We need to talk about Févin. This scion of the minor nobility, priest, and singer and composer to King Louis XII, can be regarded as a pioneer in the technique of ‘parody’ or ‘imitation’ Mass settings based on polyphonic models, as well as one of the most accomplished creators of sacred music around 1500, certainly in his native France, and arguably in all Europe. His music was very widely circulated, with two of the works on the present recording (Missa Ave Maria and Sancta Trinitas) being found in as many sources as far better-known compositions by leading lights such as Josquin des Prez. Yet despite his eminence in terms both of professional success as churchman and singer, and of contemporary reception as a composer, Févin’s music is all but unheard today, and very scantily represented on recordings with the exception of his (very fine) Requiem Mass.
In addition to the two Mass settings and motets presented here, Antoine de Févin composed another half-dozen Masses and about sixteen more motets. As with so many Renaissance composers, there is doubt over the authenticity of a number of pieces. This problem is compounded by the fact that his brother Robert was also a court singer and composer, if less prolific—and perhaps also less gifted—in the latter capacity than Antoine. The brothers were most probably born in Arras, where the family had settled in the fourteenth century. The birthdates of both are a matter of conjecture, but Antoine’s has been suggested to be around 1470: a seventeenth-century source describes him as the second son, a circumstance entirely congruent with his selection of a career in the Church, and perhaps implying that Robert, also a churchman, was younger. We know that by 1507 Antoine was at the royal court, since King Louis wrote home from Italy at that time to request that one of Févin’s chansons be sent south in order to impress the local ladies. But Antoine was not long-lived: he seems to have died at the beginning of 1512 or even perhaps in late 1511.
The poet Guillaume Crétin (c>1460-1525) was effectively the official chronicler in verse of the activities of the French royal court in the early sixteenth century. In (one must assume) 1512 he wrote a poem of nineteen ten-line stanzas in iambic pentameter, in memory of the recently deceased court singer Jean Braconnier, known as Lourdault (‘clod’) after a secular song of the time. (Both Lourdault and the ‘decori fratres de Fevin’ are mentioned in Pierre Moulu’s ‘musician motet’ Mater floreat: see our recording of this piece on.) Although dedicated to Lourdault, Crétin’s poem also makes extensive mention of Févin, who seems to have predeceased the singer by a short time. The poet describes a night-time vision of the fate Atropos and the ‘cruel soldier’ Accident, who announce to him the death of ‘a singer of high price’. ‘Whom do you mean?’ the poet asks: ‘It’s not the gentle master musician Antoine Févin, he who by very refined art knew so well to make harmonic song in the divine office?’ ‘No,’ reply the mythical figures, ‘it is he who was the true parent of new songs, whose melody was unstoppable [‘on ne sceut estancher de melodie’]: he was held so dear because he had a very beautiful voice, low and high.’ ‘Name him then!’ ‘Alas! It’s …’ ‘Who?’ ‘Lourdault.’
Crétin draws a distinction here between the functions of singer and composer: it is notable that both Lourdault and Févin were employed as singers, but the latter is known for the music he wrote rather than for his skill in performance (Crétin later makes the distinction even clearer: ‘L’ung pour chanter, l’aultre pour composer’). That the performer rather than the creator should be the person to whom a poem was dedicated ought not to surprise us: after all, Jonas Kaufmann has many more adoring fans today than Harrison Birtwistle. Nevertheless the praise for Févin’s compositional ability is significant, the adjective ‘tressubtil’ (‘very refined’) seeming particularly apt to his musical style. Later in the poem, Crétin comments on what a loss the two musicians are to the chapel: ‘their passing leaves your band enfeebled’. He concludes by inviting the surviving singers to put on mourning clothes (‘habitz de deuil’) and to sing a motet in place of ‘Libera’ (the responsory from the Office of the Dead), with the hope that their two lamented colleagues may rest in peace.
Josquin’s Ave Maria … virgo serena is one of the most famous and recognizable motets of the High Renaissance. (In order to include as much of Févin’s music as possible, we have omitted this piece from the CD, but our recording of it is available as a free download.) We have recorded the version preserved in Ottaviano Petrucci’s 1502 print, Motetti A, which was edited by the Dominican friar Petrus Castellanus and hence amends the part of the original text relating to the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine that the Order of Preachers did not accept. Castellanus’s revised text consists of the stanza beginning ‘Ave caelorum domina’.
