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<em>From Darkness Into Light</em>
10 Nov 2019

From Darkness into Light: Antoine Brumel’s Complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday

As a musicologist, particularly when working in the field of historical documents, one is always hoping to discover that unknown score, letter, household account book - even a shopping list or scribbled memo - which will reveal much about the composition, performance or context of a musical work which might otherwise remain embedded within or behind the inscrutable walls of the past.

From Darkness Into Light: Antoine Brumel, The complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday.

Musica Secreta, directed by Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras (sopranos: Hannah Ely, Deborah Roberts, Yvonne Eddy; mezzo-sopranos: Sally Dunkley, Katherine Hawnt, Victoria Couper; altos: Kim Porter, Caroline Trevor, Laurie Stras; bass viol, Alison Kinder; organ, Claire Williams)

Obsidian CD719 [CD]

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One can thus imagine the excitement experienced by Musica Secreta’s co-director Laurie Stras, when the discovery of what she describes as ‘seventeen verses, which were found hiding in plain sight in a sixteenth-century manuscript’ revealed Antonine Brumel’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah to be much more monumental, intricate and imposing than previously imagined.

The result - Musica Secreta’s recently released From Darkness Into Light (on the Obsidian label) - is a compelling fusion of scholarship, instinct, creativity and hypothesis. So much depends, in such matters, on circumstance: clues are tantalising but confirmation rare; conviction relies on the heart as much as the head. For example, as Stras points out in an online guide to accompany the recording, we do not even know the date of Brumel’s death for certain: ‘Richard Sherr, the esteemed historian of Roman musical culture in the 1500s, presumed that Brumel died in 1512, based on the circumstances of a letter written in mid-May 1512, from Mantua, that suggests he might have been mortally unwell. And while the Florentine Vincenzo Galilei, writing near the end of the sixteenth century, said that Brumel had been called to Rome by Pope Leo X in 1513, musicologist Daniel Heartz rejected this as muddled thinking on Galilei’s part, based not on Galilei’s knowledge but on his assumptions.’

Brumel’s Lamentations have been known and heard - in performance and recording - in the form of two verses and a refrain, ‘Jersualam, convertere’. Stras has revealed them to be a much more expansive setting in five ‘movements’ spanning 45 minutes - quite unusual, even remarkable, for a work composed c.1480-1520 - which, while having no specific liturgical function, are likely to have been performed during Holy Week.

There is much finely observed and detailed scholarship in evidence in this recording and the materials associated with it. It is noted that there are five refrains, not three; and the verses do not divide in correspondence with the liturgy, so adaptation would be required for liturgical function. But, there is also evidence of creative thinking. Given that ‘[t]he five sections with their refrains do not correspond with any existing musical or liturgical structure, but they do map exactly onto another art form, extremely familiar to the Florentine elite’, there is a suggestion that Senecan tragedy, ‘the literary model for many Elizabethan dramas’, provides a model with its five-act narrative arc: ‘the Exposition, the Beginning of action, the Complication of action, the Reversal of fortune, and the Catastrophe. Each section of Brumel’s Lamentations then becomes an act in a drama, and the refrains take the place of the classical Chorus, concluding each act.’

There is no clear route through such scholarly and theoretical debates, other than to let the music itself speak. From the start of the first ‘Act’ of Brumel’s Lamentations (Heth. Cogitavit Dominus) the mood is confidently declamatory and pressing of pulse, and the intensity grows, the urgency compels, as the Lord’s breaking of the wall of the daughter of Zion threatens dissolution and anarchy. There is an energetic uplift to the ensemble sound at the start of the second Act ( Joth. Sederunt in terra) though this is complemented by some gritty harmonic ‘obstructions’ and a taut dialogue between flowing counterpoint and more ingrained homophony.

The sound is bright but also grainy at times; individual voices fly free though they are anchored by the organ’s unobtrusive but solid foundations. ‘Perfect’ harmonies are repeatedly troubled by ‘problematic’ piquancy - there are some terrific/terrifying false relations! - but the over-riding impression is one of life-relishing forward momentum. There is a wonderful registral expansiveness which tells of the elder daughters of Zion who ‘sit upon the ground and keep silence’ as ashes are thrown upon their heads. ‘[T]he virgins of Jerusalem have girded themselves with sackcloth: the virgins of Juda hang their heads to the ground,’ we are told. The music is unpredictable and vitalised, episodic and striving.

The third Act (Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt) is riven with restlessness and anxiety, as the wounded, fainting daughters question their mothers, ‘Where is the wheat and the wine?’ The vivacity and optimism of the account of the daughter of Zion, whose grief ‘is great like the sea’, is astonishing, and speaks of an underlying faith of which most of us can, I suspect, scarcely imagine. Act 4 flourishes with assertive forays, ‘Your prophets have seen vain and foolish things for you’, which release the highest voices to reach and soar. At times there is such energy and power in the singing that one feels one’s feet lift from the floor. The sense of individual voices crying out - ‘He has made my flesh and skin old’, ‘He has … surrounded me with gall and travail’, ‘He has set me in dark places, as they that are forever dead’ - is almost overwhelming emotive, as melodic lines assert themselves within a fraught but flowing discourse, and the dissonances coalesce almost painfully.

In the final Act, the individual voices seem to come together in a collective, homophonic expression of despair that the Lord ‘has made my paths crooked’ and ‘has turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces’, the organ binding individual voices to a common cause. Even if tense dissonances express pain experienced, there is hope: ‘Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.’

The historical source of Brumel’s Lamentations that Stras discovered was undecorated and not for display, but its friar-copyist, Fra Antonio Moro, left clues for the modern-day musical detective to interpret. He also left another Florentine manuscript - the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript - which belonged to two nuns, Suor Agnoleta Biffoli and Suor Clemenzia Sostegni, and which is filled with details and minutiae revealing much about the nuns’ daily lives.

The second half of this disc draws upon that Florentine manuscript, with anonymous works settling alongside those of masters such as Josquin, Antonio Moro and Loyset Compère. A 16th-century Ave maris stella seems somehow to ‘free’ the voices and in the unison episodes there is a wonderful sense of joy and life: the final upwards-reaching cadence is quite extraordinary. Similarly, the organ impels the voices with terrific buoyancy in Moro’s five-part Sancta Maria. Listening, I began to wonder about - and feel a surprising persuasive pull towards - lives and loves, faiths and fidelities in such distant times and places. The repetitive tropes of the brief 16 th-century Jesus autem cum ieiunasset are no less entrancing, though the strong lower voices of the contemporary Multiplicati sunt qui tribulante me, with its succinct final cadence, seem to speak even more assertively of assured devotion.

The freedom and energy of the anonymous 16th-century Verbum caro factum est sweeps up the listener in its glorifying cadence and propels one into the unison affirmation of an anonymous Salve Regina, the harmonic and sonic richness - and episodic confidence - of which seems to defy and deny our 21st-century assumptions and complacencies.

The liner book contains Latin texts and English translations, and explanatory essays are supplemented by more extended online analysis of the historical and musical context. This is a recording that will delight scholars and laymen, theorists and practitioners, alike.

Claire Seymour

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