One of the legacies of my extended sojourn in chapel choirs, from the age of 7 to 22, is an abiding love for unusual corners of the Anglican choral repertoire. Long before I myself had to compose intricate 5-part counterpoint at various desks in damp libraries and assorted examination halls, I grew to love the polyphonic repertoire of Palestrina, Josquin and other masters of the Renaissance by actually singing it. As my interest in early music expanded I corralled various friends into putting on concerts of what were then practically unknown works: early French organum from Notre-Dame, Machaut and Ockeghem.
After a recent back operation I decided to reconnect with my love of singing in choirs by joining a couple of ensembles at UCLA. I have already written about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of singing Beethoven under the masterful baton of the legendary choral teacher Donald Neuen, in his farewell concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall. But UCLA offers many other conduits for those wanting to embark on unusual musical adventures. In particular, the UCLA Early Music Ensemble brings together an eclectic group of students and faculty from all disciplines, together with some interlopers from the community like myself, to perform anything from Baroque standards to way-off-the-beaten-path curiosities from across the world and across the centuries. Instrumentalists play authentic instruments of the period.
In one chamber concert we tackled a delightful potpourri of works by French and Flemish masters of the Renaissance, and for this particular work — “La Nuict Froide et Sombre” (The Cold and Somber Night) — I was asked to write the program notes. Here they are, and at the end you can watch our performance.
Orlando di Lasso, also known as Lassus, was something of a rock star in the hushed cloisters of 16th century polyphony. Legend has it that he was abducted no less than three times for the beauty of his youthful singing voice. Judging by the ubiquity of his works in print, he was also one of the first composers in history to understand the financial benefits of a good publishing deal. It enabled him to spend most of his life in stable employment at the Bavarian court in Munich where he enjoyed enormous creative freedom.
You are about to hear why his music was so popular. He was able, within the strict compositional methods required at the time, to cultivate a more earthy and sensual manner that humanized the sacred. His gift for word setting was especially evident in his series of French chansons, which were amongst the most widely known and popular works in late 16th century Europe. The text for “La Nuict Froide et sombre” is by Joachim de Bellay, one of a group of poets who turned to Greek and Roman poetry as a way to revitalize the form.
This poem clearly channels Ovid to depict a scene of cosmic metamorphosis thus:
“The cold and somber night
Covering with dark shadow
The earth and the skies
As sweetly as honey
Dripping from the sky
Pours sleep into our eyes.
Then the glowing sky
To labour calling
Reveals its faint light
And in varied hues
This great universe
Unfurls and forms.”
This text may be secular, but its depiction of the unity of creation and the constantly renewing cycle of day and night would have resonated with devotional literature of the time. The diurnal cycle thus mirrors how despair and hope are constantly evolving into one another in the Evening and Morning meditations. That Lasso is aware of this resonance between nature and the spiritual life is reflected in both the pictorial detail and the underlying religiosity of his word setting. The descent of night at the opening is depicted in a series of slow-moving but harmonically unsettled chords. Contrasts between high and low registers accentuate the poet’s invocation of the earth and sky. A sequence of drooping suspensions perfectly mimics the effect of sleep upon the eyes. Throughout, a virtuosic use of chromaticism invokes not only the diaphanous quality of the scene being described, but also the profound sensuality of Nature’s effects. In that profundity the metamorphosis of day into night, and night into day, is rendered into a spiritual contemplation of palpable physicality.