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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): Prophetiae Sibyllarum

The Brabant Ensemble
Dir: Stephen Rice

rec: Sept 3 - 5, 2010, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University (chapel of Harcourt Hill campus)
Hyperion - CDA 67887 (© 2011) (74'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E

Deficiat in dolore vita mea a 6 [4]; Iustorum animae a 5 [2]; Magnificat Quant'in mille anni il ciel a 6 [3]; Missa Amor ecco colei a 6 [6]; Prophetiae Sibyllarum a 4 [5]; Tristis est anima mea a 5 [1]

Sources: [1] Modulorum ... modulatorum secundum volumen, 1565; [2] Sacrae cantiones, 1582; [3] Patrocinium musices: Beatissimae deiparaeque Virginis Mariae canticum Magnificat, ad imitationem cantilenarum quarundam, 1587; [4] Cantiones sacrae, 1594; [5] Prophetiae Sibyllarum ... chromatico more singulari confectae, 1600 [6] Missae posthumae, 1610

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Alison Coldstream, Aimée Green, soprano; Emma Ashby, Sarah Coatsworth, Fiona Rogers, contralto; Alastair Carey, Andrew McAnerney, Daniel Norman, Oliver Winstone, tenor; Will Dawes,Jon Stainsby, David Stuart, bass

In the course of the 16th century composers turned to a closer connection between text and music. That comes especially to the fore in the madrigals written by some of the most famous representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. Gradually this tendency spread to sacred music, and this resulted in so-called madrigalisms. One of the main representatives of this trend was Orlandus Lassus, in his time by far the most celebrated composer in Europe. This disc brings together some fine specimens of his brilliance in the realm of text expression. That goes especially for his Prophetiae Sibyllarum which were not printed during his lifetime, but made a great impression on his contemporaries which suggests that this work must have circulated in manuscript. It seems to have been composed during Lassus' years in Italy, before he entered the service of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.

This is one of the most remarkable works by Lassus, also because of its texts. The Sibyls were oracular women which in ancient Greece were believed to possess prophetic powers. The first author to mention a Sibyl was Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. In the course of time various authors referred to more Sibyls, up to ten, whose names referred to the shrine from which they spoke. In the Renaissance the number varies, and sometimes reaches 12, as is the case in Lassus' settings. The Sibyls were also the subject of paintings, for instance by Michelangelo. The Sibylline writings were given a Christian interpretation since the second century. They were believed to prophesy the coming of Christ. Although composers set texts by ancient writers without any Christian connotation, in this case the Christian interpretation must have been the incentive to set them to music. The fact that the manuscript of this work which is preserved in the Austrian National Library also includes the Sacrae Lectiones ex propheta Job points in that direction. Even so, this is no music for the liturgy: the texts certainly didn't fit any liturgical context, and it seems plausible to assume that both cycles were written for domestic performance.

This probably means that a performance with a small ensemble, maybe even solo voices, is to be preferred here. That way the many unusual harmonic progressions may come off better than with a larger ensemble as we have here. The use of harmony is one of the most striking aspects of these settings. It is often written that they are dominated by chromaticism, but in his liner-notes - partly based on an article by Peter Bergquist - Stephen Rice denies this view. The opening phrase of the 'prologue' says: "Carmina chromatico quae audis modulata tenore". He states that the word chromatico doesn't refer to carmina, but to tenore. The booklet gives this translation: "The modulating songs with a chromatic tenor". Not the songs, but the tenor is chromatic. "In fact the tenor of the prologue is not chromatic at all, at least in the sense in which the term was understood in the sixteenth century: all of its melodic intervals are diatonic". Rice then talks at length about the debates on tuning in Lassus' time. This is all too complicated to summarize here, but as one can download the booklet from the Hyperion site everyone interested in this subject can read his argument. That also goes about his decisions in regard to the pitch of the various carmina.

There are several other recordings on the market which all have different pieces to complement the Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Both De Labyrintho (Stradivarius, 2006) and Weser-Renaissance (CPO, 2010) include music for Christmastide, which makes sense as the Prophetiae Sibyllarum were interpreted as prophesies of the birth of Jesus. The ensemble Daedalus (Alpha, 2006) adds the Sacrae Lectiones ex propheta Job mentioned before. The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM, 1998) adds a setting of the Requiem, which is a rather odd choice. The selection of music on this disc seems rather arbitrary: I can't see any connection between the Prophetiae Sibyllarum and the additional works. The three motets are impressive specimens of Lassus' ability to depict a text in music, but Stephen Rice could have chosen many equally expressive motets. The inclusion of the mass and the Magnificat setting seem even more illogical, although both works are fine and great to have on disc.

The mass is one of the many parody settings of the renaissance. The origin of the material Lassus uses is not established, but Rice mentions a villanelle on the text Amor ecco colei by Prospero Caetano, a little-known composer who has no entry in New Grove. Also little-known is Noletto or Nollet whose madrigal Quant'in mile anni il ciel Lassus used for a setting of the Magnificat. The parody technique is usually associated with mass settings, but composers also used it in other works. The best-known from Lassus' pen is the Magnificat Praeter rerum seriem, based on a motet by Josquin Desprez.

The programming may be questionable, every single piece on this work bears witness to Lassus' brilliance, and explains that he was the most famous composer of his time. The performance practice gives much room for variety: it is a matter of debate whether Lassus' works should be performed with voices alone or with the participation of instruments. We know that the chapel in Bavaria included many instrumentalists, but there was also a time that Lassus had to deal with much smaller forces. And as we often don't know under which circumstances his compositions were performed, it is always a matter of speculation whether instruments and how many singers should be involved. In the case of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum I would prefer a performance with a small ensemble, for reasons I mentioned above. I don't know any of the other recordings I mentioned, and therefore I can't compare them. The Brabant Ensemble is a fine group, and you certainly won't regret purchasing this disc. In addition you get three beautiful motets and two fine liturgical settings. The Italian pronunciation of Latin seems rather questionable.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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