Wonderful mysteries

With each rehearsal this term, my love for Jacob Handl’s music has grown, as has my belief that he is one of the finest composers of his generation, and as such unjustly and sadly under-represented in modern concert and liturgical programmes, partly through the lack of professionally edited commercial editions of his music.

I’ve previously written about how he is able to assimilate and master different traditions and techniques, from the sinuous 5 or 6 voice Franco-Flemish school, through direct 4-voice polyphony to the larger-scale Venetian double or triple choir texture. In all his music there is a distinct and plangent modality that is all his own; his handling of dissonance is masterful and hugely assured.

Recently we have been working on his setting of “Mirabile Mysterium”, a rich and strange setting of the antiphon to the Benedictus at Lauds on the feast of the Circumcision (January 1st). This text, a strange and rather unpoetic bit of theology, has provoked an extraordinary response from Handl: wildly chromatic harmonies, intense dissonance and one moment of extreme vocal register, where all parts plummet below the accepted conventional range on the words “Deus homo factus est” (“God was made man”).

The chromaticism is equal to Gesualdo, though the effect, with sparser texture, is somehow starker, more controlled and less, frankly, hysterical. Distant tonalites are juxtaposed almost without preparation, making some passages sound almost like Bruckner – chords of C# minor, E major, B major, D major, A minor and C minor occur next to each other with magical and rapid succession.

Why this text has provoked this response is not clear. We include Adrian Willaert’s setting of the same words in our concert: while this is a fine piece, there is no hint of wildness about it, nor are there any other motivic pre-echoes of Handl’s work. Lassus also set the piece, and this is much closer to Handl, really cementing the musical similarities between the two composers and worthy of closer attention on another occasion. Lassus’s work (not included in our programme, an increasingly sad omission!)  has the same scoring (SATTB) and, again, whilst not being particularly chromatic or wild, has some startling motivic similarities with Handl’s, notably the shape of the final motif on “neque divisionem” and the synchopated imitation of this figure.

Lassus’s setting was published in Antwerp in 1556, obviously making it the earlier work – perhaps Handl encountered it on his travels and took particular inspiration from it. I can’t find any other contemporary settings of this strange text (in full, with translation, below) and can only speculate what made these three composers single it out, but it does provide a fascinating allusive link between them, and leaves us with some fabulous repertoire for our concert.

Mirabile mysterium declaratur hodie,
innovantur naturae; Deus homo factus est;
id quod fuit, permansit,
et quod non erat, assumpsit,
non commixtionem passus neque divisionem.

A wondrous mystery is declared today,
an innovation is made upon nature; God is made man;
that which he was, he remains,
and that which he was not, he takes on,
suffering neither commixture nor division.

Translation by St Ann Choir

Brumel – O Crux, Ave

One of the most pleasant surprises of the term so far has been Brumel’s setting of “O Crux ave, spes unica”, the penultimate verse of the great hymn to the Cross of Venantius Fortunatus (530-609). I originally included this work in our programme as a mature (and manageable!) example of the early Franco-Flemish polyphonic school, but such is the quality of the writing that this little piece is becoming a star in its own right.

The vocal lines are sinuous, elegant and expressive, each paragraph overlapping in a pleasing accumulation: Brumel captures perfectly the serene acceptance of the hymn, the bitter-sweet paradox of the adoration of the Cross. The parts are paired almost throughout (compare this with the pairing in Handl’s Egredietur Virga / Radix Jesse), rising one after the other at the start of each paragraph before subsiding to allow the next to begin. The tenderness of the final gestures is particularly affecting.

We have very little biographical detail for Antoine Brumel, but we do know that he was born in Chartres in about 1460, worked for a time at Notre-Dame de Paris and appeared working at the court of Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara around 1506 and then in Mantua where it’s likely he died in about 1512, making him one of a number of “Oltramontani” – the northern Europeans who traveled across the mountains to work in Italy.

He is best known today for his complex mass settings, a splendid example of which is the “Earthquake” mass, Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus, a colossal masterpiece for 12 voices. You can hear the Tallis Scholars sing this epic piece here, and view the score here. Perhaps one for a future concert!

