Heinrich ISAAC. Ich muss dich lassen
Capilla Flamenca · Oltremontano

Ricercar RIC 318



1. Tmeisken was jonck  [2:31]
Arnold Schlick

2. Sanctus  [4:42]
Missa Tmeisken was jonck

3. Tmeisken was jonck  [1:01]

4. Ad te clamamus  [1:23]

5. La Morra  [2:18]
Francesco Spinacino

6. La Morra  [3:16]


7. Hora e di maggio  [1:04]

8. Tart ara  [2:17]

9. Fammi una gratia, amore  [4:37]

10. Donna die dentro ~ Dammene un pocho ~ Fortuna d'un gran tempo  [1:49]

11. O praeclarissima ~ Alla battaglia  [4:48]

12. Agnus Dei II  [2:21]
Missa La Spagna

13. Quis dabit capiti meo aquam  [5:07]

Wien, Innsbruck, Augsburg

14. La mi la sol  [3:17]

15. Las rauschen  [2:53]

16. Ich stund an einem morgen  [7:11]
Heinrich Isaac ~ Ludwig Senfl

17. En l'ombre d'un buissonet  [1:40]

18. Innsbruck, ich muss die lassen ~ O welt ~ Criste secundum  (Missa carminum)  [6:07]

19. O Maria, mater Christi  [7:11]

Capilla Flamenca
Marnix De Cat: contre-ténor / contratenor
Tore Denys: ténor / tenor
Lieven Termont: baryton / baritone
Dirk Snellings: basse / bas

Jan Van Outryve: luth / luit
Liam Fennelly, Thomas Baeté, Piet Stryckers: violes de gambe / viola da gamba
Patrick Denecker: flûtes à bec / fluiten

Doron David Sherwin: cornet à bouquin / cornetto
Adam Bregman, Harry Ries: trombones ténors / tenortrombone
Wim Becu: trombone basse / bastrombone

Dirk Snellings: direction / leiding

In samenwerking met Davidsfonds / Eufoda   
Conception et direction artistique / Concept en artistieke leiding: Dirk Snellings
Enregistrement / Opname: Provinciaal Museum Begijnhofkerk Sint-Truiden, mars /maart 2011
Prise de son et direction artistique / Digitale opname en artistieke leiding: Jo Cops
Montage: Dirk Snellings & Jo Cops

Illustration / Illustratie: Pieter Bruegel l'Ancien (vers 1525/30 - 1569): La Chute d'Icare
Bruxelles, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts / Brussel, Koninklijke Musea van Schone Kunsten
©akg-images, Paris

Cet enregistrement a été réalisé en collaboration avec le Festival de musique à Maguelone


“Thank the magnificent Venetian ambassador for having requested these songs... if I knew what kinds he likes best, I could have served him better, because Arrigo [ = Heinrich ] Isaac, their composer, has made them in different ways, both grave and sweet, and also capricious and artful”. Thus wrote the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, to his Roman envoy in 1491. Unfortunately the book that he dispatched is now lost, but, judging from the Venetian ambassador’s reply, the gift of music by the most prestigious composer that Lorenzo had at his disposal was a success: the ambassador calls Isaac his “favourite composer”, and goes on to say that, when it is time for music, there “is nothing more that I like to hear”. Echoing Lorenzo’s remarks on Isaac’s multi-facetedness, he confirms that the book offered examples of “every form of the art”, and that the composer was skilful in them all. Isaac impressed, then, in his own time, with his remarkable ability to compose fluently in many different styles. To judge from the works of his that have survived, it is easy to see why: Isaac had no shortage of talented contemporaries, but the sheer quantity of his music that has come down to us, and the bewildering variety of styles and forms that it covers, are unparalleled by any other composer of his generation. Not for nothing has more than one modern scholar called him a musical chameleon.

