The career of Pierre de la Rue was a highly distinguished one, though it took a somewhat different form from those of many contemporaries who sought their fortune south of the Alps. From 1492 until 1516 La Rue was the pre-eminent composer at the Habsburg-Burgundian court at Brussels-Mechelen, presided over by Duke Philip ‘the Fair’ of Burgundy, and subsequently by his sister Marguerite of Austria. His position at the court led (eventually) to the award of numerous benefices—the rights to revenues from clerical positions, which could be held plurally and vicariously—such that he died, in 1518, a wealthy man. Although he did not quite achieve the Europe-wide fame of his contemporary Josquin Des Prez, or certainly that later enjoyed by Orlande de Lassus, such renown was not at that time a direct measure of professional success. Both of the latter composers benefited, at least in reputational terms, from the spread of music printing across the Continent; La Rue’s work was printed a dozen times in his lifetime and many more thereafter, but its most numerous sources are manuscripts, notably those of the so-called ‘Alamire’ scriptorium, based at his home institution and in which he is the best-represented composer of all. The ‘Alamire’ manuscripts are by some distance the largest set of illuminated music manuscripts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, numbering nearly fifty; La Rue’s music appears in thirty-six. (This datum, as well as much else in these notes, is derived from Honey Meconi’s Pierre de la Rue and Musical Life at the Habsburg-Burgundian Court, Oxford, 2003.)
La Rue’s compositional output is focused on the genre of the Mass Ordinary: at least thirty settings survive from the sixteenth century with attributions to him. As is the duty of all musicologists, Meconi divides the œuvre into three chronological periods: before 1506, 1506–16, and after 1516. 1506 is the year when Duke Philip travelled to Spain for a second time to secure the crown of Castile which his wife Juana had inherited in 1504; Philip’s death there at the age of only twenty-eight led to La Rue spending two years in Spain in the service of the distraught widow. He returned to the north in 1508 and remained there until his retirement from the court eight years later, moving to Kortrijk/Courtrai where he died in 1518.
The chronology is however (as Meconi notes) merely that of the sources: dates of composition are much harder to establish for certain. Nevertheless there are certain stylistic elements that suggest dating, and some fixed points exist, such as the publication dates of prints. Based on these clues—use of perfect (triple) time, presence or absence of a third in final chords, and so on—Meconi places Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor in the first style period (it was in any case published in 1503), and Missa Inviolata in the second.
As noted by T Herman Keahey, the Missa Inviolata contains a large number of ‘fanciful rhythmic patterns’, which he finds ‘more easily discerned visually than audibly’. Some of these are indeed purely intellectual patterns, but others, such as the increasingly rapid sequential writing at the beginning of the Sanctus, are certainly noticeable to the ear, indeed are quite striking. The Mass as a whole has a sunny disposition, due partly to the major mode of the plainsong on which it is based. (While the association of the major third with ‘happy’ music is a much later phenomenon, the numerous polyphonic settings of the ‘Inviolata’ sequence are certainly serene, even radiant, in nature. The most famous is that of Josquin Des Prez, but the same can be said, for instance, of.) While sharing this quality, La Rue’s Mass does not always maintain the even rhythmic flow that characterizes the motet settings—as is to be expected with a text as lengthy and diverse as that of the Mass Ordinary. Even within the Kyrie there are stirrings of a more robust approach to the musical material: the Christe section builds to a climax where the soprano part repeatedly sustains high G, and the second Kyrie makes extensive use of running semiminims to generate rhythmic energy, even syncopating the soprano line at one point. The movement finishes with further exploration of the high tessitura, with semiminim runs in contrary motion.
In the Gloria the text-setting style is as usual more syllabic, and there are frequent passages where phrases are delegated to upper or lower voices, often in antiphony (for example, ‘Laudamus te’ in the bass followed by alto and tenor, then ‘Benedicimus te’ in the soprano imitated by the alto). Such reduced-voice moments prepare for impressive re-entries of the full ensemble, such as at ‘Glorificamus te’. The movement is articulated at the central point, ‘Filius Patris’, with a sudden burst of shorter notes which seem to me to demand a substantial ritenuto. The second section begins in meditative mood, picking up its tempo at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, where a somewhat percussive approach leads to pair phrasing between upper and lower voices (‘Tu solus Dominus’), before the name of Jesus is emphasized with a rhetorical flourish. The final text phrase, ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, underlines its Trinitarian doctrine by switching to triple time.
The Credo likewise adopts antiphonal effects, and here the plainsong melody is more prevalent, being quoted in the first phrase of the soprano and reappearing in long notes in the tenor, at ‘Qui propter nos homines’. This phrase introduces the section of the text dealing with the Incarnation, so its quoting of the sequence whose text concerns the virginity of Mary is most likely an intentional juxtaposition for theological effect. La Rue employs the frequently used technique of highlighting the Incarnation itself with homophonic writing, in both Missa Inviolata and Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor. Another standard approach is to finish the Credo in triple time, which is again found in both Masses.
