The Mysterious Motet Book of 1539
Siglo De Oro/Patrick Allies
rec. 2022, St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK
Latin texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34284 
This is a disc which fascinates as much for the background story as for the music itself. A summary of the background is essential and for this – and for factual information about the individual pieces - I draw on the elegantly written and most interesting booklet essay by Daniel Trocmé-Latter. He is Associate Professor of Music and Director of Music at Homerton College, Cambridge University. This whole project stems from his original research.
As an undergraduate History student several decades ago, I was fascinated by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period in European history. (I also came to the conclusion that this must have been a particularly bad time to be alive because the politicisation of religious beliefs could put anyone in great peril if they happened to find themselves on the wrong side of the doctrinal argument, especially when there was a change of ruler in a country or locality.)
As Trocmé-Latter reminded me, the Reformation was not a homogenised
movement; rather, many localised revolts sprang up against the established religious order of things. One such occurrence happened in Strasbourg, which was at that time a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. The Strasbourg reformers were led by one Martin Bucer, a former Dominican friar. Unlike some of the more extreme Protestant reformers, though, Bucer understood the value of music in the liturgy. That said, he espoused congregational singing of hymns, not specialist choirs singing complicated music in Latin to the congregation (I paraphrase Prof Trocmé-Latter’s comments). One unsurprising casualty of the Reformation in Strasbourg, then, was the cathedral choir; they were all sacked in 1529.
The Protestant Reformation thus took firm hold in the city, which made the events behind the music here recorded by Siglo De Oro truly remarkable. Our story has two heroes. One is Hermann Mathias Werrecore, the Flemish Choirmaster of Milan Cathedral. The other is Peter Schöffer the Younger, a Protestant publisher who had arrived in Strasbourg in 1529 and set himself up in business there. Schöffer began to publish polyphonic music and his work culminated in August 1539 with the publication of Cantiones quinque vocum selectissimæ. This volume contained twenty-eight Latin motets which had been sent to him by Werrecore. This remarkable publishing enterprise begs a number of questions. How did it come to be that a Milanese Catholic musician sent Latin polyphony (i.e., music used in the Roman liturgy) to Protestant Strasbourg for publication? And why did Schöffer take the commercial risk of publishing music for which there would be absolutely no demand in his adopted city? (Apparently King Ferdinand I granted him an imperial privilege to print the music so, in terms of his personal security, perhaps this gave him the necessary cover.)
Prof Trocmé-Latter suggests that Schöffer was probably aiming at a market outside Strasbourg, namely the Catholic areas of Europe and some Lutheran areas in Germany. That seems highly plausible to me. He doesn’t advance a firm hypothesis for why Werrecore should have selected Schöffer as the potential publisher for this collection of motets – a collection which, by the way, included no music by Werrecore himself. Why didn’t Werrecore seek to have the music published in Milan, where he had business links with the printing fraternity? I wonder if, prosaically, the reason was that no one was especially interested in Milan and Werrecore had heard of Schöffer’s technical expertise from contacts in northern Europe. We shall never know, but this set of twenty-eight motets was sent from Milan to Strasbourg and published under the title Cantiones quinque vocum selectissimæ. From the collection, Patrick Allies has selected twelve. As we shall see, some of the composers represented in this selection are quite well known; others are much more obscure.
I understand that three of the pieces now exist nowhere else other than in Schöffer’s publication. The pieces in question are those by Simon Ferrariensis, Dominique Phinot and Johannes Sarton. None of them deserves to be lost so we must be grateful to Schöffer.
The programme opens auspiciously – both in terms of the music and the quality of performance - with Pierre Cadéac’s Salus populi ego sum. It seems that this composer lived his entire life in France and the Netherlands. This motet, using verses from the Book of Psalms, demonstrates seamless, dignified polyphony. The spacious music impresses, as does the clarity and ideal blend with which the members of Siglo De Oro deliver it. Jacques Arcadelt, it seems, was also a Frenchman but, unlike Cadéac, he travelled to make his career, ending up in Italy by the late 1520s. His Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes sets words from the Epistle read at Mass on the Feast of Pentecost. The music is suitably joyful. Johannes Lupi was another musician who, like Cadéac, limited his career to France and the Low Countries. Apparens Christus sets words from the Acts of the Apostles telling of the appearance by Christ to his disciples after the Resurrection. This piece impressed me strongly. The music is spacious and Siglo De Oro give it a glowing performance. In the second half of the piece the mood becomes more fervent, yet both music and performance remain perfectly poised.
Adrian Willaert is one of the more familiar figures here. He spent most of his working life in Italy. Laetare sancta mater ecclesia sets words from the Office of the Feast of St Augustine of Hippo: I think this is the first time I’ve heard a piece of Renaissance polyphony in honour of this particular saint. The music is very celebratory – the polyphony is teeming – and I admire the way Patrick Allies gets his singers to sound joyful yet controlled at the same time. By contrast, Willaert’s Peccavi super numerum arenae maris is a penitential piece and, as such, the music has darker hues. The singers project the music strongly.
