Music is many things to many people. The late poet Maya Angelou called music her refuge. She wrote, “I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” To Jack Kerouac, music was “the only truth.” And to composers and musicians through the ages, music was bread and board—and sometimes muse! We’ll hear music about music this week on Harmonia.
Let’s begin with some music from the Odhecaton, an anthology of secular songs published in Venice in 1501. The Odhecaton was the first book of polyphonic music, or music with multiple voices, printed using movable type. We heard “Malor me bat,” or “Misfortune strikes me,” possibly written by Jean de Ockeghem, and definitely played by Imke David, Jordi Savall, and Lorenz Duftschmid.
Musica Dei Donum
Music, the gift of the supreme God,
draws men, draws gods;
music makes savage souls gentle
and uplifts sad minds;
music moves the trees themselves
and wild beasts,
affording solace to all.
That’s an English translation of the Latin text “Musica Dei Donum.” Not surprisingly, it’s a text that’s been catnip for composers past and present. Music is powerful, and no one understands that power better than its creators.
Music made Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus famous. Although the story that the young Lassus was thrice kidnapped for the beauty of his voice is probably not true, there’s no doubt that Lassus was a sought-after musical celebrity. His compositions were renowned throughout Europe, and he was even named a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Gregory XIII.
Let’s hear his version of “Musica Dei donum.”
Lassus was far from the only composer drawn to this music-lover’s text. Settings of “Muisca Dei Donum” abound, penned by composers as diverse as Clemens non Papa, Antonin Dvorak, and John Rutter.
Here’s another setting by the early German composer Arnold von Bruck, who served as Kapellmeister for the Hapsburg Archduke, and later Emperor, Ferdinand.
If Music be the food of love
To some, music is God’s ultimate gift, but to others, it’s the food of love!
“If Music be the food of love, play on!” cried Duke Orsino in William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.
The poet Henry Heveningham changed “play” to “sing” in his tribute to the line, and opera lover Henry Purcell leapt at the chance to praise singing in song. Heveningham’s text is the basis for Purcell’s famous tune “If music be the food of Love.”
Let’s hear a rendition by soprano Emma Kirkby.
A much earlier depiction of music in music comes to us from the famed poet-musician Guillame de Machaut, whose motet “Musicalis Scienci, Sciencie Laudabili” is a live-action chat between the characters “music” and “rhetoric.”
Music and Rhetoric have opinions. After greeting their “beloved disciples,” they insist that everyone follow the rules – all the while smashing those rules to bits.
Musicologist Richard Taruskin explains: “Every one of the ‘faults’ for which singers are berated by Music and by Rhetoric are flagrantly committed by the composer.” Let’s hear the hypocritical motet.
Trumpet, drum, viol, flute
What better medium than music to capture the bang of drums or the call of a trumpet? Individual instruments receive their due not only in music written specifically for them, but in vocal music that seeks to communicate—and celebrate—their special qualities.
Let’s start with a fanfare. The English composer William Byrd managed to work a trumpet tune into “Sing Joyfully,” his anthem for six voices, sung in 1605 at the baptism of infant Princess Mary. The words “Blow the trumpet in the new moon” are sung on just a few notes, as if a bugle were blowing. Other instruments tag along for the ride: the pleasant harp, the timbrel, and the viol.
Let’s move from trumpets to drums. “La zombero boro borombo” are the booming military nonsense words that we hear in songs about the soldier Scaramella, and they may well represent the drums of war.
Let’s hear two settings of the martial song: The first, in an instrumental version played by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI, is by Josquin des Prez; the second is from a book of organ tablature by the Swiss schoolteacher and humanist Clemens Hor, performed by the Clemencic Consort.
The trumpet, the drum, but let’s not forget the sweeter side of music. Our musically minded composer Henry Purcell conjures the viol and the flute in two songs from his larger works “Come Ye Sons of Art” and “Hail! Bright Cecelia!”
We’ll hear “Strike the Viol,” a cheerful tune featuring countertenor Michael Chance, accompanied by Richard Boothby and Nigel North. We’ll follow that with a stirring duet for countertenor voices, “In vain the am’rous flute,” performed by Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe.
[More information about this recording can be found on the full playlist, under the “music on this episode” tab.]
Featured recording: A tale of music’s temporary triumph
Perhaps the ultimate tale of music’s power is the story of Orpheus. Retold many times and many ways, the bones of the narrative are the same. The musician Orpheus—or Orfeo, or sometimes also known as Orfee—loses his love to Hell. Lyre in hand, Orfeo journeys to the underworld to retrieve her, so impressing the powers of darkness with his musicianship that he’s able to win his beloved’s release.
Then bad things happen.
But since we can, let’s pause the story, and we’ll end this episode of Harmonia with Orpheus standing by the shore of the river Styx, secure in the knowledge that, if only for a few breaths, music conquers all.
Now, there are lots of great recordings of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, but we thought it would be interesting to feature a seminal one from the good ole’ days of the 20th-century early music revival.
A time capsule inside a time capsule, Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1969 interpretation of Orfeo was among the first to resurrect Claudio Monteverdi’s searing rendition of this tale using period instruments.
Let’s hear the Prolog and Toccata from the beginning of the opera, followed by Possente spirto, the aria that gains Orfeo entrance into hell, sung by Lajos Kozma.
Break and Theme music
:30, Henry Purcell: How pleasant ‘tis to Love!, Scherzi Musicali / Nicolas Achten, Alpha 2012, Tr 18 Roundo in D minor (excerpt of 1:39)
:60, Clemencic Edition Vol.3/Tabulator des Clemens Hör, Clemencic Consort, Arte Nova 1998 (MP3 2010), Anonymous: Tr. 16 Tens mes amys (excerpt of 2:01)
:30, Clemencic Edition Vol.3/Tabulator des Clemens Hör, Clemencic Consort, Arte Nova 1998 (MP3 2010), Anonymous: Tr. 1 Je ne scay Trium vocum (excerpt of 2:02)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Anne Timberlake.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.