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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

108. Listening Recommendations – Music of the Renaissance and Reformation

Renaissance, Reformation
Listen to the playlist on Spotify

From 2009 to 2016, I charted music history through a series of CD purchases, beginning with the music of the Ancient Greeks and gradually working my way to the present day. Now that the lean years of grad school are behind me, I feel free to reinitiate my CD purchases. This is significant to me because it is how I curate my collection, whereas as a grad student I had to rely chiefly on used CDs. Though I have made some great finds at McKay’s and elsewhere, I can be more specific in purchasing my CDs through online vendors like Amazon, ArkivMusic, and especially Presto Classical where the options are nearly endless. I know well the contents of my collection, and, in these upcoming purchases, my goal is to fill its perceived gaps rather than only bolstering what I already have. This will, in fact, be the fifth time I have traversed music history with my CD purchases, making it my “Fifth Rotation.” You can see an outline of my previous rotations by following this link. Especially as I get into the more familiar territory of the eighteenth century, my plan is to reach-out beyond the Western classical repertoire toward music of other cultures, including the colonial Americas; pre-Westernized Russia and eastern Europe; Turkey and the Islamic world; Africa; India; and Asia. Upon arrival in the twentieth century, this will allow me to more fully experience African-American genres like blues, jazz, and funk as well as the intercultural music of Ravi Shankar, the Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma, Tan Dun, and Joël Bons. For each unit of the Fifth Rotation, I will write a Listening Recommendations article like this one and, coming soon, I also plan to design corresponding playlists on Spotify. Hope you will enjoy reading about my discoveries and, in the process, that you will make some enjoyable discoveries of your own!

JOHN DUNSTABLE (c.1390-1453): SWEET HARMONY: MASS MOVEMENTS AND MOTETS. Dunstable is the earliest of the composers whose music I consider in the new purchases of my Fifth Rotation. He is regarded as the chief representative of the contenance Angloise which, significantly, introduced triadic harmony to continental Europe. In other words, the interjection of imperfect consonances (i.e. the third and sixth) became preferable to the unabashed usage of perfect consonances (i.e. the fourth and fifth) that was common in the Middle Ages. This music really does have a “sweet” sound to it for this reason, and it sounds quite different from medieval polyphony on this basis alone. The music on this disc is incredibly beautiful and well-performed by Tonus Peregrinus. This CD primarily includes Dunstable’s polyphonic settings of movements from the Mass Ordinary. I imagine a complete Mass Ordinary either does not survive or was not written by Dunstable. This is after Guillaume de Machaut’s famous Messe de Nostre Dame which sets all five Mass movements as a cycle, although evidently that did not become the standard practice until after Guillaume Dufay’s many Mass cycles of the mid-fifteenth century. My favorite work on this CD, however, is not a Mass setting but remains Dunstable’s Veni Sancte Spiritus; Veni Creator which I have known for many years through a Naxos sampler disc.

THE HILLIARD ENSEMBLE: RENAISSANCE MUSIC: ENGLAND, ITALY, SPAIN, MEXICO. I purchased this six-disc set primarily for its first two CDs, dedicated to the madrigals of Italy and England. I had perceived the lack of madrigals—the principal secular vocal genre of the sixteenth century—as a major shortcoming of my collection; indeed I had meant to buy these same discs as a two-disc set ten years ago when I first made purchases from the Renaissance. The first disc includes Italian-language madrigals by many of the major composers, including Philippe Verdelot, Jacques Arcadelt, Cipriano da Rore, and Luca Marenzio. It excludes only Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo—I had bought full books of their madrigals ten years ago, so this was not an issue. The second disc mirrors the first with English-language madrigals by Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, John Bennet, and John Wilbye. I have sung several of the madrigals on this disc, so it was nice to hear these again and important that I add them to my collection. The other four discs were bonus in my mind, but also contain some great music, including the Masses for three, four, and five voices of William Byrd—a Catholic composer caught-up in Anglican England—and music of the newly-Catholic Spain of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as well as its New World possessions. Ferdinand and Isabella, the “Catholic Monarchs” as they were called, drove-out the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of Spain, and immediately commissioned Columbus and his successors to spread their faith in the Americas which he had supposedly discovered. Politics aside, these last two discs made for fascinating listening with music which is stringently Catholic in its orientation. Much of it is by composers who I was not familiar with, including Francisco de Peñalosa, Pedro de Escobar, Juan del Encina, Cristóbal de Morales, and Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla. One shortcoming of this set, however, is its lack of detailed program notes, leaving me to my own devices to learn about so many unfamiliar composers. Access to program notes is one reason why I still insist on buying CDs, rather than digital downloads or streaming, so that was a disappointment, especially as I know that the out-of-print original releases by Erato would have included very detailed notes which should have been repackaged in this set. That aside, I was quite happy with the performances by Hilliard and the vast repertoire included.

