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A refined sound and perfect vocal blend are among the many qualities that define Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent as one of the world’s most accomplished vocal ensembles. Exploiting the warm, resonant acoustics of The Chan Centre, they will perform “The Tears of Saint Peter” by Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus, a cycle of twenty exquisite sacred madrigals that powerfully express grief, regret and forgiveness in music of moving simplicity and consoling contemplation.
Orlando de Lassus (1532, possibly 1530–14 June 1594):
Tears of St. Peter: 21 Sacred Madrigals (Lagrime di San Pietro)
Il magnanimo Pietro
Ma gli archi
Tre volte haveva
Qual’ à l’incontro
Ogni occhio del Signor
Nessun fedel trovai
Chi ad una ad una
Come faIda di neve
E non fu il pianto suo
Veduto il miser
Vattene vita và
O vita troppo rea
A quanti già felici
Non trovava mia fe
Queste opre e piu
Negando il mio Signor
Four centuries ago, the most celebrated composer in Western Europe put the final barline to a strenuous career of forty years of creative activity with an altogether exceptional and curious work. In 1593-1594 Roland de Lassus, aged sixty-two and Kapellmeister to the Bavarian Court in Munich at the time, composed a monumental cycle of spiritual madrigals, the Lagrime di San Pietro. On 24 May 1594, he dedicated this swan song to Pope Clement VIII. Three weeks later, on 14 June, he died, at the very moment when the decision to discharge him for economic reasons was decreed in writing. The work was published posthumously in 1595 by the publisher Adam Berg who, with a good forty publications and reprints in his catalogue, had applied himself to the dissemination of Lassus’ work since 1567.
The Lagrime di San Pietro are exceptional on more than one account, and occupy a unique position both in Lassus’ overwhelming production and in the entire late 16th century repertory. In the first place, Lassus attained an absolute summit in the genre of the madrigal, of which the spiritual madrigal was a minor category, but a no less important one, for all that. The spiritual madrigal is a typical product of the Counter-Reformation, intended as a stimulation to piety outside the official liturgy.
The Lagrime are remarkable, too, in their cyclic arrangement: the twenty-one sections, twenty of which have words from a common source (the Lagrime di San Pietro by Luigi Tansillo), form an indivisible whole and, from a strictly musical point of view, the work is ordered according to the cycle of the modes. Lassus frequently used the same principle, most notably in the Psalmi poenitentiales of 1559-1560.
In the third place, the collection is characterized by the rather uncommon setting in seven parts. The infrequently encountered works in seven parts often have a symbolic connotation. The number seven in fact symbolizes the suffering and affliction of the Virgin Mary, “Mother of the seven sorrows”. The number seven then became the symbol of suffering in general, and most of the compositions in seven parts, or consisting of seven sections, allude to suffering and mourning. It may be noted, too, that Lassus’ work comprises twenty-one sections, a multiple of seven, the number three itself, moreover, being loaded with symbolic connotations! Lassus added a Latin motet (Vide homo quae pro te patior) to the twenty Italian madrigals. This motet, his last composition, is focused on the theme of suffering. Finally, reference may be made to the dedication of the collection: no dutiful constraint associated with his position as Kapellmeister, but “a personal devotion at this difficult age”. Indeed, an uncommon occurrence in the 16th century.
Lassus had been stricken with a bout of severe depression in 1590-1591 and, although he overcame it, it had brought home to him the afflictions of old age and the precariousness of human existence. Concern for the salvation of his soul probably persuaded him that a certain degree of piety might be of help to him now that he had to come face to face with death (it is true that some of the secular songs that came from his pen must have shocked more than one sensitive ear!). The dedication to the supreme head of the Church, the Pope, is in perfect congruity with the subject of the work, as Lassus expresses it himself, “I hope that you will take pleasure in listening to my music, not for itself, but for the subject of which it speaks, Saint Peter, the foremost of the apostles of whom you are the true successor.” Lassus chose works by the Italian poet, Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568), who had published forty-two eight-line stanzas (ottave rime) in 1560 on the grief and the repentance of Saint Peter after his denial of Christ. The Venetian publication remained in obscurity for a long time because it was printed as a complement to a translation of the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, not under the name of Tansillo but under that of Cardinal de’ Pucci. It was not until 1571 that these stanzas appeared under their author’s name in an anthology called Stanze di diversi Autori. It was reprinted in 1579.
