Hassler in Amersham

January 2012

Under the inimitable direction of Michael Procter, 66 singers, 19 instrumentalists and eight versatile individuals who participated in both roles assembled in the Amersham Community Centre for a programme of polychoral music by Hans Leo Hassler. The Hassler family (Isaac and his three sons, Hans Leo, Kasper and Jakob) hailed from Nuremberg and were all musicians, though Hans Leo has by far the greatest reputation. After spending time in Venice, where he was a pupil of Andrea Gabrieli (whose nephew Giovanni was his fellow student) he moved to Augsburg as chamber organist to Octavian Fugger, a post he filled from 1586 to 1601. He returned to Nuremberg in 1602 as chief Kapellmeister of the town, where he was hailed as 'Musicus inter Germanos sua aetate summus' (among the Germans, the most complete composer of his age). This adulation did not prevent him from renouncing his connections with Nuremberg and moving to Ulm, where he married into the mercantile bourgeoisie. Gustav Reese (Music in the Renaissance, Dent, 1954) says of him that he was probably the only Germanic composer of the period, other than Senfl, who could be ranked with the great Franco-Netherlanders of the 16th century.

Michael selected six items of widely differing nature for the programme; they varied from 10 to 18 parts and involved, variously, two, three and four choirs with different combinations of instruments. The instruments were of a number and variety far outweighing the somewhat mimsy collection to be found in King JesusÓ Garden or the more imposing array at the sound of which those present in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar were commanded to fall down and worship the golden image (Daniel iii, 7). They included cornets, sackbuts, viols, recorders, an 'amazement' of curtals (I am indebted to Margaret Jackson-Roberts for this newly-minted collective noun), cello, organ, and a lizard. I collect from the Mediaeval Life and Times website that this instrument gets its name from its shallow S-shape which gives it the appearance of a legless lizard and that it was used by (among others) troubadours. The idea of expressing courtly love to oneÓs unattainable lady with the aid of a lizard is not one which your reviewer finds easy to accommodate.

Michael began by drawing attention to the fact that the so-called Christmas TVEMF event was actually taking place in Advent, for which he was liturgically garbed in a tie of the appropriate colour. However, with the exception of Congratulamini, which is liturgically for Eastertide, the programme was one of music for Christmas or for general use. We began with Cantate Domino a 13 and (it being late in the day owing to the complexity of the task of getting everyone into the right place, admirably organised though that was by David Fletcher and the music monitors with their dauntingly complex spreadsheets), the singers were spared the usual warm-ups, and Michael allowed the instrumentalists to proceed on the basis (attributed to Anthony Rooley) that 'the tuning was good enough for early music'.

The next item was Coeli enarrant, another 13-part work. It is known that Hassler and Giovanni Gabrieli collaborated in the composition of a wedding motet for Georg Gruber, a wealthy Nuremberg merchant, in 1600. It was included in GruberÓs collection of motets in memory of the two composers, published in 1615 under the title Reliquiae sacrorum concentuum, and Michael surmised from the text, the last section of which reads 'et ipse tamquam sponsus procedens de thalamo suo' (which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, Ps xix, 5), that Coeli enarrant might have been the motet in question. The pre-lunch session ended with Jubilate Deo a 15, another three-choir work which is a spectacular 117-bar setting of the well-known psalm text. In this piece Michael drew our attention to the individualistic nature of the sheep, as portrayed by the setting of the words 'nos autem populus eius et oves pascuae' (for we are his people and the sheep of his pasture). Having appropriately entered into his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise, we emerged exhilarated and ready for the bodily refreshment which had been admirably organised by Victoria Helby and contributed to on the usual basis.

Following the lengthy and convivial lunch-break, we returned to the fray with the 4-choir Congatulamini a 18. It was at this stage that Michael explained something that had been baffling many of us; if the four choirs were arranged from high to low, with choir 4 as the lowest, why was that choir called 'Primus' ? The answer is that it sings first - simple when you know how. Congatulamini is a piece which, apart from giving rise to what Michae described as 'the curious incident of the sharp in the night' displays considerable rhythmic complexity as well as requiring the mind of a cryptographer to understand its structure, exemplified by the make-up of choir 4 (Primus) consisting from top to bottom) of A, 17, 18, 7 and B. It was something of a relief to return to the comparative simplicity of the three movements from the Missa sine nomine which followed and which, according to the description in the Edition Michael Procter, is, 'most unusually, in vocal clefs throughout'.

After some debate it was decided to attempt the last piece, Hodie Christus natus est, for two five-part choirs (but very suitable for instrumental participation), before tea. With hindsight it might have been better to have ended there, because the reprise of Congratulamini which we attempted afterwards was not a great success. However, that minor blemish hould not be allowed to detract from the general satisfaction engendered by our exploration of the works of a master of polychoral writing. We are all indebted to Michael for yet another rewarding musical experience and no doubt many of us are looking forward to another feast of polychorality under his direction in June 2012, when the composer will be Giovanni Gabrieli. Warmest thanks must also go to David Fletcher and Victoria Helby for all that they did to make the day a success, and to the volunteers, too numerous to record, who helped with the various tasks, particularly the distribution of the music.

Sidney Ross

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