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Heinrich ISAAC & Hans BUCHNER: "Missa Pachalis 'ad organum'"

Cantus Modalisa; Martin Erhardt, organb
Dir: Rebecca Stewart

rec: Sept 18 - 20, 2012, Ostönnen, St Andreaskirche; Feb 13, 2013, Tilburg (Neth), Liberal Jewish Synagogue
Ambitus - amb 96 965 (73'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/N; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

anon: Christ ist erstanden a 1a; Christ ist erstanden a 3a; Christ ist erstandenb; Guillaume DUFAY (1398-1474): Ad cenam agni providi a 3ab; Heinrich ISAAC (c1450-1517): Missa Paschalis a 6ab; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Victimae paschali laudes a 4a; plainchant: Pascha nostruma; Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum - Gloria Patriab; Fridolin SICHER (1490-1546): Victimae paschali laudesb; Adam Ileborgh VON STENDAL (?-?): Praeambulum super d a f et gb

Marsja Mudde, Anne Schneider, Shirley Radig, Marijke Meerwijk, Maria Wieggers, Ivo Berg, Milo Machover, Ronald Kuilman, Kaspar Ditters, Joost van Leeuwen, Ton Debets

Throughout history music and politics have been strongly interwoven. That was the case in France under the rule of Louis XIV, that was certainly also the case in the Habsburg empire. The representatives of the Habsburg dynasty certainly loved music, but they also saw it as a means of representation. Music - and the presence of famous musicians and composers at their courts - was a way to show their power, and an instrument in tying bonds for polical purposes. The present disc attests to that. It brings a recording of a mass by Heinrich Isaac, but the liner-notes tell us in detail about the political background of this mass.

It is all about the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) which took place in Constance in 1507, when Maximilian I proclaimed himself as Emperor of Austria, Burgundy and Spain. The reason was that his son, Philip the Fair, reigning monarch of Burgundy and Spain, had died the year before. "As a symbolically vital part of this transfer of power a magnificent memorial service was held in which not one but two polyphonic mass ordinaries were performed." (*) One of these was Isaac's 6-part Missa Virgo prudentissima. Several possible reasons are given for this, one of them an issue of style: it was based "on the Marian antiphon, which underpinned and integrated the entire mass (a clearly Burgundian stylistic tradition). (In this same memorial service Isaac's 6-voice motet, which is based on the antiphon of the same name, 'Virgo prudentissima', makes an explicit connection between the crowning of Maximilian and this 'Most wise Virgin'!)."

The identity of the other mass is not known but Rebecca Stewart assumes that it was Isaac's Missa Paschalis a 6. She points out that in the manuscript from which the mass is sung here "[the] prominent stipulation of 'Faulx bourdon' (the old-fashioned practice of singing in parallel 6/3 chords below the leading top voice) written above the Pleni sunt celi et terra section of the Sanctus strongly suggests that both heaven and earth have joined together to sing not only the praises of God but, by implication, those of his earthly representative, Emperor Maximilian. (...) Lastly, there were strong symbolic reasons for the choice of this mass. With the death of Philip, the 'only begotten son' of the Emperor, who had also 'fulfilled his function on earth', the transfer of power to Maximilian had quickly become associated in the Habsburg dynasty myth with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ." She mentions the fact that other masses, among which two specifically connected to Easter, contain explicit references to the death of Philip the Fair.

This only gives a general impression of the lines of argument in the liner-notes. It is most interesting to read the whole text which puts the mass recorded here in its historical context. It is one of many with an alternatim texture which was quite common in the Habsburg empire. There are various ways to fill in the verses which are not set polyphonically. Mostly these are sung in plainchant, but it is perfectly possible to play organ verses. One of Isaac's 4-part masses has the addition ad organum. In this performance organ verses by Hans Buchner are used. He was a pupil of the famous Paul Hofhaimer, and he was in the service of Maximilian. Martin Erhardt has taken the organ verses from his collection of liturgical organ music entitled Fundamentum. "[It] is most interesting that Buchner's intabulation for Osanna I, which directly follows [the above-mentioned] Pleni, and which is based on the same Easter chant as Isaac's mass, also employs faux-bourdon style".

Before the mass we hear Dufay's 3-part motet Ad cenam agni providi, another alternatim composition; here Erhardt plays intabulations in the style of the Buxheimer Orgelbuch. The sequence is Josquin's Victime paschali laudes a 4; it is followed by an intabulation of this motet by Fridolin Sicher, pupil of Buchner. The recording ends with three versions of the Easter hymn Christ ist erstanden, the earliest extant hymn with a German text. It is included here as it "points the way to a non-Habsburgian, Lutheran Germany in which the Protestant chorale will replace the Latin mass and in which composers like the young native Johann Walter will lead the way".

This very interesting project has resulted in a fascinating recording of music by a composer who has written a large amount of music but who has largely remained in the shadow of his contemporary Josquin Desprez. The practice of using organ verses for alternatim compositions is also not often applied in recordings, except for music of France under the ancien régime. The organ music of the renaissance is little-known anyway. From the angle of repertoire there is much which makes this production highly significant. The historical context as sketched in the liner-notes emphasize its importance. Last but not least: the performances are outstanding. Cantus Modalis has a special way of singing which some of the readers may recognize from the early phases of the Capella Pratensis, when Rebecca Stewart was its director. I was rather surprised that the ensemble uses a French pronunciation, considering that the mass - according to Ms Stewart - was sung at the Diet in Constance in Germany. The singing focuses not on volume but rather on range and penetration. The organ verses are played on the gothic organ of the St Andreaskirche in Ostönnen (Westphalia) which is essential in regard to temperament and disposition.

Lovers of renaissance polyphony should not miss this disc which is certainly one of the most interesting which have been released recently.

(*) The quotations are from the liner-notes.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Cantus Modalis
Martin Erhardt

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