Heinrich Isaac: Chanson masses & mass propers for Pentecost

Project Weeks
2014-06-02 18:00 - 2014-06-08 17:00
Johanneskirche, An der Johanneskirche 2, 06110 Halle, Germany
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Following last year’s release by Cantus Modalis of their CD “Missa Paschalis ad organum”, containing Heinrich Isaac’s six-part Missa Paschalis, we thought it would be appropriate to dedicate our next project week to Isaac, one of the greatest masters of his time. We have linked this project week to the church calendar, so while our CD was centered around the Easter liturgy, we will be focusing here on the music for Pentecost.

Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450 – 1517) can be seen as the quintessential European musician. He was born in Flanders (possibly in Bruges), in the same region of origin as many of his contemporaries who would later become famous throughout Europe: Josquin Desprez (b. 1450-55 in the county of Hainaut), Jacob Obrecht (b. 1457/58 in Ghent), Pierre de la Rue (b. ca. 1460 in Tournai), to name just a few. Isaac went on to spend most of his life as a musician in Florence and Innsbruck. In Florence, he established close bonds with the Medici family – he may even have served as music teacher to the future Medici pope Leo X. In Innsbruck, he served primarily as court composer under Maximilian I, and one cannot rule out the possibility that the Holy Roman Emperor also received private music lessons from Isaac. Who else can claim to have given lessons to the most powerful spiritual and temporal rulers of the world?

Isaac’s cosmopolitanism is reflected in his music, notably in his mass compositions (Isaac was the most prolific mass composer of his time, surpassing in number even Josquin Desprez): indeed, in his so-called ‘chanson masses’, he uses both Dutch-German song models and French ones. During the course of our project week, we will be focusing on three of these masses and their secular models:

- Missa Tmeisken was jonck. This mass is based on an erotic chanson by Jacob Obrecht with a very suggestive title (“The girl was young...”)

- Missa Comment peult avoir joie. Isaac wrote two different masses with this title, one in four parts, one in six. The six-part version is based in part on the four-part version, to which Isaac added two new voices. The mass’s secular model is a chanson by Josquin Desprez with the same title. It was printed by Petrucci in his Canti B (1502).

- Missa Een frolic wesen. This four-part mass is notable for its wealth of exuberant melismas. It is based on the equally melismatic three-part chanson by Jacobus Barbireau (1455-1491). This song was very famous at the time, and it gave rise to a great number of arrangements; for example, an instrumental intabulation by Hans Buchner (1483-1538) that appears in Leonard Kleber’s organ tablature. Buchner lived in Innsbruck and Constance, he was probably a choirboy under Isaac, an organ student of Hofhaimer’s and later Kleber’s teacher. According to recent findings, it seems Buchner was also a versatile instrumentalist: he played not only the organ, but also the recorder, the lute and other instruments as well.

During the course of our project week, instrumentalists will be given the opportunity to use Buchner’s intabulation of Een frolic wesen/Ein fröhlich wesen as a stylistic source of inspiration for the improvisation or composition of instrumental versions of Tmeisken was jonck and Comment peult avoir joie.

Although participants will be given the complete music for all three masses, we will study only certain sections of each mass during the week.

As stated above, we will be linking these sections from the mass ordinary to the appropriate mass propers for Pentecost: Introit Spiritus Domini, Alleluia Veni sancte spiritus, Sequence Sancti spiriti adsit nobis gratia and Communion Factus est repente. We will be singing from the Choralis Constantinus, a unique collection of four-part settings to the mass propers for all the Sundays of the church year, written in great part by Heinrich Isaac in the years 1508-1509. It was commissioned by the cathedral of Constance and published posthumously by Formschneider in 1550/55 (with additions by Isaac’s pupil Ludwig Senfl). We would also like to sing some of the pieces in their original, monophonic, i.e. Gregorian form (to which end we will be using the Graduale Pataviense, published in 1511, during Isaac’s lifetime). We should not forget that Gregorian chant is not only at the root of western melody as a whole, but also forms the backbone of polyphonic music until the end of the 16th century and beyond!

Our project week will be focusing on many different aspects of music making around 1500: Gregorian chant, secular chansons, and polyphony based on both of these genres, as well as a bit of instrumental music. All of these elements should combine into a large mosaic, one that reflects the multifaceted nature of these ancient times in general, as well as the multifaceted nature of Heinrich Isaac in particular.

Martin Ehrhardt/Milo Machover

Application and contact:

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All Dates

  • From 2014-06-02 18:00 to 2014-06-08 17:00
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