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King Solomon's Singers | Sacred and Profane Love

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Sacred and Profane Love

by King Solomon's Singers

Renaissance polyphony and chant on Song of Songs texts (live recording).
Genre: Classical: Renaissance
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Ego flos campi
3:49 $0.99
2. Quam pulchra es
3:23 $0.99
3. Quam pulchra es
3:12 $0.99
4. Tota pulchra es
8:12 $0.99
5. Anima mea liquefacta est
2:11 $0.99
6. Trahe nos Virgo
0:30 $0.99
7. Trahe me post te
3:49 $0.99
8. Vox dilecti
2:13 $0.99
9. Dilectus meus mihi
2:36 $0.99
10. Guttur tuum sicut vinum optimum
2:57 $0.99
11. Quae est ista
0:51 $0.99
12. Descendi in hortum meum
5:36 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
“The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.” So begins the book of the Hebrew Bible that most beguiled composers of sacred Renaissance polyphony. It is perhaps not surprising that so much music would be set to texts from a book explicitly titled “Songs,” but the musical title is not the only reason for its appeal. For Renaissance composers, who were predominantly employed as church choirmasters and who themselves were often very devout Christians, there were few outlets for the expression of love towards anyone but their Christian god. The Song of Songs, unlike any other book in the Old or New Testament, is quite clearly a collection of secular love poetry. Of course, it has been interpreted variously as an expression of longing for the coming Christ, of devotion to the Virgin Mary, and of God’s love for his people, but it seems difficult to argue in our age that the original author or authors of the text had purely sacred subjects in mind. The composers of the Renaissance and the even earlier composers of plainchant melodies must have been aware of the tension between the often erotic, even explicitly anatomical imagery in the poetry of the Song of Songs and the holy subjects to which they directed their settings of these texts. Indeed, the music that they composed for these texts is generally more emotional, more direct, and more florid than their settings of other sacred texts. The only examples of sacred polyphony that approach Song of Songs settings for sensuality and emotional urgency are settings of Marian texts—and these two genres are often blended, as the Virgin takes the place of the mortal beloved as the subject of praise.

Our program begins with one of the finest examples of the genre, Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s setting of Ego flos campi (I am the rose of Sharon). Clemens was of the generation of Flemish composers immediately following Josquin, and he demonstrated mastery of all the various forms of Renaissance choral writing—from his vernacular settings of the Psalms (Die Souterliedekens) and homophonic chansons to his challenging and still controversial “secret chromatic art” motets. Ego flos campi belongs to Clemens’s more diatonic style of composition; indeed, there is not a single chromatic note indicated in the manuscript. This imparts a serene beauty to the composition, but Clemens also manages to give shape and contrast to the piece without major harmonic shifts, particularly through the introduction of clearly offset homophonic passages. The most prominent of these declaims the text “Sicut lilium inter spinas” (as a lily among thorns), which was the motto of the Marian Brotherhood of s’Hertogenbosch in whose employ Clemens spent five years and to whom this motet is dedicated.

Quam pulchra es (How fair art thou) is one of the most commonly set texts in the Song of Songs, and understandably so. The chapter from which it is drawn is devoted almost entirely to a litany of compliments to female beauty, some quite explicit. We perform two settings of verses from chapter 7, one plainchant (from a manuscript at the Newberry Library) and one by the English composer John Dunstable, both transcribed and edited by Calvin Bower. The anonymous composer of the chant setting captures the shape and feeling of the text beautifully, both within individual phrases and over the full sweep of the piece. Dunstable, the most famous of the pre-Eton-Choirbook English composers known for sweet, consonant harmonies, shows a similar skill in phrasing and feel for the poetry in his setting. If either composer saw any incongruity in closing his piece with the text “Ibi dabo tibi ubera mea. Alleluia.” (There I will give you my breasts. Alleluia.), it is not apparent in the music.

A similarly popular text for Renaissance composers (and presumably for similar reasons) is Tota pulchra es (Thou art all fair), of which we sing the setting by the Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac. Isaac was a contemporary of Josquin and is best known for his song Innsbruck, ich muß dich lassen, but his achievements in sacred music are formidable, including over 300 polyphonic settings of the Propers of the Mass. In Tota pulchra es, Isaac establishes a mysterious, shifting harmonic background, against which he sets bright, almost ecstatic individual lines, often spanning over an octave. The larger shape of the piece is a series of long, slow builds toward cadences that are inevitably interrupted before they fully resolve. The tension reaches its maximum at “Surge, propera” (Arise, come away) and is finally released on the words “amica mea” (my love), with a final denouement on the text “Veni de Libano, veni, coronaberis” (Come with me from Lebanon, come, thou shalt be crowned).