EIN FESTE BURG IST UNSER GOTT: LUTHER AND THE MUSIC OF THE REFORMATION. This is a cool two-disc set (with wonderful program notes!) surveying the first hundred or so years of Lutheran music, released in 2017 upon the five hundredth anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses. I initially had in-mind congregational singing—a Lutheran reform in itself since the complex polyphony which characterized Catholic liturgical music of this era necessarily excluded participation by the congregation. This set albeit demonstrates another side of Lutheran music, that which adapts the manner of Josquin des Prez and other Catholic polyphonists to the needs of the Lutheran service. As this set crosses into the seventeenth century, its composers similarly adapt the Venetian concerted style of Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi to their needs. Of the Renaissance composers included here, Johann Walter and Caspar Othmayr were my favorite discoveries; I had hardly been aware of their names and certainly had not heard their music before purchasing this set. My favorite pieces though must be Freude, Freude, große Freude by Andreas Hammerschmidt and the setting of Veni Sancte Spiritus by Thomas Selle; these two lesser-known composers were pupils of the first great masters of the German Baroque, specifically Heinrich Schütz and Johann Hermann Schein. Schütz, Schein, and the third member of their party—Samuel Scheidt—are also well-represented on these discs. I had known little music of Schein and Scheidt, so I enjoyed getting to know their musical personalities better through these recordings and I hope to continue these explorations in the future. I was particularly impressed with Schein’s O Jesulein, mein Jesulein and Scheidt’s Das alte Jahr vergangen ist from his Cantiones Sacrae. Additionally, after so much Catholic sacred music exclusive of instruments, I enjoyed the emphasis the Lutherans gave to the organ. From the very beginning, the organ played an important part in the Lutheran service—not only in the seventeenth century and the importation of Venetian concerted music. Finally who can resist a good setting of the Lutheran battle cry—Ein feste Burg—like the one by Melchior Franck included in this set?

TOMÁS LUIS DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): REQUIEM MASS, 1605; ALONSO LOBO (1555-1617): LAMENTATIONS OF JEREMIAH. Victoria is considered, with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlande de Lassus, the third member of the triumvirate of composers associated with the Catholic Counter-Reformation. My collection already includes music by Palestrina and I will return to Lassus later, so here I wished to focus on Victoria and, specifically, his Requiem which the Louisville Chamber Choir had performed so expertly a few years back. After ending up with so much Spanish music in the Hilliard collection, it also made sense to focus on this slightly later Spanish composer. Overall I was quite happy with this recording on Signum by Tenebrae. Their ensemble has a crisp, clear sound that just sort of washes over you. I would normally avoid a choral approach to this repertoire—likely Victoria wrote expecting no more than one or two singers to a part—but Tenebrae’s singers are so tightly synchronized that it hardly makes a difference. My main complaint with this release has nothing to do with the recording, but the lack of intelligent program notes. What Signum offers is sensationalist at best, so that, when the recording includes extra movements than the usual eight of a Requiem Mass, I have no idea the context. Did Victoria include these in his manuscript, so that they are, in fact, part of his Requiem? Are they only liturgically appropriate? Or, worst, were they inserted by the performers without much thought at all? I am particularly suspicious as different recordings of Victoria’s Requiem lack these same movements. The Lobo Lamentations make for a nice filler, but again I learned little about Lobo or the tradition of setting Lamentations from reading the program notes. Ultimately I feel like I would have had better appreciation of this music with context. Certainly I can read about these composers and their compositions elsewhere but it is difficult to ever know the performers’ choices—of which there must be many considering the age of this repertoire—without decent notes.

FURTHER LISTENING. The CDs of this unit are not the only new music I have been listening to: I still have many used CDs from this same era that I had not listened to which complement this purchase. Two CDs of Gregorian chant and the set, Music from the Time of the Crusades, on Virgin Classics let me explore medieval music. The latter gave me several songs by the troubadours, previously another gap in my collection. A set by Sony called Leonardo da Vinci: Music from His Time supplemented what I already have from the fifteenth century by Josquin and the rest. Finally a CD by the Musical Heritage Society called Music from the Time of King Christian IV looks at Danish music around the turn of the seventeenth century when English composer John Dowland was also active there. I decided early on that I had plenty of Dowland, but I could not pass up this set when I happened upon it at Half-Price Books for it gives necessary context to Dowland during his years away from England. I plan for my next purchase in August to move into the Baroque era, beginning with Claudio Monteverdi. As I proceed, I intend to pursue many of the ideas already initiated in this unit: i.e. the replacement of strict north European polyphonic writing by Italian dramatic and melodic idioms; the rise of secular music, here the madrigal but soon instrumental music too; and music in locales typically thought of as away from the center of European musicmaking, such as colonial Mexico or even Spain itself as we move beyond the Renaissance. New ideas will also surely emerge. Stay tuned: there’s more to come!

JSH 19.07.18

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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