Weather: sunny, about 5 degrees celsius. Yesterday’s new snow is melting fast. Even the dog seems to dislike the slush.
This was an unusual day: my work was done by noon after a morning rehearsal with Ensemble Petraloysio. Petraloysio is a professional group of eight male singers that specializes in music of the Renaissance with a concert coming up next Sunday. Even professional groups are not safe from diseases: two singers were absent after calling in feverish. If there is one thing about my profession I would love to change, it would be to be rid of the constant worry of not knowing what kind of ensemble or choir I have at my disposal at the next rehearsal or concert. It tends to work out fine, as it did this morning, but the stress I could live without.
We are doing a program from the Medici Codex, a collection of music from the 1510s. The choirbook was a gift from Pope Leo X, a Medici pope who did not exactly leave a lasting ecclesiastical legacy – he was more the type of pope that the Catholic church can boast to have survived. But he was a great patron of the arts and this collection shows off Leo’s taste in music.
The collection was a wedding gift for Leo’s nephew Lorenzo de’Medici, the Duke of Urbino, who married a French princess, Madeleine de la Tour, in 1517. It was handed over amongst other valuable gifts including a couple of paintings by Raphael. The motets of the collection make references to the French court, to Madeleine, and especially to Leo himself. Leo’s birth name was Giovanni and works celebrating both St. John the Baptist and St. John the evangelist play a major role in the collection.
The choice of the music is really interesting. Considering the newlyweds were Italian and French, the presence of music from both quarters is understandable. However, there is a clear bias towards French music, which seems to be a result of Leo’s (or his advisors’) own taste(s). Another bias is the amount of music by a young Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert. Willaert, who later became a central figure in Italian music, was still in his 20s at the time the collection was put together. The inclusion of seven motets by Willaert proves that Leo definitely had a good nose for interesting music and was modern in his tastes. To this testifies the fact that almost all of the music was fresh, composed in the last decade before the collection was put together.
One often hears the claim that all the music performed before the 19th century was contemporary and that no music over three decades old was ever performed. At least based on what we know of the music of the Vatican choirs, this does not ring true. Actually, the chapel choirs were quite conservative. This was in part because acquiring music was expensive and time-consuming, as it had to be copied by hand; and in part it was quite simply down to the fact that these choirs very, very seldom seem to have rehearsed. It was easier to stick to what had earlier worked. Thus Josquin’s works were still sung a hundred years after their inception and Palestrina’s music dominated the repertoire of the Cappella Sistina in 1616, over twenty years after his death. Which makes the modernity of Leo’s collection all the more poignant.
The collection naturally includes music by Josquin, the real musical superstar of his age. Many will know his Déploration on the death of Johannes Ockeghem, which is also featured in the Medici Codex. The piece includes the wonderful moment (in the secunda pars) where Josquin lists the major composers of his time (Josquin, Brumel, Pierchon [= Pierre de la Rue], Compere) and bids them to put on their habits of sorrow. It is a powerful moment of revelation: we know who Josquin considered his most important peers.
There is another piece in the Medici Codex that has a much longer list of composers, namely Pierre Moulu’s Mater floreat. This little-known Frenchman composed a spritely piece that has a catalogue of the big names of the recent past in its first half, while the secunda pars deals with his colleagues. The big names are ‘the celebrated’ Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Regis, Antoine Busnois, Philippe Basiron, ‘the victorius’ Alexander Agricola, Jacob Obrecht, ‘the illustrious’ Loyset Compére, Eloy d’Amerval, Hayne van Ghisehem, Pierre de la Rue and Josquin ‘who is without peers’. A veritable table of what we now call the Flemish School, perhaps with the exception of d’Amerval and Ghisehem, of whom very few contemporary musicians would boast knowledge.
But things get even more interesting in the second half of the motet, when Moulu presents a catalogue of his French contemporaries. At times, it seems the whole piece is something of an inside joke and its inclusion in Leo’s collection starts to feel quite surprising. The longest section is dedicated to Antoine de Longueval (‘the sun amongst the stars’), master of the King’s chapel, and very poorly known to later generations. Few of the others are much better known. Lourdault (Jean Braconnier), ‘a friendly prior’, Antoine de Fevin, ‘the decorated brother’, hilarious Hilarius (?) and a happy rich one (a De Riche, perhaps) are all mentioned before Heinrich Isaac, Ninot Le Petit, Mathurin Forestier, Antoine Bruhier ( who form ‘the whole band of brothers’) and Jean Mouton, who has the honour of being the last man mentioned. One even gets the gist that the depictions might be sarcastic (Hilarious might actually have been morose; the rich one miserable and poor; and the friendly prior anything but). Be that as it may, it is a wonderful piece of music worth while not only for its listing of composers, but for its energetic and bright character (the opening brings to mind a section of Jannequin’s La Bataille).