In selecting Ave Maria … virgo serena, Févin chose a difficult model for an imitation Mass setting, though also one of the richest in terms of memorable material. How can one appropriate a motet that is so well known and so emblematic of the spare and economical style of the master Josquin, and turn a six-minute piece into a half-hour Mass setting? The younger composer rises fully to the challenge, not only making excellent choices as to when to deploy music from the motet, but also subtly reworking Josquin’s polyphony to ensure that the Mass is not simply a restatement of its famous model, but something new and expertly tailored to its purpose. One can see the principle at work in the opening of each Mass movement. Josquin’s motet is notable for its regular imitation at a distance of two breves, moving evenly from the top to the bottom of the texture. In Févin’s Mass, the Kyrie begins with a ‘pair duet’, whereby material stated by the superius and altus is then imitated by the tenor and bassus—a highly Josquin-like technique, but not one that reflects the model. The opening of the Gloria is nearly identical to that of the Kyrie, but the melody breaks in a different direction after six breves, producing a varied duet pair. The Credo opens with a much lengthier duet between the altus and superius, the tenor and bassus entering after twenty breves with the text ‘Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum’. The Sanctus again begins with an upper-voice duet, but this is shorter than that of the Credo and features an almost hocket-like exchange of musical material between the two voices; here the entry of the lower voices is not an imitative duet, but introduces the full texture for the words ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’. Up to this point, therefore, Févin has derived each of the opening sections from the same idea—based on but not beholden to Josquin’s initial point. In the Agnus Dei, the Mass setting approaches its model most nearly, with the superius taking the opening melody for the first time, followed by the altus and tenor, each at two breves’ distance as in the motet. Here too, though, the material is reworked, as the bassus follows the tenor in stretto fuga, a modern term for imitation at the distance of one note (here, a semibreve).
Elsewhere in the Mass, the most memorable passages of Josquin’s motet are introduced at crucial moments in the text. The closing passage of the Kyrie (track 3, from 0’36) treats the motif for ‘virgo serena’, first in the bassus and tenor, and then (0’53) between the upper three voices in close stretto. In the Gloria, the section beginning ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ (track 6) quotes ‘Ave pia humilitas’ almost exactly, and the ‘Qui sedes’ and ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ (0’59 and 1’16 respectively) draw closely on ‘Ave praeclara omnibus’. Instances such as these may be found throughout the Mass. But two sections of the motet are particularly highlighted by Févin. The first is the triple-time passage beginning ‘Ave vera virginitas’, which is notable for the stretto fuga at the lower fifth between the superius and tenor. Févin introduces reworkings of this music on three occasions: ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ in the Gloria (track 6 1’54); ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum’ in the Credo (track 12 1’54); and the Osanna section of the Sanctus (track 15, repeated after the Benedictus). These moments are instantly recognizable—seemingly—as direct quotations from the model. Yet none is in fact a carbon copy of Josquin. In the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, the superius and tenor are indeed set in a brief canon, but the canonic distance is not a single semibreve as in the motet, but a breve (equivalent to three semibreves in this triple-time mensuration). Because of the incidence of repeated notes in Josquin’s original melody, the working of the canon is similar whether at one or three semibreves’ distance, but the fact is that Févin has recreated the passage rather than simply copying it. In the Credo, the canon is abandoned altogether in favour of a fully chordal texture, in which the tenor voice retains the canonic melody while the other three sing a series of descending scalic figures spanning more than an octave, before a subtle rhythmic manoevure brings the music to a halt at ‘mortuorum’. (Here and in certain other moments of quotation, we have highlighted the tenor voice within the ensemble balance.) For the Osanna, Févin reinstates the canonic treatment of the superius and tenor but first writes a lively countermelody in the superius; again the rhythm of this section is adeptly controlled, with a heavy hemiola preceding the final statement of the text.
