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Ludwig SENFL (c1486-1542/43): Motets & songs

Singer Pura; Ensemble Leonesb

rec: March 15 - 19, 2022, Polling, Pollinger Bibliotheksaal
Oehms - OC 1726 (© 2022) (66'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

Ave rosa sine spinisa; Das Gläut zu Speyera; Das langb; En quam honestaa; Ich stund an einem Morgenab; Media vita in morte sumus/Inmitten unsers Lebens Zeita; Mit Lust trit ich an disen Tantza; Non usitataab; O crux, ave, spes unica/Fortuna desperataab; Sancta Maria Virgo, intercedeab; Sic Deus dilexit munduma; Spiritus Santus in te descendita; Verbum caro factum esta; Was wird es doch des Wunders nochab

It is probably an exaggeration to say that Ludwig Senfl is the 'forgotten' composer of the Renaissance. Fact is that he receives considerably less attention than some of his contemporaries. In 2009 I reviewed a disc with music by Senfl, performed by The Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and the ensemble QuintEssential, under the direction of David Skinner (Obsidian, 2009). The first paragraph of my review said: "It is very useful to take a look into the articles on various composers in a music encyclopedia like New Grove. The worklist which is added at the end of the article reveals that Ludwig Senfl has left a large corpus of sacred and secular music. If one then searches at the internet for recordings of his music, one is astonished how little of his oeuvre has been recorded. Although his name is certainly not unknown to interpreters and lovers of renaissance music, his music is almost completely ignored. Only a handful of his sacred works are available on disc. His secular songs have fared a little better, but what has been recorded is only a small proportion of what he has written."

Unfortunately, little has changed since that review. Unless some have escaped my attention, not a single disc devoted to his oeuvre has been released since then. It is true, his name appears regularly in anthologies, but often it are the same pieces that are performed time and again, and these are mostly his secular songs. It is nice that recently a new disc with his music has been released, but in a way it is regrettable that again a part of the programme is taken by his secular songs. That said, one can only be grateful that the largest part is devoted to motets.

Senfl is one of the relatively few composers before modern times who is from Switzerland. He was probably born in Basel, but lived for a while in Zurich. His career in music started when he became a choirboy in the court chapel of Maximilian I in Augsburg. He moved with the chapel to Vienna in 1496, where Heinrich Isaac was court composer from 1497 onwards. Senfl later claimed to have been Isaac's pupil; he was part of the chapel when it traveled to Augsburg for the Reichstag in 1507. In 1517 he succeeded Isaac as court composer. When Maximilian died in 1519, the largest part of his chapel was disbanded by his successor, Charles V, and Senfl had to look for another job. In 1523 he entered the service of Duke Wilhelm in Bavaria, where he stayed the rest of his life.

Senfl lived in a time of religious upheaval, and there is written evidence that he stood in contact with the reformer Martin Luther and Duke Albrecht of Prussia who had adopted the Lutheran Reformation. But how far Senfl was leaning towards Luther's ideas remains unclear. He had taken minor orders in Vienna, but in Munich he gave up his clerical status in 1529 and married that same year. Whether that has anything to do with his Reformation sympathies is impossible to decide. At least he was never submitted to any examination by the ecclesiastical authorities.

As I mentioned above, Senfl has left a large corpus of music, which is hardly explored to date. That goes in particular for the sacred part of his oeuvre, which consists of a few ordinary masses, a large number of Proper settings, Vesper music and motets. Senfl's sacred works show the influence of the Franco-Flemish school, but at the same time he paid much attention to the text. In his compositions he aims at making the text clearly understandable. A particular feature in his oeuvre is that in some pieces he combines different texts, either sung simultaneously (Media vita / Inmitten unsers Lebens Zeit) or in succession (O crux, ave, spes unica / Fortuna desperata), which is a technique that goes back to the Middle Ages. On the other hand, Sancta Maria virgo, intercede is for eight voices, which was unusual at the time, but would become a frequent scoring in later times. An important feature of the Franco-Flemish sacred music was the use of a cantus firmus, and that technique was frequently used by Senfl in his sacred music. The material could be sacred, like in Media vita, or secular, as in Ave rosa sine spinis, where Senfl turns to the melody of the rondeau Comme femme desconfortée, a well-known piece which has been come down to us in several manuscripts; the composer is not known for sure, but in one source it is attributed to Gilles Binchois.

The cantus firmus technique manifests itself also in the secular songs, which are in the tradition of the Tenorlied. This was not Senfl's invention; the genre came into existence in the mid-15th century. New Grove defines it thus: "Tenorlieder are characterized by a cantus firmus (or 'tenor') which frequently consists of a pre-existing melody and is most often found in the tenor part. The cantus firmus is generally surrounded by three contrapuntal voices, giving a total of four parts, though early examples are usually in three parts and late ones sometimes in five or more. Many Tenorlieder are in bar form (AAB)." In his time, Senfl was not the only composer of such songs, but certainly the most prolific, as nearly 250 such songs have been preserved. In such pieces he combines his contrapuntal skills with his preference for a clearly understandable text. The present disc includes some fine specimens. The most unusual and astonishing is Das Gläut zu Speyer, "which onomatopoetically traces the sound of bells with the notes f, a, c', e', g', and a', whereby the six pitches seem to represent the six bells of a peal". It is often performed instrumentally - which is entirely legitimate - but here vocally, which makes this piece all the more impressive.

The vocal ensemble Singer Pur performs it brilliantly. Generally it does a really great job here. The voices blend perfectly, and the singers' legato is flawless. Some pieces have a great density, but the singing is such that a maximum transparency is guaranteed. The members of the ensemble are also excellent in the solos in the songs. The cooperation with the Ensemble Leones, which participates in the songs and in some of the motets, is a happy one. It also delivers an instrumental performance of Das lang, one of Senfl's few instrumental works.

This is a most welcome contribution to our knowledge of Ludwig Senfl. Let us hope that some day his sacred oeuvre is going to be thoroughly explored.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Singer Pur
Ensemble Leones

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