Our first insight into Isaac’s rise to fame as one of the most admired musicians of his day comes from the court of Duke Sigismund of Tyrol at Innsbruck, in 1484. There he appears in the court records already as a fully fledged composer, meaning that he must have been born some twenty years or more before. From other, later documents, it is clear that he originated from the Low Countries, but where precisely is unknown. Exactly which of Isaac’s surviving works were composed in the period prior to the Innsbruck reference remains a matter of debate. Among the more tempting possibilities are the small number of songs in Dutch that survive under his name. Of these, a four-voice arrangement of the popular Tmeiskin was jonck, with the pre-existent song melody in the tenor voice, was published as a work of Isaac’s in the collection that launched music-printing as a business, Ottaviano Petrucci’s Odhecaton of 1501. The attribution was not included in later reprints, and the piece survives in other, more reliable sources under the name of Jacob Obrecht, making it likely that the latter was in fact the composer. Nonetheless, the piece contributed to Isaac’s public persona, for the Petrucci attribution was believed and repeated by at least one recipient of the work, the German organist Arnold Schlick: he published a lute arrangement of the piece in 1512, reducing the texture to three parts, and adding gentle decorative figuration.

Whether Isaac himself composed the setting of Tmeisken or not, it is certain that he knew the piece. This is clear from the fact that, sometime before 1500, though probably after he had left his homeland, he based a mass on it. The simple tune is subjected to a variety of “artificial” techniques, for which Renaissance composers from the Low Countries are famous (or notorious) today. In the first section of the Sanctus, strict canon is used. The Pleni and Benedictus put the melody in the top voice, in a song-like texture, while the Osanna splits it between top voice and bass, in awesomely long notes. Isaac’s Flemish heritage clearly stayed with him in later life.

Another work for which an origin during Isaac’s early years in Flanders has been proposed is Ad te clamamus. The piece is a section of a larger composition, a complete setting of the Marian antiphon Salve Regina. Settings of this antiphon, taking the traditional Gregorian melody associated with the text as a starting point, were a prominent feature of the fifteenth-century Flemish soundscape during so-called Salve concerts (performances of instrumental and vocal music that took place on certain days of the year and which were free for all to attend). It is not impossible that Isaac originally conceived the complete Salve setting in such a context. What is remarkable, however, in the case of Ad te clamamus, is that the section later took on a life of its own, and circulated widely as a separate piece from the 1490s onwards, sometimes with the original text, sometimes with new words, and sometimes without any text at all (implying instrumental performance). Though short, the section illustrates an impressively wide array of ways to treat the Gregorian melody on which it is based: a first phrase uses long notes in the tenor voice; the next is in imitation between the voices; and sequential repetition brings the section to a stable close.

Isaac’s 1484 Innsbruck visit seems to have only been in passing, for he surfaces again, shortly after, in Florence, the city that would dominate the rest of his life. There, Isaac encountered one of the liveliest urban musical environments in Europe, under the patronage of the art-loving Lorenzo whose letter was quoted above. Isaac himself was employed as one of the singers of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, yet it is equally clear that he immersed himself in the totality of the urban environment. Civic occasions often required music, and, in Florence, among the most important regular such events was Carnival, the period immediately before Lent. For the 1488 Carnival season, Isaac composed a work on an unprecedented scale celebrating the recent Florentine military capture of the fortress of Sarzanello from the Genoese. The piece — now known as Alla battaglia — is usually performed instrumentally today, but was originally vocal. A complete performance would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, as the music had to be sung three times with a strophic text describing the battle. Not unusually for Carnival works, the piece was probably originally performed on a processional wagon as it made its way through the streets of the city. Alla battaglia must count as one Isaac’s most popular with modern ensembles, yet an remarkable letter written by an eye-witness at the première tells us that, after a spectacular build-up and rehearsals in the utmost secrecy, the work was met with bewilderment by the unsuspecting Florentine public. In spite of (or because of) this, there was clearly widespread and lasting interest in the piece. Sometime in the last decade of the fifteenth century or early in the sixteenth, it entered a German source, where it was shortened, and its no-longer-appropriate occasional text was replaced with a Latin sacred one in honour of Mary, O praeclarissima. A seamless fit was ensured by the new text’s careful observance of the music’s accent patterns, shifting textures, variations of scoring and alterations of meter.

