A Voice in the Wilderness
Mannerist Motets of the Renaissance
Elizabeth Baber, Kristina Boerger, Melissa Fogarty,
Michele Kennedy, Dominique Surh – sopranos
Luthien Brackett, Silvie Jensen – mezzo-sopranos
Robert Isaacs - countertenor
Thom Baker, Neil Farrell, Stephen Sands, Michael Steinberger - tenors
Jeffrey Johnson, Thomas McCargar – baritones
Peter Stewart, Kurt-Owen Richards – basses
Recorded June 20, 21, 22, 2011, in the Fuentidueña Chapel, The Cloisters, New York
Engineering: Christopher Greenleaf
Production: James Blachly
Digital editing and mastering: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, NY
Special thanks to Nancy Wu, Museum Educator, Medieval Art & The Cloisters,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Funding support from
The Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts at the University of Notre Dame
and he many contributors to Pomerium’s Kickstarter campaign
Commentary on the Program
by Alexander Blachly
Our cover art shows St. John the Baptist in the wilderness in a painting by Bernardino Lanino (ca. 15112-1583). Lanino’s image, as a Mannerist take on a well-known subject (Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same scene), has further dramatized Da Vinci’s already dramatic setting and lighting by means of heightened chiaroscuro. More importantly, Lanino surprises and shocks us with the nearly naked figure of St. John. As close as his painting is in many details to its model, it gives a different overall impression, jolting our awareness and making us wonder at its meaning. By means of extensive chromaticism and previously unheard-of effects, the Mannerist music on this CD does the same thing.
In 1914, the art historian Walter Friedlaender, one of the first writers to promote the concept of Mannerism, characterized it as an “anticlassical” style. By that he meant that Mannerist artists used the techniques and ideas of their classical predecessors, but exaggerated and distorted them to create a more expressive and personal type of “unreal” realism. One thinks immediately of Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck or Conversion of St. Paul, in which the figures, especially the horse in the latter painting, have heads that are out of proportion to their bodies, while the bodies are elongated beyond any semblance of reality; yet all the individual elements are painted with such precision in the details that they have an almost photographic quality. As a term used by music historians, Mannerism usually refers today to the musical character of avant-garde works from the late Renaissance that foreshadow the systematic harnessing of emotional effects by Baroque composers. The distortions and exaggerations in this case involve harmonic instability, asymmetries of phrase structure, and unexpected and/or strangely resolved dissonances.
The earliest pieces in our selection are the daring motets by Giaches de Wert, one of the last of the famous northern composers of the Renaissance who made their home in Italy. Wert, who was stationed in Mantua, spent significant time with similarly-minded composers in nearby Ferrara. Known today for his six books of Italian madrigals, Wert should also be recognized for his sizable body of sacred music, much of it probably written for Santa Barbara, his patron’s church in Mantua.
Wert’s motets could fairly be described as sacred madrigals, in that they often adopt the dialogue form and pictorial effects found throughout the Italian madrigal repertoire of the later sixteenth century. Especially impressive is Wert’s large-scale pacing, with dramatic effects well prepared by increasing tension, often followed by calm resolution. Ascendente Jesu, the most spectacular example, illustrates Christ with his apostles in the windstorm on the sea (Matthew 8:23-26). At first, Wert depicts in a simple musical gesture the act of Christ climbing up into the boat. Nothing much is happening as the disciples follow him. Then, suddenly, the windstorm hits and the music churns and swirls with the waves, which slap the boat about and threaten to swamp it, in which event all aboard would drown. It is hard to think of another example of Renaissance music as turbulent as this, with six voices in rapid and extended sycopations followed by a passage in quick dotted notes, some of which are on the beat vying with others off the beat to create a nearly chaotic effect. The disciples are terrified, but Christ has fallen asleep. Waking him up, they cry out, “Lord, save us! We are about to perish!” Christ admonishes them for their lack of faith but then rebukes the wind and the sea. There follows a great calm, which Wert captures in sound just as effectively as, at the opposite end of the pictorial spectrum, he had evoked the storm-tossed waves moments before.
