Really Old Music

Walt Mundkowsky

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

Here’s the 16th-century advice I promised [to me in an email — Ed.]. The sacred music that enjoys a popular profile falls into two groups, the High Renaissance and the Late Renaissance (sometimes termed the Counter-Reformation). The generation (or more) in between has not yet received much attention via recordings. My favorite guy in that era is Adriaan Willaert (1490-1562). He figures in a superb Accent disc of double-choir works, but Giovanni Gabrieli gets most of the space. There’s also a recent Naxos CD that’s not bad.


The Franco-Flemish group around Johannes Ockeghem ruled the scene. Jacob Obrecht died young in 1505; like Willaert, his recorded profile hasn’t matched his significance. The others I’d tout are:

Matthaeus Pipelare (d. 1515) Heinrich Isaac (d. 1517) Pierre de la Rue (d. 1518) Antoine Brumel (d. 1520) Josquin Desprez (d. 1521)

Josquin is of course the famous one; he spent long periods in Italy, and had a canny knack for self-promotion. My favorite is Pierre de la Rue; he stayed closer to home, but was highly regarded. His sacred stuff employs a wealth of canonic entrances, all handled with incredible lightness. His songs tap a distinctive strain of melancholy. The Requiem Mass (c. 1500) has been recorded several times, but never ideally. Its oppositions (canonic complexity against gorgeous melodies, dark basses against soaring sopranos) are astonishing. He’s getting more action of late — a Lyrichord disc, a reissue of an old Hilliard Ensemble item (now on Virgin Veritas), and a Hyperion CD (Christopher Page’s Gothic Voices) that’s splendid. A new Etcetera release contains the same mass the Hilliards do — really inexcusable.


Three major names dominate, each unique.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) is the serene, unruffled liturgical ideal — seamless interwoven lines, precisely calibrated (and amazingly subtle) dissonances. The famous piece is the Pope Marcellus Mass; legend has it that Palestrina “saved” the cause of polyphonic music at the Council of Trent, which demanded that the text be clearly understood. I’d suggest the David Hill/Westminster Cathedral Choir, on Hyperion. I don’t care for Palestrina done with one or two voices per part; he needs a big canvas. The Assumpta Est Maria Mass is wonderful, with light, airy soprano lines.

Roland de Lassus (1532-1594) spent his youth in Italy, but served the Bavarian court in Munich for decades. He’s the most cosmopolitan, and the hardest to pin down stylistically. His song Susanna un jour was among the century’s greatest “hits,” and survives in hundreds of arrangements. Of the massive choral output, I’d start with Prophetiae Sibyllarum, written in his early twenties in Italy; the extreme chromatic harmonies are really something, and unlike anything else he did. (The Hilliards recently performed it for ECM.) Le Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of Saint Peter) is his last work, an overwhelming cycle of sacred madrigals to poems by Luigi Tansillo. The symbolism of the number seven runs throughout: The songs are in seven parts, and the cycle contains 21 pieces. Choirs have sometimes recorded the work, but a single singer per part is really mandatory. I’ve loved Anthony Rooley’s version (now an inexpensive L’Oiseau-Lyre), which features Emma Kirkby. Pierre Herreweghe made a beautiful rendition (on Harmonia Mundi) for the 400th anniversary of Lassus’ death. I’ve already noted the Penitential Psalms, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah and St Matthew Passion (both Harmonia Mundi) are powerfully austere.

Tomas Luis da Victoria (1548-1611) specializes in glowing Spanish colors. You might see him as the most grandly sweeping of the bunch, or the hammiest. Two big numbers: Responsories for Tenebrae (1585, part of a larger collection) and the Requiem Mass (1605). Both have received several fine recordings; I’d take Hill’s (on Hyperion), which combines exact ensemble and heft. Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen is working on a complete traversal, which is much needed. Victoria’s late oeuvre uses complex choral forces (up to 12 parts) with organ accompaniment; striking vertical harmonies are more prominent than lateral motion. These items aren’t often attempted. I’m a huge fan of this music.

For some reason, I’ve never been attracted to the English guys, William Byrd (1543-1623) and Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). They certainly operate on the highest level.

Happy listening!

[It’s contributions such as this that impels the reader to his Schwann Opus, which everyone ought to have anyway.]