As noted earlier, the Sanctus begins with an attractive imitative figure in the alto and bass voices, which generates an almost triple-time feeling despite the duple metre of the movement. The plainsong melody is found in the tenor, entering after two breves, and this provides the rhythmic stability against which the free voices work. The ‘Pleni’ section is a lower-voice duet (in the Jena manuscript from which the edition used for this recording was transcribed, the alto has an enigmatic Latin proverb instructing silence: ‘Raro mordet canis qui multum post tergum latrat’—‘Rarely does the dog bite that barks a great deal behind one’s back’). The Benedictus also reduces the texture, to three voices by omitting the tenor. The Agnus Dei, while reverting to the full four-part ensemble, is as usual the most peaceful of the movements, though it signals the depth of emotion in the text by beginning both sections with homophony, contrasting the two by reversing the motion of the tenor, which sings the standard form of the plainsong at the opening, and its inversion (E–E–D–C as notated) at the beginning of the second section. The Mass ends with some extended melismatic writing: immediately before the ‘dona nobis’ text appears, the outer voices sing in parallel tenths, the soprano reaching its highest pitch (written g”), and this parallelism continues into the ‘dona nobis’, which gradually subsides until at the very last moment all four voices break into semiminims, as if rousing a final burst of energy to impress the text upon the listener.
La Rue set the Marian antiphon Salve regina no fewer than six times, which might seem excessive until one considers that the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel celebrated, as a minimum, a daily Vespers and Compline sung polyphonically, as well as Mass. Meconi believes, reasonably enough, that the Salve regina may well have been sung at separate ‘Salve’ services, which were common in the Low Countries, as well as at the end of Compline. Since this antiphon is set for approximately half the year—from after Pentecost until the beginning of Advent—a large number of different settings must have been required in order to avoid excessive repetition. (The daily polyphonic Mass also explains La Rue’s prolific output in that genre.) The present setting, which in modern scholarship is numbered VI, is bipartite in form, but through-composed polyphonically, based closely on the plainsong. This relatively straightforward treatment contrasts, for example, with setting number IV, which not only alternates chant and polyphony, but also quotes two secular songs from the early fifteenth century, by Guillaume Dufay (1397–1474) and Gilles Binchois (c1400–1460). Salve regina VI is reminiscent of the style of Josquin in its textures, making extensive use of upper and lower voice duets: all four voices are heard together in less than half of the piece, and the full ensemble is used to demarcate the two partes and subsections within them (for instance, ‘in hac lacrimarum valle’ and ‘exsilium ostende’). The affect of the piece is generally one of tenderness, with a more impassioned final statement ‘o dulcis’ rounding out the form.
As noted above, the Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor is believed to have been composed earlier than Missa Inviolata, falling into Meconi’s first group of settings. It certainly predates 1503, when it was published by Ottaviano Petrucci in his single-composer collection, Misse Petri de la Rue (RISM L718–1503). The manuscript source used for the present recording dates from a year or two later, but since it also comes from the Habsburg-Burgundian scriptorium may be presumed to transmit a reading close to the composer. Both this manuscript and the source used for Missa Inviolata were sent as gifts to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick ‘the Wise’, who clearly had a taste for polyphony, or at least for beautiful manuscripts containing it. The Spanish song on which the Mass is based was composed by the expatriate Fleming Johannes Urrede or Wreede (fl1451–c1482), who was maestro de capilla at the Aragonese royal chapel in the years around 1480. The poem tells of an untrue lover:
Nunca fue pena mayor
ni tormento tan estraño,
que iguale con el dolor as
que resçibo del engaño.
Y este conosçimiento
haze mis dias tan tristes,
en pensar el pensamiento
que por amores me distes.
Y me haze por mejor
la muerte con menor daño
que el tormento y el dolor
que resçibo del engaño.
Never was there greater pain
nor torment so strange
to compare with the grief
that I feel at being deceived.
And the knowledge of this
makes my days so sad,
as I think over that thought
which your love inspired in me.
It makes me hold death
better and less hurtful
than the torment and the grief
that I feel at being deceived. (translation by Don M Randel, The Musical Quarterly, 1974)
This would seem highly apt, if perhaps too close to the bone, for the situation of Juana, who was deeply hurt by her husband’s womanizing. The song was popular both throughout Spain and outside it, however, and possibly the text would not have been read as referring too specifically to the royal couple. Another Mass based on this song, by the court composer Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470–1528), is available on Hyperion.
The song’s characteristic opening melody E–G–A–B–C is used as a headmotif in all five movements of La Rue’s setting, with variations in the disposition of voices and the contrapuntal treatment. Another feature of the model that is noticeable at several points of the Mass is the movement to a chord of B flat major, first heard in the Christe. Much of the song’s pathos derives from the Phrygian mode in which it is set, and though La Rue retains this modality, all but one of the movements end with a perfect cadence on G. The exception is the Agnus Dei, which is very short and in a single section (here sung twice), and completes the Mass on the modal final, E.
