Shining a light on a hidden Renaissance gem: Obrecht's Missa Maria zart
Wednesday, July 5, 2023
Cappella Pratensis have created a unique new manuscript to get even closer to the heart of Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart, the longest Renaissance Mass setting
Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart is one of Renaissance music’s hidden gems. It has been recorded several times but has never quite shaken off its reputation as a ‘difficult’ piece. That reputation is due to several factors, including fantastical (some have said far-fetched) speculations about a hidden ‘mathematical’ structure, and its sheer length. Whether or not it is the longest Mass cycle before the Missa solemnis, it is certainly the longest one of the Renaissance: most performances come in around the 60-minute mark, and some are longer still. And it survives in only one source, a beautiful set of partbooks made in Basel (the first-recorded printed polyphony north of the Alps) by a printer who isn’t known to have produced any other music. Another factor has been its apparent musical inscrutability. Obrecht’s biographer Rob Wegman memorably dubbed it ‘the sphinx’ among the composer’s 30-odd surviving Masses, its mystique only enhanced by the likely circumstances of its composition. Many scholars agree that it was one of Obrecht’s very last Masses, composed for the court of Emperor Maximilian I at Innsbruck, which boasted one of the finest musical chapels of the period. It is based on a touching devotional German Lied, whose simplicity is the polar opposite of the hour-long cornucopia that Obrecht conjures up from it. I have always regarded it as something of a musical miracle, worthy to stand alongside the best-known Masses of Josquin, though inhabiting a completely different aesthetic; equally, I have felt that it could only be appreciated if an ensemble committed itself fully to entering and inhabiting its sound world.
‘There are grand, spectacular gestures that you don’t get in other pieces, really long sequences that build over huge spans and are really enjoyable to sing’Stratton Bull, director
So when Cappella Pratensis invited me last September to attend their recording session in the picturesque Dutch town of Heusden (near ’s-Hertogenbosch), I was delighted. For full disclosure, I had been in touch with the ensemble previously about the project: the first performances were well before the onset of the Covid pandemic, and initial plans for a recording had to be put on hold. In this, at least, the pandemic had a welcome effect: the recording comes after a half-dozen performances over several years, including a concert in Florence just days before the singers arrived in Heusden. That combination of experience and freshness is important, for as Cappella Pratensis’s director Stratton Bull observes, ‘The Missa Maria zart is a marathon, for the performers and for the audience. At the end of the work comes this stunning Agnus Dei, when Maria zart is heard very clearly for the first time in its entirety, first in the bass, then exchanged between voices, and finally in the top voice. When we finished the Mass in Florence, the audience’s reaction was explosive. They enjoyed the dramatic, scenic aspect of the performance’ – on which more later – ‘but there was also this sense of collective achievement: “We did this!”’ A sense of catharsis, then? Peter de Laurentiis, the ensemble’s artistic producer and one of the tenors who sings those long notes of the cantus firmus, chips in: ‘The singers know, because we do a lot of it, that Renaissance polyphony is physically more challenging than later repertoires. It’s something that not all professional singers appreciate; they look at the music and think it’s easy, but the element of endurance makes a big difference, all the more so with an hour of continuous polyphony.’
Cappella Pratensis in rehearsal (photography: Sander Heezen)
And what of the work’s supposed inscrutability? ‘Speaking to audience members in Florence,’ says de Laurentiis, ‘I had the impression that they were a bit in awe. Some compared the experience of hearing it to that of those who first heard Beethoven’s late quartets. They said, “Something is going on that’s really impressive, we don’t quite understand all of it, but we do perceive a sense of …” and someone said “the sublime”, with all the aesthetic implications that come with the term.’ A work that draws such comparisons is surely worth taking seriously. ‘At the same time,’ says Bull, ‘you have these grand, spectacular gestures that you don’t get in other pieces, really long sequences that build and build over huge spans, which are really enjoyable to sing. So on one level you’re aware of the passage of time, especially towards the end, but on another you’re carried along from moment to moment.’ And there is also some truth that secrets lie hidden beneath the musical surface. De Laurentiis recalls a section, the ‘Et incarnatus’, ‘where the pitches of the first half of the Maria zart tune are given in semibreves in the bass and those of the second half in the top voice the same way, but the pitches are interspersed with other note values so that you couldn’t possibly hear that the tune was there. Only the singers can see it, with the music in front of them; it makes you ask for whom they are singing, for whom these gestures are intended.’ It’s very likely that other such games exist within the music that have so far eluded the ingenuity of commentators.
