Giaches de Wert is one of the last representatives of the so-called
Franco-Flemish school of polyphony which dominated the music scene
in Europe for almost two centuries. It is not precisely known
where Wert was born, probably in Ghent in the Southern Netherlands
(presently Belgium). As a boy he was taken to Italy to sing in
the household of Maria di Cardona, Marchese of Padulla. This was
a widespread practice in those days. He developed strong ties
to the county of Novellara, which was ruled by a branch of the
Gonzaga family. It is probably thanks to these ties that he was
able to work as maestro di capella at the court of the governor
of Milan. In 1565 he became maestro di capella at the court of
Wert has become mainly known as composer of madrigals; more than ten
books were published during his lifetime. In this capacity he
had a strong and lasting influence on next generations of composers,
like Claudio Monteverdi, who worked in Mantua from 1589 to 1596.
In comparison his sacred output is limited. This includes three
books of motets, for five and six voices respectively. The second
book for five voices which is recorded here, was published in
These motets bear the traces of Wert's skills as a composer of madrigals.
More than other composers he translated the text into music.
In this respect one could compare him with his contemporary
Orlandus Lassus. Several motets of the second book reflect this
practice. 'Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas' contains much homophony,
which reflects that part of the text which stresses the "undivided
unity" of the Holy Trinity. Homophony is also used to single
out crucial elements in the text, like the passage in St Paul's
letter to the Philippians, set to music in 'Hoc enim sentite
in vobis' where the apostle states that Jesus "humbled
himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of
Ascending and descending figures are used to illustrate the text. The
former are used in 'Hora est iam nos': "Now is the hour
for us to rise from sleep". As one would expect they are
also used to express joy, as in 'Gaudete in Domino': "Rejoice
in the Lord always, again, I say, rejoice". Descending
figures express the passage in Luke 13 vs34-35 where Jesus is
quoted saying: "Behold your house shall be left to you
desolate" ('Jerusalem, Jerusalem').
Wert regularly makes use of lively rhythms to express joy, like at
the end of 'Providebam Dominum': "thou shalt make me full
of joy with thy countenance". In 'Amen, amen dico vobis'
they are applied on the word "gaudebit" (shall rejoice)
and "propter gaudium" (because of joy) at the end
of the motet. In this motet a strong contrast in rhythm is used
to express the change of mood in "your sorrow shall be
turned into joy". The disc is called 'Vox in Rama', which
is not surprising as this is one of Wert's most famous motets
and also one of his most expressive. It is the setting of the
end of the pericope in the gospel according to St Matthew about
the Massacre of the Innocents: "A voice in Rama was heard,
lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children,
and would not be comforted, because they are not." The
dark mood of this text is expressed by chromaticism and dissonances
as one doesn't find them in any of the other motets on this
The American musicologist Carol MacClintock stated that Wert's motets
"are graphic and narrative, often jubilant, magnificent
in their elaborate counterpoint which at times becomes luxurious
in their tremendous sonority. This is music for a church which
pretended to splendor and pomp (...)". These aspects are
well brought to the fore in the motets on this disc. She then
mentions the fact that "there were instrumental canzonas
before and during the Mass, and some portions of the service
were sung with instrumental accompaniment. Many of these motets
were intended for such a purpose". She is referring here
to the performance practice in the basilica which was built
between 1562 and 1565 and was dedicated to the patron saint
of Mantua, Santa Barbara.
This practice is not paid tribute to on this disc: all motets are performed
with voices only. That is a bit of a shame; the use of instruments
in some motets, in particular the more jubilant pieces, had
strengthened their splendour which reflects the brilliance of
both the basilica's music practice and the court of the Gonzagas.
But that is the only note of criticism. The singing is excellent
and does full justice to the expressive character of these motets.
Both the rich polyphonic structure and the exquisite expression
of single words or phrases in the texts are well realised here.
The ensemble produces a very beautiful sound, and the style
of singing as well as the recording technique have resulted
in a nice transparent sound. The booklet contains informative
programme notes and all lyrics with an English translation.
This is the first recording of the whole second book of motets and
therefore an important addition to the catalogue, considering
the quality of Wert's music. As the performances are first-rate
there is every reason to strongly recommend this recording to
anyone interested in the polyphony of the renaissance.
Johan van Veen