Pierre de LA RUE. Portrait musical
Capilla Flamenca · liner notes


One of the most significant and prolific composers of his generation, Pierre de la Rue was almost certainly born in Tournai, a city ruled by France in the fifteenth century - and chief town of the current Belgian province of Hainaut. His birth-date and education are unknown, but the latter is very likely to have been in the maîtrise of the city's important cathedral. As with so many composers of the time, we know little of his early employment (since La Rue sang the highest vocal part, he is unlikely to be the tenorist Peter vander Straten, as formerly thought). In his early years he probably worked at the church of Sint Odenrode in the town of the same name (in the current Dutch Brabant, near 's-Hertogenbosch), but by 1492 he was employed in the chapel of Maximilian, the future Holy Roman Emperor, widower of Mary of Burgundy, and father of Philip the Fair and Margaret of Austria, each of whom would eventually include La Rue among their musicians [Illustration 1].

The Habsburg-Burgundian court was a key political player on the world stage, and it was equally important as a major musical center as well, with a very large collection of permanent chapel members who performed an impressive daily series of musical services for its ruler: a daily polyphonic mass and daily Vespers and Compline services, both of which incorporated polyphony as well. On major feast days, and during Advent and Lent, this round of musical activities was expanded still further. La Rue thus had a ready outlet for his compositions, which grew to include almost forty masses and individual mass movements, almost two dozen motets, a complete series of eight Magnificats, and, for non-liturgical entertainment, more than forty secular works. He also had an impressive côterie of colleagues in the court chapel, including such luminaries as Gaspar van Weerbeke, Alexander Agricola, Nicolas Champion, Marbrianus de Orto, and Antonius Divitis. Yet La Rue outshone them all in the quantity, quality, and variety of pieces he wrote for the court. His compositions were the foundation as well for another by-product of courtly splendor: a series of more than sixty music manuscripts, some richly illuminated, that were generated by scribes connected with the court and then given to royal patrons and wealthy individuals across Europe. These manuscripts contain almost all of La Rue's compositions.

By necessity, the court was a peripatetic one: rulers needed to show their face to their subjects, and musical ceremony was a necessity for the trappings of power. Habsburg-Burgundy was an especially wide-flung realm, a good portion of which La Rue visited over the years of his service. Under Maximilian he saw much of German-speaking lands; when Philip the Fair came of age the court chapel returned to the Low Countries and constantly moved about there. By 1501 Philip's wife Juana was heiress to her homeland of Castile, and the court made an extended trip to see what were to be her (or rather Philip's) future domains, crossing through France, residing for months in Spain, and returning slowly back through Habsburg territory.

In 1504 Isabella of Castile died, and in early 1506 Philip and his massive retinue departed for Spain to lay claim to Castile. This time they went by sea, but terrible storms forced them to land in England and remain for months as guests of Henry VII. Less than half a year after finally reaching Spain, Philip died, plunging the court into confusion. La Rue and numerous chapel members remained in Spain, serving Juana in her incessant mourning for her lost husband, and only returning north in 1508.

On Philip's death, the new ruler of Habsburg-Burgundy was, in theory, his six-year-old son, the archduke Charles. In practice, Charles's aunt (and Philip's sister) Margaret of Austria governed the Low Countries until Charles was declared of age in 1514. During this time the court was, for the most part, resident in either Malines or Brussels, a period of stability that seems to have facilitated La Rue's compositional work. Then from 1514 to 1516 the court was on the move again, as Charles toured the territories now under his direct rule. It is likely that his plans for a trip to Spain, of which he became King after the death of Ferdinand of Aragon, prompted La Rue's decision to retire to Courtrai, where he owned a prebend, in 1516. He lived there until his death on 20 November 1518.

The works recorded here form a rich sampling of his output from different times in his career, many Marian in theme: four masses, five motets, a Magnificat, and three chansons. Each offers an exploration of a different musical challenge, and together they demonstrate the ways in which La Rue was a leader in the expanding musical world of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries via his expansion of texture, expansion of range, expansion of chromatic language, expansion of formal possibilities, and expansion in the ways to use borrowed material. May these recordings offer expanded joys to the listener as well!


The Missa Sub tuum præsidium comes from La Rue's earliest group of masses, appearing for the first time in the luxurious manuscript copied for Philip the Fair before his final trip to Spain (Brussels, Royal Library, Ms. 9126), where its prominent position as the first La Rue mass in the collection, immediately after the opening work by Josquin, suggests that it is a brand-new work. It ultimately proved to be a highly popular one, appearing in whole or in part in manuscripts and prints right up into the 1590s.

The work displays numerous structural characteristics typical of La Rue's early works, with its four-voice texture, somewhat shorter length, and standard layout for its movements with the exception of the Sanctus. That movement has a separate Osanna II section, a rarity among La Rue's masses. The mass is based on the well-known Marian antiphon, but in phrygian rather than mixolydian, and imitated in all voices. La Rue's penchant for continual variation of his motives is on full display here, with a special emphasis on an exploration of rhythmic mutability that makes this an especially captivating work.

