Category: Pre-1600






Slowly but surely, we are continuing our way through the five movements of Palestrina’s heavenly Pope Marcellus Mass with the third, and longest, movement, the Credo. Previously, I’ve posted the Kyrie (MIL #79) and the Gloria (MIL #396).

It is ironic that the work that is regarded as Palestrina’s greatest [which, for reference, would mean a 10 on the 1-to-10 scale, while the rest of his output would be in the 9.5 arena] was written in honor of a newly elected pope—Marcellus II—who reigned for a mere three weeks. Marcellus had a weak constitution and he succumbed to illness shortly after being named pope.

The texture of the entire mass—all five movements—is six voice polyphony. You may remember that Palestrina was THE musical voice of the Counter-Reformation. One of the paths the Catholic Church was taking in order to become a more real day-to-day part of parishioners’ lives was by making the texts of the musical portions of the mass more intelligible, more direct. Abandoning the melismatic weaving in and out of vocal lines, which had become traditional, in favor of a simpler homophonic declamatory text, Palestrina became the musical gateway for Catholics to hear and better understand what it was they professed to believe.

The centrally-located CREDO movement—always the third of a mass’s five movements—is most often also the longest movement. It is central because of the importance of its text to all Christians, and it is long because it includes the entire text of the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed was a text that came out of the Second Ecumenical Council in 325 AD. In Nicea (in present day northwestern Turkey), this important meeting of church elders laid the foundations of Catholic belief for centuries to follow. Included in its deliberations was a universal statement of belief, which became known as the Nicene Creed. Here is that text:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


Certainly, the aural beauty of Palestrina’s writing—always aided by the acoustics of whatever church it is being performed in—can—and did—go a long way in simultaneously comforting and educating congregants. From a musician’s perspective, of course, the text could be anything. It is the music that is gorgeous.


Pics: Palestrina; Pope Marcellus II; St. Peter’s Square, Vatican; interior of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore at the Vatican where Palestrina’s works would have been heard.







All music lovers have their “go-to” comfort music, music to soothe their souls when soul-soothing is necessary. Certainly one of the composers whose music I feel that way about is Palestrina. Some 14 months ago, I posted the Kyrie from his Pope Marcellus Mass (Music I Love #79). Today, I’ll continue on in this same mass with the Gloria movement.

The musical setting of the Mass consisted of five movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. From one musical setting of the mass to another, the texts of these movements would stay invariably the same.

In the Renaissance, composers often gave their best efforts to their mass compositions. If you were a musician, and especially if you were a composer, the “route” to success—and to being heard—was through the Church. Palestrina, who lived from 1525 to 1594, was certainly one of these composers who applied his best efforts to his masses.

Palestrina was the leading composer of the Counter-Reformation. Talking about the Counter-Reformation requires just a little explication.

The Reformation began in 1517 with a rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church—which, of course, had been the only church—it was THE Church—in the Christian world. The liturgical changes in what became known as Protestantism were brought about by Martin Luther. These in turn caused a ripple effect within the Lutheran Church—and then all Protestant churches, particularly as relates to music. A simple, more direct, more accessible-to-the-people kind of music was desired than had been the case in the Catholic Church. Strophic hymns utilizing repetitive music for each stanza were favored, especially toward mid-sixteenth century. These hymn tunes eventually became the basis for the direct, but nevertheless complex, music of J.S. Bach, whose music was the very peak of Reformation music.

In general, Protestants distrusted—especially at the outset—the allure of art, including music, in their services. Catholic music had been seen—correctly—as being too complex, too much art-for-art’s-sake and therefore not so meaningful to congregations. The Counter-Reformation sought to address the Reformation head-on by purposefully appealing to those who had left the (“true”) faith by intentionally appealing to their senses in art and music. Yet, the prime directive for all Counter-Reformation artists was to primarily be communicative and only secondarily be “artsy.” This was the dictum that Counter-Reformation composers abided by.

Palestrina, who wrote—among an absolutely enormous life’s works—107 masses became the leading, and most loved, composer of the Counter-Reformation. One can pick virtually any one of his works and be instantly transported into a world of beauty and harmony (using the word “harmony” here in the abstract, not as a parameter of music). The words of his mass texts are clearly understood and not obscured by unnecessary melismas. His use of harmony is more diatonic, less chromatic than had heretofore been the case.

The Missa Papae Marcelli—the Pope Marcellus Mass, dedicated to the memory of the pope by that name—has justifiably become the sine qua non of Palestrina masses. I have yet to see a music history textbook that does NOT include this mass as the shining example of Counter Reformation beauty.


The second movement—the Gloria movement—is presented here.

The text of the Gloria is meant to celebrate God the Father and Christ:

• Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will. We praise You, we bless You, we adore You, we glorify You, we give You thanks for Your great glory

• Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens

Lord God, heavenly King, O God Almighty Father

• Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis

Lord Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us

Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis

You take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on u

• Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen

For You alone are the Holy One, you alone the Lord, you alone the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the Glory of God the Father. Amen

Pictures: Palestrina; Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major at the Vatican.