Finally, here is a translation of “O Crux” from the 1852 “Psalter of Sarum” (The Royal banners forward go):

O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide
With us now in this Passion-tide:
New grace in pious hearts implant,
And pardon to the guilty grant!


It was a great pleasure to take my first rehearsal with the choir this weekend just past – I have to confess to feeling rather apprehensive in advance, partly owing to concerns over the distance I have to travel (will my car break down, will I get lost?!) and of course over how I would be received by the choir. I needn’t have worried! A fabulous group – attentive, open to new ideas and with the skills to start putting them into practice straight away. I’m really looking forward to a new term of excellent music-making! I will perhaps write a few thoughts in due course about building a relationship with a new choir.

It’s also a great pleasure to introduce new music to the choir, in particular one of my favourite Renaissance composers Jacob Handl (Gallus). I feel that, while some of his works are rightly famous through being anthologised, the breadth and depth of his range of expression and his skill at handling different textures mean that he should be more widely known.

We looked at three of his works, firstly “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”, his setting of the first two verses of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s great hymn for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This is sinuous polyphony, very linear and horizontal, in six parts (SAATBB), a disposition aligned with the music of Lassus and the late Franco-Flemish style. Often an echo dialogue is created between the three upper and three lower voices, before all six combine richly.

Next on the list was his “Adoramus te, Christe”, the confessional antiphon for Good Friday. This follows the Venetian double choir style, two SATB choirs calling and responding before combining. I find the return of the opening music particularly affecting, and the ending particularly generous.

Finally we touched on perhaps his most famous piece, the SATB setting of “Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus”, a hymn-like setting of one of the Holy Saturday responsories. The homophonic simplicity of the writing and lack of dramatic gesture amplifies the power and pathos of the text and has clearly affected composers and audiences through the ages: in Bach’s Leipzig, it would follow the singing of the Passion on Good Friday, and Handel (the other one!) incorporated it in his funeral anthem for Queen Caroline. It has since been anthologised a number of times and the simplicity of the writing makes it accessible to liturgical choirs of even quite modest resources.

More news of and musings on Handl and his contemporaries soon!

A new beginning!

Summer is in full swing, swinging wildly in fact from sunshine to storm and back again, yet right now I’m casting my thoughts ahead to shortening nights and autumn chills, as they herald an exciting new chapter in my musical career. I am delighted to be taking over the helm of the Ripieno Choir from David, who has served the group with such distinction for so long – my first task is simply to make sure that the standard of musicianship and innovative planning that characterised David’s tenure are maintained as best I can. I hope I can do his legacy justice!

I feel that the choir and I share a similar outlook on music: we both have a passion for a cappella Renaissance music in particular and early music in general, and we both enjoy exploring the nooks and crannies of the repertoire, away from the well-trodden paths, unearthing what gems and gold we can along the way. The first concert of my time with the choir should demonstrate this, exploring the music of the Bohemian composer Jacob Handl (Gallus) and his relationship with his Franco-Flemish and Venetian contemporaries.

Inasmuch as I have a philosophy of programming and performance, beyond this love of the Renaissance, I do enjoy more familiar repertoire, though seek to stage a performance that is free of gimmickry simply for the sake of doing something new: popular classical music endures because it is simply good music, and that good music must be allowed to speak through a performance that is itself as good as possible, rather than by being different or quirky. Fauré’s Requiem is a fine enough piece without needing to be “reimagined”…

I also am a passionate advocate for new music, and look to support in particular those composers who are yet to establish themselves fully. I am a composer myself, and am privileged to have my choral and organ music published by Firehead Editions, so I fully understand the importance of such support. I also have an experimental streak, and work with a collective called Automatronic, who seek to create, promote and perform new music for the combination of organ and electronics.

I look forward to sharing all these things, and more, with the choir and our wonderful audience over the coming seasons, do watch this space for news of future programmes!

Huw Morgan, August 2018