Missa Ave Maria surely comes from the time after La Rue returned from Spain in 1508, and is quite possibly from early in his last period of composition. It is a substantial mass, as many of his from this time are, with an emphasis now on duple rather than triple meter. Four of the movements are for four voices, but the Credo expands to five - an unusual move for the composer - and La Rue takes advantage of this increase in texture to place the cantus firmus in the added tenor voice, usually in longer note values. Such treatment is, again, atypical for La Rue. Far more common is his integration of the chant model into all voices so that it is indistinguishable from the surrounding texture, as happens clearly at the beginning of all other movements. The model is a Marian antiphon for the Feast of the Annunciation, Ave Maria... benedicta tu, a version of which is performed here before La Rue's mass. The joyful occasion celebrated in the mass is perhaps the reason behind the relatively high ranges used throughout this popular and widely-disseminated composition, which was still being written about in the early seventeenth century.

Missa Alleluia [Illustration 2] is notable for several features. Its texture is unusually full. The use of five voices is common enough for La Rue - he is one of the most important composers in terms of textural expansion - but most of the time in this mass four, and often five, of the voices are employed, making it one of his most richly-textured works. Even more striking is his use of pre-existent material. The "alleluia" model has yet to be identified but is quite likely extracted from a polyphonic composition. The manuscripts containing the Missa Alleluia frequently underlay not the mass text for the cantus firmus, but rather the word "alleluia," and the recording incorporates that separate text into the performance. Placed in the tenor line in long note values, typically entering the texture last, the cantus firmus is treated by La Rue with a strictness that is highly unusual for him, presented in augmentation, diminution, and even retrograde (in the Qui tollis). La Rue typically writes the cantus firmus in standard note values and provides instructions for the performer; thus, in the Kyrie, "In duplo" tells the performers to double the note values, while "Vade retro sathanas" (get thee hence, Satan), tells the performers to sing the model backwards in the Qui tollis. But the most striking appearance is saved for the final Agnus, where the model migrates to the highest voice. Supported by a swirling counterpoint of tightly constructed melodic motives in the lower voices, the sustained melodic line calls to mind the closing of Josquin's Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales, a composition that La Rue knew and consciously emulated elsewhere as well.

The Missa de septem doloribus [Illustrations 3-4] is a mature mass of La Rue, written for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast was created in 1423 and enthusiastically supported by the Habsburg-Burgundian court during the composer's tenure there, making it an appropriate subject for a mass. La Rue's five-voice composition, performed here with plainchant propers inserted, is noteworthy for its inclusion of a copious amount of extra text, the words of its unidentified musical models. Whereas the Missa Alleluia inserted the word "Alleluia" at various points in the tenor line, the Missa de septem doloribus gives the tenor a constant stream of new text in addition to that of the mass ordinary. The first Kyrie gives the text for the invitatory for the feast day's Matins ("Dolores gloriose"), while the Christe provides an unidentified text beginning "Trenosa cornpassio." Starting with the second Kyrie, the first tenor in most of the rest of the mass receives the lengthy text of the feast's sequence. Whether these extra texts are performed or not - the Mass ordinary text is sometimes absent from the cantus firmus voice in the manuscripts, suggesting that the extra text was intended to be heard - the performers and the owners of the luxurious sources would have read and absorbed the new words that underscored the subject of the feast.

The mass has another striking borrowing in its second Osanna [Illustration 5]. The presence of a second Osanna is a rarity for La Rue, and this one is extraordinarily short, a mere twelve breves. The length was prompted by its borrowed material: the superius phrase "O mater Dei, memento mei. Amen" from the conclusion of Josquin's famous Ave Maria... virgo serena. Transposed down a twelfth and buried in La Rue's first tenor part, the melody is nonetheless audible to those in the know, and in all but one of the manuscript sources the tune is provided with the borrowed words as well. In Brussels, Royal Library, Ms. 6428, it stands out even more by virtue of the empty parchment surrounding the first tenor part.

Motets and Magnificat

In Ave regina cœlorum La Rue sets the text of one of the most important Marian antiphons, yet it is difficult to find any melodic relation in his composition to the famous melody, or for that matter to any other known plainchant. The work is still an extraordinarily attractive composition and likely a late work, with its modern-sounding modality, clear points of imitation, textural variety, and concise expression of the text. Today's listeners are not the only ones to succumb to its charms: it was one of the most popular of La Rue's motets in the sixteenth century.

