musica Dei donum

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Johannes NUCIUS (after 1556 - 1620): "Sacred Motets - Missa Vestiva i colli"

Alsfelder Vokalensemble
Dir: Wolfgang Helbich

rec: Jan 1993, Sengwarden (D), St. Gereonskirche
MDG - 334 0454-2 (R) (© 1996) (45'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ecce Dominus veniet a 5; Freut euch, ihr Auserwählte(n) a 6; Hodie nobis caelorum Rex a 5; Laudate pueri Dominum a 6; Missa Vestiva i colli a 5; Missus est angelus a 5 (1. Pars) - Ave Maria (2. Pars) - Dixit autem Maria (3. Pars); Mitten wir im Leben sind a 5; Orto iam sole a 4; Salve Regina a 6; Tu es Petrus a 8

A time of change in the history of music is always interesting, especially in regard to the way composers mixed tradition with the newest tendencies. The decades around 1600 are a good example. During this period the polyphony of the renaissance gradually made way for a new approach which was based on the predominance of the text and the expression of emotion. However, there was no complete break with the past. For a considerable time the two styles coexisted and were often mixed.

In the northern part of Europe the changes in music went along with a religious upheaval. The Reformation, whose foundation was led by Martin Luther, had far-reaching consequences in the realm of sacred music. Luther introduced the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. He encouraged poets to write hymns and composers to set them in such a manner that they could be memorized by the faithful.

As in Italy there was no watershed between the stile antico and the new concertante style. Likewise there was no strict separation between Protestant and Catholic music. It is telling that the collections of motets for Protestant schools and churches which were published in 1603 and 1606 by Erhard Bodenschatz included motets by Catholic composers. Apparently the only condition for being included was that their content was not in contradiction to Lutheran doctrine. The composer of the music on the disc reviewed here was Catholic, but it didn't prevent him from adopting several elements of what was common in Protestant sacred music.

Johannes Nucius was from Silesia where he worked all his life. At that time this region was part of Germany; today it is in the south-western part of Poland, around the city of Cracow. About 1586 he took his vows as a Cistercian monk at the monastery of Rauden in Upper Silesia. In 1591 he was appointed abbot of the monastery of Himmelwitz. In that same year his first collection of motets came from the press. The next collection was published in 1609. It is a matter of good fortune that some of his music was published, because in 1617 the largest part of the monastery fell victim to the fire, including all Nucius' music in manuscript. In addition to the two books with motets only two masses have been preserved.

Nucius' compositions show considerable variety. Although they basically stick to the principles of the stile antico, a number of works show the influence of modern times. Ecce Dominus veniet, for example, opens in a declamatory manner, inspired by the text: "See, the Lord shall come". The same is the case in the Gloria from the Missa Vestiva i colli, a parody mass based on one of Palestrina's most famous madrigals. Elements from this madrigal are incorporated in the musical fabric.

However, Nucius seldom makes use of plainchant melodies as cantus firmus. He rather takes motifs from liturgical chants, such as in Ecce Dominus veniet. Mitten wir im Leben sind is an example of the use of a cantus firmus, in this case a hymn whose text probably dates from the 8th century (Media vita in morte sumus). However, Nucius here makes use of Luther's German versification with a melody which was first published in a collection of hymns by Johann Walter. Another token of Nucius's crossing the border between the religious camps is Freut euch, ihr Auserwählte(n), a mixture of Latin and German, which was quite popular at the time, especially in the Protestant part of Germany. The best-known example of such a piece is the Advent hymn In dulci jubilo.

I already mentioned the declamatory elements in several pieces. This indicates that Nucius pays considerable attention to the text. This was not entirely an invention of the stile nuovo, which was born around 1600. Orlandus Lassus is an example of a composer who created a stronger connection between text and music than was common in his time. The increasing importance of the text was also in line with the demands of the Council of Trent. In several of Nucius's motets we find the use of rhythms to emphasize textual elements. One of the most striking examples is the Christmas motet Hodie nobis caelorum Rex. It is also a specimen of a distinctive genre, the noe motet, as it ends with repeated exclamations on the word "noe".

A more specifically modern trend is that Nucius also makes use of rhetorical figures. He summed some of them up in his treatise Musices poeticae, sive De compositione cantus praeceptiones; he was one of the first German theorists to do so. Several of these are also present in the motets recorded here, as Lothar Hoffmann-Erbrecht analyses in his liner-notes. Lastly I should mention the influence of the Venetian cori spezzati technique, which manifests itself most clearly in Laudate pueri Dominum.

This disc was originally released in 1993 and was reissued recently; to date it is the only recording entirely devoted to the oeuvre of Nucius. His music doesn't even appear on compilation discs. As far as I am concerned this is highly regrettable: Nucius's pieces performed here are musically interesting, especially in regard to the mixture of tradition and renewal. He definitely deserves more attention and I hope that some ensemble will investigate his oeuvre. In the meantime we should welcome this disc, not only because of the repertoire but also because of the performances. Wolfgang Helbich, who died in 2013, was a specialist in early music and one of the pioneers of historical performance practice in Germany. With his ensembles, among them the Alsfelder Vokalensemble, he has produced a number of fine recordings, for instance with apocryphal works by Bach (CPO). This disc bears witness to his art: he shows a very good feeling for this composer on the brink of two stylistic epochs. He clearly emphasizes the modern elements, but doesn't make the music too 'modern'. The text is not always clearly comprehensible, but that seems largely a matter of recording technique, which has greatly improved since the time this recording was made.

Nucius may be little more than a footnote in music history, but he deserves to be taken seriously. This disc is a small but fine monument for this little-known master.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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Alsfelder Vokalensemble

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