Equally dramatic is Wert’s musical depiction of John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness (Vox clamantis in deserto). The singers in their highest range loudly cry out “Vox,” then drop down an octave to a pianissimo on “clamantis in deserto.” “Parate!” (Prepare!) they exclaim, then “rectas facite semitas eius!” (make straight his paths!). “Omnis vallis” (every valley) has prominent voices descending a third and then leaping down an entire octave, while “et omnis mons” (every mountain) has them ascend back up a third followed by a leap up of an octave. So it goes with every verbal image. The “rough” places have a rough melodic bump, highly uncharacteristic of Renaissance vocal writing by any composer active in the earlier sixteenth century. The voices then descend smoothly, the “rough places” having become smooth. “Et videbit omnis caro salutare Dei” (and all flesh shall see the salvation of God) has a particularly sweeping figure in all voices to represent “salvation” for all. While no music published before the seventeenth century included explicit indications of loud and soft, Wert’s dramatic contrasts in Vox clamantis make it clear that he expected pronounced differences of volume in its performance.
Egressus Jesus was Wert’s most famous work during his lifetime. Telling the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to cure her daughter, it exhibits musical dialogue so effectively that the listener has no difficulty discerning each change of speaker. At first, the woman calls loudly to Jesus to help her. Jesus makes no answer. She asks again. The disciples cry out indignantly to Jesus to send her away (she is from the despised people of Canaan). Jesus tells her in a soft voice that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She is not rebuffed, but kneels before Jesus and worships him. Jesus tries another approach: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Still not put off, the woman replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Implication: so great is Jesus that the smallest help from him will save her daughter. Jesus cannot help but be moved. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be as you wish.” With these words Wert writes tremendous cascades of notes for all seven voices, creating an overwhelming musical effect.
Overwhelming also are the eight voices in Saule, Saule calling out God’s words to Saul (soon to be St. Paul) on the road to Damascus: “Ego sum Jesus, quem tu persequeris!” (I am Jesus, whom you persecute!). In rapidly overlapping figures, the eight voices hurl out the words “quem tu persequeris” to fill the air with a wall of sound. Paul, terrified, can only answer in a whisper, “Domine, quid me vis facere?” (Lord, what do you wish me to do?). Again the eight voices answer in great waves, now all together, “Surge et ingredere in civitatem, et dicetur tibi quid te oporteat facere!” (Rise up and enter the city, and there you will be told what you should do!). Much of Saule, Saule could have been written for six voices, or even five, but to create the powerful impression of the mighty voice of God admonishing his persecutor, Wert elected to enlist the force of eight voices, which together produce the required massive effects.
As a composer of colorful madrigals, Wert found himself drawn not just to exciting texts but also to those expressing pathos. Vox in Rama takes a passage from Matthew 2:18 that cites Jeremiah: “Vox in Rama audita est, ploratus et ululatus multus, Rachel plorans filios suos” (In Ramah a voice was heard, weeping and great lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children). In Matthew’s view, Jeremiah is prophesying the Slaughter of the Innocents. Wert again writes octave leaps for the voices at the opening words. “Ploratus” and “ululatus” then get especially surprising and evocative harmonies. But the musical climax comes with “Rachel plorans filios suos,” which is set to chromatically descending figures of unusual poignancy. While he must be included among the first composers to use the descending chromatic fourth to symbolize weeping, Wert was certainly not the last. The descending tetrachord, especially in its wholly or partially chromatic form, would soon become widely used in the armament of rhetorical devices used by composers in the following centuries.
