CULT – programme note
Published: 27th August 2020
CULT brings together works by three composers which serve to illuminate some of the various facets of female representation in Renaissance sacred music, including the many different guises of the Blessed Virgin Mary, texts in whose honour were ubiquitous, both in prose and musical settings.
As the author of more than five hundred pieces of music, Jacobus Clemens or Jacques Clement was one of the most widely published, prolific and important composers of the sixteenth century. In spite of this contemporary fame, very little is known about his life and unlike the majority of his illustrious contemporaries, he appears not to have found lasting employment at any of the major European courts, cathedrals or religious institutions. He may have been born in modern Belgium or the Netherlands sometime between 1510 and 1515, and his first definite documented appearance is in the late 1530’s, when the Parisian publisher Pierre Attaignant printed a number of his chansons. Records survive of short-lived spells of employment at the Cathedral of St Donation in Bruges from 1544 to 1545 (where Clemens was granted the position of succentor ‘per modum probae’, almost certainly writing his Missa Gaude lux Donatione to prove himself), and later at the Illustrious Brotherhood of our Blessed Lady in s’-Hertogenbosch in 1550. Clemens likely died in 1555 or 1556, with a manuscript copy of his motet Hec est vere martyr recording that it was his final composition (‘Ultimum opus Clementis non Papae anno 1555 21 aprilis’). Another tantalising clue is found in Jacobus Vaet’s musical lament on Clemens’ death, Continuo lacrimas, which would seem to imply that the composer met his end in a violent manner.
Besides this lack of biographical information, the other enduring mystery related to Clemens is his unusual nickname, for which there are several theories: first recorded in the colourful and strikingly- (often obscenely!) illustrated Zeghere van Male partbooks, it later appeared more emphatically as ‘nono Papa’ and ‘haud Papa’ (‘absolutely not the Pope’), and may have been a serious attempt to distinguish him from the poet Jacobus Papa or Pope Clement the VII, or even an expression of the composer’s religious beliefs. More likely though is that it was an ironic comment on Clemens’ distinctly un-pious behaviour, despite his being an ordained priest: one contemporary described him as ‘un grant ivrogne et tres mal vivant’ (‘a great drunkard and lived very badly’) in a rather damning job recommendation.
Details from Chansonnier de Zeghere van Male
This would certainly explain the disparity between his contemporary fame and his patchy employment history, and certainly the choice of texts, often seemingly penned by Clemens himself, for some of his nearly 100 surviving secular songs, including the scandalous Entre vous filles de quinze ans. Besides these, Clemens’ output includes 15 masses and as many Magnificats, 159 Souterliedekens – popular Dutch settings of the psalms – and over 200 motets, of which many of the most popular and widely-circulated were those setting Marian texts.
Our selection serves both to highlight Clemens’ particular compositional style, prioritising mellifluous melodic writing with characteristically adventurous harmony over absolutely strict contrapuntal construction, and also to give an example of the variety of roles in which the Virgin Mary was cast, all sharing a common pictorial language of flowers, gates, doorways and stars, as well as tropes of purity and chastity.
The five-voice O Maria vernans rosa, which shares a scoring with both Ave Maris Stella and Videte Miraculum, presents Mary as intercessor, asking directly for her help and protection. Clemens’ through-composed setting of the Marian Vespers hymn Ave Maris Stella, which includes a central section for reduced force, sets all of the verses polyphonically rather than the common practice of alternating polyphony with plainchant, and similarly sees Mary as ‘door of heaven’ and intermediary between God and man, although in common with Videte miraculum, a responsory for the Feast of the Purification, also emphasises her virginity and motherhood. Showing another potentially more amorous side of Marian devotion are Veni electa mea and Ego flos campi, both settings of texts from the Song of Songs, the latter scored for seven voices – a number with strong Marian associations – and likely composed for the Illustrious Brotherhood of our Lady during Clemens’ brief employment there, with the guild’s motto ‘Sicut lilium inter spinas’ (‘as a lily among thorns’, a reference to the perpetual virginity of Mary) notably highlighted at the motet’s centre.
Orlande de Lassus was one of the most famous composers of the late Renaissance, holding the prestigious post of maestro di cappella to Albrecht V Duke of Bavaria, and subsequently his son Wilhelm V, for more than thirty years. He was, like Clemens non Papa, a native of the Low Countries and an astonishingly prolific composer, writing more than two thousand works in a variety of styles, genres and languages, among these nearly sixty settings of the Mass Ordinary. A majority of these are so-called ‘parody’ masses, using a pre-existing piece of music as the basis for the new work and in so doing showing Lassus’ skill in re-working the musical material and also serving to unify the disparate movements of the mass (as well as possibly proving an expedient means of generating new music quickly). While many of Lassus’ chosen models were sacred motets, both his own and by other composers, several masses are based on secular chansons, some with overtly sexual and/or scatological texts, such as Claudin de Sermisy’s Je ne mange point de porc.