If this isn’t heavenly, what is?

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was a Spanish composer of the late Renaissance. Along with Palestrina, Lassus, and Byrd, he is one of the greatest of the great from that era. In addition to being a composer, Victoria was also a Catholic priest. He devoted himself entirely to sacred music.

Victoria was born in a tiny town in the province of Castile, Spain. King Philip II had him sent to Rome when he was 17 to further his musical studies. It is likely—but not certain—that he studied with Palestrina while there. What is certain is that the compositional styles of the two men are similar–although many hear a mystical intensity in Victoria’s music that is not present in the older master’s work. Victoria returned to Spain when he was 40, working the rest of his life in charge of music for the Empress Maria in Madrid. He was rightfully regarded as Spain’s greatest composer.

The connection between Victoria and Palestrina seemed circumstantially evident when Victoria returned all the way to Rome to attend Palestrina’s funeral in 1594.

Victoria’s musical output is rich in motets. Motets were polyphonic (multi-voice) sacred choral works with a Latin text, very often not tied to any particular church service (such as Christmas, Easter or any saint’s day) and therefore usable the year-round. O Magnum Mysterium, however, utilizes a text that is most often sung in the Christmas season–with its references to a manger, etc. Many Renaissance composers used the text, each one for his own motet setting of the words:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.

I have not heard every Renaissance setting of O Magnum Mysterium, but I can certainly say that Victoria’s is astonishingly beautiful.

The Sixteen is a London-based choir, and is one of the preeminent professional choirs in the world. Comprised of sixteen outstanding singers, all devoted primarily to choral music of the late Renaissance—but also performing choral music right through to our own time—they are directed by Harry Christophers, their founder. The choir has won many awards and honors—the Grand Prix du Disque, Gramophone Awards, and Grammy nominations–and has recorded over 90 albums.

This link is, in my estimation, the most inspiring O Magnum Mysterium—among many—available on YouTube. I think you will have a difficult time listening to it just once.

Pics are Victoria; the chant melody upon which O Magnum Mysterium is based–in neumatic notation.








Images: Monteverdi–The Visitation, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1491–St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Claudio Monteverdi was the first truly significant composer of the Baroque era. Indeed, his life (1567-1643) overlaps the Renaissance with the Baroque in the same way that his music represents the last of the best of the Renaissance and the first of the best of the Baroque–the last great pillar of one musical era and the first great pillar of the next. His music is regarded as the great “hinge” between musical eras.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona. His life’s work was accomplished in two localities—in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo from 1590-1613, and at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice from 1613 till his death. He composed both sacred and secular music, was—for all intents—the first composer of opera (with his L’Orfeo), and was an astute defender of what became known as the “seconda pratica” or “stile moderno”—a style of composition that looked to the future, with its basso continuo style, as opposed to the past which had been rooted in Franco-Flemish polyphony.

In truth, though, Monteverdi was a master of both styles, and the prima pratica—the “first practice”—is more evident in this Magnifcat than the seconda.

In the Christian religion, the Magnificat is a highly regarded hymn, supposedly spontaneously uttered by Mary, the mother of Jesus, upon the visit of her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a canticle—that is, a hymn not taken from the Psalms—and it appears in only one of the gospels, that of Luke.

The text, in modern English, is as follows:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his humble servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen. Alleluia.

The number of composers, both great and not-as-great, who composed musical settings for this text is quite impressive. It is, in fact, almost a who’s who of musical genius: Dunstable, Dufay, Binchois, Josquin, Taverner, Willaert, Tallis, Byrd, Victoria, Gabrieli, Praetorius, Monteverdi, Gibbons, Schutz, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Salieri, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Franck, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Walton, Persichetti, Penderecki, and Rutter. These are just the “mountain peak” names of composers who wrote Magnificats. One can only guess, in hindsight, that composers may have regarded the writing of a Magnificat (usually, composers wrote only one) as some kind of rite of passage.

Musical settings of the Magnificat became, over time, a fixture in the Vespers—or evening—service within the Catholic Church. (Of course, prior to the Reformation, there was ONLY the Catholic Church; nevertheless, Magnificats were composed after the 16th century for Protestant consumption as well.) Claudio Monteverdi composed his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) in 1610. Historically, Monteverdi would fall right in the middle of all these illustrious Magnificat composers. He had not left Mantua yet to become the maestro di capella at St. Mark’s—the most prestigious musical position in the Catholic world—so his Vespers became the crowning achievement of his years at the court of Mantua.

