Willaert and friends

November 2008

Once again, the United Reformed Church at Ickenham has been the venue for a TVEMF event of exceptional quality. It was, as always, a most rewarding experience to be directed by John Milsom, who led us through a programme of music which featured masterpieces by composers virtually unknown to the wider world of early music. Most of us had sung some Mouton (though John expressed astonishment that not one person admitted to having sung his Salva nos, Domine, with which the programme ended), and a fair number had sung some Willaert. However, Jacquet of Mantua and Loyset Pieton were new to us.

Whether or not due to over-indulgence in the consumption of chocolate biscuits which, we were firmly told, was fatal, it took some little time before we began to produce the required quality of sound and diction. However, the time spent in bringing us up to scratch began to pay dividends as we engaged with Willaert’s Christe redemptor omnium, an alternatim setting in which the polyphonic verses were, successively, in four, five and six parts, with the two cantus parts in canon in the five-part verse, and the canon buried in the inner parts (alto I and tenor I) in the six-part verse. We are, at early music workshops, accustomed to having our attention directed firmly towards the text, so it was a fascinating and novel experience to be taken on a guided tour of the musical architecture of the Willaert, to have diatonic and exact canons explained to us and to be told why and when one or the other was used in the composition.

The second half of the morning was taken up with exploring a hitherto unsung (at least, in modern times) masterpiece, Plorabant sacerdotes by Jacquet of Mantua. The Florentine humanist Cosimo Bartoli remarked on a certain stylistic affinity between the compositions of Willaert and of Jachet, and Allan W Atlas tells us, in his book Renaissance Music, (Norton, 1998) that in 1550, Antonio Gardano, the publisher of Willaert’s Musica nova, issued a volume of music whose long title begins with the words Di Adriano et di Jachet, Jachet being the French-born composer Jacques Colebault (1483-1559), who was a prolific composer of masses and motets and who spent over thirty years as the leading composer in Mantua. Renaissance cultural history suggests that such dynasts as the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Estensi of Ferrara and the Sforza of Milan bargained, sold, and poached first rank musicians in much the same way as owners of Premiership football clubs do nowadays with world-class players, and for amounts not dissimilar when translated into modern currency. Perhaps Jachet’s lengthy stay in Mantua reflects the status of his patron, the cardinal- bishop Ercole Gonzaga, as the Roman Abramovitch of the Renaissance musical scene, able to see off any competition for his star musician.

As with verse 4 of the Willaert, Plorabant sacerdotes has the canon in the two upper parts, with the three lower parts as an accompaniment. Although we spent a considerable amount of time on it, and acquitted ourselves tolerably well in the end, given the time available, it was clear that we had not penetrated very far into its many complexities.

Next on the programme was O beata infantia, by (I quote from Neil’s note about the workshop) “the elusive Loyset Pieton, a composer of truly magnificent music whose biography remains an almost total mystery”. Neither Atlas nor Leeman Perkins, in Music in the Age of the Renaissance, (Norton, 1999) has a word to say about him. In this six-part motet for Christmas, specifically for Matins, a richly textured picture is painted of the ordinary, sad and even sordid aspects of man’s daily life being transformed by the presence of the blessed infant; the series of metaphorical contrasts between divine and human attributes ends triumphantly with the splendid stable being found to contain not only hay for the animals, but the food of angels.

In the final session, as well as revisiting Plorabant sacerdotes, we performed Willaert’s In convertendo Dominus, for two four-part choirs singing antiphonally until the last eight bars, where the two choirs came together for “et in saecula saeculorum“. This seemed fairly straightforward after the complications of Christe redemptor omnium, and we did not attempt to explore it in any depth. It was with somewhat diminishing energies (notwithstanding the sustenance derived from consumption of Mary and Michael Reynor’s excellent teatime provisions) that we ended by singing twice through Mouton’s calm and peaceful Salva nos, Domine, which provided a fitting conclusion to a an arduous, but immensely satisfying day’s singing. We are all indebted to John for his patience, good humour and expertise in taking us through his well-chosen programme, and surely we would all agree that, if the selected works by Jacquet of Mantua and Loyset Pieton are in any way representative of their general quality, these are composers whose music deserves to be much more widely known. Warmest thanks are also due to Neil for organising the event and to Mary and Michael Reynor for their admirable catering.

Sidney Ross

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