Of these, perhaps the most striking for its incongruity with the hallowed and devout service of the Mass is Clemens non Papa’s Entre vous filles de quinze ans, whose lyrics would certainly have been in contravention of the Council of Trent decree to ‘keep away from the churches compositions in which there is an intermingling of the lacivious or impure’. Lassus’ Missa Entre vous filles is in many respects quite conventional, with concision of musical form and a standard five-part scoring, reducing at various expected moments including the Benedictus. Given that the technique of the parody mass involves only musical borrowing, nothing survives of the original lyrics, which speak of the fifteen-year-old girls of the title in graphic and explicit detail (‘you have radiant eyes, pert tits, a laughing mouth, a tight pussy’). Instead, Lassus transforms the music into something suitably pious, although the singers and likely the congregation would still have readily recognised the melodies and made the connection themselves, to all intents and purposes bringing the chanson, text and all, into the sacred space (that the source of Lassus’ inspiration was certainly not a closely-guarded secret is shown by the title of the work, clearly stated in the 1581 Liber Missarum print in which it was published).
By contrast, Raffaella Aleotti is one of the few documented actual, rather than representational, women from the late Renaissance to have successfully carved out a position for herself in the history of the sacred music of this period. That she is almost unique is hardly surprising, given the near-total lack of opportunities for women in this sphere at the time, and it was through the one socially permissible route that she achieved contemporary fame for her musical prowess: the convent.
Something of a prodigy, Aleotti’s talent as both a harpsichordist and singer led to her being enrolled at a very young age at the Augustinian convent of San Vito in Ferrara, which was ‘universally celebrated by many and diverse musicians from Italy and abroad’ for its music, and where, according to her father, she ‘chose to dedicate herself … to the service of God’ at the age of 14. Eventually taking responsibility for the direction of the Concerto grande, the convent’s main performing ensemble, Aleotti would later also be appointed prioress of the convent. Her talent as a musician and composer attracted the attention of a number of contemporary writers, as well as Pope Clement VIII and Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain.
There is some confusion surrounding Raffaella’s identity, as she was very likely the same person as Vittoria Aleotti, who had a madrigal published in a Ferrarese collection in 1591, and issued a complete book of madrigals in 1593. While some scholars have suggested that they could be sisters, Giovanni Aleotti does not mention a Vittoria as one of his five daughters in his will of 1631, and there is no record of Vittoria after 1593, so it seems likely that Raffaella was the name taken by Vittoria when she became a nun, and which she used apart from when publishing her secular music.
Aleotti’s collection of motets for five, seven, eight and ten voices was issued in 1593, the same year as Vittoria’s Ghirlanda de madrigali a quattro voci. The works it contains follow the pattern of other similar publications in terms of their scorings and vocal distributions: there is no music exclusively for female/upper voices, which suggests a desire to follow established models and an awareness of the commercial requirements for such a publication of sacred music, although Aleotti and her nuns almost certainly performed a wide variety of ‘conventionally-scored’ music, replacing the lower men’s voices with instruments.
The choice of texts also seems at first to be relatively orthodox, with an expected mixture of Marian devotional motets, penitential works and seasonal settings, although closer scrutiny reveals some interesting details: Congratulamini mihi unusually tells the story of the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary’s own viewpoint, and Aleotti includes a different selection of verses from the Song of Songs in her Ego flos campi to the earlier setting by Clemens non Papa, moving away from a simple description of a female beloved through natural similes and metaphors and rebalancing the genders to the biblical original. Aleotti also chooses to set her Ego flos campi for 7 voices, although unlike Clemens she disposes her singers as two alternating choirs, a typically Roman device which she also employs in Congratulamini mihi. Her five-part motets are scored with the standard two tenor parts, and in these as well as her works for larger voices Aleotti shows her skill and facility at writing in both the established polyphonic style, incorporating elements of antiphonal writing – two alternating groups of voices answering each other – and in a more declamatory idiom associated with secular music, as at the end of Vidi speciosam. Aleotti is also often adventurous in her use of harmony and dissonance, as in Congratulamini mihi, where the Second Bass takes an unexpected turn to create a striking clash at ‘et de meis‘, and in Ego flos campi, where the scale in sevenths between Soprano 1 and Alto 2 in the final cadential sequence is reminiscent of Monteverdi’s ‘seconda pratica’ and specific moments in his 1610 Vespers, printed in Venice by Ricciardo Amadino, also publisher of Aleotti’s 1593 motet collection.
d’Aragona, Matraini, Lanyer
Tullia d’Aragona (1501-1556) was a renowned poet-courtesan. The product of a meeting between her mother (also a courtesan) and a Cardinal, d’Aragona’s fame as a writer and philosopher took her to courts throughout Italy.
Chiara Matraini (1515-1604) hailed from Lucca, wrote prose, verse and translations, and was known during her own time for her Petrarchan love poetry. First published in 1555, her career as a writer took off on the death of her husband, her last published collection appearing when she was well into her 80s. Matraini was known for hosting evenings for intellectuals at which she would read, sing, and play the keyboard.
Amelia Lanyer (1569-1645) was England’s first professional female poet. Daughter of a Venetian who found employment as a court musician in England, Lanyer initially found favour in court circles before being married to a musician with little prospects of advancement. After her husband’s death in 1613, she supported herself by running a school and publishing poetry. Her collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) was published in 1611, with the hope of attracting a patron. The story of Christ’s crucifixion is told from a woman’s point of view, including passages about Pontius Pilate’s wife, a minor figure in the Bible, who attempts to prevent the unfair sentencing of Christ.
© Rory McCleery and James Hardie 2020
< Watch, Listen, Read