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