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Virtute et Canoscenza (virtue and knowledge) is a fine title. It reminds me of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, canto XXVI, vv. 116-120) which tells the strange tale of Ulysses’ travels to beyond the Columns of Hercules in search of unexplored lands, meaning looking beyond appearances: I quote the original: «Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza» [You were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge].
Sixteenth and seventeenth century Flemish polyphony is still not widely known. It conceals enigmas – numbers, symbols, artifices of rhetoric and counterpoint – which, once solved, permit new, more appropriate interpretations. Walter Testolin and the De labyrintho group – an emblematic name! – have been working on the problem for a couple of decades. More than the later Baroque period, Renaissance music reveals itself with discretion; it was often intended for an elite bunch of connoisseurs like the aristocracy and clergy.
Guillaume Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores was conceived, in fact, as “confidential” (or secret) music, even though it was intended for an extraordinary public occasion – the consecration of Brunelleschi’s dome on the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. It was 25 March 1436, the Feast of the Annunciation. No less a personage than Pope Eugenio IV was leading the rite. A writer at the time, the humanist Giannozzo Manetti, described the ceremony in these terms: «We heard the instruments playing sweet, gay music […] At the moment of elevation, the whole basilica resounded with such harmonious symphonies, accompanied by the sound of various instruments, that one would have said that the music and song had come down from Paradise to earth». There is no mention of the “secret” tucked away in the folds of the motet – that was discovered later! The motet follows the numerical relations of the cross-section Brunelleschi had employed for the dome. Four stanzas in the cantus firmus weave together «garlands of roses offered to you, celestial Virgin, a pontifical gift against the bitter winter… Today the Vicar of Christ and Peter, his successor Eugenio, with his sanctified hands and holy wine, consecrates this ample temple». Homage to the Virgin runs through the other motets too.
The great Johannes Ockeghem, probably the maestro of Josquin des Prez who mourns him in the Deploration of the Nymphes des bois (the last item in today’s program), composed Alma Redemptoris Mater, a motet whose text is one of the four antiphons the Roman Catholic church dedicated to Maria: «Oh holy mother of the Redeemer, thou who art the Gate to Heaven and Star of the Seas, help thy people who yearn to rise up». [The other antiphons are Alma Redentoris Mater; Ave, Regina Coelorum and Salve Regina].
Antoine Brumel too uses a fundamentally homorhythmic style for his motet Mater patris et filia recalling at the very beginning Dante’s sublime (Paradise, canto XXXIII) «Virgin Mother, child of your son». Brumel was a cantor at Notre-Dame de Chartres, and worked in Geneva until 1492, then in Paris until 1500. Six years later we find him in Ferrara as maestro di cappella to Alfonso I d’Este. Mater patris et filia, / Mulierum lætitia, / Stella maris eximia,/ Audi nostra suspiria… (O Mother, daughter of your son, bright star of the sea, hear our sighs).
O genitrix gloriosa… (O glorious mother, splendid mother of God, accept the divine word announced to you by the angel: Blessed virgin of light, you will truly bear a son, which you will carry within you). This was the motet by Loyset Compère that we can imagine being sung in the Sforzesco Castle chapel in Milan, where he worked briefly. Of the same generation as Josquin des Prez, Compère was possibly one of the first Flemish musicians to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance style, particularly in his motets and canzone (the best known is his witty Scaramella), which simplifies the polyphonic fabric to take account of the expressive possibilities.
An exception to the Marian theme is the five-voice motel Vidit Jacob scalam by Thomas Crecquillon), a Flemish musician who is almost unknown, even though he composed a dozen or so masses, a hundred-odd motets and numerous chansons. In his music harmony and melody flow evenly, foreshadowing Palestrina’s polyphonic style. In this motet he represents “Jacob’s ladder” with series of rising and descending notes (scales, in other words). The composer marks the accent in the word tangebat (Summitas eius coelum tangebat) with the highest note in the whole piece.
The motet Nigra sum by Jean Lheritier illustrates a piece from the Song of Songs, traditionally interpreted as homage to the Virgin. Palestrina, Monteverdi and others have written music for the same text.
The concert ends with four motets by the great Josquin des Prez, which mask some symbols. Walter Testolin wrote that «in the Illibata Dei virgo nutrix the first letters of each verse form the initials of the composer, who quite likely also wrote the text. Ut Phœbi radiis is instead a sort of puzzle; it seems to have been composed for some particular event involving the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Bourgogne, but the text is impenetrable, and if one assigns numbers to the syllables it only comes up with nonsense, like “ta” and “na” and so on. Equally impenetrable is the famous Deploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem in which 64 notes make up the finale “Requiescat in pace”; however, if one adds up the numbers assigned to the letters in the name “Ockeghem”, following the principles of gematria, the result signifies, more or less, “Ockeghem rest in peace”».


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