Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Against the Grain

By , 06/11/2021

“O Mors Inevitabilis”
Works by Josquin Des Pres, Robert Fayrfax, Jheronimous Vinders, and Nicholas Gombert

The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart (director)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, Molesworth St., Thorndon

Saturday 6th November, 2021

The occasion for this concert was the quincentenary of the death of Josquin des Prez and his near contemporary, Robert Fayrfax. The original date for the performance was August 2021, exactly 500 years after Josquin’s death, but the pandemic intervened, and the concert had to be postponed twice. Josquin himself would probably not have been much bothered by the delay. When plague broke out in Ferrara, in the summer of 1503, he was working for the Duke Ercole d’Este. The Duke left town at once, and Josquin headed home to Lille the following spring. He had a lucky escape: the plague took his successor.

Josquin lived a long and productive life. He started his career as a choirboy. It’s possible he studied counterpoint with Ockeghem. (He was certainly a fan.) But although he began to learn his craft as a composer in northern Europe, it was in Italy that he perfected it. He sang in the Papal Choir from 1489 to 1495, and wrote several masses and motets while he was in Rome. After Ferrara, he went back home to a job for life at the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Lille. Thanks to the invention of printing 50 years earlier, his compositions were widely disseminated across Europe. His first book of masses was printed in Venice in 1502. Two more volumes followed and were reprinted several times. Josquin was so famous in his lifetime that at one point as many as 300 works were attributed to him – modern scholars have been busy for decades de-attributing works on stylistic grounds.

This concert comprised several related works. The principal work was a paraphrase mass by Josquin, Ave Maris Stella, so called because it is based on the plainchant antiphon of the same name.  It was written during his time in Rome. The Consort also sang Josquin’s polyphonic setting of the antiphon text. There were two works by the Tudor composer Robert Fayrfax, the Gloria from one of his masses and his Magnificat Regale. The programme was bookended by tributes to Josquin by two of his contemporaries: ‘O mors inevitabilis’ by the Flemish composer Jheronimus Vinders, and ‘Musae Iovis’ by the Franco-Flemish polyphonic composer Nicolas Gombert. Gombert was an important figure who wrote interesting music, but was somewhat less famous than Josquin, who preceded him, and Palestrina, who followed him. Finally, there were two of Josquin’s best known secular works, El Grillo, a ditty about the amorous cricket, and Mille Regretz, a love song known to anyone who has sung any early music.

All of which makes some sense when laid out on paper. But Michael Stewart seems to like to work against the grain in his programming. The concert started with the Vinders tribute (‘O cruel death, when you took Josquin des Prez you took a man whose music adorned the church’), which felt to me like putting the cart before the horse. The sections of the Josquin mass were all broken up, first by the Fayrfax Gloria from a completely different mass and the jaunty fifteenth-century barbershop number El Grillo, then by Mille Regretz and the second Fayrefax. It was as though the last thing we should do was to form a view of what a Josquin mass would sound like as a whole; and the second-last thing was that we should take the mass seriously as a religious work, with a liturgical job to do. I found the interpolation of the two secular songs not merely gratuitous but jarring, no matter how well sung.

The tribute by Gombert was perhaps the best placed work of the lot, coming at the end of the programme, and providing a neoclassical view of Josquin, imagining the composer being mourned by Apollo and the Muses.  You can practically see the painting.

Also working against the grain was the Cathedral’s acoustic. Either the Tudor Consort’s diction is suddenly terrible, or the Cathedral of St Paul is quite unsuitable for a programme of polyphony at its most melismatic. I happen to know the Ave Maris Stella text well, but because of the blurry sound I immediately got lost in the antiphon setting and only caught up on the last word, ‘unus’, in which the separate lines finally knitted into one last satisfying chord. The fact that the first half dozen rows of seating were not used (so that the choir could sing without masks) did not help. This is not a venue for those who prize intimacy and clarity over resonance.

The Consort was pared down to 11 voices for this programme: four women and seven men, the latter split three to four in favour of the basses. The tuning was sometimes off, with some flat canting and often a very muddy bass sound, especially when the basses split into two parts in the Fayrefax (an innovation in 1500). The tenors were bright and accurate, the altos stylish when not lost in the texture, but the sopranos mostly cooed exquisitely and sometimes yodelled.

I had many questions. For instance, the Josquin Mass was originally written for four male parts: superius, altus, tenor, bass (since the Sistine Chapel did not employ women). The superius was originally sung by falsettists and ‘altus’, just as it sounds, was a high male voice. How were the superius and altus parts rearranged to accommodate women’s voices and make sense of the harmonies? Was everything transposed up, and by how much? What was Stewart’s thinking on the disposition of parts? And why did he use only 11 singers, since the Sistine Chapel choir was likely twice that size?

But there were no programme notes, and the pre-concert talk did not cover technical matters.

Stylistically, the performance was rooted in Tudor England, not Renaissance Rome. The Tudor Consort, true to its name, sang with a smooth, even, rather bloodless perfection, not the robust emotionality that Josquin would have experienced in the Pope’s choir when he was writing this mass.

The tempi were all on the slow side, apart from El Grillo, which was a bit crisper. This may fit with scholars’ views, but it is hard on a modern audience. To give an example: the Fayrefax Gloria is a monumental movement, running to 11 pages in a modern edition with three systems to the page. The word ‘omnipotens’, for instance, is stretched out to 17 bars. Nonetheless, the Consort took it at a stately pace, which made it challenging to absorb, given the Cathedral’s cloudy resonances. And the Fayrefax Magnificat is even longer than the Gloria.

In the end, the overall effect was of self-indulgence. The meaning of the music was sacrificed on the altar of beautiful sound.

Finally, what does it mean to perform church music in a cathedral but strip it of its liturgical significance? In Josquin’s time, interpolating two secular songs (one about sex, the other about romantic longing) in a mass setting would have been sacrilegious. I am not suggesting that the concert should have been shifted to the concert hall, merely that treating religious music as though it were secular but performing it in a church is to try to have it both ways.

And the concert title? ‘O mors inevitabilis’ made me think the programme would be about death. It would have been more accurate to call it ‘Josquin and his contemporaries’. Perhaps that is too banal to sell in Wellington. But the text Ave Maris Stella is not about death. Nor is the Magnificat. Do the words not matter at all? Prima la musica!

Still, it was an interesting programme, and the masked, distanced audience seemed not to share my concerns, and applauded warmly at the end of each half, as instructed.


2 Responses to “Against the Grain”

  1. LittleBee says:

    Your review shows you read a lot of Wikipedia before the concert, Anne. Thanks for giving us all the benefit of your potted historical wisdom, which is clearly attempting to paper over substantial gaps in your musical knowledge, particularly when it comes to choral music.

  2. Gerald says:

    Of all the distended and often ill-informed opinion pieces on this site, nothing has quite reached the depths of this review. For that, Ms French has excelled. I am uncertain why Middle C would send someone who is apparently so clearly out of their depth to review a choral concert.

    I attended the concert, and The Tudor Consort performed with precision, beauty, clarity and clearly a deep respect for the subject matter.

    The social distancing, of of both the audience and the choir, did no favours. However, we cannot lose sight of how remarkably fortunate we are that concerts such as this are performed at all given such challenges.

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