Indeed, Monteverdi’s Vespers was the greatest work of religious music before Bach. It is an outstanding, and lengthy (at 90 minutes), work. Monteverdi actually wrote TWO Magnificats for performance within his Vespers; they occur one after the other at the conclusion of the Vespers. The one I am linking to is the second one, the one that makes it onto “best-of” music appreciation listening lists. In his Vespers, Monteverdi links the past—all the movements of the Vespers including the two Magnificats are based on Gregorian Chant—with the future—a distinct veering away from modality to what we now regard as traditional functional harmony.

It has been conjectured that Monteverdi may have written the Vespers as a kind of “audition” work in his application to become St. Mark’s music director. We’ll never know. But John Eliot Gardiner assumed as much in his making of this legendary 1990 recording of the Vespers. It was recorded at St. Mark’s with its marvelous acoustics.

As always—one need not know ANY of this to appreciate every note of Monteverdi’s Magnificat. A sensitive soul and a curious spirit are all that is really required. The choral writing here is spectacular.







When Alfonso X, King of Castille, was dying at the age of 63, he made certain that an addition was made to his will: that all of the books of his enormous composition, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, be kept in the church, and that they would be sung on all the festive days honoring the Virgin Mary. This promise was kept for centuries after his death.

My interest in history is almost as deep as it is for music. Every work of music has a history and therefore is, because of that, automatically doubly interesting to me. In the case of some, like Alfonso X the 13th century king of Castille, my mind bounces back and forth from the music to the story to the music.

The “story” with regard to Alfonso X is, I think, an admirable one. He was a Renaissance man well before the actual renaissance—but he was much more than that, too. It would be centuries before a comparable man—Frederick the Great of Prussia—would replicate the kind of qualities that came naturally to Alfonso—warrior, legislator, diplomat, astronomer, poet, writer, and—the reason I am posting him—composer.

Alfonso (1221-1284) was king of Castille, Leon, and Galicia—about half of modern-day Spain—for the last 32 years of his life. His life as a ruler was characterized by much shrewd and beneficent diplomacy, the forming of alliances, and military victories.

What makes Alfonso remarkable is his thought, and how his thinking was put into action. Alfonso was a scholar and a lover of the arts. At his court were learned scholars—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—in all disciplines. Under his direction, major works were compiled—the GENERAL ESTORIA, a monumental history of the world; the SIETE PARTIDAS, an extensive collection of laws; the LIBROS DEL SABER DE ASTRONMIA, a work of encyclopedic length containing all that was known about astronomy; and even a LIBROS DEAJEDREZ Y TABLAS—the book of chess and backgammon.

Alfonso is known to history as “El Sabio”—Alfonso the Wise. Musicians know Alfonso as a composer. As a young man, he fancied himself to be a troubadour (who also happened to be king), composing love poetry and writing music to accompany it. From the beginning, he saw no reason why dance should not be an integral part of musical performance—his music is the easiest to imagine dancing to of any other composer’s music of the same time period.

The broadness and vision of Alfonso’s musical thought is evident in the multitude of instruments that are involved in the playing of his music. Miniatures depicting Alfonso’s music in performance include the fiddle, the rebec, the gittern, the lute, the psaltery, the zither, the harp, the shawm, all manner of flutes, the trumpet and horn (such as they were in those days), bagpipes, the portative organ, and a plethora of percussion instruments. Of all the composers up to his time in history, it seems clear that Alfonso thought in terms of the larger ensemble.

More than 400 monophonic compositions comprise the Cantigas de Santa Maria, many of which were written by Alfonso. The veneration of Mary reached its peak in the 13th century, and the Cantigas are the outward expression of that love. The Cantigas de Santa Maria came to be regarded as the greatest expression of Spanish worship of the Virgin. The musicologist Higinio Angles noted in the preface to his edition of the Cantigas that even if no other Spanish music of the period survived, this would have been enough to put Spanish music on a par with the music of the other cultured countries of medieval Europe.

I’m only linking to seven of the Cantigas here, performed by the estimable German early music group, Theatrum Instrumentorum. This recording was made exactly twenty years ago. The selections I’ve chosen are, I think, particularly joyful. Just to the diversity of instruments involved in the longer selections. A taqsim was a melodic musical improvisation that would precede a well-known song: in the fourth selection, for instance, you can see that there are two taqsims in the course of the composition.

I don’t know if you have any preconceived ideas about medieval music, but if you do, these works by Alfonso X might
completely blow them away.

Pictures are of Alfonso X and the Spanish map of the 13th century.













[We are leaving for southwestern Turkey—Bodrum—early tomorrow. I am not sure what my internet access will be for the rest of the week. So, I wanted to get one more post in before we leave. I hope you will sample some PER SONAT and Sabine Lutzenberger.]

There are quite a number of people—among the general public as well as performing musicians—who regard concert halls as museums for sound, who feel that classical musicians are simply keeping aural artwork—sound creations—alive. The logic of this is inescapable, of course—that IS what classical musicians do. But of course, it is more than that, since music—all music—is more than just sound, it is the conveyance of emotion. And in particular, emotions that were current in the time and place a particular composer lived. The emotions present in Haydn are no less real than those of, say, Corigliano just because one is old and one is new. So, keeping those emotions alive—through sound—is indeed what classical musicians do.

