Baroque Songs of Praise:
Madrigals, Chansons, and Motets
Baroque choral music derives from a rich history of Renaissance secular and sacred part songs of astonishing variety and quality. The selections on today’s program include examples of the most important forms from that tradition—the madrigal, chanson, and motet—that collectively created the foundation for the emotional intensity and transcendent sound that characterizes the choral music of Bach, Händel, and other Baroque masters.
The madrigal is a secular part-song for several voices written in the vernacular and in elaborate counterpoint for a cappella performance. The term has come to refer primarily to Italian and English songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but madrigals were widely written by composers of many nationalities. By the late 16th century its essential quality was the intimate relationship between words and music both in terms of meaning and of declamation. The former inspired the technique of word painting and the latter emphasized idiomatic pronunciation. Both became important and durable elements of Baroque style.
Word painting reflects the literal meaning of words in music—water represented by undulating figures; ringing bells heard as alternating notes tolling; loneliness sung by a solo voice. Natural text declamation, the other important aspect of the madrigal, was especially important for texts written in the vernacular. Musical settings with incorrect emphasis in Latin words are less obtrusive than similar mistakes in a language used every day. The Italian madrigalists led in careful and correct text declamation, followed by the English and later, the Germans. By Bach’s time, both word painting and natural text declamation were well-established—word painting was even mannered—and had been absorbed into the musical language of both secular and sacred music. The composers presented here, however, were laying out the techniques for the first time, and moving toward modern tonality that would come together in the music of the Baroque.
Today’s program contains four works from the Italian, German, and Netherlandish madrigal traditions and one from the equivalent form from France, the chanson. Each piece shows careful text declamation and passages of word painting, from the brisk, witty, and precise So ben mi ch’à bon tempo of Orazio Vecchi that describes a coquettish romance, to the exquisite depiction of nature in Monteverdi’s Ecco mormorar l’onde, ringing bells in Jacob Handl’s En ego campana, all from 1590, and finally the heartfelt Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen of 1560 by Heinrich Isaac about the sadness of separation. In a cross-over from secular to sacred music, Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen later became the Lutheran chorale O Welt, ich muss dich lassen (O World, I must leave thee), which was set by Praetorius, Isaac, and others to different texts.
Similar in character to the Italian madrigal, the chanson emerged in the 11th century as a part-song on a French text and developed into a free, elegant composition written in imitative style and quick tempo. The chanson used a structure of alternating stanzas and refrains, and is represented today by Claude Le Jeune’s Revecy venir du Printans (Spring Returns), written in 1603. The piece is replete with miniature word pictures describing the joy that greets the return of spring, and is sung in idiomatic French. Typical of the style, the composer uses short phrases with all voices ending together, creating a homophonic texture that differs substantially from independent contrapuntal lines.
In contrast to the madrigal and chanson, the motet was originally an unaccompanied choral composition based on a Latin sacred text and designed to be performed in the Roman Catholic service, usually at Vespers. Later adopted by the Lutheran and Anglican musical traditions—in the latter it was known as the anthem—the motet was the most important form of early polyphonic music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. By the Baroque era it had branched into two styles—one that maintained a cappella performance practice and one that included instrumental accompaniment, as in Bach’s Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all people) BWV 230 or the English anthems of Henry Purcell and G.F. Händel.
The motets on today’s program are written by composers from across Europe and the New World. They use Latin and German texts, most from the Book of Psalms, and have in common the theme of praising God. Each composer reflects Italian influences, either from working directly with Italian masters or through studying published and manuscript sources. Hassler, the first German composer to travel to Italy to learn the techniques first-hand, studied with Andrea Gabrieli in Venice; Schütz studied with Claudio Monteverdi and Andrea’s nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli; Victoria worked in Rome with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (d. 1594); Pękiel, López-Capillas, and Bach all followed Palestrina’s principles as laid out in his publications or in the analysis by J.J. Fux in his landmark treatise Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). Palestrina was the leading proponent of the Roman School of composition in the 17th century and in this prima pratica emphasized dynamic musical flow, melodies that move mostly stepwise, placement of dissonances on weak beats, careful musical phrasing that followed natural declamation and, of course, word painting. Victoria, Pękiel, and López-Capillas wrote strictly in the style of the prima pratica. Bach, a master of all styles, studied Palestrina’s music and Fux’s analysis carefully, and arranged one of Palestrina’s Masses for performance with winds, double bass, and organ accompaniment as part of his studies.
As a group, the motets before Bach’s Lobet den Herrn use the same expressive techniques that are evident in the madrigals—word painting and careful declamation. The texts generally are set homophonically, with florid and sometimes imitative passages used to emphasize key words—e.g. cantate (to sing), annuntiate (to announce), and of course alleluia. More explicit word painting seems a natural part of the textual settings. For example, in Exultate justi, in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord, O ye just), Viadana musically imitates harp and psaltery to describe praising the Lord with those instruments. Other similar examples occur throughout the motets.
Harmonically, the works hover on the edge of modern tonality but generally are based on the older system of the Church modes. Of the composers in this program, Victoria and Schütz are perhaps the closest harmonically to Bach. Victoria wrote music characterized more by a major-minor than a modal sound, and Schütz, one of the last to write in the old style, had a contrapuntal technique that Bach studied and assimilated. His imitative counterpoint sounds different from Bach’s, however—less regular and directional—but is clearly moving toward a modern sound.
In contrast, the Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541 that opens our concert is a joyous celebration of tonality. The work most likely dates from sometime during Bach’s Weimar period (1708-1717), nearly 50 years after the death of Schütz, and is characterized by repeated notes in both the prelude and the fugue. Bach’s laying out of the grounded, solid sound of tonality provides a foil for the earlier pieces on the program. Each of Bach’s predecessors was composing in a world that was moving away from the established harmonic rules of the Middle Ages and toward a new sound that would soon become the international standard.
Bach wrote six motets between 1723 and 1727 for special occasions at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, including Lobet den Herrn. It was written on Psalm 117 and is unique among his motets for its scoring for four voices and instrumental accompaniment indicated by a figured bass line. Perhaps the most striking differences compared to the earlier works on the program are the sustained complexity of Bach’s contrapuntal texture and the settled tonality that others had moved toward but had not fully achieved.
Bach divides his work musically into three sections, treating the first two lines fugally, the second two in a calm and simpler style, and the final Alleluia with a joyous burst of counterpoint. His word painting is less literal than some earlier examples but equally effective, with the fugal texture of the opening lines suggesting a multitude of nations and the calm center section evoking the Lord’s grace and truth as everlasting qualities. In this brief motet Bach sums up the vocal and harmonic traditions of the previous 200 years, building on the relationship between words and text and consolidating the harmonic framework that served composers until the early 20th century.