Renaissance Masterpieces

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Renaissance Masterpieces

It is doubtful whether any of the composers represented on this recording would have had an understanding of the term 'masterpiece' (let alone the term 'Renaissance') when applied to their own music. Similarly, it is unlikely that any of these composers would have considered themselves composers in the sense in which we now understand the word. The Renaissance musician was regarded as more craftsman than artist. Moreover, all of the music recorded here is entirely functional: it was all designed to be used within a living Latin liturgy; it had no other purpose. Any claims to authenticity in modern performance are therefore nullified. Even assuming that these performances sound anything like those given by Renaissance musicians, the idea of listening to this music in versions that remain unchanged from one hearing to the next would have been anathema to Ockeghem, Morales, Byrd, and their contemporaries. Fortunately, our current thirst for the music of the past allows us conveniently to bypass such issues. We are able to attribute 20th-century values to the composition, performance, and reception of Renaissance music. Evidently something is lost in this transition, but what remains is a large corpus of music of undeniable technical competence; and for those who are able to contemplate the ideals of spirituality and liturgical propriety there are further depths to be plumbed.

In presenting a survey of Renaissance music there are bound to be unsatisfactory inclusions and omissions. The omission of any setting of the Mass Ordinary in this context is comparable to a survey of Classical music that would omit an example of the symphony; and to reduce over two thousand surviving compositions by Palestrina and Lassus to two short examples is bound to provoke more questions than it provides answers. But all of the music recorded here does have certain features in common: each piece uses specific vocal textures as a direct response to the text; and each has a formal plan that respects the progression of the text and which provides a musically satisfying unity. However, such features are evident in much Renaissance sacred music and their mere presence is not enough to guarantee a work's classification as a masterpiece.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it may also be in the mind of the creator, and when composer and performer seem to perceive beauty within the same gesture (although separated by hundreds of years) we may be tempted to describe a work as masterly. In the Nunc dimiltis, for instance, Josquin's anonymous imitator may lack the technical refinement of his mentor, but the product is sincere and moving. Similarly, Thomas Morley's subsequent adaptation of Rogier's Laboravi in gemitu meo evidently reflects a contemporaneous respect for this beautifully-paced motet. And while King Joao IV may have been a discerning musical patron, he was neither a prolific nor great composer; however, Crux fidelis achieves a depth of emotion that was as recognizable to J. S. Bach as it must have been to King Joao's own subjects. Byrd's Laudibus in sanctis is the only concrete example on this recording of the composer giving a particular work his own seal of approval: its position at the head of the 1591 Cantiones sacrae proves that Byrd himself regarded this motet highly, and the fact that it now enjoys unreserved critical acclaim is comforting. Ultimately the term 'masterpiece' is a subjective accolade, but if it is possible to recognize certain pieces in which a composer seems to be revelling in the process of composition more than in other comparable works, it may help us to draw up a plausible shortlist of so-called masterpieces.


[1] Intemerata Dei mater, generosa puella, quam stipant agmina divum; respice nos tantum, si quid jubilando meremur. Tu scis, virgo decens, quantum discrimen agatur exulibus passimque quibus jactemur arenis. Nec sine te manet ulla quies, spes nulla laboris, nulla salus patriae, domus aut potiunda parentis cui regina praees. Dispensans omnia laeto suscipis ore pios, dulci quos nectare potas et facis assiduos epulis accumbere sacris. Aspiciat facito miseros pietatis ocello filius ipsa potes; fessos hunc arripe sursum, diva virgo, manu, tutos et in arce locato.

Immaculate mother of God, noble maiden, around whom rows of saints stand close; be mindful of us, only if we deserve it by our praises. Thou knowest, beautiful maiden, what great danger surrounds us in our exile and the deserts into which we are thrown in turn. Without thee there remains neither rest nor hope in our labour, neither safety for our land nor passage to the Father's house where thou presidest as queen. Thou who bringest order to all things, may thou exalt the devout with thy radiant face, and quench them with sweet nectar and make them to share fully in sacred feasts. Make thy Son to look upon the sinful with kindness because thou art able so to do; make him take up the weary, O blessed lady, and establish them safe in his stronghold.

[2] Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace: quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum: lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Nunc dirnittis servum tuum Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.

[3] Magnificat anima mea Dominum et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo. Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae. Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes. Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen e ius. Et misericordia a progenie in progenies timentibus eum. Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui. Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles. Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes. Suscepit Israel puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae. Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini e ius in srecula. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his hand-maiden. For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is upon them that fear him throughout all generations. He hath shewed strength with his arm, he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel. As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

[4] Surrexit pastor bonus qui animam suam posuit pro ovibus suis, alleluia. Et pro grege suo mori dignatus est, alleluia. Et enim pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus, alleluia.
Disc: 1
Crux fidelis
1 Intemerata Dei mater
2 Nunc dimittis
3 Magnificat (Octavi toni)
4 Surrexit pastor bonus
5 Laboravi in gemitu meo
6 Ego flos campi
7 Si ignoras te
8 Lauda mater ecclesia
9 Vadam et circuibo
10 Laudibus in sanctis
11 Crux fidelis
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