Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Orlande de Lassus

This is a portrait of Orlande de Lassus, who flourished roughly a hundred years after Josquin. He was born around 1532 and died in 1594. Coincidentally, he was born in the same part of what is now Belgium as Josquin, the Hainaut region. He was enormously prolific, composing over 2000 works, and we know far more about his life than we do about that of Josquin. His music, along with that of Palestrina and Victoria, is the culmination of the Renaissance in music. Also like Josquin and Dufay, he was a singer and his music is primarily vocal, though many transcriptions were made for instrumental ensemble and solo lute. He was famous for a style of music called musica reservata, the meaning of which is now fiercely disputed. It seems to refer to music that was written for connoisseurs using particularly advanced techniques, such as chromaticism. In that sense, it is the beginning of the breakdown of the modal harmonies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance which ultimately led, during the early Baroque, to the development of tonal harmony which is still in use today.

As a young man of twenty-eight, Lassus wrote a set of pieces for choir called Prophetiae Sibyllarum that are a famous example of this style. The work consists of 12 motets on texts about ancient prophecies from the sibyls, oracles of antiquity, who purportedly predicted the coming of Jesus Christ. There is a brief prologue titled "Carmina chromatico" on the text:

Carmina chromatico quae audis modulata tenore, 
Haec sunt illa quibus nostrae olim arcana salutis 
Bis senae intrepido cecinerunt ore Sibyllae.

Polyphonic songs which you hear with a chromatic tenor, 
these are they, in which our twice-six sibyls once 
sang with fearless mouth the secrets of salvation.

Here is a performance of this prologue:

And here is what the score looks like:

Click to enlarge

Let's see what is going on there. The piece is in what is usually called the Mixolydian mode or G to G on the piano with no black keys. This name comes from the ancient Greek modes, but their concept of mode was completely different. The church retained the names, but over the millenia, the notes changed. By this time, as I said above, the development of chromaticism is starting to break down the purity of the modal system. Here are the chords we hear from the beginning, all in root position: C major, G major, B major, C# minor, E major, F# minor, G major, C major, F major, Bb major, D major, C minor (in first inversion), D major cadencing on G major. And that's just the first line and the first beat of the second line! In terms of the harmony we are used to, tonal harmony, this is completely incoherent. These chords just don't go together in a logical way. So how does Lassus make it work? I assume that you agree with me that it does indeed work? Well, we have to remember a couple of things: Lassus was a singer writing for other singers and he, like all musicians of his time, thought horizontally, not vertically as we tend to think of harmony now. He really wasn't thinking of harmony in our sense at all, but of chromatic melody. If you look at each vocal line separately, it moves smoothly from one note to another. There are few leaps. Most of the movement is by step, with occasional leaps of a third or a fifth. This is a fundamental principle that has governed harmony for a very long time: if you approach, and especially depart, from a chord by step, you can go to almost any extreme. But the preparation and exit are crucial. Since he is thinking like a singer, in terms of the horizontal line, this is instinctive. Here is a different performance of the whole piece:

A couple of things you may have noticed: this version is accompanied by a lute, which is quite feasible. At this point in time most music was vocal, but instruments could be used to either double or replace some or all of the voices. Another thing you might notice is while this is very definitely counterpoint with each voice moving independently, it is not imitative counterpoint. The voices rarely imitate or echo one another. This is simply free counterpoint.

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