Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Let your ears be attentive

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
In vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est; et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:
Speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Israël in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israël ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?
For with you is forgiveness; and because of your law, I stood by you, Lord.
My soul has stood by his word.
My soul has hoped in the Lord.
From the morning watch, even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. 
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

The penitential words of Psalm 130 have struck a chord with many composers over the centuries. Over the coming days I will introduce you to some of the finest settings. This post will introduce some of the best Renaissance settings...

...beginning with two absolute beauties from Josquin des Prez

Josquin set the psalm twice. The De Profundis a 4 (above) is set on the medieval modal scale beginning on E known as the Phrygian, which can be played on the piano using only the white notes (E F G A B C D E). The unusual feature of this is that, unlike with our modern major and minor keys, there is a semitone at the start of the scale (a 'flattened second'). This gives it a more mysterious quality. No other mode (except for the unused Locrian mode beginning on B) has such an opening interval. The scale is also much closer to our modern E minor than it is to our modern E major, so it sounds like a darker version of E minor. The piece falls into two main sections, breaking between  "Domino" and "A custodia matutina. Otherwise, as so much of the music of Josquin's phase of the Renaissance does, the piece generally flows seamlessly without breaks at cadences, one phrase flowing into the next. Texturally, the piece moves between having all four voices sounding together or having them pair off (the higher ones tending to stick together, and likewise the lower ones). 

Josquin's De Profundis a 5 is, I think, even more beautiful. Three of the five voices - the Superius (soprano), Primus Contratenor (first alto) and Tenor (tenor!) - are joined in canon. The Superius leads, the Tenor follows at the unison two bars later, and the Primus Contratenor joins in a fourth below. Can you hear this? Yes, but you will have to concentrate! The serenity of this setting makes it very special.

Moving on a century, the De Profundis by the Spanish-born master of Portuguese late Renaissance polyphony Estêvão Lopes Morago begins with the same melodic phrase which opened Josquin's first setting. However, as you will soon hear, his music conveys a much greater sense of anguish than Josquin's because of the composer's remarkable use of dissonance. There is a major-tinted tonal brightening at "exaudi vocem meam", reflecting the hope contained in the words.

Another masterpiece of Renaissance polyphony, written roughly half way between Josquin and Morago and worthy to stand alongside the two pieces by Josquin, is the beautiful De Profundis of Orlande de Lassus, one of his Penitential Psalms. (Go to 38.53 on the link). Unlike the Josquin pieces, Lassus's setting is easier to follow as he breaks up the seamless flow found in the older composer's polyphony and replaces it with music that takes each phrase of the text and treats it almost as a separate entity, with a clear cadence at the end of each sentence. The music regularly seems to pause for reflection. There is also less of the pervasive imitative writing found in the Josquin (though there are canons buried in the texture), with a greater sense of variety as regards style. 

Instruments began playing an increasing roll in late Renaissance choral music, readying themselves for the Baroque. Leading the way in this regard was Andrea Gabrieli (Giovanni's uncle). Gabrieli's 6-part De Profundis (above) was almost certainly meant for a mix of voices and instruments, all the better to ring out across the wide spaces of St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice. Please listen out for the upward leap of an octave in four of the six voices near the very beginning of the piece, painting the word "clamavi".

Gabrieli's Dutch contemporary, our old friend Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, wrote a particularly lovely 5-part setting of De Profundis, without instruments. The textures, however, are richly sonorous. The piece includes imitative and homophonic passages and is as sensitive to the meaning of the text as Lassus's. Its effect is direct.

As Sweelinck was seemingly a Protestant (probably a Calvinist), this might be the time to introduce Martin Luther's paraphrase of Psalm 130, Aus der Tiefe ruf ich, Herr, zu dir. There is an exceptionally fine setting of his words by the great Heinrich SchützHis Aus der Tiefe, SWV25 comes from that early period of his music when the influence of his teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli, was making itself manifest. (You can follow the text here). Even more clearly than with Lassus, here each phrase of the setting is marked out as an individual event, making its sense ring directly in the ears and the imagination of each listener. As an example of word-painting, listen out for the way the word harre ("wait") is set at "Ich harre des Herren". As ever, Schütz's choral textures regularly change colour and the predominantly chordal music also admits touches of polyphony. It is a fabulous piece.

With Schütz we have entered the world of the Baroque. The Baroque Age saw a great surge in settings of the psalm...about which more in the not too distant future. 

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