Henry du MONT (1610-1684)
O Mysterium - Motets & Élévations pour la Chapelle de Louis XIV

Memorare [07:36]
Jesu dulcedo cordium [03:41]
Desidero te millies [03:07]
O aeterne misericors Deus [08:50]
Sub umbra noctis profundae [04:21]
O mysterium [07:19]
Allemanda gravis [03:10]
Ave Regina caelorum [03:29]
O dulcissima [10:55]
Quam pulchra es [04:57]
O praecelsum [03:27]
Super flumina Babylonis [10:18]
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
Recorded September 2015 at MC2, Grenoble, France
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902241 [71:18]

Henry du Mont was one of the leading composers in France in the second half of the 17th century. His importance in the realm of sacred music can be compared to that of Jean-Baptiste Lully in the field of opera. In this light, it is rather odd that relatively few discs with compositions from his pen are available. It is also his small-scale sacred concertos which are most often performed. The core of the programme which the Ensemble Correspondances recorded are five grands motets, an important genre for which Du Mont laid the foundation.

Du Mont was born in Looz (today Borgloon) near Hasselt in what is now Belgium. For some time he lived in Maastricht where he entered the choir school of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk. However, he received the main part of his musical education in Liège, in particular from Léonard de Hodemont. The latter was strongly influenced by the Italian concertato style and that has also left its marks in Du Mont’s oeuvre. His presence in Paris is documented for the first time in 1643 when he was appointed organist of St Paul. In the next years he developed into an important figure in the Parisian music scene and in 1647 he was granted French nationality.

In 1660 he was given the post of organist to Queen Marie-Thérèse whom Louis XIV had just married. In 1663 he became one of the sous-maîtres of the Royal Chapel, a position he first shared with three colleagues but from 1668 onwards with only one of them, Pierre Robert. It is this position which inspired him to compose his grands motets whereas previously he had largely confined himself to the genre of the petit motet, scored for one or several solo voices and basso continuo, sometimes with additional treble instruments.

Du Mont was basically the inventor of the petit motet and he also laid the foundation for the grand motet which was to become the main genre of sacred music at the court until the mid-18th century. I already noticed the Italian influences in Du Mont’s oeuvre. Those come especially to the fore in the petits motets, for instance the fact that a number of them have the form of a dialogue. But the grands motets also bear the traces of the Italian style. There is a particularly dramatic moment in O mysterium, a motet for Trinity. The first half is an expression of joy: "Celebrate festivals of joy, O people! Rejoice!". Then all of a sudden there is a change in mood: "But what is this error? (...) Be silent, be silent, and adore these most sacred mysteries.Why do you seek to fathom the unfathomable?" The programme ends with one of the most expressive of the grands motets, the setting of Super flumina Babylonis, a psalm in which the Jewish people lament their fate during the Babylonian Captivity. It includes some very dramatic episodes, for instance the verse "How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?" The last verse is another specimen of Du Mont's art of setting a text: "Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem".

A number of petits motets taken from two collections published in 1668 and 1681 respectively were used as Elevation motets. The Elevation was a central part in the Mass: the raising of the host and chalice in turn, after their consecration, by the celebrant. These Elevation motets were performed during the Mass in the Royal Chapel. They are scored for one to four voices and bc. Some of these are on texts from the Bible, others are free texts, for instance by Pierre Perrin (c1620-1675), a poet and librettist. Quam pulchra es is on verses from the Song of Songs and scored for two sopranos and bc. It offers much opportunity for expression and Du Mont doesn't miss it, for instance in the harmonic tension on the words "vulnerasti cor meum" - thou hast wounded my heart. Sub umbra noctis profundae, on a text by Perrin, is a motet "at the Elevation of the host" and is scored for bass solo. The low tessitura of the voice is effectively explored in the opening lines: "In the shadow of deep darkness silently we grieved". The second part has a more uplifting character: "O comforter of the afflicted (...) have mercy on those who repent, and bring joy to those who grieve". The contrast between the two halves is eloquently illustrated in the music.

There is an interesting aspect in these performances which is discussed by Thomas Leconte in the booklet. It concerns the role of instruments. The earliest pieces by Du Mont are for voices and basso continuo. In his later works he adds instrumental parts but not as many as one would expect on the basis of what was common at the time. "Du Mont's Motets of 1686 are laid out in the five-part instrumental texture of which French composers were so fond, but in an atypical scoring: a trio, consisting of two dessus de violon parts and a bass, and two inner parts (haute-contre de violon and taille de violon), a hybrid layout that does not correspond to the usual quintet - dessus de violon in unison, haute-contre, taille, quinte and basse de violon - employed at the French court since the late sixteenth century." This and "a succession of instances of clumsiness, errors or inconsistencies in both the part-writing and the layout of the instrumental doublings in the vocal parts" have raised questions about their authenticity. It is now generally admitted that they are the result of posthumous arrangements. Previously the instrumental texture was that of a trio: two dessus and a bass, and that is the instrumental scoring in pieces by Du Mont and his colleague Robert from the 1660s and 1670s. There are signs of the addition of a taille de violon in the Royal Chapel from 1661 onwards but the scoring of the motets of the time suggests that this instrument was not used on a regular basis. In the early 1670s the haute-contre de violon makes its entrance and this results in the five-part scoring of the 1686 collection of grands motets by Du Mont. In 1663 a grosse basse was included in the ensemble of the Royal Chapel, probably comparable to the violone.

In this recording the various stages in the development of instrumental forces in the Chapel Royal are illustrated by different instrumental scorings of the grands motets. Three motets date from before 1673; in two of them the instrumental accompaniment is confined to two dessus and bass, whereas in the third the taille is included. In the remaining two motets which are of a later date the five-part texture has been kept. In all cases the instrumental parts have been revised.

This aspect will probably be less important to the average listener. He can just enjoy the music by a composer he probably hardly knows or doesn't know at all. One of the things which has always struck me - having heard a number of recordings of Du Mont's works - is the consistent quality of his oeuvre. I have never heard anything that was less than interesting; most of his music is of excellent quality and it is easy to understand that he was held in such high esteem in his time. About 70 grands motets from his pen have been preserved which makes him the most prolific composer of this kind of works before Michel-Richard de Lalande (who composed around 80). Only a handful of these motets have made it to disc. The main recordings of grands motets are those by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi, 1981) and the Ensemble Pierre Robert (Alpha, 2005). Memorare and Super flumina Babylonis also appear on one or both of those discs. The other pieces seem to be new to the catalogue. Even if some of them may be available on a disc that has escaped my attention it seems unlikely that they receive better performances than here by the Ensemble Correspondances which in recent years has developed into one of the finest of its kind. The voices blend perfectly and the singers have a very good feeling for the mixture of Italian expression on the one hand and the elegance and the natural prosody which are features of French music under the ancien régime. It almost goes without saying that the Latin texts are pronounced in a way which was common at the time.

These are incisive performances of pieces by a composer who deserves much more attention than he has received so far.

Johan van Veen

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