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ClassicsOnline Home » LA RUE: Magnificats (Complete) / 3 Salve Reginas
At the turn of the 15th century, Pierre de La Rue was the leading composer working north of the Alps. A member of the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel, he composed polyphony for all the major liturgical genres. This is the first recording of La Rue’s seven surviving Magnificats as well as three of his six settings of the Salve Regina, one of which quotes chansons by Dufay and Binchois. Varied voicing, surprising tonal relationships and contrasting textures make each setting distinct. La Rue’s mastery of old and new musical styles endows these pieces with great expressive force.
By David Denton
Pierre de La Rue (c. 1460–1518)
The Complete Magnificats • Three Salve Reginas
Among the composers of the Josquin generation (c.1500) Pierre de La Rue was the leading figure in composition working north of the Alps. A master of the older canon and cantus firmus techniques, he also developed the art of imitative texture, and experimented with expanded vocal ranges and five- and six-part writing. The combination of old and new is a prominent feature of his music, as shown in this first recording of the Magnificats.
La Rue was born and educated in Tournai, an important cathedral town (now in Belgium, just north of the French border). His birthdate is not known, and the probable date depends on whether the singer and composer Pierre de La Rue who enters the documentary record in 1492 is the same person as the singer Peter vander Straten, who enters the documentary record in Brussels in 1469. For many years scholars assumed they were the same person, with French and Flemish versions of the same name (Peter of the Street), but recently Honey Meconi has questioned the identification. If they are the same person, then the composer was born around 1452; if not, he could have been born as late as 1465. We do know for certain that in 1492 the composer Pierre de La Rue is listed as a member of the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel, where he worked for the rest of his active life. He retired to a church job in Kortrijk/Courtrai in 1516, and died there on 20 November 1518.
The Habsburg-Burgundian chapel was a musical and ecclesiastical establishment that travelled with the ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands, a region roughly equivalent to modern Belgium with part of northern France and of the modern Netherlands. Until 1477 the ruler of the region was the Duke of Burgundy; it was then taken over by the Habsburg dynasty. La Rue had a special connection with Marguerite of Austria, whose tragic life (once rejected as a bride, and twice widowed) prompted a taste for sad French chansons. La Rue set several sorrowing poems by Marguerite, and became known for his musical expressions of grief, as we can hear in his settings of the Salve Regina.
In the course of his service with the chapel, La Rue travelled to France, Spain (twice), Germany, Austria, and England. The Habsburg-Burgundian court was a centre for the production of music manuscripts. La Rue was thus exposed to the best of European music, and drew on a wide range of styles for expressive purposes. The chapel members were responsible for singing daily Masses, as well as Vespers and Compline. Most of the music in these services was chant, with the addition of improvised polyphony and some composed polyphony – Mass ordinary cycles, motets, and occasionally Magnificats and Marian antiphons for the evening services. La Rue made it his job to provide composed polyphony for most of the major feast days and liturgical genres: Mass cycles for the relevant feasts, the first complete set of polyphonic Magnificat settings by a single composer, and settings of the Marian antiphons, including the Salve Regina.
The Magnificat is a biblical song (Luke 1.46-55) sung by the Virgin Mary. While the text is often associated with the Annunciation, Mary in fact sings the Magnificat when visiting her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who tells Mary that her own unborn child (John the Baptist) "leaped in the womb for joy" when the pregnant Mary entered. Mary responds with the Magnificat ("My soul doth magnify the Lord"), a hymn to the glory of God. The text is normally sung to a simple recitation formula (or "tone") at the end of Vespers; it is preceded and followed by an antiphon, a chant melody with a text appropriate to the liturgical calendar. The Magnificat tone was chosen to correspond to the melodic character, or "mode" of the antiphon. Since there were eight modes, there are eight different Magnificat tones. La Rue is known to have written polyphonic settings of all eight, but only seven have survived (the setting of tone III is lost).
The Salve Regina is one of the four Marian antiphons sung at the end of Compline, and at special Marian services performed throughout the week and throughout the year. The text praises the Virgin and asks for her mercy and intervention. It was a favourite of La Rue's, who wrote six different polyphonic settings, three of which are heard on this recording (Nos. II, IV, and V, according to Volume 9 of the La Rue Collected Works, edited by Nigel Davison).
All of the Magnificats and two of the Salve Reginas alternate verses of chant with verses of polyphony. Odd-numbered verses are sung in chant; even-numbered verses are sung in polyphony. The chant melodies are also present in the polyphonic verses – sometimes as clearly audible long-note cantus firmus melodies in a single voice, sometimes cleverly ornamented and disguised as melodic material passed from voice to voice. In every case the chant melody determines the beginning and ending pitches of the polyphonic sections, which leads to sometimes surprising tonal relationships. Salve Regina II is the only piece that does not alternate chant and polyphony, but it does use the chant as a cantus firmus, usually in the tenor voice.
La Rue wrote his settings of the Magnificat over a long period of time, and strove to make each setting different from the others. Each setting has six polyphonic verses, and La Rue varies the number of voices in the successive verses in a different way in each Magnificat. Most of the settings have four voices (settings of tones II, IV, V, VII, and VIII); VI is for five voices, and I is for six. All of the settings end with the full complement of voices, and most of them begin with it (I and VI do not). The varying patterns of voice numbers seem to derive more from formal considerations than from text expression, with one exception: most have a reduced texture in verse 8, Esurientes, probably in response to the words esurientes (hungry) or inanes (empty) in the text: "He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away."