But, there is a dividing line somewhere among classical musicians. All performers love the music they perform, that’s a given. But there is also, for a majority of performers, the idea that their performances will be acknowledged, that there is—they hope—an inevitability about the praise that will come their way through their performing—however large or small that is—that their self-worth and their very ideas about themselves will be reaffirmed publicly.

The two exceptions to this—in my opinion—would be those who perform absolutely brand-new, contemporary music, for whom no audience has developed, and for whom—possibly—no audience will ever develop. These performers perform for the love of performing and for the simple (and pleasant) experience of being the conduit for new sounds.

The other exception would be those who perform “early” music—music from the Middle Ages. Dedicating one’s life as a musician to the performance of music which reflects emotions that were current 1,000 or more years ago—and for which the 2018 “market” is small indeed—can only reflect a selfless kind of love for the music being performed. The best performers of this kind of music DO become known—there is public acknowledgement for them, too—but acclaim of any kind cannot be even a primary motivation for them. Their inspiration comes from the music alone. Early music is not a heavily populated field in the classical music world.

One such group that specializes in the performance of music from the Middle Ages is PER SONAT.

Let me quote from PER SONAT’s German website (thank you, Google, for translating…):

“Since its founding in 2008, the PER-SONAT ensemble has been dedicated to the task of exploring the music of the Middle Ages. Their focus is always on original sources and committed interpretations of medieval music. The ensemble members: Sabine Lutzenberger, Baptiste Romain, Tobie Miller, and Elisabeth Rumsey, all renowned protagonists of “early music,” are concerned not only with the greatest possible authenticity, but also with artistically lively, innovative and exciting performance practice. Their intention is to trace the spirit and life-world of man in the Middle Ages and to reconcile that remote sensibility with their music. In their quest to explore music that has been forgotten for centuries, they are continually breaking new ground.”

I first heard PER SONAT while jogging alongside the Bosphorus here in Turkey (where I am at the moment). I really liked their sound, and I especially liked Sabine Lutzenberger, their founder and lead singer. Other members of PER SONAT are Tobie Miller (medieval recorders, soprano), Baptiste Romain (fiddle, bagpipe), and Liz Rumsey (fiddle). I learned, after then reading about them, of the high esteem in which they are held in the rarified world of early music. They have recorded a number of albums of note of composers and music not heard at all today (Heinrich von Messen, Le Roman de la Rose, Walther von der Vogelweide) and some Middle Ages “superstars” as well (Hildegard von Bingen). I posted some time ago (Music I Love #83) PER SONAT’s recording of Vogelweide.

I’d like to present some of their recorded repertoire here, hopefully giving a taste not only of their artistry but also of the sensibilities of composers who lived so long ago and in such different circumstances than ours today. Sabine Lutzenberger’s voice, and the acoustic environment she is recorded in, are both quite pleasant throughout…

MACHAUT (1300-1377)


VON MEISSEN, known as FRAUENLOB (1255-1318)





From the DENDERMONDE MANUSCRIPT (live performance)

WOLKENSTEIN (1376-1445)

KEUSCHLICH GEBOREN (live performance)

Photos are PER SONAT, and Sabine Lutzenberger.


I will be doing a separate post at some point on the German “electro-medieval, dark wave” band called HELIUM VOLA. It was a natural thing for this group, which has been around for about a decade, to invite Sabine Lutzenberger to perform with them. This is a short compilation of their collaboration from a live show. I love it and hope you will too.







Astonishing beauty—it’s there for the listening…

When I posted an overview of the Franco-Flemish composers a few months ago (Music I Love, #168), I noted that there are three composers who mark the three peaks of that remarkable two-century long run of great imitative-counterpoint choral music. Those composers were Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus. We last looked at Ockeghem in MIL, #211. He was the “top” of the first wave of Franco-Flemish composers. Today, I want to highlight Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), the “top” of the third, and last, wave. I’ll be posting Josquin—“top” of the second wave soon.

At the end of sixteenth century, the big three composers in Europe were the Netherlander Lassus, the Italian Palestrina, and the Spaniard Victoria. All three were, in their generation, like suns in a firmament of stars. Lassus, in particular, shone brightly because of the sheer quantity—over 2000 works—and the amazing quality of his writing. The common used forms of the day—motet, madrigal, villanelle, chansons, and lieder—were the vehicles through which his genius was heard. He works include 530 (!) motets, 175 madrigals, 150 chanson, and 60 masses.

In an age in which instrumental music was becoming more and more popular as art music, it is interesting that Lassus wrote no instrumental music, preferring choral and vocal music exclusively. The universal (meaning pan-European) appeal of his work and his style is reflected in the fact that he wrote to texts in four languages—Latin, French, Italian, and German.

