From Darkness Into Light: CD liner notes

Full liner notes from From Darkness Into Light: The Complete Lamentations for Good Friday of Antoine Brumel



Many of the works we now recognise at the pinnacle of Renaissance music have come to us entirely by chance, subject to the random preservation or destruction of thousands of sources in the intervening five or six hundred years since their composition. Some exist only in a single precious manuscript or print, but now lovingly transcribed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century musicologists, and bound into sets of Complete Works that line academic library shelves (or, these days, even uploaded onto the internet) they have achieved greater fame and familiarity than they ever enjoyed when they were written.

Antoine Brumel’s Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday is one such work: for centuries, the only known source was a manuscript in a Florence library. In the middle of the book, a setting of two verses, ‘Heth. Cogitavit Dominus’ and ‘Caph. Defecerunt præ lacrimis’, and the refrain, ‘Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum tuum’, appears labelled with Brumel’s name. In the mid-twentieth century, these same verses were spotted in another manuscript in the same library, called after the initials P.M., which appear on its first page.  

P.M. is a large collection of Lamentations settings, almost entirely without composers’ names by which they could be identified.  A significant discovery, we might think, but in reality it became little more than a footnote  in other studies, probably because so few of the works in the book could be matched with the names of the musicians who created them.

My interest in P.M. came about because I knew that it had been copied by someone called Antonius Morus (Antonio Moro) in 1559. In 1560, Moro also compiled a collection of music for a Florentine nunnery, the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript now kept in Brussels. The two books’ contents have striking similarities: they both contain predominantly anonymous, equal-voice works that may already have been many decades old when the books were copied. The Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript clearly belonged to nuns: Suor Agnoleta Biffoli and Suor Clemenzia Sostegni’s names are on the book binding and embedded in its decorations, and tiny pictures of nuns are scattered throughout, peering from the decorated initials at the beginnings of individual works. I wondered if P.M. might also be for nuns, although once I had seen it for myself, it felt like a different sort of collection, more austere, although still decorated with wit and skill. 

Even so, I had a day in a Florentine library, a smartphone, and a well-preserved (and very large) manuscript in front of me, so I asked permission and started taking pictures of aspects that interested me: small bits of decoration, unusual passages of music – including alternating sections in duple and triple time. Knowing that someone had felt this anonymous music to be of value enough to commission such an extensive manuscript, I scanned quickly through it to see if there were pieces I might like to recover. I paid little attention to musical detail, however, because four hundred pages of sixteenth-century notation are impossible to parse in such a short time. 

When I returned home and started to look at the photographs again, I realised there was something very unusual happening some thirty-five pages after the familiar Brumel verses. I thought perhaps the copyist had become confused, and had copied the work twice in the same manuscript, because I was looking again at the ‘Ierusalem convertere’ of Brumel’s Lamentations. It slowly dawned on me that the refrain was a repeat, and the music on the intervening pages was all part of the same work, a much larger work than we had previously recognised. The researcher who identified the known verses back in the 1960s had not spotted the superstructure. Three days and nights of frantic transcribing later, the whole cycle emerged; over one thousand breves of music held together by a pair of refrains and a small number – perhaps a dozen – of motifs that are combined, inverted, layered, transposed, sequenced, restated in a seemingly infinite number of ways. 

The discovery of this immense work is just the beginning of what may be years more investigation, but some cogent observations can be made even now about its structure and its original context. Verses from the Old Testament Book of Lamentations are an integral part of the liturgy for Holy Week, read in three lessons during Tenebrae (Latin for darkness): the offices of Matins and Lauds on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, which were performed in the late afternoon the previous day – so Thursday’s liturgy was performed on Wednesday, and so on. A lesson comprises a selection of verses, each of which begins with the enunciation of the Hebrew letter at the beginning of the verse, and ends with the Ierusalem refrain. Brumel’s complete cycle sets nineteen verses: Chapters 2:8-15, and 3:1-11. It is often not possible to match Lamentations settings exactly with printed breviaries, as the verses used in the Office varied a great deal from diocese to diocese, and over time. Brumel’s verses do, however, correspond to the Good Friday Lessons in a Franciscan breviary published in Venice in 1478. 