The second very clear piece of polyphonic borrowing is found in the final few seconds of the Credo (track 12 2’20), where the ending of the motet, ‘O mater Dei, memento mei’ is set to the words ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’. There is a textual parallel here, as the plea to the Virgin to remember the petitioner is reflected in the hope of eternal life evinced by the Credo text. Again this is in reality a reworking rather than a direct quotation, as Févin dovetails the texture between ‘venturi’ and ‘saeculi’. But the effect, coming straight after the triple-time ‘Et exspecto’ section mentioned above, is one of close affinity with the model. One might mention other cases, such as the use of Josquin’s rising scale on ‘Caelestia, terrestria’ with syncopation in the final petitions of the first and last Agnus Dei (track 18 1’39 and track 20 1’41), but the point is made: this Mass is not only based upon one of the late fifteenth century’s finest and most recognizable motets, but recreates its music in a highly original, ingenious, and expressive way.
Ascendens Christus in altum was regarded as a doubtful attribution to Févin by the late Edward Clinkscale, who prepared the collected edition of both brothers’ music; more recently another ascription to the composer has been discovered, thus rehabilitating the motet to the canon of Févin’s works. It is impressively modern-sounding for a piece composed by the first decade of the century, though this is partly a function of the high degree of homophony it contains—a technique that is present in the composer’s other pieces, if rarely to the same degree. The motet fully expresses the joy of its Ascensiontide text, with an extended upper-voice trio telling of Christ’s lifting up into heaven (track 21 1’18 onwards) followed by a full-choir Alleluia. The lower voices then take up the story (2’08) before the prima pars closes with another Alleluia. The shorter secunda pars begins with an impressive set of block chords (‘O rex gloriae’), and once again contrasts upper- and lower-voice trios before the full texture comes together for a triumphant final Alleluia.
Sancta Trinitas is by some distance Févin’s most popular motet, appearing in over forty sixteenth-century sources. Its simplicity and pleasant style is no doubt behind this broad appreciation by contemporary audiences: the motet uses many of the techniques mentioned above to create a prayerful yet musically attractive work. Following the homophonic opening, the piece mostly operates by means of pair duets which then come together into the full four-voice texture: this is most obvious at ‘o beata Trinitas’, which concludes the first half (track 23 1’33 onwards). There follows a doxology (‘Sit nomen Domini benedictum’) which again features considerable duetting, before the final phrase ‘ex hoc nunc et usque in saeculum’ is repeated for emphasis (2’52).
About a dozen of the sources of Sancta Trinitas include two additional voices which are attributed to Arnold von Bruck (?1500-1554), perhaps written in the late 1520s, around the time of his ordination to the priesthood in the French diocese of Thérouanne (most of Bruck’s career was spent in Imperial service, latterly in Austria). The six-part version is a skilful arrangement which changes the character of the piece quite substantially. One of the added parts is an additional superius, which usually sits higher than the original top voice and thus acts rather like a descant; the other lies between the tenor and bassus parts. Bruck expands most of the duet sections of the motet into a four-voice texture, so that his arrangement retains some of the sense of give and take between voices that characterizes Févin’s original, but smoothes the transition between voice groups, not least by dovetailing many of the cadences. Perhaps his most successful addition to the motet comes in the final doxology, where at the words ‘in saeculum’ (track 24 3’00 and 3’17), he twice sends the ‘descant’ part to a written f”, a minor third higher than the original superius ever ventures; the added parts also extend the final cadence by four breves.
Missa Salve sancta parens utilizes a much more ancient technique than the ‘parody’ procedure of Missa Ave Maria, namely that of basing a Mass setting on plainchant: an introit for Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary. When sung liturgically the introit would include at least one verse and a doxology before a repeat of the antiphon, but for reasons of space we have included the antiphon alone. Févin’s setting is a paraphrase, in which the plainchant is treated in embellished form and subsumed within an imitative texture. As in Missa Ave Maria, Févin makes extensive use of paired imitation, for instance at the Mass’s opening, where the tenor and bassus enter and sing almost a complete phrase, before the superius and altus repeat the same material verbatim. Like most Mass settings written before 1520, Missa Salve sancta parens begins in triple time (tempus perfectum), switching to duple (tempus imperfectum diminutum) after the first Kyrie section. The pattern is repeated in the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei movements, though the Credo is almost exclusively in duple time apart from a brief excursion into triple at ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’. Although this Mass is slightly shorter than Missa Ave Maria, it is characterized by extended melismatic phrases which give the work a spacious feel. A notable device used by Févin is repetition of the last phrase of a section, presumably for rhetorical emphasis: this can be seen in the first and third sections of the Kyrie (track 26 1’10 and track 28 0’59), as well as in the Credo at ‘descendit de caelis’ (track 31 3’22). In the first Agnus the final phrase (track 40 1’28) is a varied repeat of earlier material (first heard at 1’10), and the Mass ends with a triple repeat on ‘dona nobis pacem’, again with variation.