Although born in what is today Belgium, Lassus left home at the age of twelve to study in Italy. His talent as a singer had been evident from the time he was a boy—he was supposedly KIDNAPPED three times by various parishes because of the beauty of his voice—and, in Italy, his aptitude for composition propelled him to be named maestro di cappella of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the ecumenical mother church of Rome, at the age of twenty-one. It was simply unheard-of for anyone so young to be appointed to such a position. It would be somewhat analogous to a young man of that age being named the conductor of a major orchestra or opera company. It was a spectacularly prestigious post.

Lassus felt he could not be tied to that post forever, though. And while still in his twenties, his musical travels and responsibilities were wide-ranging, all over France and England. When he was 33, he was offered the post of maestro de capella in Munich, a city he loved so much that he passed up all other opportunities thereafter in favor of staying in Munich for the rest of his life. Lassus’ fame as a master composer had spread to every corner of Europe; even at this relatively young age, composers were streaming from all over Europe to study with him there.

Lassus was a very serious man who remained a staunch Catholic even though the times he lived in were brimming with religious controversy and polarization. Especially attractive to him were the penitential psalms—those psalms expressing sorrow for sin. There are seven of these. In the Christian Bible, these would be Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142. (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 in the Hebrew numbering.)

Lassus was not the first Renaissance composer to compose works based on these psalms, but by common agreement, his (which were written in 1584) are the most impressive and beautiful. The Penitential Psalms were my introduction to Lassus—a falling in love at first listen—some forty years ago. __________________________

I hope no one will mind my taking a moment here to say a word about actually listening to the links in my posts. Those of you who have been with me from the beginning know that my motivation for posting music I love is to share music (and whatever I happen to know about music) with others. Truly, nothing gives me more pleasure than knowing I have successfully shared something of beauty with others. Now that I’ve started a separate Facebook page—ROBERT RUCKMAN, MUSICIAN—I am able to see that, although 100 people may check out a given post, very few readers are clicking on the YouTube links and listening to them.

Don’t get me wrong—I am very glad to share knowledge about composers and music. And I am aware that listening to anything at all requires time—a precious commodity. But—to make an analogy—if I had a genuine interest in, say, the history of art, but I was content to simply read about it—the artist’s life, how he compared with other artists, a description of his style and what was unique about him or her—but I never actually just beheld an artist’s work when it was right in front of me, I would be living life at a distance, once-removed from actual experience, a second-best existence.

So, I really do hope that it will be possible for you to find enough time to listen to the links in my posts. Maybe not so much with pop music or other music that you are already thoroughly familiar with, but especially in cases like today—with a composer like Lassus who may be unfamiliar to you. Listening to the music can be an opportunity for horizon-expanding.

OK, I hope that didn’t sound like a lecture. Not my intention at all.

If hearing Lassus IS a new experience for you, I would offer the suggestion that it might be more instructive, and probably leave a deeper impression, if, after listening to the first few minutes, you simply skipped around in the following link rather than listening straight through. These works are the high-water mark of Renaissance vocal polyphony. You will know in the first half-minute whether Lassus simply doesn’t appeal to you—or whether he opens up a whole new world of astonishing beauty. I think what is important is to get an aural taste of what the best music of the late Renaissance actually sounded like.

As I mentioned, Lassus wrote settings for all seven of the Penitential Psalms. I am linking here to a really fine performance featuring four of these settings. The singers are the Leipzig-based, world famous Kammerchor Josquin des Prez.

Penitential Psalm #1 – Psalm 6 0:00
Penitential Psalm #3—Psalm 37 13:45
Penitential Psalm #6—Psalm 129 38:50
Penitential Psalm #7—Psalm 142 46:35

Pictures are Lassus, the Penitential Psalm choirbook–notice how beautiful it is–and the Kammerchor des Prez.






A couple of months ago, I posted a summary of the Franco-Flemish era in music history (Music I Love #168). There, I mentioned that among all the great composers from that two-century long era, the three big names—each representing a high point in compositional ingenuity—were Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus. I’d like to feature a work by Ockeghem today.

I also mentioned, in a different post, a memory I have of a professor I had back in my days as a doctoral student, a marvelous teacher and human being, James Riley. I remember the day he discussed Ockeghem in his music history class. He closed his eyes and softly said, “Oh how I love the music of this man!” That was enough to make me want to hear everything Ockeghem composed.

As it turns out, although Johannes Ockeghem (1410-1497) was definitely a major figure, not a lot of his work has survived. Of his works, only 14 masses, 10 motets, and 21 chansons have survived. Of his 14 masses, only 9 are complete; the remaining 5 consist of only a few movements each. This relative scarcity of material only throws into high relief how great a composer Ockeghem was. It would be something like only having a dozen or so works by Beethoven—but we know, of those, there would be enough “evidence” to conclude that Beethoven was the greatest composer of his day.