Civic, or possibly theatrical, use is possible also for Fammi una gratia, Hora e di maggio and La Morra. Fammi una gratia is a typical representative of Florentine Carnival song of the time, and a yardstick against which to judge the extraordinary nature of Alla battaglia: the strophic text, a love lyric in ballata form, receives a strongly declamatory setting in three voices, with phrases clearly separated from one another, and a change of time-signature at the end from two beats per bar to three. Hora e di maggio, a contribution to the well-established tradition of songs in praise of Spring, is musically more complicated: the alto and bass weave a dense texture around the melody (possibly a paraphrase of a popular tune) in the tenor and top voices. The meaning of the title La Morra is unclear. Hypotheses include a reference to a game of the same name and to Ludovico il Moro of Milan. The piece was probably composed as an original instrumental work, although the fact that it appears in some sources with the text incipit Donna gentile warns against drawing too sharp a line with vocal music. Furthermore, one source calls it Helaes, perhaps in recognition of its similarities to Isaac’s song Helas que devera. The tenor, a melody in somewhat longer notes than the surrounding voices, forms the backbone of the piece. The frequent use of sequential repetition is especially striking. La morra appears in both three- and four-voice versions, and, like Tmeisken, it is also preserved in solo instrumental arrangements, including for the organ, and, in a collection of 1507 by the Italian virtuoso Francesco Spinacino, for the lute. Another work possibly intended for instrumental performance is Isaac’s arrangement of the French song Tart ara. The original, a song in rondeau form, is a composition (the only one to survive under his name) by the Burgundian chronicler and poet Jean Molinet. In Isaac’s beautiful setting, he takes the tenor melody of the original, sets it in long notes in the middle voice, and surrounds it with faster figuration on either side.

As is clear from a number of the pieces discussed so far, many of Isaac’s works are based on pre-existent melodies. Indeed, for the Renaissance composer, the skilful manipulation of such material was a primary means of showing their talents. Both Isaac and his contemporaries customarily drew on both secular songs and the traditional chant melodies of the church. Yet, alongside these possibilities, Isaac also had a remarkable ear for less usual materials and the breadth of vision to consider them worthy of inclusion in his works. The most unusual include a Muslim call to prayer, a street cry about sausages, and a courtly dance tune that he must have come across in Italy, La Spagna. Taking the latter as the basis for a mass, Isaac kept the model hidden under decoration for most of the setting. But in the penultimate section, the second Agnus Dei, it is presented “straight”, in the lowest voice, in a manner akin to its use in actual dance. The allusion to real dance practices was enough to cause the section to break away from the mass and appear in sources independently. Donna di dentro / Dammene un pocho / Fortuna d’un gran tempo demonstrates yet another way in which Isaac reacted to the music around him: the piece uses the unusual form of the quodlibet, a musical type where several pre-existent songs — in this case all popular Florentine tunes — are combined together.

In 1492 an era in Florentine history ended when Lorenzo de’ Medici died. Isaac marked the death of his beloved patron with an exquisite motet, Quis dabit capiti meo aquam?. The text, by the court poet Angelo Poliziano, is full of striking rhetorical techniques and imagery, and Isaac responded with music that is fully its equal. As a basis, Isaac took a melodic fragment from the Compline antiphon Salva nos, which, in its original form, bore the appropriately resonant text, “et requiescamus in pace”. The borrowed material is constantly present throughout the entire work, but is most striking in the second of the motet’s three sections, when the tenor voice falls silent, and the bass presents it (with its original text) on the successive notes of a falling scale.

It took little more than two years after Lorenzo’s death for the Florentine artistic scene to utterly change. Lorenzo’s son Piero lacked the charisma and vision of his father, and, by 1494, the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola had instituted a religious law under which elaborate liturgical music had no place. The singers of San Giovanni were disbanded, and Isaac found himself not only without a position, but immersed in an environment in which his very craft as a producer of musical art-works was viewed with suspicion. It was clear that he would have to look for work elsewhere. After what must have been a very difficult period, he took the highly unconventional step, in 1496, of leaving Italy for Vienna and the Imperial court of Maximilian I. With Isaac’s appointment, Maximilian clearly hoped to elevate his court’s musical standards to a level unrivalled anywhere in Europe. To achieve this, Isaac entered Maximilian’s service not as a singer, but as Hofkomponist — court composer — and thus entered Western music history as the first musician known to have been employed exclusively to produce musical works. The position accorded Isaac unprecedented freedom, and was to have profound consequences both for Isaac’s output, and for the musical scene in German-speaking lands as a whole.

Isaac’s primary task in his new position was to provide music for the Imperial chapel. In fulfilment of this, he cultivated two regionally specific forms — the polyphonic mass proper cycle and the chant-based alternation-mass — to an unprecedented degree, and blended them with the most recent Italian trends. Just as remarkable, in other ways, are the individual motets he produced for the chapel. These include the imposing O Maria, mater Christi, a through-composed setting of a Marian sequence, in four sections. A logical global form is guaranteed by basing the work throughout on the sequence chant melody, but the diversity of techniques that Isaac applies to the pre-existent material ensures compelling moment by moment contrasts.

