Requiem. Pierre DE LA RUE · Antoine BRUMEL
The Clerks' Group

Gaudeamus CD GAU 352

Pierre de LA RUE
(c. 1460-1518)
01 - I. Introit.Requiem aetermam   [4:22]
02 - II. Kyrie eleison   [3:58]
03 - III. Psalm. Sicut cervus   [3:20]
04 - IV. Offertory. Domine Jesu Christe   [5:20]
05 - V. Sanctus & Benedictus   [4:06]
06 - VI. Agnus Dei   [3:52]
07 - VII. Communion. Luceat eis Domine   [2:34]

Antoine BRUMEL
(c. 1460-1520)
08 - I. Introit. Requiem aeternam   [5:24]
09 - II. Kyrie eleison   [3:27]
10 - III. Sequence. Dies irae   [13:10]
11 - IV. Sanctus & Benedictus   [1:44]
12 - V. Agnus Dei   [1:40]
13 - VI. Communion. Luceat eis Domine   [3:18]

(world premiere recording, salvo #10)

Edward Wickham

Lucy Ballard, William Missin - altos
Chris Watson, Matthew Vine - tenors
Edward Wickham, Robert Macdonald, Andrew Westwood - basses

Produced by David Trendell
Engineered by David Wright
Edited by David Wright
Recorded at St Andrew's, West Wratting, 2nd, 3rd and 4th February 2004
Designed by Studio B, The Creative People
Cover: How Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) Passed Away and Was Buried,
from the manuscript by Jean Vauquelin (vellum) by French School, (15th century),
Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee du Petit-Palais, France,
Lauros / Giraudon, Bridgeman Art Library


The chatter of chaplains reciting Requiems in scattered chantries must have been a familiar sound in the Medieval Cathedral. This was not a liturgy restricted to funeral services. One of the most common strategies for evading - or a least expediting - the soul's sojourn in Purgatory was to leave financial provision for the intoning of Requiem masses on the death day of the sinner in question; and just in case the Almighty was not paying attention the first time, bequests would often specify several recitations, one after the other.

The Office of the Dead - drawing its more familiar title, the Requiem, from the opening word of the liturgy - was therefore commonplace in the late Medieval Church. Yet only in monastic institutions would the masses been routinely sung, and then in chant. Examples of polyphonic Requiem cycles are few and far between in the 15th century, possibly because when leaving behind musical memorials, those wealthy priests and musicians most likely to endow polyphony opted for alternative expressions of votive piety. Machaut, for example, composed for the benefit of his soul a Mass of Our Lady rather than a Requiem cycle. Though the second half of the 15th century saw the Mass Ordinary cycle (consisting of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements) assume a position as the most complex, compositionally ambitious and substantial genre in Western art music, the polyphonic Requiem cycle does not seem to have attracted the same interest, nor stirred the imagination of the ever-competitive composers of the Early Renaissance. The two earliest settings are by Ockeghem and Dufay, the former surviving incomplete in a source from the late 15th century but probably penned in the 1460s, and the latter now lost completely

Perhaps there was simply little call for elaborate polyphonic Requiems: the corollary of this being that those which were composed must have been for special occasions. Sadly, historical information is too sparse for us to be able to match the earliest polyphonic Requiems to particular events even in the case of Pierre de la Rue whose biography is relatively well-documented. Based for a large part of his career at the court of Margaret of Austria - regent in the Netherlands on behalf of Charles V - La Rue's music enjoyed wide circulation in manuscripts emanating from Margaret's court, and the Missa Pro fidelibus defunctis (to give it its full title) appears in four different sources.

Not altogether surprising for such an eye and earcatching work. La Rue's Requiem as notated employs extraordinarily low ranges for the bass voices. To singers familiar with the usual layout and clefs of a Renaissance manuscript, the visual impact alone must have been powerful. Whether this visual symbol of solemnity should be literally interpreted as indicating actual low-sounding pitches is a question of some debate. Renaissance notation was not intended to indicate fixed sounding pitches, and one can imagine a flexible, practical approach to transposition being taken by performing ensembles, based on the abilities of the singers involved. Transposition of La Rue's Requiem upwards to avoid the subterranean ranges is possible, though not always comfortable. However, the model for this mass provides some context for the eccentric scoring and invites us to consider the work as part of a tradition of low-voice composition.

La Rue's main influence here is the Requiem of Ockeghem. La Rue's choice of movements to set polyphonically (including the Graduale which in this period was the psalm "Sicut cervus") and his manipulation of scoring for dramatic contrast (the additional voice for the final Kyrie, for example, or the duets at the opening of the Graduale) are surely the direct result of familiarity with and admiration for Ockeghem's cycle. La Rue's use of low ranges is another facet of this influence, for while Ockeghem never notated anything quite this low in his Requiem, he does relish the sound of low ensemble singing and in other works (Missa Fors seulement and Intemerata Dei mater) notates similar ranges for the basses as La Rue does here.

La Rue's mass is therefore a patchwork of duos, quartets and quintets, linked by a common thread of chant. The traditional Gregorian chant of the Office of the Dead is never far away, presented most often - in an adorned fashion - in the upper voice of whatever combination of voices is singing at the time. All the earliest polyphonic Requiems maintain an intimate relationship with these chants, such that the balance between free expression and functionality which in Mass Ordinary cycles of the period so often tips towards the former, in some Requiems favours the latter. The mass by Brumel is a case in point. Some of the music here aspires to not much more than elegant harmonisation of the chant tunes. That the results are so beguiling is a testament to the languid, easy charm of Brumel's style, one which gently manipulates mode and generates long, poised melodies out of the simplest of ideas.

The way in which chant is reinvented by Brumel as polyphonic melody can be heard most easily in the Dies irae, as it happens also the first polyphonic setting of this text. This lengthy poem - which represents the emotional epicentre of so many later Requiem settings - had a semi-detached relationship with the Office of the Dead until after the mid 16th-century reform of Roman Catholic liturgy at the Council of Trent. Its appearance in Brumel's mass suggests an unusual liturgical environment, while its treatment - alternating chant and polyphony, the latter repeating in the same way as the original chant sequence - maintains a formality of approach common to the entire cycle.

But the apparent coolness and objectivity of Brumel's setting - in contrast to that of La Rue - is not simply a matter of functionality. Brumel's polyphony - specifically his use of imitation - is more controlled and consistent than La Rue's. Quite apart from the dark sonorities of the La Rue, the internal logic of its melodies and the way they relate is less predictable - at least for the modern listener - than Brumel's. In Josquin's Nymphes des bois, which sets a poem by Molinet lamenting the death of Ockeghem and which employs the Requiem chant as a cantus firmus, Brumel and La Rue are both mentioned by name as mourning the loss of their "bon père". The musical heredity of the Early Renaissance is devilishly difficult to unravel, but the compositional DNA of these two Requiems point to Brumel's affinity with Josquin and Italian music, but to La Rue as the more faithful son.

© Edward Wickham, 2005