La Rue's setting of verse 10, "Sicut locutus" ("As he said to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever") demonstrates his command of a variety of styles for expressive purposes. This verse is set in a deliberately archaic style, as if to evoke the world of the ancient prophets, in Magnificats I, IV, VI, and VIII. Magnificat I has a mensuration canon, in which three of the six voices are sung twice as slowly as the other three. The faster voices have rests after each phrase; the slower voices sing during those rests, sounding like a slow echo. In Magnificat IV the chant formula is presented in the top voice in very long notes, an exaggerated version of old-fashioned cantus firmus construction. In Magnificat VI, verse 10 is in a low range (evoking old men's voices), it uses old-fashioned triple metre, and has a great deal of parallel motion, recalling early fifteenth-century improvised polyphony. In Magnificats V and VIII, verse 10 ends with homorhythmic texture and a number of repeated notes, as if the singers are doing choral recitation of the text; this stands in sharp contrast to the more modern imitative style that dominates elsewhere in the Magnificats.
The two settings of the Salve Regina (IV and V) that alternate verses in chant and polyphony both use three-voice texture for verse 4, "ad te suspiramus " ("to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears"), and four-voice texture for the three other polyphonic verses. Nevertheless, the two pieces are very different.
Salve Regina IV uses the music of two well known mid-fifteenth-century chansons in the top voice of two sections, and in the alto of the last. In verse 2, "vita, dulcedo" ("our life, our sweetness, and our hope") La Rue quotes the melody of 'Par le regart de vos beaux yeux', by Guillaume Dufay; in verse 6 he quotes the melody of 'Je ne vis onques la pareille', attributed to both Dufay and to Gilles Binchois, who worked for the Duke of Burgundy; and in verse 8, "O pia" ("O pious"), La Rue quotes the tenor of 'Je ne vis' in very long notes as a cantus firmus in the alto voice. It was quite common to quote the music of love songs in Marian polyphony in the fifteenth century: such praises of a beloved woman could apply equally well to the Virgin Mary. The text of 'Par le regart' ("For the look in your sweet eyes and your fine and noble bearing, to you, fair one, I come humbly to present myself as your lover") shows the lover supplicating the beloved, just as the sinner in the Salve text requests the Virgin's mercy; the text of 'Je ne vis' praises the virtues of the beloved, just as the Salve text praises the Virgin ("I have never seen your equal, my gracious Lady; for your beauty, by my soul, surpasses all others"). By quoting music by Dufay and Binchois, La Rue is referring back to the great tradition of chanson composition associated with the Burgundian court, and making a claim for the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel as a continuation of the earlier musical establishment. La Rue combines the broad triple metre and lyrical arches of these pre-existent melodies with more animated motivic writing in the lower voices, as well as chant paraphrase passed from voice to voice – a compositional tour de force. In the last polyphonic section with the chanson tenor La Rue weaves a highly imitative texture around the long-note cantus firmus in the alto, showing that he is master of both old and new.
Salve Regina V is in a more modern style, with occasional long-note references to the chant melody, but mostly in an animated imitative texture. Verse 6 is characterized by extensive use of duos. Verse 8, however, returns to the more old-fashioned broad triple metre, ending with the kind of parallel motion that we saw at the end of some of the Magnificats.
Salve Regina II does not alternate chant and polyphony, but is set in polyphony throughout: verses 1–4 for four voices, verse 5 for three, and verses 6–9 for four again. The end of the first four-part section is especially striking, with expressive melodic shapes for "suspiramus gementes " ("we sigh, moaning"), and a sequential descent into the low register for "in hac lacrimarum valle" ("in this vale of tears"). The very end of the piece includes a similar drive to the cadence with an ascending five-note scale on the word "dulcis" ("sweet") repeated three times.
As we have seen, La Rue drew on older fifteenth-century styles as well as the newer imitative textures in these works. This has implications for how the words are tied to the music. Mid-fifteenth-century music was highly melismatic, with many notes to each syllable of text, while the newer imitative motets often had syllabic text-setting at the beginnings of phrases, serving to set off and articulate the motives passed from voice to voice. Sources of the Magnificat and Salve Regina settings heard here tend to indicate text in the older fifteenth-century way: scribes and printers assumed that singers knew the texts by heart, so they did not take the time to indicate complete texts in all voices, or to place syllables carefully in relation to the pitches. Nevertheless, the newer imitative style often seems to demand repeated text and careful alignment of text with motive. For all these reasons Peter Schubert has chosen to bring out the motivic structure with careful text placement and underlay, even when the source suggests melismatic text setting. The passages mentioned above (at the ends of the first and last sections of Salve Regina II ) are good examples of how text placement can reveal imitative structure by enabling singers to use the sounds of the words to help shape the motives. The result is a sparkling musical texture in which La Rue's distinctions between the new and old styles emerge with great expressive force.
Julie E. Cumming
Sung texts and translations may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/557896.htm
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LA RUE: Magnificats (Complete) / 3 Salve Reginas