Despite the prestige of being Imperial Hofkomponist, it is clear that Isaac longed to return permanently to Italy. In 1502 he competed for a position at the glamorous court of Ferrara. We are told that he composed a “very fine motet on a fantasia called La mi la sol la sol la mi, in just two days” as part of the selection process. The title refers to a symmetrically constructed eight-note melody (A-E-A-G-A-G-A-E) that determines the overall structure of the work as well as dominates its melodic material. The tenor presents the melody first in fantastically long notes, then repeats it in increasingly reduced note values until it catches up with the three surrounding parts. At the same time, the surrounding figuration spins ever-new variations from the same melody. Isaac lost out to Josquin Des Prez, despite the fact that he was recommended as the best of the candidates. He was, in fact, to remain in Maximilian’s service for the rest of his life, though allowed reside in Florence for much of the time.

At the Imperial court, as in Italy, Isaac was very active not only in the field of sacred music but also in other domains. French song — the true international secular repertory of Isaac’s time — probably made up a part of his non-sacred Imperial activities. En l’ombre d’un buissonet is one such piece, if the fact that it survives only in German sources is to be taken as indicative. The song actually consists of two arrangements of the same popular melody. In the first, the melody is broken up and used to create a dazzling variety of textures, while the second has the two uppermost voices in canon.
Of more fundamental importance was Isaac’s pioneering development of secular songs in German. Among these is found Innsbruck, ich mus dich lassen, undoubtedly Isaac’s best-known work today, thanks to its adaptation, in the mid sixteenth century, into a Lutheran chorale. Despite its fame, the song is profoundly atypical, both in its poetic structure and in the Italianate textural clarity of its music. It is a song that could only have been written by a composer with Isaac’s profile. Alongside the plain version, it also exists in a second form, with the melody in canon between tenor and top voice. Much more typical of sixteenth-century German song is Las rauschen, with its melody in the tenor voice in longer notes, and faster figuration around it in the bass, alto, and soprano.

Isaac was known not only as a composer but also as a teacher. It was during his time at the Imperial court that he gained his most famous pupil, Ludwig Senfl (1488/89-1543/44). Isaac clearly inspired devotion in those with whom he was acquainted, for it is only through Senfl’s diligence in preserving his master’s work in elegant manuscript copies that a great deal of his music survives. But Senfl was more than just a medium: his own surviving oeuvre is of extraordinary quality. Connections between the two composers can be found at many levels, but one of the most obvious is in works that directly relate to one another. As Isaac laid the foundation for the sixteenth-century flowering of German song, Senfl, with his many hundreds of Lieder, was undoubtedly the most important composer to pick up the baton. Among his songs are many that set the same poems as those of his teacher. The settings of Ich stund an einem Morgen, a touching song in the old tradition of lovers parting at dawn, comprise one of the most impressive groups. Isaac’s setting is for four voices, with the melody is in the tenor, but enriched by imitating most of its phrases in the other parts as well. Senfl composed no less than five settings using the same tenor melody: the pieces have an almost laboratory-like quality, as the composer explores the compositional possibilities inherent in the material with different numbers of singers and a dazzling array of textures. The three-voice version presents the melody in the lowest part. The two four-voice versions differ dramatically from each other, with one taking the melody primarily in the tenor voice with faster surrounding parts, and the other presenting it in the tenor as well as the two outer voices (in strict parallel 10ths throughout) simultaneously. The five-voice setting places each phrase of the song melody in the two lowest voices in various kinds of strict imitation, with more rapid declamatory motivic material above.

The programme of the present CD, then, presents a life in music. But it is also more than that: it reveals the life of music — music that, once composed and sent out into the world, was transformed, manipulated according to new contexts and needs, and used as a source of new inspiration. The correspondence between Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Venetian ambassador is thus not the only evidence that we have of Isaac’s success in his own time and throughout the sixteenth century after his death. Such pieces as the lute intabulations of his works, Ad te clamamus, O praeclarissima, and the mass sections that became separated from their parent-works can only be explained by a genuine desire, on the part of sixteenth-century audiences, to experience and enjoy Isaac’s music in whatever format and environment they found most convenient. While much has changed between then and now, the chance for us to do the same remains very much alive.


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