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Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (c1510/15 - 1555/56): "Missa pro defunctis - Penitential motets"

The Brabant Ensemble
Dir: Stephen Rice

rec: March 16 - 18, 2010, Oxford, Merton College (chapel)
Hyperion - CDA67848 (© 2011) (72'52")

De profundis a 5 [4]; Erravi sicut ovis a 5 [4]; Heu mihi, Domine a 4 [2]; Missa pro defunctis a 4 [5]; Peccantem me quotidie a 4 [1]; Tristitia et anxietas a 4 [2]; Vae tibi Babylon et Syria a 4 [4]; Vox in Rama a 4 [3]

Sources: [1] Liber quartus sacrarum cantionum, quatuor vocum, 1547; [2] Liber primus ecclesiasticarum cantionum quatuor vocum, 1553; [3] Liber secundus ecclesiasticarum cantionum quatuor vocum, 1553; [4] Novum et insigne opus musicum, 1558; [5] Ludovici Viadanae … Missarum quatuor vocum, 1625

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Alison Coldstream, soprano; Emma Ashby, Sarah Coatsworth, Claire Eadington, Fiona Rogers, contralto; Alastair Carey, Andrew McAnerney, tenor; Paul Charrier, Jon Stainsby, David Stuart, bass

Jacobus Clemens non Papa is one of the most prolific composers of the first half of the 16th century. Despite this, and despite his reputation he has received less attention than other representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. In his liner-notes Stephen Rice states: "The number of recordings devoted to his work is still in single figures, and his music features in concert programmes and the music lists of ecclesiastical choirs only rarely." He seems right about this as at the site Medieval Music & Arts Foundation very few recordings devoted to Clemens non Papa are listed in the recordings database. The Missa pro defunctis which is recorded here is one of Clemens' better-known works and has been recorded before.

Stephen Rice emphasizes that Clemens non Papa in several respects moves outside the mainstream of his time. He notes two distinctive features of his compositional style. Firstly he points out that Clemens pays more attention to melody than usual. "Clemens’s textures seem often to function as melody with supporting lines—all written in an imitative style, certainly, but designed to emphasize the melodic gesture rather than to subsume it into a contrapuntal whole." Secondly he refers to his "manipulation of harmony" which is reflected in particular in his block chords. "Although passages in block chords had been present in sacred music for many years before his time, generally at moments of extreme solemnity such as the name of Jesus Christ in the Mass, on numerous occasions in the motets presented here Clemens blends chordal writing into the wider flow of the polyphony, in order to achieve effects that seem more to do with form or even more abstract concepts, than with illustration of the text."

He then turns to the motet Vae tibi Babylon et Syria as an illustration of this. "The inhabitants of these cities are invited to clothe themselves with sackcloth and hair shirts: this line of text is extended over nearly two minutes of music, in which the somewhat aggressive stance of the piece's opening is gradually wound down towards the subdued 'plangite filios vestros' (weep for your children). The motion of the bass part is slowed to semibreves and breves while the upper three voices gradually sink sequentially over the range of an octave. The evidently deliberate reduction of tension in this passage creates a sense of exhausted despair that can only partly be broken for the final text 'quoniam appropinquavit perditio vestra' (for your destruction is drawing near)."

Sure, composers of the renaissance didn't single out specific words or phrases like composers of the baroque. But they certainly didn't ignore the text; in fact, Stephen Rice himself gives various examples of this in Clemens' music. Therefore I find it surprising that he apparently doesn't see this particular piece as another example of this. It seems to me the music perfectly fits the text, albeit in a more general way than was to become the rule in the next century. It is probably a matter of a more narrow definition of what "text expression" means.

There are other moments of a connection between text and music, like the ascending figure at the opening of De profundis and the figures which are set to the first line of Peccantem me quotidie. In Heu mihi, Domine and Vox in Rama Clemens makes use of a rising minor sixth - the same interval Johann Sebastian Bach uses as the opening figure of the aria 'Erbarme dich' in his St Matthew Passion. This all shows that Clemens non Papa is a distinctive figure in the landscape of renaissance polyphony.

From this collection of a Requiem and penitential motets one may expect only gloomy and rather sombre music, but that is not the case. Various texts contain also elements of expectation and hope, and trust in God, like Tristitia et anxietas and De profundis. The performances by The Brabant Ensemble are very good and do justice to the character of the music selected for this disc. Sometimes I found the density of the ensemble a bit too much and I would have liked a little more transparency. This also has to do with the number of singers involved. Personally I would prefer a performance with one voice per part. I don't know how many singers were involved in performances in Clemens' time, though. It will probably have varied from one place to another. In the Missa pro defunctis the plainchant verses are mostly sung by the male voices. Only in the Tractus the female voices are used once, which seems rather odd.

This is an important release which deserves praise for giving the opportunity of becoming acquainted with an interesting figure of the renaissance. Lovers of polyphony shouldn't miss it. The Brabant Ensemble already recorded another disc with music by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (Signum, 2004). Hopefully there is more to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

The Brabant Ensemble

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