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Tallis Scholars: Heinrich Isaac at 500

Concert date: Wednesday, December 6, 2017

“To me, [Isaac] seems well suited to serve Your Lordship, more so than Josquin, because he is of a better disposition among his companions, 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, and he is asking 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120 – but Your Lordship will decide.”

This much-quoted statement of Gian de Artiganova paints a picture of Isaac and Josquin – perhaps the two most preeminent musicians of their day in European society – as rather differently- tempered. Josquin comes across as a brilliant, difficult artist, working to his own schedule and his own whims, like a sort of Renaissance Beethoven. Isaac, by contrast, is implied to be more workmanlike, dependable, much less brilliant by comparison. Such may indeed have been the eventual view of the Este family – who ended up ignoring their agent’s advice and hiring Josquin to be their maestro di cappella. But in a program such as tonight’s, we have a luxury denied to them: that of assessing the work of these two giants side-by-side, along with works by Renaissance contemporaries.

Gaude virgo is entirely characteristic of Josquin: an economy of musical material, gently but deliberately unspooled over the course of the motet. Pairs of voices share almost identical material, creating hypnotic waves. The music is enlivened by syncopations and complex internal rhythms, as well as some judicious word-painting – the composer cannot resist pairing the word ascendente with a rising musical scale. 

In the Stabat mater, the fearlessly innovative composer turns his attention to a traditional and popular text. Not content with one layer of meaning, he adds another by basing the work around a melody line drawn from a secular chanson, Comme femme desconfortée. Even though this text is not heard, the melody would have reminded the educated listener of the words of Binchois’ chanson – ‘as a woman discomforted, distraught above all others’ – whose once-secular text now comments on the su ering of Mary at the foot of the cross. In the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, King David is brought the news that, following a battle, one of his sons has been killed, in a powerfully moving passage of scripture. Despite the fact that Absalom had been in open rebellion against his father, David still weeps for his loss. The story has inspired countless composers across the centuries. In Absalom fili mi, attributed to Josquin, the descent into grief is described in a motet which seems to constantly spiral downwards in pitch, lower and lower as it traces the depths of sorrow.

Nicolas Gombert, younger than Josquin and possibly one of his students, is likely the author of Lugebat David Absalom, which may originally have had secular words and subsequently been given a contrafactum, or new sacred text. Whatever its origin it is another profound meditation on grief, painted on a broader, ten-voice canvas.

Isaac’s extraordinary, opulent motet Optime divino was written for a meeting of great rulers – the Emperor’s Chancellor, Cardinal Lang, and a new Pope, Leo X. Rising to the occasion, Isaac set himself the challenge of composing around not merely the one customary tenor plainchant, but an additional chant sung at the same time. The result is a densely layered composition, with the chants – Da pacem and Sacerdos et pontifex – speaking directly to the nature of the occasion, while the main text, specially written, expresses hope for unity and joint political will. These allusions are all wrapped up in polyphony of consummate power and directness.

With the music of John Browne, we are transported to late 15th-century England and the glories of the Eton Choirbook, a lavish collection clearly intended to show off English music at its finest. Browne, largely forgotten now, was well-regarded, and his motet Stabat iuxta is a fine example of this virtuosic style. Clearly unafraid of dense textures, he scored this motet for six lower voices, which are introduced in pairs or trios before coming together for climactic wall-of-sound choruses. Indeed, the motet has a higher than usual ratio of full to reduced sections, seeming to revel in the massed texture.

The Biblical Song of Songs was a great favorite of Renaissance composers, who, as we have seen, were ever alert to the tensions between sacred and secular, and found great satisfaction in setting its erotically-charged devotions. Isaac’s Tota pulchra es has a languid quality, as if breathing in an exotic fragrance. Listen to the indulgent melismas of mel et lac – milk and honey, the ultimate symbols of Biblical nirvana.

Inter natos mulierum is a motet for six-voices, though the manner of their deployment, among other features, has led scholars to consider its contemporary attribution to Josquin spurious. The plainchant throughline is in the upper bass voice. The second part uses trios, and even in the sections for full choir maintains interest in the inner parts, which are festooned with runs and leaps.

It was unusual for composers to go beyond this six-part texture. However, composers did experiment with even more grandly divided choral forces. Gombert wrote two surviving settings of the Marian antiphon Regina caeli. One of these is in twelve voices – but the version given here is the much more rarely heard ten-voice setting. The composer uses the plainchant as the basis for an imitative web of polyphony, lending structural unity to the piece by varying the groups of voices in different sections.

© James M. Potter, 2017