Monte is not exactly a household name, even among Renaissance
specialists. The current Penguin Guide does not even have
an entry for him, and the Gramophone Guide lists just one
recording. I have found only a passing reference to him in the
index of the learned Journal of Seventeenth-Century
Music, yet the bold claim on the Claves website that “His sacred music ... [is]
of great import, ... comparable to Palestrina’s music” is supported
by the recorded opinions of some of his contemporaries.
Known variously as Philippe or Philippus de Monte
or Filippo di Monte, and not to be confused with the composer
Henri du Mont, he was born in Malines (Mechelen) in modern Belgium in 1521. His real name
may well have been Vandenberghe but it was the custom in the
Renaissance to Italianise or Latinise one’s name for greater
kudos. His distinguished contemporary Roland de Lasse is better
known as Orlando di Lasso or Orlandus de Lassus and the Elizabethan
English composer Cooper transformed himself into the more impressive
Coperario. Even later, composers with the German name Schultheiss
thought it advantageous to call themselves Prætorius. It certainly
worked for de Monte, who served Philip II of Spain and Queen Mary of England during her brief reign
and later became Kapellmeister to Maximilian II and Rudolf II
at the Viennese court.
The Ensemble Orlando Fribourg may be as little
known to you as they were to me before hearing this CD. Founded
in 1994 under the direction of Laurent Gendre, they are a flexible
team of up to 24 singers (ten on this recording) who specialise
in Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. They are certainly thoroughly
at home in the repertoire on this recording; I hope to hear
more of them.
The music on this CD falls into three sections,
representing the three forms in which de Monte excelled: tracks
1-4, 10 and 15-17 consist of Latin church music, sandwiching
Italian madrigals on tracks 5-9 and French chansons on tracks
Both the reformers and the counter-reformers at
the Council of Trent laid great stress on the texts of liturgical
and religious music – one note to a part being their ideal.
As a result, close attention to the text, rather than polyphonic
virtuosity, is generally regarded as the hallmark of de Monte
and his friend Lassus; the first four tracks amply illustrate
that this attention to religious texts was not achieved at the
expense of overall euphony. Palestrina is usually credited
with having ‘saved’ polyphony with his Missa Papæ Marcelli,
by adapting his music to the new rules but de Monte offers perhaps
a better example of a composer who was able to combine faithfulness
to the words with attractive music.
Hodie, dilectissimi, a text for All Saints
Day, is every bit as exciting in its polyphony as the work of
earlier composers, but the interweaving of the parts is never
allowed to obscure the meaning. The individual words may not
come through, with all ten voices and the cornets and sackbuts
in play, but their import is always clear.
Beati qui habitant, a psalm setting, has
much sparer textures, with no instrumental accompaniment. With
clear singing and equally clear recording here, the printed
text in the booklet is almost superfluous.
Quare tristis, for solo countertenor and accompaniment,
opens with a lugubrious instrumental passage appropriate to
the words which follow: “why art thou cast down, my soul?”
This is a meditative and dramatic piece; even at the words Spera
in Deo quoniam adhuc confitebor illi “Hope thou in God,
for I shall yet praise him”, the mood is not much lightened.
Hodie nobis cælorum Rex is a Christmas motet with
soaring harmonies. Particularly effective is the way in which
the voices enter first at the words Gloria in excelsis Deo,
“Glory be to God on high”, slightly ahead of the instrumental
Just occasionally the accompaniment here is a little
too prominent, as in Quare tristis, where the solo countertenor,
Martin Oro, is not always the equal partner that he should be.
This is a common problem, when the modern countertenor voice
is necessarily less powerful than that of a castrato.
Otherwise, in all these works the Ensemble Orlando rise very
well to the occasion. Even in the larger settings individual
voices are clearly recognisable, though never obtrusive within
the overall mellifluous sonority.
The same is equally true of the remaining works
with Latin texts. The second setting of Beati qui habitant
(track 10) is a purely instrumental piece, the hinge at
the centre of this well-planned programme, allowing the instrumental
group In Echo to demonstrate their virtuosity.
Gaudent in cælis is a motet for the feasts
of martyrs, a grand and solemn piece which receives an appropriate
Filiæ Jerusalem is based on the words
of Jesus in St Luke’s gospel: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep
not over me but weep for yourselves.” A sparse-textured penitential
work, without instrumental accompaniment, the singing here is
hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity.