‘We had long discussions about quills, bookbinding and using a rastrum, things that musicians don’t tend to confront, but we found them exciting’Peter de Laurentiis, tenor
The music’s visual element brings us to a unique feature of Cappella Pratensis’s project. The original print is beautiful but flawed: owing to the printer’s technology, the note-shapes and the staves are sometimes misaligned, making it hard to tell what pitches were intended. But ever since the time of its first director, Rebecca Stewart, Cappella Pratensis has made a point of performing from facsimiles of the original sources, either choirbooks or partbooks, which few vocal ensembles do. Of course, this is impossible in the case of the Obrecht, because of the problems with the Basel print. It so happens, however, that Marc Busnel, one of the ensemble’s basses and an expert calligrapher, had already made several actual-size copies of Renaissance music in choirbook format, and in the original notation. The ensemble asked the Leuven-based Alamire Foundation, which promotes Renaissance polyphony through research, publication and performance, to commission Busnel to make a copy of the Missa Maria zart for its own use (Cappella Pratensis being the foundation’s ensemble-in-residence), matching as closely as possible the source from which Obrecht’s singers would have sung.
‘This was fascinating for us,’ says de Laurentiis. ‘I remember long discussions with Marc about quills, bookbinding and the problem of ruling the pages with musical staves, which Renaissance scribes did using a rastrum, a five-pronged pen that Marc had to design and make himself. Those are things that musicians don’t tend to confront, but we found them really exciting.’ Because they bring you closer to the experience of those who performed the music for the first time, I suggest. ‘Yes. It’s related to the notion of experimental archaeology, where you don’t just examine a castle and take measurements; you cut the stone, you recreate the tools that were used to cut that stone, you try to understand how the thing was actually made by doing it yourself.’ This goes quite deep: the manuscript becomes part of the ensemble, an expression of its collective identity; it is, literally, their manuscript – not a facsimile of an original source, but an original itself. (Emperor Maximilian’s chapel probably owned a copy just like it, but none survives.) One imagines that Renaissance ensembles felt the same way about the choirbooks made for them.
Cappella Pratensis in rehearsal (photography: Sander Heezen)
‘That reminds me of our current project around the choirbooks of ’s-Hertogenbosch,’ says Bull. ‘We have made several albums of music from this set of manuscripts, which was made for the institution in which it is still preserved, something that isn’t often the case for music sources of this period. When we sing there, the manuscripts are being used for the purpose they were intended five hundred years ago.’ Each choirbook also plays a role in concert performances: the large lectern on which it stands, the singers huddling around it, is rotated between movements, so that all the audience members can see both it and the ensemble. After the concert, people can get up close and look at it in more detail; for many, it is their first encounter with such an object, for Renaissance sources are typically under lock and key and seldom lent, let alone performed from.
In recent years, the impulse that first led the group to sing from original sources has taken them in even more challenging directions, marking them out as one of the most inquisitive, dynamic early music ensembles active at the moment. A feature of the Den Bosch Choirbooks series (of which three have appeared and another two are planned) is the inclusion of plainchant for the parts of the Mass outside the featured Mass cycle within the liturgy. Known as ‘liturgical reconstruction’, this approach is no novelty in itself: it was pioneered by Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort more than 40 years ago, but has become a fixture of Cappella Pratensis’s performances. ‘We don’t just do this from a historical perspective or an academic one,’ de Laurentiis explains, ‘though some people perceive it as such. They ask, “Why do you always sing the Preface?”’ – that is, the long stretch of chant immediately preceding the Sanctus. ‘They complain: “It never changes from one Mass to the next, it’s always the same thing, it’s boring …” But we don’t think so. Sure, it gives listeners the context within which polyphony arises, but it’s also a striking moment of contrast when the Sanctus actually starts; it’s always a memorable moment within the Mass cycle.’ (It’s no accident that the opening section of the Sanctus is so often melismatic and drawn out, a long, ecstatic outpouring after a stream of chant and words.)