While Wert’s motets are in effect sacred madrigals, the three works by Monteverdi heard here were first published as actual madrigals, composed at the turn of the seventeenth century to Italian love poetry. Monteverdi began his career as a colleague of Wert’s in Mantua, where he wrote his first opera, L’Orfeo, in 1607. From then on his main focus would be composing music for the stage. His first published works, the eight books of five-voice madrigals, already display his keen ear for theatrical effects. Like many other popular madrigals from the end of the Renaissance, Monteverdi’s most famous efforts appeared shortly after their initial publication refitted with sacred Latin words to become “spiritualized” madrigals very much like Wert’s motets. Monteverdi’s arranger was a fine rhetorician from Milan, Aquilino Coppini, who showed both remarkable sensitivity to Monteverdi’s music and impressive skill in creating Latin poetry parallel in meter and rhyme to the Italian originals, often retaining the same syllables, occasionally nearly the same word, at the same place. Thus, the Coppini contrafacts (as musical works endowed with new words are called) allow Monteverdi’s music to be as expressive and precisely wedded to the new words as it is when sung to the original Italian poems. (Pomerium treats the contrafacts, set to Latin like motets, as though they are motets, thus appropriate for a small choir, whereas the original madrigals were intended for a vocal ensemble of just five singers.)
When sending his three volumes of contrafacts to his friend Hendrik van der Putten in Louvain in 1609, Coppini included a description of how to perform Monteverdi’s music: “[The pieces] by Monteverdi require, during their performance, more flexible rests and bars that are not strictly regular, now pressing forward or abandoning themselves to slowings down, now also hurrying. You yourself will fix the tempo. In them there is a truly wondrous capacity for moving the affections.”
Felle amaro was published by Coppini in Milan in 1607, just two years after Monteverdi’s original, Cruda Amarilli, first appeared in his fifth book, in 1605. The words of Cruda Amarilli, from Giovanni Battisti Guarini’s Il pastor fido, express a lover’s painful acceptance of rejection: “Cruel Amaryllis, who with your very name bitterly teach me to love, Amaryllis, whiter and lovelier than the privet but deafer and fiercer than the deaf asp: since I offend you by speaking, I shall die in silence.” Coppini finds a parallel sentiment in Christ’s thoughts as he hangs on the cross: “The people have given me bitter gall to drink and vinegar, though I gave them not bitter waters in the desert, but sweet liquid. O deaf, fierce men, why, like a deaf asp, do you wish this on me, even as I now die for your sake?”
The new musical style of Monteverdi’s madrigals from his Books Four and Five provoked a firestorm of controversy. The conservative music theorist Giovani Maria Artusi famously condemned their violations of traditional procedures even as the musical public responded enthusiastically to the madrigals’ undeniable emotional power. What upset Artusi, who had heard several of the works later published in Books Four and Five performed in Ferrara in the 1590s, were the dissonances Monteverdi enlisted to express the sentiments of his chosen texts. Here is what Artusi wrote about Monteverdi’s novel clashes: “They are harsh to the ear, rather offending than delighting it, and to the good rules left by those who have estalished the order and the bounds of this science they bring confusion and imperfection of no little consequence. Instead of enriching, augmenting, and ennobling harmony by various means, as so many noble spirits have done, they bring it to such estate that the beautiful and purified style is indistinguishable from the barbaric” (translation by Oliver Strunk).
To reduce a description of Monteverdi’s style to a series of dissonances, however, is to miss much of the point of what he has accomplished. For it is the entirely natural declamation of his five-voice writing, which has all the rhetorical variety of human speech, that stands out as the work of a great musical mind (not to overlook the memorable melodic and harmonic effects everywhere present). Although five voices, or five voice-parts in a small choir, sing in ensemble most of the time, the music as a whole breathes and moves like the words spoken by a single person. For theorists, though, dissonances were the point of interest. Seventeen decades after Artusi’s complaints, Giovanni Battisti Martini, in his Esemplare o sia saggio fondamentale pratico di contrappunto sopra il canto fermo of 1774, was still struck by Monteverdi’s harmonic innovations in Cruda Amarilli, singling out the soprano’s entrance on a ninth after its first quarter-note rest, and the same voice’s downward leap of a seventh in its final phrase.