The Kyrie uses perfect tempus for the two outer sections—a feature of La Rue’s earlier music—contrasted with imperfect for the Christe. The lines are long and sinuous, especially in the Christe, where the extended downward scales (from around 2’55”) over an almost static tenor are noteworthy. The Gloria is, as usual, more sprightly, with antiphonal exchange of voices and regular imitation to a somewhat unusual degree for the turn of the century. At ‘Domine Fili’ the tonal emphasis shifts to C (the co-final of the authentic E mode), reverting to E to close the first section at ‘Filius Patris’. The tempus again switches from triple to duple for the remainder of the movement, the second half being characterized by emphatic homophony at ‘miserere nobis’ and ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. In the Credo, greater variety of rhythmic patterning is observable, afforded by the diverse text. Though there are only two formally demarcated sections, La Rue inserts clear cadences which punctuate each, such as at ‘omnia facta sunt’. The ritenuto at ‘descendit de caelis’ and subsequent slow performance of the ‘et incarnatus’ section are performance decisions of mine, though the homophonic ‘et homo factus est’ is indicated with fermata signs in the Jena manuscript. The second section of the movement (from 4’32”) is full of textural variety, with chordal passages such as ‘sub Pontio Pilato’ contrasted by pair imitation (‘Et iterum … iudicare’). This alternation of homophony with imitative style continues until the final ‘et vitam venturi’ is reached, which is in a faster triple time (indicated with a proportional sign rather than the circle of tempus perfectum) to bring the lengthy movement to a climactic end.
The Sanctus reverts to a slower tempo, necessarily so because after a placid opening the note values gradually become very short towards the end of the first section (‘Sabaoth’, around 2’20”) with the introduction of fusae—semiquavers, where the basic pulse is the minim. The ‘Pleni’, a trio without tenor, is in a bouncy duple time, which stokes up tension at ‘gloria tua’ with a rising sequence in which the two upper voices are syncopated against the bass. Following the meaty ‘Osanna’, which is largely in a low tessitura for all parts, the Benedictus is an ethereal duet for the two higher voices, which slips into and back out of sesquialtera proportion. This Benedictus was published, retexted, in a collection of duets in Nuremberg in 1549 (Diphonia amoena et florida: Berg & Neuber, RISM 1549/16), where it could just possibly have come to the attention of Hans Sachs (1494–1576). Despite a fleeting similarity, however, the scalic figure at 6’47” is most unlikely to have provided Richard Wagner with inspiration for Walther’s ‘Prize Song’.
La Rue’s surviving output in the Magnificat genre covers seven of the eight tones: all except Tone 3. All seven canticles employ varied scoring, with the sixth-tone setting using three, four, and five voices in the polyphonic verses (alternate verses being sung to plainchant, as was the sixteenth-century norm everywhere except in the Sistine Chapel). The main texture is four-voice, with verses 6 and 12 expanding by the addition of a second high voice, and verses 4 and 10 reducing to trios, which are contrasted: verse 4 has divided sopranos over a tenor, and verse 10 is a sonorous low-voice texture. In the Brussels manuscript (shelfmark 9126, prepared for Philip ‘the Fair’) there is no staff signature except at times in the bass part: though evidently the note B is intended to be flattened on numerous occasions, it is rarely indicated as such by the scribe. One might almost assume that B flat was taken as read throughout the piece: there are certain sources of the period where this would be the most logical editorial policy, but here in several instances the scribe makes a point of inserting B flat as an accidental inflection, suggesting that unflatted B elsewhere may well be intentional. Moreover, the scribal policy does not appear to be as helpful to the singers as it might be: one signed B flat, for instance, is placed immediately after an F, where singers would undoubtedly have inferred B flat in any case. The modern editor is faced with the choice of flattening in almost every case—and thereby creating a large number of diminished fifths, both simultaneous and melodic—or preserving more perfect fifths and allowing close juxtaposition of B flat and B natural. Every editor will approach this conundrum differently.
Editorial issues aside, the Magnificat sexti toni contains a great deal of highly vivacious and enjoyable music. Highlights include the descending thirds in the upper voice section at ‘et sanctum nomen’; the full and powerful texture of the five-voice ‘Fecit potentiam … mente cordis sui’; and the remarkable shaking of ‘et divites’ (from 7’10”). In the low trio, the chordal section ‘et semini’ (around 9’30”) has an almost ‘close harmony’ feel, while the final ‘Sicut erat’ makes maximum use of the textural possibilities of the five-voice ensemble, with particular emphasis on ‘saeculorum’.
Stephen Rice © 2016
(BBC Music Magazine)
‘Having once heard the very fine Hyperion performances and recording most lovers of renaissance music—and probably many who have yet to discover that they are—will want to explore both the composer and the musicians further’