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!