Tu vis à me abire is Coppini’s “spiritualized” version of Monteverdi’s Voi pur da me partite from Book Four (1603). Coppini’s arrangement appeared in his Terzo libro della musica di Claudio Monteverdi a cinque voci fatta spirituale da Aquilino Coppini (Milan, 1609). The Italian text, madrigal number 83 in Guarini’s Rime, again concerns a lover’s pain of separation: “You are actually abandoning me, hard-hearted soul, and the separation gives you no pain? Alas, this is a cruel death. How can you enjoy it? I am close to my dying hour, yet you seem insensible. What amazing harshness: to be the the soul of someone’s heart but to separate without feeling the least sorrow!” Coppini’s rewrite has Christ addressing a person who rejects him for transitory pleasures: “You wish to leave me, hard soul, yet you don’t see yourself leaving life itself? This is to die most unfortunately. You are happy, but you are destined at the last hour to eternal flames. What extreme duress results when, cleaving to fallen ones, you are separated from eternal glory!” For Monteverdi, the key word in Guarini’s poem was “separation,” which Coppini clearly understood when he kept the same word in his Latin contrafact, replacing “e separarsi” with “et separari.” Monteverdi’s musical evocation of this word is simplicity itself: two voices begin the phrase in unison, moving apart dissonantly by whole step on the word “separate.” No polyphonist of the classic school in the sixteenth century would have done such a thing, but no listener of any era could fail to appreciate the effectiveness of the procedure.
Monteverdi’ Piagn’ e sospira, again from his Book Four, shows how classical polyphonic techniques could be reworked to fulfill a Mannerist agenda. The text comes from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme conquistata, where a princess (Erminia) carves her sweetheart’s name (Tancredi) in the bark of various trees, weeping and sighing for having betrayed her people for him, and wetting her crimson cheeks with tears. Monteverdi assigns distinct musical motifs to five phrases of text and then combines and recombines them polyphonically to produce a result similar to a permutation fugue by Bach. Every voice eventually sings all five motifs, sometimes several times. Monteverdi sets the word “Piagn’” (She weeps) to four slow notes ascending by chromatic half-steps. Then a short rest before “e sospira” (and sighs). Next, as the flocks flee the hot rays of the sun to lie in the sweet shade, a descending dotted figure for the “caldi raggi” followed by eight running eighth-notes for “fuggon” (flee). A new motif introduces the words “segnò l’amato nom’in mille guise” (signs her lover’s name in a thousand different ways), followed by an insistent figure on a single repeated pitch for “e de la sua fortuna i grav’oltraggi e i vari casi” (and her fate of suffering and various accidents). At “in dura scorza incise” (she carves in the hard bark), Monteverdi employs a striking descent of a major sixth, all but forbidden in classical polyphony. Once the polyphonic weaving and reweaving of the five motifs has run its course, Monteverdi writes a simple homophonic peroration to the words “e in rilegendo poi le proprie note spargea di pianto le vermiglie gote” (and in rereading her own marks, she wets with tears her crimson cheeks). It is the chromatic nature of the initial figure and its continual reappearance at different pitch levels that creates a Mannerist harmonic instability, the better to express the princess’s grief. Although Monteverdi’s contrapuntal skill recalls the virtuosic manipulation of musical ideas by Josquin and his contemporaries, the unremitting chromaticism endows Piagn’ e sospira with an emotional intensity rarely if ever achieved by any previous polyphonic composer.
For Coppini, the Biblical parallel to the situation of Tasso’s princess was Peter’s remorse at having denied Christ three times before the cock crowed. “Piagn’ e sospira” becomes “Plorat amare” (He weeps bitterly). The flocks fleeing the hot rays of the sun becomes “and dissolves in quick tears for having denied the Lord, whom he loved.” “Segnò l’amato nom’ in mille guise” is now “To himself he says, ‘O, good Jesus, what have I done?’” “E de la sua fortuna i grav’ oltraggi e i vari casi” is replaced by “And, thinking about the injury and his own wrongdoing.” “In dura scorza incise” has Peter lie down “on a hard rock.” For the peroration, Coppini writes “And whenever he hears the cock crow, he wets with weeping his shame-red cheeks.” So motet-like is Monteverdi’s polyphonic writing in this piece that one is tempted to say that Coppini’s contrafact is even more effective than the originl setting of Tasso’s poem as a madrigal.
