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The Hapsburgs in Chipping Campden

Roger Jones, Seen and Heard International (13 May, 2015)

This a capella concert was entitled From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg. I confess as I sat down to read the programme my heart sank when I saw the three pages of programme notes on European history with which I was unfamiliar and about composers I had never heard of. But during the course of the evening thanks to some lively introductions to the pieces by members of the twelve strong ensemble matters became much clearer and at the end I was cheering the singers along with everybody else.

The music centred on the courts of Maximilian I,  his grandson Charles V and his great grandson Philip II, and featured a number of works to commemorate special occasions. I wonder how many historians will recall the 1538 peace treaty between Charles V and the French king Francis I brokered by Pope Paul III. In fact, the treaty was short-lived, but it did give rise to a commemorative motet Jubilate Deo by the Pope’s composer Christobal de Morales with joyful vivats for both monarchs, and the work provided a rousing start for the Chipping Campden Festival.

Josquin des Prez’ Mille Regrets, one of Charles V’s favourite songs, was a much more intimate affair, far removed from the pomp and circumstance of state, and imbued with an attractive melancholy.  Later there was an opportunity to hear Gombert’s more elaborate reworking of this chanson – for six voices against Josquin’s four – which offered plenty of scope for contrapuntal textures and luminous harmonies.

Crecquillon’s Andreas Christi famulus was commissioned by Charles for a meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1546 to be sung after Compline and Vespers on the Feast of St Andrew, the patron saint of the order.  A grand and dignified eight part work with rich harmonies it sounded magnificent in the acoustic of St James’ Church.

It was a surprise to find the name of Thomas Tallis in a concert of music from the Hapsburg courts, but remember that Henry VIII’s daughter Mary I (who earned the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’) was married to Philip II of Spain. Had she born him a son one presumes that England would have become part of the Hapsburg Empire and tied inextricably to Europe. Historical speculation apart, it was reassuring to hear familiar music by one of the leading English composers of his age:  firstly the Pentecostal Loquebanturintended for performance  by the choirs of the Capilla Flamenca and Mary’s Chapel Royal,  and then his wonderful Gloria in which  the extrovert opening section contrasts with the more serious ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’.

There was great poignacy in the Flemish composer Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi, believed to have been composed to lament the death of Maximilian’s son Philip in 1506. After a performance in which the singers made the most of its  dark harmonic colours Gombert’s Magnificat with its alternation between plainsong and polyphony lightened the mood.

Philip II’s funeral was marked with Alonso Lobo’s reverent motet Versa est in luctum,  but there was a reminder of much more illustrious times for the Hapsburgs in Clemens non Papa’s Carolus magnus eras.  ‘Rome is yours; Europe is yours, Asia and the whole of Africa’ – how Charles V must have lapped up these words! This is certainly a musical work designed to flatter.

At the end of  the concert we returned to Maximilian and his court composer of 20 years Heinrich Isaac. Isaac was capable of turning out the right kind of music for any occasion as is shown in his Virgo prudentissima in which the Virgin is asked to intervene to ensure the Emperor is victorious over his enemies.  The words may be bombastic, but there is no denying the quality and variety of Isaac’s music.

And there is no denying the quality of Stile Antico’s performances either.  This was a fascinating, meticulously researched and well designed programme which brought together public and private music from the Hapsburgs’ Golden Age with never a dull moment. Living under a powerful Emperor may have had its disadvantages. but at least the musical scene was buoyant.