We don’t even know the full name of Maistre Jhan. What is known is that he was born in France and eventually fetched up in the service of a prominent family in Ferrara. In Pater Noster – Ave Maria he sets the two prayers, one after the other. This is the least complex music on the disc. Dominique Phinot’s Exsurge quare obdormis is unusual among the pieces recorded here in that the composer dispensed with a bass part; instead, the scoring is SAAAT. That results in light, airy textures. It’s a most attractive composition.
It seems that little is known about Jhan de Billon, though he may have spent some time as a singer in the papal chapel. Postquam impleti sunt dies purgationis Mariæ is a Candlemas motet which offers a serene contemplation on the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The sense of gentle ecstasy in the music is accentuated by the way in which the vocal lines, especially the soprano part, gradually move upwards. This is a lovely piece.
Some scholars believe that Veni electa mea is the work of Nicolas Gombert; Schöffer credited him as the composer. Some believe, though, that it’s the creation of Jacquet of Mantua. Whoever was responsible, the music shows the hand of a confident composer. Apparently, we’re on much safer ground in attributing Laus Deo, pax vivis to Gombert. I gather that no less than eight of the twenty-eight pieces in the Cantiones bear his name. Laus Deo, pax vivis is an extrovert and highly assured motet. The music is splendid and so is the performance by Siglo De Oro; it’s a spirited conclusion to their programme.
You may have spotted, though, that I haven’t mentioned one piece. That’s deliberate. All of the motets are in their different ways, highly impressive but, as a matter of personal taste, one stood out for me. It’s not entirely certain that Haec dies quam fecit is the work of Johannes Sarton; the piece is unattributed in the Cantiones and Daniel Trocmé-Latter explains in the booklet how Sarton came to be identified with it. The motet is a Christmas piece and I think it's a knock-out, especially in this performance. The music is jubilant and Allies and his singers invest it with great vitality. In particular, the repeated cries of ‘noe’ ring round the choir from one voice part to another, like pealing bells every time they occur in the work. It’s vividly brought to life here and we can only be thankful that the music, for which no other sources exist, survived.
This is an outstanding release. It seamlessly combines top-class musicianship with the results of dedicated scholarship, though this is not in any sense a ‘scholarly’ project in the dusty, specialist sense. Rather, the superb singing of Siglo De Oro under the export direction of Patrick Allies brings this music leaping off the page and vividly to life. I see from the booklet that in 2023 Daniel Trocmé-Latter will be publishing a book in which he will tell the full story of the Cantiones. In addition, it is planned to make available as downloads all twenty-eight of the pieces which were published way back in 1539 by Peter Schöffer. At that stage, it will be possible for other ensembles to perform the pieces. Their appetites whetted by the superb performances on this CD, I hope many groups will do so. In addition, if the other sixteen pieces in the Cantiones are of comparable quality to those included here – as I suspect is the case – then I hope that somehow a way can be found for Siglo De Oro to release them on disc to coincide with the publication of Prof Trocmé-Latter’s book.
It only remains to say that Paul Baxter has recorded these performances with his customary expertise. The recording presents the singers quite closely, so that one has the pleasant sensation of sitting near them in a quire as they sing. But Baxter has also presented the performances with a nice sense of the acoustic in which they were set down. The documentation is up to Dephian’s usual high standards.
As I’ve been listening to this disc, I’ve reflected more than once how much my late colleague Brian Wilson, would have enjoyed it. He would have greatly appreciated the music, I’m sure, and would have appraised it with his expert ear. He would also have loved the historical context and the story behind the rediscovery of these pieces. And, above all, he would have rejoiced that after centuries of silence this music has been so marvellously revived for a twenty-first century audience. Brian, I’m certain, would have urged his readers to acquire this splendid CD, and so do I.
Pierre Cadéac (fl 1538-1556) Salus populi ego sum
Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568) Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes
Johannes Lupi (c 1506-1639) Apparens Christus
Adrian Willaert c1490-1562) Laetare sancta mater ecclesia
Adrian Willaert Peccavi super numerum arenae maris
Maistre Jhan (c1485-1538) Pater Noster – Ave Maria
Johannes Sarton (fl early 16th c) Haec dies quam fecit
Dominique Phinot (c 1510- c 1556) Exsurge quare obdormis
Jhan de Billon (fl 1534-1556) Postquam impleti sunt dies purgationis Mariæ
Simon Ferrariensis (fl early 16th c) Ave et gaude gloriosa virgo
Nicolas Gombert (c 1495- c1550) or Jacquet of Mantua (1483-1559) Veni electa mea
Nicolas Gombert Laus Deo, pax vivis