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David M. Greene

EXPLORING MUSIC: OVERCOME BY BEAUTY - Ars Perfecta and the Harvard Glee Club

EXPLORING MUSIC: OVERCOME BY BEAUTY - Ars Perfecta and the Harvard Glee Club

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Overcome by Musical Beauty

Professor David M. Greene


Settings by: Arcadelt, Brumel, Byrd, Genet, Palestrina and Sermisy

Since the phrase ars perfecta (perfect art) is new to me, and since none of my reference books make it any older, I am going to assume that it's somebody's Cute Idea. Ars antiqua (old art) is legitimately applied to the body of music that began with the early counterpoint [organa and conducti) of the Notre-Dame School (12th century) and passed through clausulae and motets to its extinction early in the fourteenth century. It was succeeded by ars nova (new art) which appeared at about the beginning of the same century, and was so full of hocketing and isorhythms and other complex and unfamiliar things that Pope John XXII issued a bull practically forbidding counterpoint. It had about as much effect as King Cnut' s famous command to the sea. Counterpoint went on developing (I shan't mention the disgraceful things that happened to the Papacy) until it (presumably) reached its medieval peak in the disciples of Johannes Ockeghem, of whom Josquin des Pres and Antoine Brumel were allegedly two.

Josquin is generally regarded as the Biggie between Dufay and Lassus. Like so many of his era, he had identity problems. "Josquin" is a diminutive of "Josse"; it is not certain whether his surname was "des Pres" or whether he came from the meadows (or dueling-grounds), so he is usually familiarly called "Josquin" ("Zhohskannh"). He is also knows as Deprez, Dupre, Prato, Del Prato, and Jodocus Pratensis (but not Joe Doaks). Over the years he worked for Count Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Cardinal Ascanio Sforza (who preferred the yelping of hounds to music) in Milan, Duke Ercole d'Este (for whom he wrote the mass "Hercules Dux Ferrarae") in Ferarra, Innocent VIII and Alexander VI in Rome, and King Louis XII of France, before dying at Conde in 1521--the year Magellan was done in by Filipinos and Sulieman I conquered Belgrade. He must have been a colorful character, for Galeazzo Maria presented him with some robes "the color of peach-blossoms, turquoise blue, and greenish." Many merry stories are told about Josquin, but since I don't understand them--they being in Latin--! won't repeat them. His music won extraordinary praise and popularity from the outset. Among other things, he set the genealogy of Jesus to music (the "begats"), and it was said that he could have done justice to the telephone directory (annuaire telephonique) if there had been one.

On the other hand, little is known about Brumel, who pops up at Chartres (subbing for Gilles Mureau who was on pilgrimage), Laon (1597), Notre-Dame de Paris (1598-9), and Lyons (1505) where he was hired by Alfonso d'Este (who liked the Ockeghem tradition) for 100 ducats a year and a home of his own in Ferrara, where he lived happily ever afterwards.

If you acquired MHS 3291, you've already heard Brumel' s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. You've also heard some of the most beautiful and sensitive choral singing on records. I approached it myself with the condescension of one who is not thrilled by ''The Whiffenpoof Song'' and came away weak-kneed with admiration! 

The Harvard Glee Club's First Recording with MHS


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MHS 3291: 12" Stereo Record

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