The music of Josquin
Desprez and most composers of his time has been well explored.
Masses, motets and other sacred works by Josquin and the likes
of Pierre de la Rue, Nicolas Gombert, Antoine Brumel and Heinrich
Isaac - to mention just a few - regularly appear on concert
programmes and on disc. In comparison the German composer Thomas
Stoltzer is a rather unknown quantity. It was in the early 1970s
that Konrad Ruhland made a recording of some of his compositions
with his ensemble Capella Antiqua of Munich. This is still available
on Sony in the Seon series. That recording included the four
German Psalms, by far his best-known works, two of which have
also been recorded on this disc by the Josquin Capella.
Stoltzer was born
in Schweidnitz in Silesia, and was perhaps a pupil of Heinrich
Finck, one of Germany's most important composers who flourished
around 1500. From 1519 to 1522 he was a priest in Breslau (now
Wrocław), and in 1522 he was appointed by Ludwig II as
magister capellae at the Hungarian court in Buda. It was here
that he composed the four Psalms on German texts. These are
among the first to make use of Luther's translation of the Bible
into the vernacular. Because of this it is assumed that Stoltzer
had converted to the Reformation. That is certainly possible,
but there is no firm evidence. The composition of these four
Psalms can hardly be used as an argument, as he wrote them at
the request of Ludwig's wife Mary, daughter of Philip the Fair.
One of them, 'Erzürne dich nicht', was sent by the composer
to Duke Albrecht of Prussia in Königsberg, perhaps in the hope
that Albrecht would give him a position at his court. That didn't
happen and Stoltzer died in 1526, drowning in a river.
The fact that Stoltzer
did not live and work in the main political and cultural centres
in Europe could be the reason his music was never published
during his lifetime. After his death his music appeared in several
collections, and was especially popular in Germany. That popularity
lasted until the end of the century, when musical tastes were
changing in favour of the new Italian style.
The first and last
items on this disc were written for the Roman Catholic liturgy.
The first piece is a Marian motet, a celebration of Mary, the
Queen of Heavens, chosen to open the gates of Paradise. The
last piece is the introit of the Requiem Mass, Requiem aeternam.
There is no sign of Stoltzer having composed any Requiem Mass,
and this is just one of the many settings from the Proper of
the Mass which were quite popular at the time.
One of his most
well thought of and widely-known compositions was the Christmas
antiphon 'O admirable commercium', which has been found in no
less than eleven sources. Stoltzer set Psalms not only in German,
but also using the Latin text from the Vulgata. One of these
is Psalm 34, 'Benedicam Dominum in omni tempore', a motet in
four sections. Stoltzer does not use the 'cori spezzati' technique
developed later in Venice; instead he splits the five parts
into two groups: the two upper voices and the three lower ones.
The second and third sections are entirely set for the lower
and the upper voices respectively.
One of the interesting
aspects of Stoltzer's works, and in particular his compositions
deploying German texts, is the relationship between text and
music. There is much more illustration of the text than in most
compositions of the time. At several moments words or groups
of words are translated into music. It is perhaps this aspect
that secured the continuing popularity of these pieces during
the 16th century, when the connection between text and music
became closer than before. In this respect Stoltzer's music
points in the direction of the oeuvre of Orlandus Lassus.
The Josquin Capella
gives excellent performances here. The singing is crisp and
clear and the recording technique ensures that all individual
parts are clearly audible. The singers are fully aware of the
connection between text and music but do not fall into exaggeration.
This isn't baroque music, after all. The balance within the
ensemble is excellent: no group dominates, and the voices blend
quite well. I noticed with satisfaction the German pronunciation
of the Latin texts. The pronunciation of the German texts isn't
always perfect, but that is hardly noticeable.
One aspect of performance
practice that is open for debate is whether instruments should
be used, in particular in the performance of the German Psalms.
In his programme notes, the ensemble's director Meinolf Brüser
refers to the letter Stoltzer wrote to Duke Albrecht when sending
him his setting of Psalm 37 (Erzürne dich nicht über die Bösen).
Stoltzer writes: "Have thought of the crumhorns and thus
set the psalm so that it corresponds very well to them, since
not every vocal piece goes well with them when written in a
great many voices". Brüser believes that this is not a
reason to use instruments. Stoltzer's remarks appear in the
main to be motivated by his wish to be appointed at Albrecht's
court - the Duke seems to have had a particular preference for
the crumhorns mentioned by Stoltzer. Apart from that, the character
of the piece is so strongly text-orientated that it is unlikely
the use of instruments was Stoltzer's ideal. The first argument
is plausible: the Psalms were written for the Hungarian court,
and the performance practice there should be decisive. Unfortunately
no information about that is given. The second argument is much
less convincing: there is a clear connection between music and
text in many compositions from the second half of the 16th century
– the works of Lassus are good examples - and there is ample
evidence that these have been performed with instruments playing
'colla parte' or even replacing voices. It is rather tricky
to decide what the composer's ideal was. What is more important
is how music was actually performed. Remarks by Stoltzer suggest
the use of instruments in sacred music was not uncommon. Konrad
Ruhland, in the recording mentioned above, uses instruments
in some pieces. In that respect both recordings nicely complement
This is a fine recording,
which sheds light on a composer who deserves more attention
than he has been given so far. The exposure is merited both
on the basis of his historical importance and the quality of
his compositions. The Josquin Capella serves him well.
Johan van Veen