Benedictio et claritas, words from Revelation,
bring the CD to an appropriate conclusion. Handel’s setting
of these words in Messiah (“Blessing and honour”) may
be grander but, in its own way, de Monte’s setting is just as
effective. The voices weave around each other on the words
in sæcula sæculorum, “for ever and ever”, as if they
really will go on for ever – we don’t want them to end, yet
the conclusion, when it comes, is no anticlimax but a wonderful
Don’t expect the Italian madrigals here to have
the intensity of Monteverdi, especially of his later books,
but they have their own power to hold the listener. As the
notes point out, de Monte is a subtle rather than a spectacular
composer. In Ogni mio ben, cruel Death has stolen all
that the singer cherished. First heard in a very effective
instrumental version which brings out all the melancholy (track
5) it is heard again in its vocal format (track 9) equally effectively.
Son questi i chiari lumi, we expect the luminous
eyes of the opening words to belong to the beloved, but the
eyes are those of the king of universe, martyred for the sins
of mankind. This unaccompanied sonnet setting is a wonderfully
powerful example of the madrigale spirituale (words by
the Venetian mannerist poet Gabriele Fiamma, as far as I can
ascertain; the booklet does not indicate the source, though
it mentions other poets whose words de Monte set).
Even in the secular motets, Lasso ben so
and Anima dolorosa, there is good deal of quasi-religious
sentiment, reminding us that late-medieval and Renaissance love
poetry often has this marvellous ambiguity – is the beauty in
question that of the earthly lady or that of the Virgin Mary?
The four chansons to texts by Ronsard are much
smaller beer. They lend themselves to a lighter treatment,
which they duly receive here. My favourite of these pieces,
Comme la tourterelle, a piece which almost approaches
the intensity of the Italian madrigals, is especially effectively
performed. Le grand amour (track 13), played here in
an instrumental version, again allows the members of In Echo
to shine. Ronsard was, of course, the luminary of 16th-Century
French poetry and his poems make good texts for musical settings;
de Monte was far from the only composer to take that opportunity. My
own preference is for the poetry of Ronsard’s friend Joachim
du Bellay, but that’s as invidious as choosing between Brahms
and Wagner or Lully and Rameau.
With performances and recording as effective in
the works with Italian and French texts as in the Latin pieces,
this recording makes an ideal introduction to the varied aspects
of de Monte’s music. I’m still not sure about that claim that
de Monte rivalled Palestrina, but he is certainly as well worth
hearing as his better-known contemporary Lassus. Please, Claves,
may we have more? Or maybe Naxos, with their track-record of rescuing deserving
but forgotten music, will oblige.
My MusicWeb colleague
John Portwood, reviewing a Brilliant Classics 5-CD set of Renaissance
Masterpieces (New College Choir, Oxford/Higginbottom, Brilliant
Classics 99937) found the music of Caurroy the most interesting
part of that box, but recommended the set as a whole. CD5 of
that set is devoted to de Monte, with only one overlap between
that and the current Claves recording. The whole box may be
had for around the same price as the single Claves disc, so
that may be the place to begin for those not yet committed to
Renaissance polyphony, but the low price of the Brilliant box
also makes it economical to buy both. All the works on the
Brilliant box are religious, whereas the Claves contains a mix
of spiritual and secular.
I am not even sure that the settings of Hodie,
dilectissimi, omnium sanctorum on the two recordings are
the same piece; the similar timings (5:58 against 6:07) suggest
that it is, but the Brilliant box labels it a 8, whereas
the notes in the Claves booklet state that it is for a double
choir of seven voices. A definitive catalogue of de
Monte’s works would be valuable – a topic for a PhD, perhaps?
JPo exempted the New College singing in de Monte from
his general reservation about over-reedy trebles; even so, I
doubt if they make as mellifluous a sound as the Ensemble Orlando.
With excellent singing, instrumental accompaniment
and recording, the Claves CD deserves to sell well. The informative
booklet, part of the gatefold arrangement in which the CD is
housed, is an additional bonus – and, for once, I didn’t have
to look at the French or German versions of the notes to make
sense of a fractured English translation. I found just one
typo – chiari is printed as chari in the libretto.
The artwork is tasteful. For sheer enterprise alone, this deserves
to be my Recording of the Month.