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Bad Happens ...Feb. 28 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
.. or the more colloquial "s__t happens" is as good a translation of the phrase "malheur me bat" as any. It's the title of a chanson of the late 15th Century. The rest of the text hasn't survived. We can assume that the chanson was a love lament, but not with any certainty; it might have been a general statement of the woes of mortality. Written in the Phrygian mode (E to e with no flats of sharps), it does have a melodically woeful cast. Polyphony in the Phrygian mode was not unusual, but it always involved the compositional difficulty of avoiding the "tritone" (the interval from F-natural to B-natural), so that raising the F or lowering the B (a practice we call ficta) often disguises the modal quality of the music. There's some uncertainty about the composer of the chanson. In the manuscript called "Liber Fridolini Sichery", it's attributed to Johannes Ockeghem, but Sichery was a medical student and amateur musician who snatched all the music he could find without much concern for scholarship. Most musicologists today assign the chanson to a minor Ferrarese composer named Maelcort.
There are three 'parody' masses available on CDs based on the melodic phrases of the chanson Malheur Me Bat. (Briefly, a parody mass is one that uses a pre-existing song, often secular, in some structural way as the basis of composition.). They are by three of the greatest composers of the era, and though they have much in common in musical 'vocabulary', they are remarkably different in emotional affect. The composers are Jacob Obrecht (1457-1505), Josquin Desprez (1455-1521), and Alexander Agricola (1446-1506). All three masses are major works in their composers' oeuvres, and all three are formidably challenging to perform.
The Obrecht "Malheur" has been recorded by the ANS (Ars Nova Secunda) Chorus and by The Clerks's Group. The former is not readily available, but that hardly matters since the performance by The Clerks' Group is unsupassable. I've reviewed it already.
The Clerks' Group has also recorded the Josquin 'Malheur' mass, another superb performance that I've reviewed previously. A second recording is available from Capella Alamire, a consort that has done some fine performances, but I haven't heard it. A third recording is available for 'pre-release' from The Tallis Scholars. I'm looking forward to a shoot-out comparison of the Clerks and the Scholars.
The Agricola mass based on 'Malheur me bat' is the most fantastical - a rhythmic maze with sharp twists and sorties, just as you'd expect from the 'be-bop' master of unexpected rhythms. It requires great concentration and precision, confident independence of movement from each voice, and tremendous verve. Phrygian sadness has to yield to Agricola's insistent intellectual energy. It should ONLY be sung one on a part by the most adroit soloists. The ANS Chorus isn't quite up to the task, I fear. Too broad, too 'choral', too somber in tempo and color. Still, the performance is good enough to get enjoyment from it, and good enough to suggest what Agricola had in his frenetic mind, and since it's the only recording available,it will have to serve. That's unfortunately true of quite a number of masses by Agricola and by Obrecht, that only the ANS has taken the risk of producing recordings. All thanks, then to, director Janos Bali for a decent effort!