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Melchior VULPIUS (c1570 - 1615): Cantiones Sacrae I

[I] Cantiones Sacrae I - Motets for six and seven voices
Capella Daleminzia
Dir: René Michael Röder
rec: Sept 2014, Tanneberg (D), Ev-Luth Kirchea & July 2015, Grünlichtenberg (D), St. Nikolaib
Querstand - VKJK 1523 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (2.13'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] Cantiones Sacrae I - Motets for eight to thirteen voices
Capella Daleminzia; Vocalconsort Waldheimfg; Singschule Waldheimd
Dir: René Michael Röder
rec: July 2015, Grünlichtenberg (D), St. Nikolaicdefg
Querstand - VKJK 1524 (© 2016) (67'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

[I] [Sex vocum]a Accedentes servi ad patrem familias; Angelus ad mulieres dixit; Ascendente Jesu in naviculam; Cum descendisset Jesus de monte; Cum invitatus fueris ab aliquo; Cum turba plurima conveniret; De profundis clamavi; Diligam te Domine fortitudo mea; Ecce mulier quae sanguinis profluvio; Egressus Jesus de finibus Tyri; Exens homo primo diluculo; Factum est praelium magnum in coelo; Homo quidam erat dives; Jesu redemptor seculi; Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius; Laudate Dominum omnes gentes; Levavi oculos meos in montes; Miserere mei Deus; Quid vult; Praeceptor per totam noctem; Si quis diligit me; Simile est regnum caelorum; Venite exultemus Domino
[I] [Septem vocum]b Deus misereator nostri; Ecce Magi ob Oriente veneruntbb; Fortunata dies Paulo; Iudaea et Ierusalem; Sic Deus dilexit mundum
[II] [Octo vocum]c Coecus quidam sedebat iusta viamcc; Corde natus ex parentis; Deus spes nostra; Exaltabo te Domine; Exultate Deo adiutori nostro; Exultent et laetentur in te omnescc; Fit porta Christi pervia; Non est bonum hominem esse solum; Quem vidistis pastores
[II] [Novem vocum]d Surrexit pastor bonus
[II] [Decem vocum]e Angelus ad pastores ait; Pater noster
[II] [Duodecim vocum]f Gloria, laus et honor; In convertendo Dominus
[II] [Tredecim vocum]g Multae filiae congregaverunt divitias

Text sources

Joowon Chungbcdefg; Kathleen Dankebcdefg, Elisa Rabanusa, Susanne Rödera,cc,d, soprano; Cornelia Orendi, mezzo-soprano, contraltoa; Christoph Burmesterbcdefg, Alexander Schneiderbcdefg, Ulrich Wellera, alto; Benjamin Glaubitz, Oliver Kadenbcdefg, Michael Schaffratha, Clemens Volkmarbcdefg, tenor; Georg Fingerbcdefg, Markus Häntzschele, Johannes G. Schmidt, Felix Schwandtkebcdefg, bass
Juan Ullibarri, Franziska Jacknau, cornettbb,cefg; Julia Nagel, Masafumi Sakamoto, Yosuke Kurihara, sackbutbb,cefg; Eva-Maria Horn, Idoia Bengoa, dulcianbb,cefg; Esteban Lobos Dellepiane, violonebcdefg; Maximilian Ehrhardt, harpbcdefg; Chris Berensen, harpsichordbcdefg; René Michael Röder, organ
[Vocalconsort Waldheim] Susanne Röder, soprano; Christiane Kucka, mezzo-soprano; Susan Kunze, contralto; Stefan Schlesier, tenor; Markus Häntzschel, bass

In comparison to the music written in Italy in the decades around 1600, music by German composers of that time has received little attention. Even Hans-Leo Hassler, the best-known of them, is not that well represented on disc. His colleague Melchior Vulpius is hardly known outside Germany. If his music is performed, it is mostly his settings of hymns in the vernacular, and in particular those which are connected to one of the major feasts of the ecclesiastical year, such as Christmas. The discs reviewed here focus on a little-known part of his output.

Vulpius was born around 1570 as the son of a craftsman, called Fuchs, in Wasingen, a town in the Schmalkalden-Meiningen district, in Thuringia. Here he attended the municipal school, and then continued his studies in Speyer. In 1589 he received an appointment at the Hennebergisches Gymnasium in Schleusingen. In 1596 he moved to Weimar, where he became Kantor and teacher of music and Latin at the municipal school and the parish church St Peter und Paul.

Weimar was one of the main towns of Thuringia. It was one of the seats, and since 1586 the only seat of the court of the Ernestine line of the House of Wettin. Duke Frederick the Wise (1463-1525), who was Elector of Saxony, was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of Martin Luther. His brother Johann I was the first to sign the Augsburg Confession in June 1530. Since 1527 he acted as Lutheran bishop in his territory. Its court chapel was of excellent quality. Among the composers who acted as Kapellmeister, were Adam von Fulda, Johann Walther and Paul Hofhaimer. The repertoire mainly consisted of music by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, such as Obrecht, Josquin and La Rue. In Vulpius' time the parish church was the official church of the court. The repertoire was extended by music of the likes of Lassus, Hassler and the Gabrielis.

Vulpius was a productive and versatile composer. In 1595 or earlier his first collection of motets was printed; this has been lost. In 1602 and 1603 he published two volumes of Cantiones Sacrae, motets on a Latin text for six to fourteen voices. These were followed in 1605 by a collection of Magnificat settings, and in 1610 a third volume of Cantiones Sacrae came from the press. In addition Vulpius wrote occasional music and sacred music on German texts. The latter are either settings of hymns or relatively simple motets (Sprüche) for use by choirs in villages and small towns. Lastly, he composed a polyphonic passion after St Matthew.