With Gesualdo we arrive at the most Mannerist composer of all, and surely one of the most eccentric composers ever. Once he discovered extreme chromaticism during his trips to Ferrara beginning in 1594 to visit and woo his second wife, Leonora d’Este, there was no turning back. He did more, however, than copy the avant-garde composers there, e.g., Luzzaschi and possibly Wert (who had often visited Ferrara for extended visits in the 1580s but was chronically ill in the last years of his life and may not have traveled by 1594). Gesualdo, in fact, invented a new harmonic vocabularly uniquely his own.
Melancholy, guilt, regret, and sorrow permeate Gesualdo’s music, which may explain why he was drawn to set the 27 responsories for the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday), an enormous project which he published in 1611 at the end of his life. The guilt of Peter, the sorrow of Christ, the complicity of those responsible for the crucifixion, the disgrace of Judas’s betrayal: all of these ideas and moods resonated with Gesualdo’s own inner demons: for while the composer, as the prince of Venosa, was beyond legal prosecution for the brutal murder of his first wife (his cousin Maria d’Avalos) and her lover in 1590, he could not escape the torments of his own conscience, continually pricked by the ever-present danger of revenge sought by his wife’s and her lover’s relatives. If remorse and contrition blocked out joy and humor from his later years, they nevertheless appear to have had a positive effect on his career as an artist, for his music grew ever more expressive, emotionally charged, and spiritual. The responsories for Holy Week are Gesualdo’s last and greatest works.
Having characterized Wert’s motets as pictorial, and Monteverdi’s madrigals as theatrical, we should now call Gesualdo’s responsories “psychological,” for they explore with never-ending variety the contradictions and warring emotions of the human spirit. In monte Oliveti, the first of the 27 responsories, and, like all of them, written for six voices, takes us to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Christ is praying to God the evening before his crucifixion. “Father, if it is possible, let this chalice [the Old Testament cup of judgment, wrath, shame, and desolation] pass by me. For the spirit is indeed ready but the flesh is weak. [Yet] let thy will be done.” We can be certain, because of how he set to music these and similar words in the remaining 26 responsories, that Christ’s conflicting emotions resonated with Gesualdo. The music opens with one lonely voice singing the word “In,” with the other five then joining in to create a rich and somber harmony that slides periodically to remote tonal regions (G major to B-flat major, A minor to B major). At “Pater” (Father), the six voices sing homophonically, first in in A major, then, with no warning, in F major. The sudden juxtaposition of unrelated chords will become a trademark of Gesualdo’s in the responsories to follow. Adding to the harmonic instability are the dissonances which develop as voices pursue trajectories that collide, sometimes with clear rhetorical purpose. At “infirma” in the phrase “Spiritus quidem promptus est, caro autem infirma” (the spirit is indeed ready but the flesh is weak), the Altus tries to ascend to G, which the Cantus is already singing, but can only reach F-sharp. The excruciating dissonance doesn’t resolve. Instead the Altus falls back two steps and tries ascending again (successfully), this time by way of F-natural. Some motifs are pictorial, as at “transeat a me” (pass by me), where all the voices in turn get an ascending or descending scale in minims that literally pass by each other. No matter how grinding the dissonance, Gesualdo always ends a major grammatical phrase or sentence with a sweetly resonant full triadic sonority.
Like In monte Oliveti, the next responsory heard here, Ecce vidimus eum, is from the Matins service of Maundy Thursday. The text, a slight reworking of Isaiah 53:2, 4-5, was interpreted by Christians as an important prophecy of the “suffering servant,” who “has no beauty. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions. By his stripes we are healed.” Gesualdo sets “Ecce” (Behold) at the opening of this work with all six voices singing a richly consonant G-major chord followed by what in later harmonic analysis would be called a secondary dominant of A in first inversion. This leads to A minor, which immediately becomes A major. Thus, the Bassus ascends from G to G-sharp to A, while the Altus ascends from D to E, falling back to C-natural and then rising to C-sharp. This is not a polyphonic progression that would have pleased Artusi; nor would such progressions become common even many years later. Gesualdo uses this startling harmonic progression to dramatize the words “Behold, we have seen him” as preparation for the strange phrase “non habentem speciem neque decorem” (literally “not having comeliness or beauty”). To highlight the cruel sentiment, Gesualdo creates an extended and dissonant syncopation in the Sextus voice. A verbal description of this work could linger over each marvelous event: the music’s evocation of sin at “peccata nostra” or of pain at ”dolet” in “et pro nobis dolet” (and suffered for us). But it is at “iniquitates nostros” in the phrase “ipse autem vulneratus est propter iniquitates nostros” (but he was wounded for our iniquities) that we hear the most extraordinary effects. Three times these two words are repeated, the first two iterations with increasing dissonance, especially at the entrance of the second one, which has the notes A, B, C, and E all sounding at the same time. The third iteration is oddly sweet and gentle, as though signaling the forgiveness of iniquities to come.
