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Simone DE BONEFONT (fl c1550): Missa pro mortuis

Huelgas Ensemble
Dir: Paul Van Nevel

rec: April 28, 2018 (live), Leuven, Abdij van Park
Cypres - CYP1682 (© 2020) (58'21")
Liner-notes: E/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/F/NL
Cover & track-list

Simone DE BONEFONT: Missa pro mortuis a 5; Arnold VON BRUCK (1500-1554): Mitten wir im Leben sind a 5; Nicolas GOMBERT (1495-1560): Media vita in morte sumus a 6; Jacobus DE KERLE (1531-1591): Media vita in morte sumus; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Media vita in morte sumus a 6

Axelle Bernage, Rosemary Galton, Helen Cassano, Sabine Lutzenberger, cantus; Achim Schulz, Paul Bentley-Angell, Ozan Karagöz, Adriaan De Koster, Tom Phillips, Matthew Vine, tenor; Romain Bockler, Guillaume Olry, bassus

Curiosity of colleagues or neighbours can be quite annoying, but it is an important quality of musicians. It makes them look beyond the obvious and for what has been hidden from the view of the music world. Curiosity is definitely one of the qualities of Paul Van Nevel, who in the course of his career has brought many unknown treasures to our attention. The disc under review includes one of them: a Requiem Mass by Simone de Bonefont.

Bonefont has no entry in New Grove and that is hardly surprising. Virtually nothing is known about him: the years and places of his birth and death are a mystery, and the only thing that is known about his career comes from the title page to the printed edition of his Requiem. It says that he worked as a canon and cantor at the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, historic capital of the Auvergne. This Requiem is one of only four compositions by Bonefont that have been preserved. The other three are chansons which are included in two different anthologies. In the booklet, Van Nevel, who thinks that the Requiem is a masterpiece, writes that it is hard to believe that this work is his only exceptional work. "De Bonefont probably suffered the same fate as so many other French composers who worked on the periphery of the French royal court (e.g. Dijon, Bourges, Besançon and Tours): similarly, in Clermont-Ferrand, many music manuscripts from the cathedral were either lost over time, or destroyed during the barbaric days of the French Revolution."

The Missa pro mortuis has several notable characteristics. It includes the fixed parts of the Requiem (Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) as well as the Proper (Introitus, Graduale, Offertorium, Communio); "so his composition is an important link in the tradition of the Requiem Mass from Ockeghem to Palestrina" (Van Nevel). Whereas it was common in music of the Franco-Flemish school to reduce the number of voices in certain passages (for instance for two or three voices), Bonefont's mass is in five parts from start to finish. The Kyrie is not divided into three separate sections, but entirely through-composed.

The cantus firmus is in the upper voice, which mostly sings in long note values (breves and semibreves); in some sections they have to repeat the same note for more than ten bars. The middle voices are the most remarkable of this work. "Initially, de Bonefont identifies with Gregorian chant by regularly quoting the beginnings of the Gregorian melodies in the imitation between the tenor parts, mostly as a head-motif. Soon after, he turns it into almost never ending contrapuntal play between the male voices, which constantly adorns the calm upper voice, through unexpected twists, intertwinings and harmonic tensions, reminiscent of Gombert's art. In addition, de Bonefont’s art makes subtle use of false relations at cadential points, where an uppermost voice sings a leading note (for example F sharp to G), while one of the tenor voices sings the root note (F natural). These false relations occur an octave apart, thus heightening a sense of architectural space in the music."

To this Bonefont's treatment of dissonances should be added. He not only uses them on short notes, but also on longer note values. The mass includes some striking examples, for instance in the Offertorio. Also notable is the Agnus Dei, which is almost entirely homophonic, which creates a strong amount of peace and quiet.

Considering the way Bonefont treats the middle voices, it is important that these are clearly audible, but not in a demonstrative way. It is impressive how Van Nevel and his singers, in this live performance, are able to realize that. Thanks to the perfect intonation the dissonances come off to the full. This performance confirms the assessment of this mass as a masterpiece by Van Nevel.

The remaining works are good matches: four settings of the same medieval text, which probably dates from the 14th century. The sequence of four settings opens with Arnold von Bruck's four-part setting of Martin Luther's translation. The melody which has been connected to Luther's version is ignored, though. Lassus's setting is for six voices, and includes quotations from the plainchant melody. It is of a somewhat lighter nature than the last setting, by Nicolas Gombert, also for six voices. Typical for Gombert is the importance of legato: there are hardly any breathing spaces. This setting remains close to the plainchant melody. De Kerle is relatively little-known composer, who was also virtually put on the map of renaissance polyphony by Van Nevel. This setting of Media vita in morte sumus may well have been recorded here for the first time. These four motets are again brilliantly sung by the Huelgas Ensemble.

As one may understand, this disc is indispensable for anyone who has a more than average interest in renaissance polyphony. It is to be hoped that Bonefont's Missa pro mortuis will be available in a modern edition some time. It is a work that deserves to be known and performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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