-painting per se is not to the fore, it is clear in the pieces that you will hear tonight that poetry and music are working in perfect synergy.

Josquin Des Prez was widely celebrated as one of the foremost composers of the day, “the master of notes, which much express what he desired . . . other composers must do what the notes dictate” (Martin Luther). 

But his treatment of words was radical—not only did he play a major part in focusing attention on the natural rhythm and inflection of a text, but he also stressed the importance of rhetoric.

Huc me sydereo, a five-voice motet, combines a text by the Italian humanist Mapheus Vega (1407-1458) with a threefold statement of the chant Plangent eum. The four-voice motet O bone et dulcis Domine Jesus skillfully integrates the liturgical chants Ave Maria and Pater noster; for other composers, the constraints of adhering rigidly to this complex jigsaw would have likely led to a mechanical-sounding piece, but such is Josquin’s mastery that nothing impedes the flow of the music.

Josquin’s tribute to his great forebear Johannes Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois, is a setting of a text by Jehan Molinet. It is an unrestrained outpouring of grief, and yet it achieves its emotional power through a remarkable economy of gesture. A slow-moving, chordal opening gradually unwinds, with the vocal lines of the lower parts unfurling into ebbing and flowing passages that weave an entrancing spell. The second section calls on the great musicians of the age to weep tears for the departed composer, captured in music by the syncopated ‘dropping’ of notes between the voices, before  the piece—and Ockeghem—is bid farewell with the words “May he rest in peace.”  It is one of the most beautiful pieces of all Renaissance polyphony and it is preceded by an anonymous tribute to another departed composer, Alexander Agricola.

In between these works is a group of three settings of Biblical texts from the ‘Song of Songs’, also sometimes referred to as the ‘Song of Solomon’. Essentially it is a love poem, and an exceptionally beautiful one at that, which can be read as an inspired portrayal of ideal human love. The language employed does not shy away from eroticism, though in medieval times it was commonly taught that the song acted as an analogy for the love shared between God and the Church. 

O flos campi by Nicolas Gombert is a glorious setting that displays obvious enthusiasm for the ecstatic lyricism of the poetry; it amply justifies Hermann Finck’s assessment, made in 1556, that “Gombert shows all musicians the path, nay more, the exact way to refinement.”

Hortus conclusus, by the Spanish composer Rodrigo de Ceballos, features a text that would have had multiple meanings for a contemporary audience: the imagery of a walled garden is a recurrent theme in courtly love poetry and in painting.

Ecce tu pulcher es by the little-known Dominique Phinot was written in Urbino, Italy (the birthplace of the great Italian painter Raphael) in 1554. This majestic piece appears to start out with limited ambition, reliant to a high degree on imitation between the parts. Yet the cumulative effect is irresistible, with wave upon wave of rising and falling lines producing a warmth and passion that finds perfect resolution in the final statement of the text, “Because I languish with love.”

The program continues with two powerful Biblical representations of familial grief: David’s lament on the death of Absalon, and Jacob’s on the presumed death of his son Joseph. Clemens non Papa (according to legend, so named to avoid confusion with the Pope!) lived and worked in the southern Netherlands, latterly with the Marian brotherhood at s’Hertogenbosch. Mathieu Gascongne was a French singer and composer who worked at the court of King Francis I, to whom the next pieces by Jean Mouton and Gascongne were dedicated. On the evidence of these short motets by Gascongne it is a great shame that more of his work has not survived to the modern day.

We finish with one of two settings of the Lamentations by the English composer Robert White. He was one of the leading figures of a generation that fell between the most famous English composers of the 16th century, namely Tallis and Byrd. In White’s setting these lamentations have a simplicity and an economy of gesture that counter-intuitively serve to heighten the power that lies behind the words and the music. Famously, the sole surviving manuscript of the piece bears the words at the end of the music—most likely written by the copyist: “Not even the words of the most gloomy prophet sound so sad as the sad music of my composer.”

—Notes by Angus  Smith