The inclusion of chant movements in a programme presents a further opportunity. A focus of recent scholarship and performance is the rediscovery of improvised polyphony, which Renaissance singers routinely did, taking the plainchant as a starting point and improvising melodic lines around it. In fact, much of the polyphony they sang was of this kind, and they were trained in techniques of extemporisation from childhood. Bull and fellow countertenor Andrew Hallock were already intrigued by this practice, but the arrival of a third countertenor, Tim Braithwaite, who has a longstanding interest in it, having studied and practised it intensively (first as a student and then as a teacher) during his time at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, encouraged them to explore it in more detail. ‘I’d done a fair bit of jazz as an undergraduate’, says Braithwaite, ‘but had also grown up in the English choral tradition to an extent, and felt I had a good grip of what Renaissance music is. Discovering improvised polyphony at The Hague took me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to combine the two interests, so I started making my way down that rabbit hole and have kept going ever since. When I joined the ensemble, I quite naturally fell into this role of helping us work with these techniques.’ How much preparation is involved in improvising? ‘Well, it’s something that ideally you’d do every day, which is a lot to ask of professional singers. But it’s usually done on the spur of the moment; let’s say, without writing it down. The distinction between what is improvised, composed and written down is very blurred. Often, we’ll take a piece of plainchant and improvise on it two or three times in rehearsal, when it takes different shapes. Then we settle on a basic structure; but as one of those who is more experienced, I will do something more florid in the concert.’
This brings to mind the introit on the latest disc of the Den Bosch series (featuring Nicolas Champion’s Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena), which seemed to me more elaborate than other improvisations the ensemble has done. ‘That was a special case,’ explains Braithwaite. ‘Stratton wanted something particularly splendid for the disc’s opening track, so I composed a more elaborate piece in an improvised style, inspired by contemporaneous sources (a 1528 print from Lyon, for example) that give actual examples of what these improvisations sounded like. I think of it as an idealised version of what the best singers might have created on the spot. I find the idea of virtuosity and the descriptions of what singers did very inspiring. But the early Renaissance composer and theorist Tinctoris said that he didn’t know anyone who could improvise properly who hadn’t started before they were 20, so that’s most of us ruled out! Still, we want to keep exploring these techniques and see how far we can take them.’
Cappella Pratensis in rehearsal (photography: Sander Heezen)
So why have Cappella Pratensis broken with their usual habit of framing Renaissance polyphony within its liturgical context for this new recording? ‘Well, as I said before, there is more than one approach to presenting this music,’ Bull explains, ‘and we’ve been working on Maria zart alongside the Den Bosch project more or less from the start; it’s been five years, and we felt that the time was right to record it. And in this case, we wanted the focus to be on Maria zart as a work of art: we sing the tune at the beginning, there’s a short and simple four-part arrangement of the tune before the Mass and a slightly more elaborate five-part setting by Senfl straight after, and then the tune again to finish; and in between, this huge Mass. We felt the stand-alone approach was appropriate here.’ For all that I have enjoyed Cappella Pratensis’s Den Bosch series and find its experiments with improvised polyphony gaining in subtlety with each new edition, I also agree that if any Mass deserves the stand-alone treatment, it’s Maria zart. A few days after the recording, Bull reported back by email on the final sessions. ‘A “sphinx”? No way; it’s a friggin’ masterpiece!’
Read the review: Cappella Pratensis’s Missa Maria zart
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today