There are many remarkable passages of chromatic writing in the responsories, but few as stunning as the setting of the words at the beginning of the Repetendum: “Cujus livore sanati sumus” (by his stripes we are healed). Three high voices progress tortuously by chromatic half steps from D minor to E major to represent “cujus livore” (literally: by his bruises). At “sanati sumus,” also repeated three times, all six voices sing in glorious F major. The brief verse, “Truly he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows,” is a quiet moment of revelation sung by the four lowest voices, as though the music itself were a person who has realized a significant truth after having witnessed an eye-opening event. Because the responsory form calls for the end of the respond to be repeated (hence the name Repetendum) after the verse, we hear again the amazing passage at “Cujus livore sanati sumus.”
The next Gesualdo responsory in our program, O vos omnes, is for Matins of Holy Saturday. The words are from the Book of Lamentations 1:12, interpreted as the words of Jesus at the hour of his death. Gesualdo had previously set this text as an arresting motet for five voices in 1603, but eight years later, in recasting it for the six-voice ensemble of his 27 responsories, he created an even finer masterpiece. The texture is simpler than that of most of the other responsories, but the power of the writing is greater (recalling Beethoven’s appreciation of Handel for having achieved the most powerful effects with the simplest means). Two slow chords to the words “O vos” open the piece: first, the highly unusual B minor (an essentially forbidden initial sonority in earlier Renaissance polyphony), followed by the equally unexpected B major. The words “Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus” (if there is any sorrow as great as my sorrow) must have especially touched the melancholic Gesualdo, who for over two decades at the end of his life was practically drowning in sorrow. The top two voices especially stand out: the Cantus for its high descending melody, the Sextus for its persistent chromaticism, changing minor thirds into major ones and vice versa.
Tenebrae factae sunt is the emotional high point of the 27 responsories. Sung at Matins of Good Friday, this is the moment when Christ cries out to God and then dies. Rarely does any a cappella music produce an effect as monumental as the one Gesualdo achieves when Christ calls out from the cross in a great voice: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” These words begin fortissimo but end piognantly in a prolonged pianissimo. Especially moving is the Repetendum heard next, where Jesus “having inclined his head, gave up his spirit.” After such an exquisite moment, the Versus comes as a surprise. Christ, who had just given up his spirit, seems to come back to life momentarily, exclaiming in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The tender harmonies with which Gesualdo ends this phrase evoke the peacefulness of death. A notable example of Gesualdo’s psychological interpretation of his texts comes at the beginning of this responsory, right after the aggressive music for “dum crucifixissent” (when they crucified). While the Altus is singing the word “Judaei” (Jews), other voices simultaneously sing the word “Jesum” (Jesus), even as the Bassus sings “crucifixissent.” From this coincident overlapping and blending of victim, victimizer, and deed we may conclude that Gesualdo did not interpret the traditional words of this responsory as a simple justification for anti-Semitism, as some others have done. Perhaps, as a murderer himself, he identified with those who killed Jesus. Yet, instead of condemning them, he seems moved by their humanity. The complexity and subtlety of the musical argument supports even greater degrees of complex interpretation than this, for it is possible to assign a pausible psychological motivation to virtually every musical event in all of the Gesualdo responsories.
