Monday, October 27, 2008

Gilles Binchois, Mon Souverain Desir response

Get your floppy, pointy, bulky Renaissance hats on; it is time for lovin’ like it is 1420! And what sets the mood better than one of Binchois's chanson? Works by Gilles Binchois, a central figure in the development of the Burgundian chanson, can be found on the album Mon Souverain Desir, which has a very distinct, universal theme: romantic love.

Jaime’s description of the music itself is accurate and detailed, enhancing my listening experience. After reading her article, I put her suggestion to practice to read the text while listening to the music. To quote Jaime, “Reading the translations while listening at the same time gave a much better representation of what was being sung about and why the music sounded as it did.” The sound-image is clear when coupling the music with the words. More than anything, Binchois expressed emotion through both the lyrics and the music. For example, in Amours mercy, he cries out, “I cannot suffer forlorn hope/so richly have I chosen as I wished/and for Love, who commanded me to do so.” The music is steady-paced, with simple intervals and imitation, as if the unaccompanied singers were carrying a heavy burden. But the lyrics express this burden of hope and love being one that has been chosen, so the music has an element of tranquility. Binchois, however, does not need to rely on text to convey the music's emotion, as displayed in Je me recommande humblement, which is an upbeat piece, entirely instrumental, making it perfect for a couples dance in the Renaissance.

The music as a whole is brimming with musical description of human emotion, from the burden of love to the celebration of it. The text, polyphony, and oftentimes usage of the hemiola rhythmic effect keeps the music fresh and intriguing. Even so, Binchois has an underlying element that makes him different from his predecessor, Guillaume Du Fay, in that Binchois has pieces both emotionally charged, but notably debonair and controlled.

Had I been living in a Burgundian land during the peak of Binchois's popularity, this would be my kind of scene. His instrumental music makes for marvelous couple dancing, in being both fun and refined. I wonder if these dance halls had the same issues that our found in today's society. Was there scandalous hand-holding? Women flashing their ankles? Did the poor earl of Suffolk spend the dance crying over his lady leaving him for the visiting duke of Dijon? Perhaps in other dance halls would such barbaric events take place, but not in the courts who are fortunate enough to have Binchois perform. Wistfully I wish such dance halls with music playing from Binchois still existed, but for now, I can sit and listen to the recordings of his romantic music being played.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Orlando di Lasso/Reginald de Lassus: Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum

Search engines have met their match when it comes to Orlando di Lasso. Or is it Reginald di Lassus? Or Orlando Lasso? What about Orlandus Lassus? All of these names point to one man; and by any name, the Franco-Flemish composer best known as Orlando di Lasso, was a Renaissance music celebrity, his fame spreading all over Europe.

Legend says that young Orlando di Lasso, a Franco-Flemish choir boy born at Mons (now Walloon Belgium), was abducted and spirited away to foreign lands to sing, as it was custom of the Italians to abduct sweet-singing choir boys during this period. He escaped and returned home, only to be abducted twice more. After his third abduction at age twelve, he chose to stay and work under the Viceroy of Sicily.

What history tells us is that Lasso did in fact begin working for the Viceroy of Sicily at age twelve, though he certainly did not stay in one place. Lasso served patrons throughout Italy, from Mantua to Rome. He travelled frequently to Flanders, France and Italy, even after finding a permanent post in Munich working for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1556. Leaving no European stone unturned in his travels, Lasso is the most famous composer in the Renaissance, the best-traveled musician of his time, as well as the most eclectic in genres, styles and languages.

Best known for his motets, Lasso’s ability to portray images and emotions through sound-image (to correlate the movement of the music with the text) was unrivaled. Two of Lasso’s pieces written for the Mass, as performed by The Hilliard Ensemble (Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum), demonstrate this beautifully.

Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum are both written for four voices and are settings of the mass. Interestingly, even though it was written for the Mass, Prophetaie Sibyllarum is inspired by the stories of the Greek prophetesses, or Sibyls. A Sibyl is, as described in the album’s booklet, a “mystical soothsayer whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity.” This source of inspiration should not be surprising, when considering the many other pagan and Christian cultural crosses, and that Lasso certainly did not isolate himself in one society.

This feeling of being spoken to by a “mystical soothsayer” is apparent, as the phrases begin with one voice and are commonly either echoed or supported by the remaining voices. The Prophetiae Sibyllarum's opening has baffled music scholars for centuries now, using chromaticism frequently, especially in the first nine measures, which was never used before. Scholars argue about the exact structure of the tonality, or if there even is tonality within the beginning measures. Regardless, all the scholars can agree it is unlike anything before its time. The chromaticism and step-wise motion in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum give fluidity of the sound, resulting in the music having a calm, easing-into feeling, as if the music was water moving from a small brook into a larger, faster-moving stream. The metaphorical water babbles quietly and sweetly at first. As it moves through the Mass, it swirls and expands into a larger body of sound and emotion. The music is soothing, but not the type of soothing that lulls a child to sleep. It is the type of soothing that one would play during meditation, the type that puts you in a calm, clear mood.

After decades of turmoil over how much emphasis to put in the music in the church, I believe that Lasso found that balance. His attention toward text and his ability to portray it so meaningfully through music has had him recognized as the supreme composer of the Renaissance. Along with his influence over Europe, it is no small wonder he has become such a grand milestone in music history.