Like so many sixteenth-century Lamentations settings, the fundament of Brumel’s work is the Roman Lamentations ‘tone’ used in liturgical intonation: a simple melody based on the rising and falling scale, F to B-flat and back again. Also typically, the Hebrew letters are set apart from the Latin verses: often compared to the illuminated capital letters in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Nevertheless, the setting has not three, but five refrains, placed in such a way that it could not be used liturgically. Instead, they divide the verses, a prescient allegory of the Good Friday story, into a narrative that corresponds closely to the arc of Senecan tragedy: Exposition, Beginning of Action, Complication of Action, Reversal of Fortune, Catastrophe. Each of the ‘lessons’ (as they would be in the liturgy) thus becomes an act in a Passion drama, narrated – as Senecan tragedies were once thought to have been – by a single ‘voice’.

Act 1 (‘Heth. Cogitavit Dominus’), the Exposition, tells of God’s decision to sacrifice Jesus, and of Jesus’s fate at the hands of the Sanhedrin. All the musical material for the entire work is introduced in this first section, including the melodic motifs, an E-flat sonority that appears only in the Hebrew letters, and a constant tension between C-natural and C-sharp in the verses. The first metaphorical mocking of Christ, ‘regem eius et principes eius in gentibus’ is set apart with its own distinctive, clamouring motif. It ends with the first, duple time refrain. 

Act 2 (‘Joth. Sederunt in terra’), the Beginning of Action, recounts the indifference of Herod to Christ, and the lamenting women at the Cross; it ends with the second, triple-time refrain, with its plangent dissonances and overlapping, surging octave scales depicting both unbearable grief and inextinguishable hope. Act 3 (‘Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt’), the Complication, re-enacts the second mocking of Christ, ‘ubi est triticum et vinum’, with the mocking motif; and then addresses the grieving Virgin Mary directly. The first refrain returns, this time chromatically altered at the word ‘convertere’. 

Act 4 (‘Nun. Prophetæ tui viderunt’), the Reversal of Fortune, reveals that the text is spoken by Christ himself: he rebukes God; then narrates His own crucifixion, the Good Friday eclipse, His agony, and His death. The false prophets of Jerusalem are characterised by what is now the inevitable simultaneous false relation, C-natural and C-sharp, sounded together; and at Christ’s death, the momentum of the piece slows to a standstill at ‘quasi mortuos sempiternos’, and then ends with the duple-time refrain. Act 5 (‘Gimel. Circumædificavit adversum me’),  the Catastrophe, ends with Christ in the tomb, as yet unresurrected. At the final word of the last verse, ‘desolatam’, the E-flat sonority makes its only appearance in the polyphony; followed closely by a varied repeat of the triple-time refrain, which does not quite reach the heights of its first iteration.

The story is, of course, already embedded in the liturgy, but Brumel’s architecture gives it new narrative meaning. Seneca’s tragedies had been well known in Florence for centuries, particularly through the education of its youth. Reading the setting in this way makes sense if the manuscript originated in a confraternity, the lay brotherhoods that formed the basis of so much of Florence’s cultural, political, and religious life. Some indications in P.M.’s manuscript suggest that it may have belonged to the flagellant confraternity, the Buca di San Paolo. Generations of Medici princes were members of San Paolo, and of the youth confraternity of San Giovanni Evangelista that shared its premises. The ‘Vangelista’ were known for their theatrical productions (including a play by Lorenzo the Magnificent himself), and San Paolo held elaborate feasts on Maundy Thursday which were followed by music and devotional practices. San Paolo would be exactly the kind of environment in which Brumel’s Lamentations might have been performed, separate but not wholly divorced from their liturgical place as darkness fell between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Although copied by the same person, and within a year of P.M.’s book, the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript could not have arisen in a more different environment. It documents a convent’s entire liturgical year, with polyphony for the Vespers and Lauds offices of their order’s founder St Clare, for a patronal festival for an apostle, and a host of responsories, antiphons, and hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Suor Agnoleta and Suor Clemenzia came from two of Florence’s prestigious families, and may have been cousins. There are only two convents in Florence dedicated to an apostle: San Matteo in Arcetri (which became home to Galileo Galilei’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste) and San Jacopo in via Ghibellina, which became a place of pilgrimage after its crucifix performed a grain-saving miracle during the great flood of the Arno in August 1557. Perhaps Moro’s manuscript was an attempt to salvage what remained of the convent’s musical holdings after its books were damaged by the twelve-foot-high waters.

