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One of the Best; Masses by La Rue and des Prez

The MHS Review 401, VOL. 12, NO.5 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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I've always considered myself a fancier, if not a connoisseur, of Requiem Masses. It's not that I'm more morbid than the next fellow. But, taking off from the over­whelming utterances of Berlioz and Ver­di, I am always curious to see how com­posers respond to one of the greatest of all mysteries. However, it is not always easy to talk about such responses, as in the pre­sent instance. So, unsure of what I might say, I did some investigation of Requiems in general--and, as so often, found out how little I knew about the subject.

For example, I always assumed that the Requiem Mass had a funeral or memorial function for someone who had died. And so it does. It is properly sung on the day of an interment; it may be also sung three, seven, and 30 days after a death or on the anniversaries of that melancholy event. But it is also to be sung on All Souls' Day (November 2, or November 3 if the 2nd falls on a Sunday). In fact, if I am reading the information aright, on that date each priest is to conduct the Office for the Dead and to sing three Requiems--one for the souls in Purgatory, one for the Pope, and one for himself.

Despite this latter use of the Requiem, it is classified as a votive Mass. In other words, it is not part of the Office as specified for a given day in the Church calendar, but rather a personal or an occa­sional affair. In the late Middle Ages votive Masses became so popular that a priest might be kept from his other duties to celebrate them, and so Rome (or Avignon or whoever was in charge) cracked down on Requiems and the like.

In some form, the Requiem Mass goes back to the earliest days of the Christian Church, though its present manifestation was to a considerable degree shaped by the Tridentine Council and Vatican II. The Mass for the Dead (to give it its right name) includes eight parts: the introit; the Kyrie; the gradual and tract; the sequence; the of­fertory; the Sanctus and Benedictus; the Agnus Dei; and the communion. There is an optional final responsory, Libera me. However, composers add or omit as they see fit.

The first composed Requiem cycle (i.e. complete musical service) of whose putative existence we know was written by Giullaume Dufay, who requested that it be sung at his own death. But it has vanished and the first one extant is by Ockeghem. The one by Pierre de La Rue, or whatever his name was, came along soon after. We don't know much about the composer, though the pieces are slowly falling into place. He was born in what is now southern Belgium or northern France, perhaps in Tournai, around 1460. By the time he had attained his majority he was singing in the choir of Siena Cathedral in Italy. By 1490 he had returned to the Low Countries (or Burgundy as they then were), where he joined the chapel of the future Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. When Max ascended the imperial throne, the chapel went to his son Philip, who took it to Spain. There he died. It then went to Philip's widow, the Spanish princess known as Juana the Mad (because she was).

By 1508, however, Pierre was back home again in Mechelin (Malines) at the court of the regent, Margaret of Austria, Philip's sister. In 1514 he joined the chapel of Philip's young son Charles, later the Emperor Charles V. Pierre died at Courtrai, where he held a benefice, in 1518. His much-admired Requiem is generally for four to five voices, but with many duet passages. Unless it was intended to be transposed, it lies and ranges very low, and some have wondered if the bass line is not intended for instruments. Andre Pirro says that its "truly sorrowful sound contains no bitterness at all."

We do not know who Pierre's work was written for. But the great Josquin makes no bones about whom his Mass was meant for. Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, was deter­mined to make his little state a center for the fine arts. After considerable hassle around the tum of the 16th century, he hiredJosquin for his chapel at a fee the lat­ter simply could not refuse. Josquin pro­bably wrote the Mass either as proof of his ability or in gratitude. It is based on the duke's Latin name and title (Hercules Dux Ferrariae), the cantus firmus being deriv­ed from applying the vowel sounds to the "do-re-mi"s of the Guidonian scale.

How are the performances? Wood, like others, transposes the Requiem and makes sure you "get" Josquin's theme. The Fan­fare reviewer likes the voices-only ap­proach and thinks this one of the best readings of the two works yet recorded.

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