Motets of life and death
by Jean Mouton, Nicolas Gombert and Josquin Des Prez
The Tudor Consort
Director: Michael Stewart
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington
Saturday 12th June 2010
Perhaps it was because I’d arrived with only a few minutes to spare before the concert began; but inside the cathedral was an almost unnervingly ambient worshipful silence – I almost expected to be “shushed!” if I had even dared try to exchange pleasantries with either of my seated neighbours, so I gave myself over instead to contemplation and furtive observation. A large image-screen had been placed just to the right of the performing area, which suggested that there would be “visuals” employed during the concert; and so it proved, with each item having one or two associated images (all very striking) drawn from the art-works of the music’s period, details of which were in the programme alongside notes concerning the item. I hadn’t had enough time to properly “scan” the programme before the concert began, so I was surprised when, after the first motet had been sung, two Consort members stepped forward and began speaking, the first in French and the second translating into English, practically in canon. The poetry, very beautiful-sounding, turned out to be that of Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), whose verses featured several times during the concert, each poem with different speakers and translators, all of whom conveyed both sound and sense of the words most attractively.
The concert’s title testified as to the music’s somewhat elemental subject-matter throughout, finding expression in motets by Jean Mouton (1459-1522) and Nicolas Gombert (1495-1560), with a work by Gombert’s teacher, Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) thrown in for good measure. Opening the programme was a composition by Mouton, O Christe redemptor, a piece he wrote while composer at the Royal Court, judging by its reference to the Queen, Anne of Brittany who was married to no less that two French monarchs. Beginning with the resplendent, beautifully-balanced tones of the full choir, whose focused lines gave the composer’s “smoothly flowing and consonant” style such character, the piece allowed the mens’ voices to shine in places, notably at “Largitor virium”, while giving the women’s voices plenty of melismatic beauties. The first of Ronsard’s verses was then delivered by two speakers, the intermingling of French and English texts creating a sense of something conveyed through time and reawakened for our pleasure – the poem Je vous envoie spoke of human beauty withering as does that of flowers, with the passing of time.
A Magnificat by Nicolas Gombert followed, one of eight written by the composer while in exile as a galley slave (for what one account calls “acts of gross indecency” – evidently, while working as a composer in the court of Charles V of Spain, he had sexual relations with a choirboy). How the composer managed to write music at all while he served his time on the galleys has not been made clear, while the story that the Holy Roman Emperor commuted Gomberg’s sentence upon hearing these works (which the composer called his “Swan Songs”) is similarly shrouded in conjecture. Whatever his proclivities and resulting indiscretions his work as a composer happily transcended such misdemeanours of the flesh, his mastery of vocal polyphony evident throughout this beautiful work. Especially attractive was Gombert’s use of plainchant to introduce each episode, creating beautifully atmospheric effects of depth and antiphonal contrast. After a less-than certain beginning, the Consort’s tenor voices that began each episode with the plainchant grew in confidence and surety of tone, the contrasting body of varied responses sustaining and building our interest throughout. Less extended, but even more complex was Mouton’s Nesciens Mater, an intensely-worked canonic masterpiece, drawing forth from the Consort great intensity of tone (a shade raw at the high-voiced clustered climax, but all the more involving) set against more celestially-floated textures – an amazingly-sustained outpouring of great beauty. Ronsard’s spoken verses which followed, entitled “Chanson”, were similarly intense, comparing the characteristics of the seasons and the multiplicities of nature with the depths of the poet’s sorrowful feeling for a lost love.
Conjecture has it that Gombert studied with Josquin des Prez, though details of their association are sketchy – nevertheless, the older master exerted considerable influence on the younger composer. The inclusion of Josquin’s motet Inviolata demonstrated the tightly-worked canonic style and direct word-expression for which the composer was renowned, with duetting between different choir-voices, the most extended being that for tenors and basses during the second section at “Nostra ut pura”. Then, the corresponding altos/tenors passages in the first part beautifully brought out the words “O Mater alma”, as did the sopranos/basses combination with their phrasings towards the end, which resulted in pleasingly-contrasted open textures. Ronsard’s poem that followed, Sur la mort du Marie, made a typically sobering effect, the poem a variation on the theme of youthful beauty withering at the hands of fate, again nicely “sounded” between the languages. We were thus prepared for Gombert’s incredibly intense lament for his great predecessor on the occasion of Josquin’s death, the motet Musae Jovis occasioning a marvellous display of controlled outpouring of emotion, the “plangite” given full and sustained expression.
More obsequies were observed with Mouton’s tribute to Queen Anne of Brittany, Quis dabit oculis nostris, sung at the various places where her funeral rites were performed. I liked the fine surge of major-key emotion at the composer’s rhetorical declamation “Britannia, quid ploras?”, throwing into stunning relief the hushed repetitions of “defecit Anna”, the energy of life drained, the full-throated song now muted at “Conversus est in luctum chorus noster” (Our song has changed to mourning). But I thought the different invocations to the various groups of people to “weep” not as “pointed” as I expected them to be, rather more dry-eyed in effect than I imagined was possible. Significantly, Michael Stewart also kept the final “Anna, requiescat in pace” in check, eschewing a more obvious outpouring of emotion in favour of a longer-lasting subtlety. After such whole-heartedness, Ronsard’s somewhat droll characterisation of the body’s farewell to its soul (in translation, somewhat reminiscent of Robert Burns’s poems) lightened the mood, even if the delivery of the speakers emphasised the matter-of-factness of utterance more than thehumour.
Concluding the concert was Gombert’s affirming “Tulerunt Dominum”, a setting of the Gospel verses describing Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the angels in Christ’s empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Dramatic and emotional, the setting captures the desolation of Mary’s feeling of abandonment at Christ’s disappearance with the words “Tulerunt Dominum meum”, and the reassuring words of the angels in reply, the composer establishing an almost lullabyic aspect in the motion of the lines, the insistent, but beautifully-pulsed voices creating an almost minimalist precursor of style in places. Angelic voices floated the lines with intense purity, while the “Alleluias” grew from out of the performance’s ever-burgeoning emotion to resound like ringing bells, in minor-key mode, but secure, strong and exultant to the end.
A word regarding the projected images of largely renaissance art that accompanied the items – I confess that for the most part I didn’t register them strongly, which isn’t to say that that they shouldn’t have been used. I certainly didn’t find them distracting in any way, though my attention was taken up so overwhelmingly by what I was hearing, I was conscious afterwards of having failed to “connect” the visuals significantly with the music. The idea was employed with such welcome simplicity as to render the images almost as part of the venue’s decorative and functional detail. I’m sure that people attuned to art history and/or better able than myself to synthesize sight and sound would have greatly enjoyed the enrichment of the Consort’s lovely singing with these obviously beautiful and significant works of visual art.