Royal Wedding overload? Need to escape the marital mayhem and take refuge in some timeless music of soul-soothing beauty? Well, happily we have just the concert for you at 7.30pm this Saturday evening (19th May) in the glorious sanctuary of Exeter College Chapel.
The concert is entitled ‘Treasures of the European Renaissance’, and, Brexit be damned, brims with some of the choicest musical gems that the continent can offer. A generous part of the programme is devoted to the ‘shut your eyes and float away somewhere beautiful’ brand of music – and the rest reminds us that those Renaissance bods also had a keen sense of humour and liked to enjoy life. More on that in my next post, as here my subject is that extraordinary florescence of sacred music. Even if you are not an arch devotee (and hopefully you will be after Saturday!), it’s likely that you have at least heard of the likes of Palestrina, Victoria and Gabrieli. Our programme includes plenty of their output to savour, I promise; but I thought I’d pick out here three lesser-known highlights to listen out for.
The first two composers under my spotlight are Franco-Flemish, of which Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474) is the earlier by some margin. His sphere of influence was Cambrai in Northern France, and he was regarded as one of the leading composers of his day, bridging the techniques of late-medieval and early Renaissance polyphony. The modern ear may well detect that his music lacks the refinement we’d expect from, say, Palestrina, with open chords creating a soundscape we tend to associate with medieval music – but it has a rugged charm & energy that is quite mesmeric. We are going to sing the Kyrie from the Missa L’Homme Armé (The Armed Man Mass). If you’re thinking ‘wait a minute…’, then yes, it IS the same Armed Man as Karl Jenkins’s: it refers to a popular secular tune of the early Renaissance. Many composers of the period wrote masses based on this ditty, including Palestrina, so Jenkins’s work is very much a nod to that tradition. If you tune your ears aright, you might be able to hear the melody in the tenor part as the cantus firmus (the existing melody around which the many vocal lines are woven).
Moving on 100 years, Giaches de Wert (1535-1596) spent most of his working life in the progressive musical hub of Ferrara, where his madrigals, in particular, were a great influence on Monteverdi. Although we’re going to sing a dramatic motet called Ascendente Jesu in Naviculam, its dynamic, almost theatrical qualities surely owe something to this madrigalian pre-eminence. It is particularly striking for its word-painting: the text describes Jesus climbing into a boat, sleeping through a storm that nearly capsizes it, and then calming both sea and frantic disciples. Each section of the narrative is clearly traced through the music, from the ascending figure with which it opens, to the radiant harmonic resolutions restoring tranquillity at its close. Those susceptible to sea-sickness might want to watch out for the storm, as de Wert viciously rocks the musical boat with a series of extreme, de-stabilising syncopations – hold tight!
Finally we come to my personal favourite in the programme, Lobo’s searing funeral motet Versa est in Luctum. Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) was a Spaniard contemporary with Victoria, and widely considered to be his equal. This motet was composed for the memorial of Philip II in Toledo Cathedral in 1598. The first part of the text comes from the Book of Job, and it is easy to comprehend why it would speak to a musician: ‘My harp is turned to mourning, and my organ to the voice of those who weep’. Lobo builds up the emotional intensity with overlapping vocal strata and wrenching suspensions, to pile on the poignancy and honour Philip’s memory by thoroughly fulfilling the counter-reformation remit of heightening the meaning of the text.