Further textural differentiation is provided, as is frequently the case in this period, by composing some inner sections of movements as duets (which we perform with solo voices) and trios. In both Mass settings the ‘Pleni’ section of the Sanctus is so treated (in both cases as a tenor and bassus duet), as is the second of the three Agnus Dei petitions (again for tenor and bassus in Missa Salve sancta parens, but for superius and altus in Missa Ave Maria, contributing to that work’s feeling of lightness). In addition the Benedictus of Missa Salve sancta parens is another high-voice duet, and the ‘Domine Deus’ verse of Missa Ave Maria’s Gloria is taken by the altus and bassus. Finally, the ‘Et iterum’ of the latter Mass is a trio for the lower voices, and its Benedictus is for a trio omitting the tenor. Such sectionality is highly characteristic of Mass settings composed around 1500, gradually diminishing as the century progressed, such that by the time of Palestrina and Lassus even the Gloria and Credo movements typically fall into only two sections, and duets are comparatively rare. In part, this progression reflects increased concision, especially in Lassus’s case, many of his Masses lasting twenty minutes or less. But the preference for unbroken composition probably also reflects a move towards polyphony as a vehicle for expressive text delivery, in contrast to the emphasis at the end of the previous century on varietas, usually manifested as the building-up of an impressive effect by the agglomeration of stylistically discrete subsections.
Févin’s music represents an intermediate stage in this process: his delivery of the text is not yet so direct and rhetorically focused as that of Lassus, but is undeniably expressive in its intent and effect. The effect is typically less immediate, partly because Févin’s underlay is often clearly constructed with a French style of Latin pronunciation in mind, in which syllables are not so heavily accented, and there is often a sense of alternation of weak and strong in an iambic pattern, rather than the stress falling on the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable of each word as in Classical (or Humanist) declamation. But he frequently achieves a truly musical expressivity that responds closely to the demands of the Mass text and its liturgical context. For instance, the final Kyrie of Missa Salve sancta parens is evidently climactic in nature, not only because of the repeated phrase noted above, which emphasizes the highest note in the superius range (d”, as notated, sounding concert e” in this recording), but also by the use of triplet figures towards the beginning of the section, generating rhythmic drive which adds to that imparted by the faster mensuration (tempus perfectum diminutum). Similarly, the Gloria builds from the homophony at ‘suscipe deprecationem nostram’ (track 30 0’56) through a more vigorous quasi-homophony (chordal texture, but not always simultaneous motion) at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ (1’33) to the triple time of ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ (2’00) and the final peroration on the return to duple time (2’23). Highlights of the Credo include the reverential ‘Et incarnatus est’ (track 32) and the triple-time ‘Et unam sanctam’ (track 34 1’08), which similarly to the Gloria begins a gradual build-up of musical incident through ‘Confiteor’ (1’29) and the homophonic ‘resurrectionem mortuorum’ (1’57) to the final Amen. The Sanctus is dominated by its extended Osanna, which as usual is repeated following the Benedictus duet: this Osanna begins in duple time with the tenor paraphrasing the plainchant opening in long notes, before launching (track 37 0’21) into an upbeat triple mensuration with much use of hemiola for added rhythmic interest. The Agnus Dei brings forth some of Févin’s most expressive writing, especially for the words ‘miserere nobis’ and ‘dona nobis pacem’. The first petition intensifies the textual repeat (track 40 1’28) by bringing three voices in together; in the following duet the voices pass the text between them (track 41 0’51). Finally, the closing ‘dona nobis pacem’, which is stated no fewer than five times in the superius, winds down the tension towards a beautifully peaceful ending by lowering the pitch and gradually reducing the level of rhythmic activity—a consummately composed ending to the Mass.