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"O Rosa Bella"

Ensemble Dionea; Ensemble Nova Alta

rec: Oct 6 - 8, 2017, Bevagna (Perugia), Santuario Madonna delle Grazie
Brilliant Classics - 95529 (© 2019) (61'24")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: O rosa bella o dulz anima mia; John BEDYNGHAM (c1422-1460): O rosa bella; O rosa bella (Concordancie o rosa bella cum alius tribus); O rosa bella o tu mi maria (gymel); John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): O rosa bella; Alan HERT (15th C): O rosa bella; Gilles JOYE (c1420-c1483): Missa super O rosa bella; Johannes OCKEGHEM (c1410-c1494) (attr): Alius discantus super O rosa bella

[Ens Dionea] Jung Min Kim, soprano, lute; Teodora Tommasi, soprano, recorder, harp; Serena Leonardi, recorder, fiddle
[Ensemble Nova Alta] David Brutti, recorder, cornett; Andrea Angeloni, sackbut, tromba da tirarsi; Stefano Bellucci, Pierluigi Bastioli, sackbut; Danilo Tamburo, counter tenor, sackbut
with: Andrea Gavagnin, Jonatas Monteiro, cantus; Matteo Zenatti, Enrico Maronese, tenor; Stefano Maffioletti, Nicola di Filippo, counter tenor, directed by Claudia Caffagni

It does happen quite often that discs with music from the Middle Ages or the early Renaissance include pieces by composers hardly anyone has heard of. It does not happen that often that the main composer is a virtually unknown quantity. Exactly that is the case with the recording of the Ensemble Dionea and the Ensemble Nova Alta, which is released by Brilliant Classics. Its main work is the Missa O rosa bella by Gilles Joye, a composer about whom we know relatively little, and who has left only a small number of compositions. In the case of the mass, it is not even entirely clear whether Joye is the composer.

So, then, who was Joye? The liner-notes in the booklet start with a paragraph under the title "Gilles Joye: a musical reprobate". He is described as a "rather bizarre character with serious problems when it came to handling money". He was born in Courtray, and started his musical career as a chorister in the music chapel of the Church of the Blessed Virgin. Later he found employment at the Church of St Donorius in Bruges. David Fallows, in New Groves, states that "documents report him frequently as having been involved in street-fighting, refusing to take part in polyphony when the chapter abolished the Feast of Fools, visiting brothels and lodging a concubine widely known as Rosabelle (...)". "Coeval archives and documents often mention Joye in relation to prebends and privileges that take him first to Clèves, and later back to Bruges. During this period he lived a life of luxury, well above his means, ultimately accumulating debts that forced him to sell all his possessions. (...) He died on 31 December 1483, and the church fathers, anxious to avoid demands on the part of his creditors, made sure the funeral was a private event." (booklet) Not exactly what you call flattering testimonies.

His extant oeuvre comprises five rondeaux, one ballata and one mass; all pieces are, as was common at the time, for three voices. The performers could have decided to record all his works, but they rather followed a different path. As the mass is based on a then popular ballata, O rosa bella, they brought together several versions of this piece. That is not an original concept: more than twenty years ago René Clemencic recorded a programme which also focused on this piece. However, he selected pieces from different sources, among them the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, whereas the present disc confines itself to versions included in the same source, where the mass can also be found, the Tr-90 codex kept in the library of the Castello del Buon Consiglio in Trent. They added two pieces from the Tr-89 codex.

It is not known who is the composer of O rosa bella, which probably dates from around 1420. The Tr-90 codex includes five different versions. Interestingly, the texts are different. Whereas the ballata is of secular content and has an Italian text, the codex includes a version on a Latin sacred text. This is an example of a contrafactus, meaning that the original text of a piece is replaced by different lyrics. Instead of the original text "O rosa bella, o dolçe anima mia", the Latin version reads: "O rosa bella, o tu mi Maria". A secular love song has turned into a song in honour of the Virgin Mary. It bears witness to the fact that in this time (and that lasts well into the 18th century), there was not that much difference between secular love songs and pieces reflecting the veneration of Mary. The same source also contains two so-called gymels, "a formula that derives from the Latin name Gemellus and that became widespread in England between the 13th and 15th centuries. It involves polyphonic lines added to the original Cantus that proceed in consonance of thirds and sixths, which was typical of English music." (booklet) This suggests that the ballata may be from the pen of John Dunstaple. Another version is textless, again by an unknown composer. Lastly, the section of the codex devoted to masses and motets includes two more versions, attributed to a composer with the name Hert (in New Grove he appears without a first name; here he is called Alan - the reasons are not discussed) and to Johannes Ockeghem respectively. It is assumed that the latter is incorrect, and that someone aimed at imitating the famous Franco-Flemish master. It is mentioned that it contains many errors in counterpoint, which have been corrected for the present recording. The same is the case with a version in Tr-89, which is attributed to the English composer John Bedyngham.

Undoubtedly, this is a very interesting production, which sheds light on how a popular piece was treated in the course of time by composers and performers. The mass is just one of three masses based on this ballata. Two other codices in Trent (Tr-88 and Tr-89) have two other masses, whose composers are unknown. The mass is performed by male voices, indicated as cantus, counter tenor and tenor. It needs to be noted that the word counter tenor is used here in its original meaning: contratenor means a part 'against the tenor' and moves below the tenor line. The ensemble performs the mass with two voices per part. According to the liner-notes "[there] are various elements in the original manuscript suggesting that the vocal ensemble consisted of at least two singers for each voice (...)." The authors also refer to documentary evidence that instruments were used in the liturgy, although it was against the rules of the Church. It is the reason that in this performance cornett and sackbuts are involved. The latter also participate in performances of the ballata. The two instrumental versions are played on recorders and sackbuts respectively.

This disc is not only interesting, it is also musically convincing. The singing and playing is of excellent quality. The voices and instruments blend beautifully, and there is a good balance between the two as well as within the vocal ensemble. The acoustic is also exactly right. The track-list could have been more specific: I would have liked to see a listing of the singers and instruments involved in each piece. The lyrics are included in the liner-notes, but unfortunately without translations.

All in all, this is a quite important disc, especially as none of Joye's compositions seems to be available on disc. Whether the mass is indeed from his pen or not: it is a nice work and it is gratifying that it is available on disc. Lovers of renaissance music should not hesitate to add this disc to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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