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Sacred Songs and Folk Music from Renaissance Germany

No fifteenth-century wedding, civic ceremony, feast day, or royal joyeux entrée would have been complete without the sound of the alta capella, or “high choir.” The term referred not to singers, but to the loud voices of shawms, trumpets or trombones. The players performed vocal music, dances, and improvised counterpoint, much like jazz musicians of today. Testimony to the high reputation of alta capella players lies in figures like the shawm player Conrado Piffaro d’Alemania, who was for decades one of the highest paid men at the Ferrara court. His name betrays both his profession and a shared origin with his companions: most instrumentalists came from Northern Europe. On their way to Italy, they passed through Austria and Germany, sharing compositions, styles and techniques along the way.

Famous for their improvisatory skills, little of their music survives in writing. In order to capture the repertory and sound of these players at the crossroads of their journey, Ciaramella has turned to major German sources of polyphony from the end of the fifteenth century. Masses, motets, and songs preserved in the manuscript sources Munich 3154 (The Leopold Codex)*, Berlin 40021**, and Leipzig 1494 (the Apel Codex)*** reflect the courtly wealth of Sigismond of Tyrol and the Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, and the growing artistic culture in cities like Nuremberg and Innsbruck. Intabulated keyboard manuscripts like the Buxheimer Orgelbuch† and Kleber Orgeltabulatur†† offer further glimpses into the rich tradition of embellished song.

During the 1420s, composers experimented with a style of composition in which two equal Cantus voices join in fugal imitation over slower moving Tenors. This “double discantus” technique in Nicolaus Grenon’s Christmas motet Nova vobis gaudia, would be supplanted by the Tenor/Cantus framework exemplified in Guillaume Dufay’s three-voice chanson Se la face ay pale, which served as the model for several ornate organ intabulations and with an added voice reflecting later fifteenth-century tastes. Members of the alta capella also performed on bas instruments like the recorder. Numerous trios surviving in sources were both sung and performed as instrumental fantasias. Only its lack of words separates the textless Trio from works like the motet Gaude, virgo, mater Jesu Christe. It is tempting to attribute both to the same composer, one who displays the highest compositional skill.

During my dissertation research, I recognized an unnamed anonymous Mass to be based on a famous French chanson. Although this Missa Je ne fays plus bears no title or attribution in Munich 3154, it is certainly the same Mass referred to in 1539 by Giovanni Spataro as the work of Heinrich Isaac. The Kyrie and Gloria, with florid redictae (short repeated motives) typify Isaac’s early style and stand out as the type of Mass section often adopted by instruments. This instrumental performance of two movements announces the “rediscovery” of this lost masterpiece.

Composers clothed liturgical chants with new text and intricate polyphony. The motet O plebs quae Deum amas adopts as cantus firmus a chant with the funeral text “Requiem in pacem, dona nobis eum” in a surprisingly triumphant polyphonic setting. Alma chorus surrounds the music of O du armer Judas. This Good Friday leyson—a sacred text ending with the words Kyrie eleison—would inspire a later five-part setting by the great composer Ludwig Senfl.

Like wind players, church organists performed secular songs. Een vroylic wesen ornaments Jacques Barbireau’s Flemish love song, a favourite model for reworking in both song and Mass. Sometimes the identity of a song is obscured, as in the Kleber Orgeltabulatur, for example, where the strange name Philephos aves corrupts the original French words Fille vous avez mal gardé, revealing its origin in an amorous French song composed by Heinrich Isaac.

Manuscripts of sacred music preserve secular songs with sacred Latin texts. Adam von Fulda’s O Jupiter / O diva sollers virgo blends secular German text of a Tenorlied with a Latin hymn text, performed here on sixteen-foot recorder consort. Komm Heiliger Geist paraphrases the famous Latin hymn for Corpus Christi, Veni Sancte Spritus. Although this famous melody is ascribed to Martin Luther, he seems to have merely altered the words found in the earliest surviving versions preserved in Munich 3154. Little is known about the composer Johannes Beham, who displays consummate mastery and a keen interest in subtle chromaticism. Sancta Maria wohn uns bei also appears as a hymn whose opening words Luther would change (now known as Gott der Vater, wohn uns bei) once again earning credit for an existing song. Our performance presents the anonymous monophonic melody, a simple duo, and adds a voice to the existing three-voice version. In arranging these hymns, we have imagined a small choir of angels in a miniature chapel, after the intricate wood carving of contemporary censers and reliquaries.

Concealed within the intricate polyphony and florid ornamentation of these sources lie some of the simplest and most popular songs of the day. Because many of these songs survive with only fragmentary texts, the earliest literary sources aid in recovering the song. In the absence of a single complete original text, we attempt to recreate something like one of the many versions that existed within a rich and evolving song tradition, in the spirit of something the great poetry scholar Paul Zumthor referred to as mouvance: traditional tunes have no fixed authoritative version, but consist of families with numerous fluid variants.

In complement to the polyphonic setting of the song Mein Herz in hohen Freuden ist in Munich 3154, Douglas Milliken’s arrangement explores techniques that might have been adopted by the perennial combination of bagpipe and shawms. In symbolizing the rustic and carnal nature of humble shepherds, bagpipes attend the pastourelle genre that takes place in the woods, where dark temptations to love and murder call the strongest. Gespiele, liebe Gespiele güt invokes a time-honoured tradition of two sisters in rivalry over the same lover. It seldom ends well: often one sister meets fate through treachery or in a watery death. Often, the narrator is the voyeuristic lover himself who, listening to the girls, wonders which to choose. Our arrangement joins the earliest known tune with the same sixteenthcentury text that Arnold Schoenberg would later set to music.

The Latin-texted Invicto regi jubilo presents a German song through the technique of migrating cantus firmus, in which the melody travels through each voice. One manuscript contains only the incipit Wer ich eyn falck. The nineteenth-century poem collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn contains a poem with the similar text Wär ich ein wilder Falke set to an insipid melody, but this later text does not scan metrically with its earliest known music. The closest textual correspondence we have found survives in a songbook preserved in a Cistercian monastery. This version takes the erotic intent of the secular text—about a lover’s desire to fly high above the city into his lover’s room— and transforms it to a song of spiritual longing. It is easy to imagine these sentiments on the lips of one of the many convents or lay sisterhoods that flourished throughout Germanic lands. The trumpet fanfare on this melody blends speculation about instrumental capabilities with contemporary contrapuntal techniques.

Manuscripts from Dutch confraternities, German hymnals, organ intabulations and settings by composers like Adam von Fulda attest to the popularity of the hymn Dies est laetitiae, also known as Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich. Based on contemporary practices, Ciaramella includes a newly composed duo for shawms and adds a fifth voice to Fulda’s florid setting, bringing together versions for organ, voice, and instrumental polyphony, in imitation of the angelic hosts illuminating old manuscripts.

Adam Gilbert

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