We make a (regrettably brief) detour into the Spanish Renaissance with settings by one rather obscure composer (Martín de Rivaflecha) and one of the Spanish greats (Francisco Guerrero). Rivaflecha was of the same generation of Isaac at a time when the Low Countries were under Spanish rule, and there was strong mutual influence between Flemish and Spanish composers. His setting of the heartbreaking text “Anima mea liquefacta est (ut dilectus locutus est)” (My soul failed [when my beloved spake]) is simple, short, and effective. Guerrero was second only to Tomás Luis de Victoria among Spanish composers of the High Renaissance and was known as El Cantor de Maria for his skill in composing motets in praise of the Virgin. It is fitting, then, that the Guerrero motet we present tonight is the only one on the program that makes the Marian connection explicitly. Where the Song of Songs texts has “Trahe me post te” (Draw me after you), Guerrero adds “Virgo Maria” as the specific addressee. Guerrero also makes the interesting decision to include the rather explicit body imagery of the “quam pulchra” text (including two different similes for the subject’s breasts), but as with Dunstable and our earlier anonymous chant composer, this juxtaposition of spirit and flesh does not seem to cause Guerrero the level of anxiety we might expect. The use of the “Trahe” text as a Marian hymn was apparently popular enough that it appears in the Liber Usualis as a Vespers antiphon for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We sing this antiphon immediately before the Guerrero motet.

Any discussion of Renaissance settings of Song of Songs texts would be incomplete without a mention of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Probably the most famous of all composers of Renaissance polyphony, Palestrina devoted an entire book of 29 motets to his Song of Songs settings and dedicated the 1584 publication to Pope Gregory XIII. In his dedication, Palestrina expressed shame at having previously published madrigals and secular songs; however, both the subject matter and style of the Song of Songs motets have a great deal in common with Palestrina’s more worldly compositions. We perform three of Palestrina’s motets, the first of which, Vox dilecti (The voice of my beloved), is one of the more lively compositions on the program. With madrigalian word-painting, Palestrina sets the voices running and leaping with the “young hart...skipping upon the hills” that is the poet’s beloved. The second selection, Dilectus meus mihi (My beloved is mine), begins with a simple, sweet declaration of mutual devotion but moves through imagery similar to the previous motet (“be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether”) and ends with the text of loss and anxiety we encountered in the work of Rivaflecha (“I sought him, but I found him not”). The last Palestrina motet demonstrates one interesting consequence of setting nearly the entire book of the Song of Songs, namely that some of the poetry does not quite measure up (at least in modern translation). Guttur tuum sicut vinum optimum (“The roof of your mouth [is] like the best wine”), while not the strangest verse in the Song of Songs (“How beautiful are thy feet with shoes” is a strong contender), is also not the most immediately affecting. Palestrina nevertheless manages to make a lovely piece of music from it, indeed one of the most successful in the entire cycle.

We conclude with one more selection of plainchant and Cipriano de Rore’s setting of Descendi in hortum meum (I went down to my garden). The plainchant (again from the Liber Usualis) sets the verse immediately preceding “Descendi,” the famous “Quae est ista, quae ascendit?” (Who is she that cometh up?). The imposing, almost fearsome imagery and music in this chant provide an interesting contrast to the sweet, wistful nature of De Rore’s motet. De Rore unites the Flemish and Italian themes in this program; he was born in Flanders but spent his most productive years as maestro di cappella under Duke Ercole II d’Este in Ferrara. De Rore is most widely remembered for his innovations as a composer of madrigals, but the piece we present demonstrates his ample skill at sacred polyphony. This seven-voice motet is constructed as a three-voice canon accompanied by freely composed four-part counterpoint. At no time, however, are the mathematical constraints of this puzzle apparent in the flow of harmony or text. There is a clear feeling of melancholy and loss in this work, made explicit in the text of the second half, which implores: “Revertere, Sunamitis, revertere ut intueamur te” (Return, O Shulamite, return, that we may look upon thee).
— Tom Crawford, August 2010

References: Howard Mayer Brown, Music in the Renaissance., Prentice Hall, 1976; David Mason Greene, Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers, Doubleday & Co., 1985; Grove Music Online; Sally Dunkley and Francis Steele, eds., Musica Dei Donum Series, Oxford, 2007.

Heather Ahrenholz
Will Bouvel
Michael Byrley
William Chin
Tom Crawford
Matthew Dean
Tamara Ghattas
Amy Mantrone
Jessica Melger
Peter Olson
Benjamin Rivera
Stephanie Sheffield

About the ensemble

And the servants also of Huram, and the servants of Solomon, which brought gold from Ophir, brought algum trees and precious stones. And the king made of the algum trees terraces to the house of the LORD, and to the king’s palace, and harps and psalteries for singers; and there were none such seen before in the land of Judah. (2 Chronicles 9:10–11)

King Solomon’s Singers is a newly formed ensemble dedicated to the performance of Renaissance polyphony and chant. The members of the ensemble are professional and semi-professional singers from the Chicago area—members of ensembles such as Chicago Chorale, Schola Antiqua of Chicago, The Oriana Singers, The Chicago Early Music Consort, and Chicago a cappella—who share a love of this particular repertoire.



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I've listened to this cd a half dozen times in the last few days. Wonderful voices! Gorgeous music and so relaxing!