March 2024

Renaissance Treasures

Lobo Versa est in luctum
Lassus Missa Bell’ Amfitrit altera
Byrd Ne irascaris Domine
Josquin Praeter rerum serium
White Lamentations a5

westminster school chapel
wednesday 20 March 2024

Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) was a Spanish composer of the late Renaissance, considered by Tomás Luis de Victoria as his equal. Lobo’s elegiac masterpiece Versa est in luctum was written in 1598 for the memorial service at Toledo Cathedral for Philip II of Spain. One of his most enduring works, it was published in his Liber primus missarum of 1602, headed ‘Ad exequias Philip. II Cathol. Regis Hisp.’. The text is an exquisite and evocative imagery of heavenly harps, organs and voices in songful mourning. Waves of entries roll over one another, drawing the ear into cycles of harmonic movement, before resolving redemptively in the major.

Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594) was a leading composer of the late Renaissance. Born in modern-day Belgium and working throughout Europe, he became one of the most prolific composers of his time. Around 60 masses have survived complete, and many of them are parody masses, using secular works as a melodic source.

The magnificent Missa Bell’ Amfitrit’ altera is based on a madrigal that has so far remained unidentified but may be Venetian, since Amphitrite was a sea-nymph.  It is a superb example of the composer’s polychoral style, which rather than being purely antiphonal prefers interplay between parts drawn from both choirs.  The Christe eleison and Benedictus reduce to the flowing counterpoint of four voices, heightening the impact of the return to eight voices, and the whole piece is in a shimmering major mode.

William Byrd (1539-1623) was the most noted and prolific English composer of his time.  He became Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563 before moving to the Chapel Royal in London in 1572. During the 1580s and 1590s Byrd’s Catholicism became the driving force for his music; he wrote and openly published motets and masses, almost certainly composed for small chapel gatherings.  The elaborate and penitential Ne irascaris, Domine, along with its seconda pars Civitas sancti tui, is one of Byrd’s masterpieces and one of his most forceful acts of protest against the persecution of English catholics. The setting is of verses from Isaiah 64.  The atmosphere is of quiet polyphonic contemplation, with the melody contained within the range of a fourth, before the stark homophony of ‘Sion deserta facta est’. The final phrase is a moving lament for Jerusalem – a metaphor for the catholic church in England – in which the poignant words ‘desolata est’ are heard over 50 times.

The magnificent, dark-hued Praeter rerum seriem, by Josquin (1450?-1521) takes the form of a succession of carefully worked motifs around a cantus firmus. For much of the piece the polyphony is presented antiphonally between the three upper voices, when the plainsong is in the soprano, and the three lower voices, when it is in the tenor. The second part of the motet is rather freer than the first, concealing the plainsong in a more consistently six-part texture, breaking into a lilting triple-time where the text makes final reference to the mystery of the Trinity, before returning to the duple time of ‘Mater ave’.

Robert White (1538-1574), arguably one the leading English composers of his time, was appointed organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey in 1570. He and his wife and young family died in the plague only four years later.

The five-part Lamentations, consisting of two separate laments customarily sung together, are magnificent pieces of vocal architecture, with emotion in both halves drawn towards the concluding ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’.  The writing is restrained, reflecting the sombre nature of the texts of the prophet Jeremiah lamenting the downfall of Jerusalem.

The first four chapters of the Book of Lamentations are written as acrostics, with the first line of each verse corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, perhaps expressing a principle of completeness.  White sets verses 8-13 from the first book, following the convention of setting these letters (starting from the 8th, Heth) in poetically flowering music, rather like an illuminated capital letter at the outset of each verse.

It is one of several superb settings of that text composed during the 1560s, perhaps suggesting that not everybody was happy with the religious situation.  The Babylonians’ sacking of Jerusalem (the historical impetus for the Lamentations of Jeremiah) had become a metaphor for the plight of English Catholics over the ensuing decades.