Details of Ockeghem’s early life are scant. Although he was born in what is now Belgium, his life’s work occurred in what is now France, specifically at Moulins, Tours, and Paris, where he served at Notre Dame. We also know of his valuable skills as a diplomat for the court, as he was sent by Louis XI to Spain to handle very complex negotiations in a dual attempt to 1) dissuade Spain from allying with England against France, as well as to 2) arrange a marriage between Isabella I and Louis’ brother, the Duke of Guyenne.

Obviously, Ockeghem was obviously highly regarded both as a composer and diplomat.

What set Ockeghem apart from others was his writing for four voices, which was then a novelty. Writing for three voices had dominated the Burgundian School, which preceded him. His four-part writing, particularly within the context of impressive vocal counterpoint—different voices all moving simultaneously yet producing an overall extremely harmonious effect—was unprecedented. He extended the activity and range (downward) for his lowest bass part, creating an almost instrumental effect.

Even if one knows nothing of Ockeghem’s technique, one is immediately drawn to the beauty and clarity of his writing.

As a parenthesis here, I think it needs to be said that in order for our 21st century ears to appreciate Ockeghem—and by extension, all Renaissance choral music—a certain kind of mind re-set needs to occur. We need to go back in time to half a millennium ago, to imagine we are in a cathedral which itself is the acoustic instrument that is being played. We have to imagine ourselves away from everything we’ve ever experienced in terms of technologically-produced sound. We must become blank slates.

A funny memory, though, comes back to me even as I am writing this. My attempts at trying to create a “soundstage” in the minds of hearers occasionally falls flat. As is probably obvious, I am an enthusiastic proponent of music from the Renaissance. So, back in the 1980s when I was teaching my Music History class at Sinclair, and we had come to the Renaissance in England, and specifically to William Byrd—one of my favorites—I thought what a GOOD IDEA it would be, while playing the Kyrie movement from Byrd’s Mass in Four Parts, to say everything I just said above—forget all you’ve known, just hear the sounds, imagine you are in a cathedral, etc—and then, to make sure there were no visual distractions, I turned the lights out. Six minutes later at the Kyrie’s conclusion, I turned them back on, thinking about the profound impression Byrd had no doubt made on these music majors…only to discover that about half of them were drifting off to sleep! And those who were still wide awake—unbelievably to naïve me—I had NOT lit a lifelong fire for William Byrd in their minds.

Needless to say, that was the last time I attempted the “lights-off” pedogogical techniqe.

But I do still think it can be effective…given the right listeners.

I hope that no one reading this will have a similar nocturnal response to Ockeghem. His music is sublime, but, as with so many things in life, it requires our attention if any kind of impression at all is going to occur.

If there is a “greatest hit” in the Ockeghem oeuvre, it is his Missa Pro Defunctis. This mass is the first (not just Ockeghem’s first, but THE first) surviving example of a requiem mass—a Mass for the Dead. The five parts which are extant are: Introitus, Kyrie, Graduale, Tractus, Offertorium.


It may be of interest for me to include here the texts for each movement, both in Latin and in English.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem
Exaudi orationem meam
Ad te omnis caro veniet.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon them
A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Zion
And a vow shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem
Hear my prayer
All flesh shall come before you.



Kyrie, eleison!
Christe, eleison!
Kyrie, eleison!

Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.



Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In memoria aeterna erit iustus,
ab auditione mala non timebit.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord :
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
He shall be justified in everlasting memory,
and shall not fear evil reports.



Absolve, Domine,
animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
ab omni vinculo delictorum
et gratia tua illis succurente
mereantur evadere iudicium ultionis,
et lucis aeternae beatitudine perfrui.

Forgive, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from all the chains of their sins
and by the aid to them of your grace
may they deserve to avoid the judgment of revenge,
and enjoy the blessedness of everlasting light.



Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae,
libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de poenis inferni
et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini eius.

Hostias et preces tibi, Domine
laudis offerimus
tu suscipe pro animabus illis,
quarum hodie memoriam facimus.
Fac eas, Domine, de morte
transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semine eius.

Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory,
deliver the soulds of all the faithful departed
from the pains of Hell
and the bottomless pit.
Deliver them from the jaws of the lion,
lest hell engulf them,
lest they be plunged into darkness;
but let the holy standard-bearer Michael
lead them into the holy light,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.

Lord, in praise we offer you
Sacrifices and prayers,
accept them on behalf of those
who we remember this day:
Lord, make them pass
from death to life,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.

Pictures are of Ockeghem and the Ars Nova Copenhagen.






I had originally written this post a few days ago, but I was not satisfied with it. Something was irritating me about it. It was a somewhat lengthy post about the omni-presence of music in all civilizations and how the music of the Notre Dame school in Paris—and Perotin’s accomplishment in particular—could be seen both as the conclusion of a long trajectory from ancient times and also as a brand new start. And while I think those things are true and interesting, it is not really what I wanted to say. I woke up in the middle of the night, just now, with this realization. And so this time I’ll say what I really should have said in the first place.