La Rue's setting of the popular Marian antiphon Regina cœli survives in a single Italian source. The chant model is placed in the tenor, on F, though the signature flat expected for this melody has been erased in the manuscript. The remaining three voices present a modal contrast, positioned in phrygian. La Rue solves this aural conflict by having the tenor voice drop out before the end of each section of this bipartite work, leaving the remaining three voices to cadence safely on E. This procedure is unusual but not unknown for the time, with the most famous example being, yet again, Josquin's Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales.

La Rue's six settings of the Salve regina text make him the most prolific composer to set this important antiphon. It is the Marian antiphon to appear most frequently in the liturgical rotation, and was highlighted through the numerous Salve (or "Lof") services held across the Low Countries. As with his other settings, Salve regina II is based on the Marian antiphon, its motives scattered throughout the texture but appearing most prominently in the tenor, where its treatment varies from strict to free, from long held notes to rapidly flowing movement. The varied imitation and motivic interplay among the voices is quintessential La Rue.

The massive motet Salve mater salvatoris - 300 breves long - sets a prayer for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary that has been lightly altered. The text would have had special meaning for Margaret of Austria in her capacity as Governor of the Netherlands, incorporating as it does the words "gubernatrix" and "Margarita." The work is one of La Rue's many explorations of low ranges, with the top voice using the alto clef and the lowest of the four given with an F5 clef and descending to D below the staff. Textural variety is maintained through frequent use of duos as well as care in setting off specific words or phrases, such as the rapid-fire exchange between high and low pairs for "Tu Domina / angelorum / Tu Regina / seniorum / Tu mamilla / parvulorum" (given additional emphasis through a short excursion into triple meter) and especially the repeat of the word "Margarita" to begin a new duet section, ensuring that La Rue's patron would not miss his musical homage to her.

La Rue was one of the first composers to produce a complete Magnificat cycle on all eight tones; seven of these survive. In each instance he sets the even-numbered verses polyphonically, with the odd ones performed in plainchant. Magnificat Quinti toni is a typically gem-like setting, with reduced voices for verses 4, 8, and 10, and lively imitative counterpoint throughout, building to a triple-meter conclusion.

Doleo super te is the quarta pars of La Rue's lengthy Considera Israel, a motet almost certainly written for Margaret on the death of her brother. This final section circulated on its own in two sources, one of them - significantly - Margaret's personal chansonnier, Brussels, Royal Library, Ms. 228. The full motet sets David's lament for Jonathan from II Samuel; Doleo super te opens with the text "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan," and is thus a fitting component of Margaret's chansonnier, produced after his death. This stunningly beautiful composition begins with slowly-moving rhythms staggered among the four voices, and little melodic motion to disturb the opening plaint. The piece continues with a masterful command of shifting textures, with now one voice and then another coming into focus, as for example when the superius sings "unicum filium" in syncopation against the lower voices. All parts come together only at "et perierunt arma" the approach to the conclusion, and then one after another each voice descends by line or by leap, with poignant falling thirds in the superius and then the bassus to generate an ending that is no true cadence, but simply a cessation of sound.


Pourquoy tant and Il viendra le jour désiré [Illustration 7] were evidently intended as a pair; they circulate one after another in their two manuscript sources (Pourquoy tant also appears independently in Petrucci's Canti C), and Il viendra provides an affirmative answer to the despairing cry of Pourquoy tant. They share many stylistic traits as well: each for four equal voices, each with similar (though not exact) ranges, each modally based on A, each with a (non-fixed-form) text of four lines with internal repetition, each sharing a recurring bassus motive, each largely melismatic despite repeated text, and each demonstrating La Rue's commitment to varietas. Paired chansons become prominent later in the sixteenth century; La Rue's duo serves as an important forerunner to this trend.

Pourquoy non [Illustration 8] is one of La Rue's most impressive secular works. In keeping with the text's unhappy sentiments, the four voices are pitched extremely low - the highest note is only the G above middle C (the superius is written in tenor clef!), while the lowest voice sinks to B-flat below the staff. La Rue creates a powerful rhetorical structure for his text, with the mirrored words of the first two lines - especially "Pourquoy non" - reflected in almost exact musical repetition. Each of the first four phrases is arrested by a fermata before continuing, an unheard-of beginning for a chanson. The effect of the expanded range and the unusual formal structure is heightened by the exploration of rarely-used accidentals. All voices have both B-flats and E-flats in the signatures (one of the very earliest works to have both accidentals in all voices), and the altus, the voice that begins the composition all alone, leaps to a signed A-flat on only its second note. Yet La Rue doesn't stop there but goes still further: on the text "la fin" he extends the chromatic range still further, reaching to D-flat. Range, layout, and harmony all interact to generate a powerful setting of a despairing cry. It was one of La Rue's most widely disseminated works (though often transposed up a fifth, including its appearance in Odhecaton), and in Margaret's chansonnier it is one of the few pieces to receive the distinction of an illuminated border, a sure sign of its leading position within La Rue's output. The song provides a concise summary of his most powerful effects.