Only nine works out of seventy-six in Biffoli-Sostegni can be attributed, and only four are named in the manuscript, including Moro’s own Sancta Maria succurre miseris, which pleads with the Virgin for special intercession for the nuns. Those few early works that figure in other sources – including Josquin des Prez’s Recordare virgo Mater and Loyset Compère’s Paranymphus salutat virginem – appear with differences to suggest that they were not copied from prints, but existed in their own unique versions. We may not know who wrote the remaining sixty-seven pieces, but their quality cannot be in doubt, nor can the musical accomplishment of the nuns who originally sang them. The two short Lenten responsories, Jesus autem cum ieiunasset and Multiplicati sunt exploit some of the same textures and techniques heard in Suor Leonora d’Este’s five-voice motets: while not as technically challenging and extravagant as the noble nun’s writing, we still hear a fondness for dissonance and fine-grained motivic imitation. 

Some of the finest liturgical works are written in alternatim, that is, with sections of polyphony alternating with chant: the hymn Ave maris stella alternates verses, but the pivot points for the antiphon Salve Regina (not normally set in this fashion so late in the sixteenth century) are based on sentence phrases. Salve Regina exploits the equal voices of the mature female choir to ravishing effect, with lingering dissonances and interweaving lines that leave the ear unsure of whether the melody it hears is sung by one voice or compiled from all four. But the soul of the convent is most touchingly exposed in the Christmas carol, Verbum caro factum est. The manuscript actually contains three settings of this text, two in simple three-voice textures similar to those found in fifteenth-century sources, and this four-voice version, resplendent with virtuoso solo verses and decidedly unconventional cadences that must have thrilled all those that heard them. The Franciscan tradition of the præsepio, the Nativity manger, would have been prominent in the convent’s outer church: we can be sure Suor Agnoleta and Suor Clemenzia would have taken part in the Florentine tradition of singing this carol on Christmas Eve.

The music in P.M.’s book of Lamentations and the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript is almost completely anonymous, but they are large collections that would have been costly to produce. This suggests their music was of value to the books’ owners entirely on its own terms, and they regarded it highly enough – either because of its beauty or its utility, or both – to preserve the works without considering it important to record who wrote them. Both manuscripts are large choirbooks, a format that allows the whole ensemble to sing from the same book rather than from individual parts, with each voice copied in a separate corner of the page opening. But Moro also left cryptic messages and rebuses in the books’ decorations, sometimes so tiny that they could not have been seen by the singers at distance. We might imagine the books’ owners, particularly the nuns, holding and admiring the open pages in silence, perhaps hearing the familiar music in their imagination, delighting in the puzzling abbreviations and bizarre grotesques, which sometimes appear to caricature real people rather than classical faces. A name at the top of the page would have been no use to them: Suor Agnoleta Biffoli was not likely to have understood the importance of Loyset Compère or Josquin des Prez, but their music and the texts it set would have spoken to her directly.

Moro’s choirbooks, then, however anonymous in presentation, bring us riches that we cannot ignore, whether in the form of one of the most important discoveries of Renaissance polyphony in recent years, or a better understanding of the musical and creative  lives of the nuns in a mid-sixteenth-century  Italian convent. Central to the Tenebrae rituals, to which Brumel’s great Lamentations allude, is the belief that the most forbidding darkness can still be pierced by light. The darkness of anonymity, too, can be dispelled by looking for other ways to hear and value the music of the past.

A note on performance

Some of the works on this disc, including Brumel’s Lamentations, have been transposed into ranges appropriate for female voices, as was customary for convent choirs throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Organ and viol accompaniment was common practice in convents to sustain lower parts. Some of the works from the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript have also undergone varying degrees of reconstruction, as the manuscript is fragile  and illegible in places.

© Laurie Stras, 2019