LASSUS: Masses for Five Voices / Infelix ego (Jeremy Summerly/ Judy Lieber/ Oxford Camerata) (Naxos: 8.550842)
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Orlande de Lassus (1532 - 1594)
Missa Entre vou filles
Missa Susanne un jour
A composer of international standing was a great asset to a Renaissance court, and Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria was not a man to undervalue his assets. From 1556 until Albrecht's death in 1579 Lassus served the vast range of his patron's musical tastes in abundance, and in return was exported to other courts where he was feted with the titles \princeps musicorum" and "divin Orlande". Albrecht packed his chapel choir with Flemish and Italian singers and heard at his court many different musical genres. Lassus's background -his roots in Hainault and his early journeys to Italy and France -made him the "uomo universale" that could provide French chansons, German lieder, madrigals, and masses for all occasions. Within the corpus of his masses alone there is enormous variety. The only similarity, for instance, between the four-voice 'Missa Jiiger' (written for times when members of the court were too tired as a result of hunting to hear a long mass) and the double-choir 'Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera' (complex and expansive) is the words themselves.
The history of 'Missa Susanne un jour' provides a good example of musical, and indeed religious, cross-fertilization in a cosmopolitan age. It is a parody mass based on the most famous song of the 16th century - the "l'homme armé" of its day. The song tells of the Susannah of the Apocrypha who was accused by two elders of wantonness, she having spurned their libidinous advances; the case is only cleared up with the intervention of the prophet Daniel. The words of this 'chanson spirituelle' were written by the poet Guillaume Gerault, and as well as providing material for the new protestant liturgy such texts were intended to reappropriate biblical heroes for the new church. But the song's success soon meant that it was not restricted to such partisan use. It was set by composers as diverse as Ferrabosco, Sweelinck, Byrd, and Lassus (in 1560) and it is ironic that it should finally have become the basis of a lush setting of the Catholic mass.
'Missa Susanne un jour' was published in 1577. Between then and the publication of 'Missa Entre vous filles' in 1581 Albrecht had been succeeded by his son Duke Wilhelm V whereupon both the size of the choir and the munificence of court music declined; consequently the scale and scope of the 'Missa Entre vous filles' is smaller than its predecessor. Here Lassus does not attempt to move so far out of the confines of the parody, and he reverts to the style for which he is most acknowledged: a syllabic, economical exposition of the text. At the same time the spirit of Clemens'schanson 'Entre vous filles' could barely be more different from the chaste 'Susanne un jour', celebrating in galloping rhyme the wonders of the female anatomy. This was precisely the sort of parody model that the Council of Trent had regulated against two decades previously, but one wonders how many of Lassus's contemporaries knew the original chanson (published in 1549), or whether Lassus had any interest in the work beyond the purely musical.
Predating both masses is the motet 'Infelix ego' (1566). This celebrated text is a meditation on Psalm 51 written by the demagogue preacher Savonarola the night before he was hanged in Florence in 1498 for alleged schismatic tendencies and heresy. The atmosphere is darkly spiritual, and it is a reminder that Lassus the court composer, serving elitist tastes, was also responsible for works such as the 'Prophetiae Sibyllarum' whose brooding chromaticism left precisely that genteel world confused and hostile.