The final Gesualdo responsory in our program, Judas mercator pessimus (“Judas, the most evil merchant”) comes again from Maundy Thursday Matins, where it is the fifth of the nine responsories heard that night. In an opening passage that rivals “Cujus livore sanati sumus” heard earlier, Judas is portrayed here by the three upper voices in sliding, oily chromatic lines that produce harmonies so surprising that we are in danger of admiring the novelty of the writing at the expense of interpreting it as a negative depiction of the betrayer of Christ. Jesus, as the “innocent lamb,” then brings forth, as we have now come to expect, a bright, consonant, six-voice G-major sonority. The passage that most stands out in this responsory comes just before the Repetendum at the words “non negavit Judae osculum” (did not deny Judas’s kiss), repeated three times for emphasis. The final statement of these words vividly demonstrates Gesualdo’s favored procedure of writing tortured, wildly chromatic lines that collide in extraordinary dissonances and then resolve, almost miraculously, into purely consonant triadic final chords. It should be emphasized that no matter how unprecedented his harmonies, Gesualdo’s polyphonic writing consistently shows a masterful understanding of traditional contrapuntal voice-leading. He also has an unerring ear for the most sonorous spacing of notes sounding together in chords. In another example of Gesualdo’s madrigal training, he sets the first words of the Repetendum, “Denariorum numero” (for a number of coins) in small, insignificant notes for just two voices, illustrating thereby the paltry price Judas accepted for selling Jesus to those who would have him crucified.
Just as the responsories were the last works composed by Gesualdo, the final work in our recording was the last music composed by Lassus. Vide homo serves as the epilogue to the composer’s setting of 20 of the 42 Italian poems from Luigi Tansillo’s cycle, Il lagrime di san Pietro (“The Tears of St. Peter”). The fragmented style of this swan song expresses the dying composer’s most intensely felt emotions. The Latin text, possibly written by Lassus himself, purports to be Christ’s dying words from the cross. Moment by moment the music shifts from one idea to another, mostly by way of dialogue between the higher and lower voices, each group seemingly incapable of more than half a statement (e.g., high voices: “See, O man”; low voices: “what I suffer for you”). When all seven voices sound at once, they create a more massive effect, as at the words “there is no suffering like that which torments me” and “when I find [mankind] to be so ungrateful.” Here we experience the full power of the anticlassical impulse, with every phrase weighted by harmonic tension, every note crucial to the slow, inexorable unfolding of the complete musical statement. By using each semi-cadence to introduce a new phrase sung by a different group of voices, Lassus creates the effect of a single, continuous musical idea that extends through four entire four minutes in Pomerium’s performance. Vide homo thereby seems to move outside of time to embody Christ’s enduring distress at mankind’s never-ending shortcomings.
POMERIUM, founded by Alexander Blachly in New York in 1972 to perform music composed for the famed chapel choirs of the Renaissance, derives its name from the title of a treatise by the 14th-century music theorist Marchettus of Padua. In the introduction, Marchettus explains that his Pomerium (literally, “garden”) contains the fruits and flowers of the art of music. Widely known for its interpretations of Du Fay, Ockeghem, Josquin, Palestrina, and Lassus, the modern Pomerium is currently recording a series of compact discs of the masterpieces of Renaissance a cappella choral music, of which the thirteenth to be recorded, titled “Orlande de Lassus: Motets & Magnificat,” was released on the Old Hall Recordings label in 2008.
ALEXANDER BLACHLY has been active in early music as both performer and scholar for more than 40 years. He earned his post-graduate degrees in musicology from Columbia University and is a recipient of the Noah Greenberg Award given by the American Musicological Society to stimulate historically aware performances and the study of historical performing practices. Prior to assuming the post of Director of Choral Music at the University of Notre Dame in 1993, Mr. Blachly taught early music and directed collegia musica at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where for eight years he directed the a cappella ensemble Ancient Voices. For fourteen years Mr. Blachly directed a summer workshop in Renaissance a cappella performance sponsored by the Syracuse (NY) Schola Cantorum; he has also been on the faculties of the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute, the Amherst Early Music Festival, and Pinewoods Camp Early Music Week. In addition to Pomerium, Mr. Blachly directs the University of Notre Dame Chorale and Chamber Orchestra.