We know almost nothing about the life of Perotin, other than that he was held in the highest regard by his contemporaries at Notre Dame as a master composer and teacher—so much so that during his lifetime and for many generations after, he was referred to as Perotin Le Grand, Perotin the Great, or Magister Perotin (Perotin the Master.) We don’t know when he was born. We think he died early in the 13th century, around 1215.

The music that Perotin and his predecessor Leonin wrote is called ORGANUM. Organum is music that involves two or more simultaneously occurring voices, and is itself built upon an existing chant melody. By the time of Perotin’s life, there would have been literally thousands of chant melodies—monophonic, unmeasured, pure melodies which “clothed” biblical texts or other spiritual words. Depending upon the geographic location of the cathedrals in which these chants were created, certain styles of chant-writing had come into being—Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, and the one that most people have heard of, Gregorian. In the work of the Notre Dame composers, a second voice would be added to this chant melody. It was always a higher voice which often moved in parallel motion with the original voice.

This was organum. The important thing to remember is that one of the voices was a chant melody.

It only took a couple generations of the Notre Dame composers to expand from 2-part organum to 4-part organum. To our 21st century ears, the sound of four simultaneously-sounding parts is something that seems commonplace—our ears have heard multi-part music for many hundreds of years—ever since Perotin. But composing 3- and then 4-voice organum was a quantum leap forward, if you will, over all the music of all the centuries that had preceded it. From about 1100 A.D. on, this IS what made western music different than anything that had preceded it. It was an outstanding accomplishment. From it sprang all the music we know and love.

So, here is why “Viderunt Omnes” carries so much weight.

The language of Gregorian chant was Latin. By the middle of the middle ages—1000 A.D.—Latin had become the exclusive language of the clergy and the language of scholars. Therefore, the personal meaning that a typical “parishioner” would get from hearing a chant sung during a service would have been limited at best. The average congregation would have perhaps recognized that this or that chant was speaking about Mary or about God’s beneficence, but that is probably all.

As the writing of organum evolved, the voice that was added above the chant line took on a life of its own—IT became the sole interest. No longer was the centuries-old chant upon which it was written that important. Rather quickly—say, in 40 years or so, around 1150-1190—the chant line—that bottom voice—became simply a series of very long notes, and the voices written above it became everything.

Imagine, for the sake of illustration, the folk song Shenandoah.” The first few lines of that song go:

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.

Imagine, you are composing a 4-voice organum, and for your bottom line, you select “Shenandoah”—it is your chant. The first note is “OH” and it lasts, say for nearly a full minute—and then comes “SHEN” and it lasts just as long, followed by “AN” and “DO” and “AH”, all of which are very long. Meanwhile, above your long held syllables, you are creating a completely new composition which has nothing whatsoever to do with your original “Shenandoah” tune.

“Viderunt omnes” is Perotin’s masterpiece, and it works in this same way. “Vidernut omnes” had been a single-line, monophonic chant melody, sung by monks during services, in the 1000’s. Here is the Latin text and its English translation.

Viderunt omnes fines terræ
salutare Dei nostri.
Jubilate Deo, omnis terra.
Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum;
ante conspectum gentium
revelavit justitiam suam.

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen,
he has revealed his righteousness.

In Perotin’s work, this chant melody would become the bottom part, sung in very long, held notes. As you will hear, the first syllable—“VI”—lasts 50 seconds, followed by a very long “DER”, and so on. Meanwhile, Perotin is embroidering above that foundation a completely new and—to our ears and to the ears of 12th century congregants—beautiful composition.

It is really worth thinking about that with the introduction of organum—of increasing complexity—into the music of the Church, music lost all pretense of being the vehicle for spiritual messages. Even if a congregation had some minimal familiarity with a particular chant, that chant would now be unrecognizable because its notes would be held so long and would be of such secondary importance to the other voices being sung above it. In his way, music was now truly art for art’s sake.

Composers may have sincerely felt they were glorifying God. But their music had definitely become an end in itself, and from an outsider’s perspective, there would have been nothing to specifically connect these new works of art with the Church—other than the threadbare connection to chant itself. Music became art, composed within the aegis of the Church.

Apart from my high regard for Hildegard von Bingen’s music—which is a tad earlier than Perotin and nowhere near as complex—Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes would be the earliest masterpiece in western music, music of complexity and beauty. I listen to it often.

Once again, I apologize for the length of this post (but…it IS shorter than my original).

David Munrow’s suicide death in 1976 at the age of 34 was a tragedy of major proportions for the music world. He was the world’s preeminent authority on early music, an extremely gifted player and conductor who was blessed with amazing organizational skills as well. Fortunately, he left behind, a large discography of early music, from which this recording is taken.

The slides in this YouTube link are of the interior of Notre Dame cathedral, the majestic space where Perotin’s music would have first been performed.




