KAMMERCHOR JOSQUIN DES PREZ
LUDWIG BOHME, DIRECTOR
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.