The present discs represent the first two volumes in a series, which is to comprise Vulpius' complete sacred music in Latin. Here we get the first volume of the Cantiones Sacrae of 1602. It includes 43 motets: 23 for six, 5 for seven, 9 for eight, one for nine, two each for 10 and 12 voices, and one for 13 voices. The texts are mostly taken from the Bible, either the Book of Psalms or the Gospels. In addition Vulpius included settings of liturgical texts, such as Jesu redemptor seculi, a text by Ambrose of Milan (337-397), which is a hymn for the Complete after Easter. The booklet includes references to the Sundays or feast days for which the motets are written, but the liner-notes don't indicate whether these references are taken from Vulpius' editions or are added for this recording.

The scoring for six voices was the most common at the time. It allowed for a division of the voices in two opposing groups of three voices each, high vs low. This scoring was also in the interest of a clear intelligibility of the text. That is especially important in the settings of episodes from the Gospels. These mostly concern public appearances of Jesus. Firstly, Vulpius has set testimonies of his healings, such as that of a leper (Matthew 8) and of a deaf-mute (Mark 7). The second category involves Jesus' interventions in favour of his disciples, such as the miraculous catch of fish. Thirdly, Vulpius has set some of Jesus' parables, such as the one about the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). Obviously many of these episodes are quite dramatic, and include a strong message. These settings are often dominated by homophony and include declamatory passages.

The motets in a larger scoring are almost exclusively settings of Psalms, either complete or of selected verses. The cori spezzati technique which Vulpius applies in these motets, was especially useful to explore the jubilant nature of some of these Psalms, such as Exaltabo in Domino ("I will extol thee, O Lord, for thou hast lifted me up"; Psalm 30) and Exultate Deo ("Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob"; Psalm 81). A remarkable piece is Surrexit pastor bonus, a responsory for the Matins of Easter Monday. It is in nine parts, divided over four choirs; three of them sing a different text in German, among them the well-known Easter hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden by Luther.

Polychorality is used in different ways. In Pater noster the two choirs mainly imitate each other, sometimes in the way of an echo. In Quem vidistis, pastores, an offertory for Christmas, the two choirs join on the word "collaudantes" (praising together). Now and then Vulpius isolates single voices for elements in the text, such as in the wedding motet Non est bonus: the words "esse solum" (be alone) are scored for a solo voice.

In his article on Vulpius in New Grove, Walter Blankenburg rightly points out that the Cantiones Sacrae betray the influence of Lassus and of Venetian polyphony. However, he also calls them "scarcely original". That is probably dependent on how one looks at them. Let's not forget that originality was not what composers or performers of that time were interested in. Music had to be useful for liturgical purposes, and had to be of good quality. There can be little doubt that they satisfied those needs as the reprints of the collections indicate. Blankenburg admits that the motets are "undeniably attractive", and these discs show that he is certainly right there.

Especially the six-part motets include many examples of text expression. Let me give some striking examples. Homo quidam erat dives is a setting of the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (Luke 16). The contrast between these two characters is musically illustrated in the opening episode. Heaven and hell are contrasted through the juxtaposition of high and low voices. In the closing phrases repetition illustrates the infinite torture of the rich man. Factum est praelium magnum in coelo is a motet for St Michael, and that is not lost on Vulpius; this piece has a quite belligerent character. Ascendente Jesu in naviculam is a setting of the verses 23 to 26 of Matthew 8, which tells about Jesus's calming the storm. Here Vulpius vividly depicts the storm, and in the last line, which says "and there was a great calme", the word "tranquillitas" (silence) is sung three times, each time followed by a general pause. Another episode from the Gospels, this time from Luke 5, is about the miraculous catch of fish. Petre tells Jesus that he and his colleagues have laboured all night; the word "laborantes" is illustrated by a long melisma. This section is scored for the lower voices, but when the text tells that they have caught "a great multitude of fishes", the whole ensemble gets involved. These examples are taken from the settings of texts from the Gospels. That is not to say that there is no text expression in the Psalm settings. Take, for instance, Psalm 130 (129), De profundis clamavi. It opens with the low voices singing "from the depths", and then the higher voices join them at the upper end of their tessitura on the words "I have called to you, O Lord". This cannot have failed to make a strong impression on those who have heard it in Vulpius' time, and it has lost nothing of its effect today.

Vulpius' motets have really impressed me, and that is also due to the performances. René Michael Röder has brought together an excellent group of singers, whose voices blend perfectly and are responsive to the text and the musical figures Vulpius uses in the interest of text expression. The six-part pieces are performed with only organ accompaniment. Vulpius was one of the last representatives of the stile antico and never included a basso continuo part in his oeuvre. Therefore the organ part is a basso seguente, largely identical with the lowest vocal part. One could question whether the instruments which participate in the larger-scale pieces, should also have been used in some of the six-part motets. That would have been most appropriate in the Psalm settings. In the settings of episodes from the Gospels that would have been not such a great idea, as in the pieces in which the winds are involved, the text is not very well intelligible. That in general is my only reservation as far as these performances are concerned: overall the text is not always that easy to understand.

Another issue is the booklet: it includes liner-notes in German and English, but English translations of the lyrics have been omitted. In order to compensate for this omission, I have uploaded a pdf-file with the references to the biblical passages of each piece and the feast for which it is intended.

However, all in all I am very happy with these two volumes in what is a recording project of great importance, as it sheds light on a composer who is little-known, but who deserves to be more frequently performed. I don't know whether these motets are available in modern editions. I hope they are or will be in the future, as I think that these motets are excellent stuff for (chamber) choirs and vocal ensembles. I am looking forward to the next volumes in this project.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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