If one steps back and looks at the broad expanse of western music, something that is unmistakable to observe is that for nearly two centuries, 1400-1600, most of the great composers from a certain area of northern Europe—and a certain style of writing—dominated over and above everything and everyone else.

From the Gothic era (Music I Love, #112), through Machaut (MIL, #66) and right up until the early 1400’s, music composition had been dominated by the French and Italians. The “Notre Dame School,” which was centered in that Parisian cathedral, had been the locus of much compositional activity from 1100 to 1250. But as we move into the 1300’s and then the 1400’s, the central point of composition activity gradually began to shift from Paris to the northeast. And from that point until two centuries later—encompassing most of the Renaissance—many of the great composers, and the most influential, long-lasting compositional techniques, came from the area referred to as the Low Countries, the Burgundian Netherlands.

Today’s post is primarily informational, setting the stage for future posts that will address specific composers and specific compositions. For now, I’d just like to lay out a panoramic picture of this time period. I apologize in advance for my length here. I thought it better to include all of this in one post.

I’ve referred, above, to the Notre Dame “School”. And I’ve labeled today’s post the Franco-Flemish “School”. In the case of the Notre Dame School, there was an actual building—a physical place—associated with the embryonic beginnings of polyphony there in Paris. But generally, when musicians speak of compositional “schools”, they are referring more broadly, and primarily, to creative processes that happen to occur in generalized localities. The area of northern (continental) Europe that includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northern France became the area in which a specific type of composition—vocal music utilizing imitative polyphony—developed and then dominated Europe. It was the Franco-Flemish “School.”

Unlike Notre Dame, where one master—say, Perotin—actually taught younger composers, the spread of imitative polyphony throughout northern Europe was almost exclusively by example and imitation of one composer by another, always building and adding to whatever already existed—rather than through systematic pedagogy.

Before (briefly) defining imitative polyphony (below), let me lay out a chronological chart of these composers as they appear in this two-century timespan, citing five progressive “waves” of increasingly complex polyphony. The three composers I’ve listed above—Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus—I will put in CAPS below to indicate their importance. You might say they represent the high points of the entire Franco-Flemish period.

There were, as you could expect, many composers in each one of these groupings; I’m only listing the most noteworthy.

1. 1420-1450 the “Burgundians”– the predecessors to the Franco-Flemish composers

Du Fay, Binchois, Busnois

2. 1450-1485

OCKEGHEM, Compere, Agricola, Tinctoris

3. 1480-1520

Obrecht, de la Rue, Isaac, Brumel, Fevin, JOSQUIN

4. 1520-1560

Gombert, Crequillon, Arcadelt, de Rore, Willaert, Clemens

5. 1560-1620

LASSUS, de Monte, Rogier

I do not want to get overly technical, but in order to appreciate the music of these centuries, it is necessary to have some familiarity with basic terminology, so I will bullet-itemize these:

* The bulk of all of these composers’ compositions were sacred—most often motets—and were typically written for four voices using the imitative polyphonic style.
* Imitative polyphony was the writing of four (or more) simultaneously-sounding parts in which one voice imitates another voice, and then another voice imitates that one, and so on.
* These imitations could be transposed (occurring at higher or lower pitches), or inverted (where a previously appearing melodic line that went up now goes down and vice versa) or simply replicated exactly.
* All voices were of equal importance—the idea of melody (something most important) and accompaniment (something of lesser importance) did not exist for these composers.
* The texture–the sounding of one to four voices simultaneously–would be continually changing.
* Moments when all four voices sing the exact same rhythm at the same time would be rare, and would often be the climax of a work or a section.
* One of the continual challenges that these composers faced in writing many concurrent vocal parts was the avoidance of dissonance—sounds that are disagreeable when heard at the same time.
* And finally: we will also observe over the course of these two centuries a gradual but continual move toward music which has a strong tonal center. What musicians now refer to as the “common practice period” (1600-1900)—in which music is written around clearly defined (and easily heard) tonal centers—such as “C Major” or “D minor”—was just hazily on the horizon to the composers of 1400, but became clearer and clearer as time went by.

I APOLOGIZE for what no doubt seems like a lot of minutiae. I am just trying to establish a foundation for those who may have a desire to appreciate the composers of this lengthy era. The serious intent, and overall dark coloring, of much music from the Franco-Flemish “School” will not be, I hope, a deterrent to anyone wanting to get the “big picture” of music history. I’ll be returning to the Franco-Flemish composers with some regularity.

I will talk in detail about individual composers from the above groupings and their works in future posts. For right now, though, I just want to give a taste of three of the giants of the entire Franco-Flemish period. The Hilliard Ensemble, conducted by Paul Hillier, performs all three selections.


Missa Prolationum – Credo

JOSQUIN DES PREZ (1450-1521)

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae – Gloria


De profundis clamavi ad te Domine