The figurative language of Tansillo’s religious poetry is undoubtably derivative of the secular poetic art of Petrarch and the Neo-Petrarchism fostered by Pietro Bembo in the 16th century . The Giovane donna of the fifth stanza refers, moreover, to the first line of one of Petrarch’s sestine: Giovene donna sotto un verde lauro. Occhi (eyes) is one of the six rhymes recurring in each stanza of this sestina; lovers’ eyes and looks are, in fact, words that constantly appear in Petrarch’s love poetry. The transposition to the encounter between Peter and Christ adds a religious dimension to this love. Other profane elements are found to recur as well, like the bow (arco) and the arrow (saetta), attributes of Amor, the god of love.
The music Lassus composed to these texts, which were held in high esteem at the time, is of an extraordinary quality. The composer’s musical language had become more austere in his last period, and this tendency persists. These pieces are good illustrations of the definition of it given by Adrien Le Roy, the Parisian friend of Lassus: “pressus et limatus”, meaning “concise and refined”. Not one superfluous note, every one perfectly it its place, no digression or repetition, all of it shaped in terms of an ideal expression of the words. In its vocal sonority as much as in its semantic import, the text is the be-all and end-all of the composition. With unequalled mastery and genius, Lassus manipulates all of these elements in such a way that he transmits the message in a delicate and subtle form. However, one must know the language and its grammar if one wishes to understand the message, and Lassus’ language is that of the Italian madrigal.
Onto poetry of high literary quality (with Petrarch as its figurehead) is grafted an equally elevated musical equivalent that does justice to the poetic art. The rhythm of the declamation of the word is transformed into a musical rhythm, and the conceptual and emotional contents of the text are transposed into music. The musical grammar follows the syntax of the text, and the musical caesuras (rests, cadences, changes in the number of voices) correspond to the caesuras of the text.
Throughout the cycle Lassus explores his innermost soul by means of a text of his choice which he freely sets to music without any constraint. This deeply personal music cannot fail to move the listener and make an indelible impression on whoever is prepared to open ears and heart. This work is “doomed” to greatness; it asserts itself without conditions or concessions. It is, in the true sense of the term, “elitist art”, Art with a capital “A”, ranking with the best that was composed in the Renaissance. Let us finally reserve the place this masterpiece deserves in our present society that so fervently aspires after beauty.
– Ignace Bossuyt
Philippe Herreweghe was born in Ghent and studied at both the university and music conservatory there, studying piano with Marcel Gazelle. He also started to conduct during this period, and founded Collegium Vocale Gent in 1970. He was invited by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, who had noticed his innovative work, to participate in their recordings of the complete cantatas of J.S. Bach.
Herreweghe’s energetic, authentic and rhetorical approach to baroque music was soon drawing praise. In 1977, he founded the ensemble La Chapelle Royale in Paris, with whom he performed music of the French Golden Age. From 1982 to 2002, he was artistic director of the Académies Musicales de Saintes. Since 2009, Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent have been actively working on the development of a large European-level symphonic choir, at the invitation of the prestigious Accademia Chigiana in Siena and from 2011 with the support of the European Union’s Cultural Programme. Since 1997, Philippe Herreweghe has been principal conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. He was appointed permanent guest conductor of the Netherlands’ Radio Chamber Philharmonic since 2008.
Over the years, Philippe Herreweghe has built up an extensive discography of more than 100 recordings on such labels as Harmonia Mundi France, Virgin Classics and Pentatone. Highlights include the Lagrime di San Pietro of Lassus, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky. In 2010 he founded together with Outhere Music his own label ? (PHI), in order to give himself full artistic freedom to build up a rich and varied catalogue.
Philippe Herreweghe has received numerous European awards for his consistent artistic imagination and commitment. He was awarded the Belgian order of Officier des Arts et Lettres, and an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Leuven. In 2003, he received the French title Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and in 2010 the city of Leipzig awarded him its Bach-Medaille for his great service as a performer of Bach.
Collegium Vocale Gent
In recent years, Collegium Vocale Gent has grown organically into an extremely flexible ensemble whose wide repertoire encompasses a range of different stylistic periods. Its greatest strength is its ability to assemble the ideal performing forces for any project. Music from the Renaissance, for example, is performed by an ensemble of six to twelve singers.
German Baroque music, particularly J.S. Bach’s vocal works, quickly became a speciality of the group and is still the jewel in its crown. Today Collegium Vocale performs this music with a small ensemble in which the singers take both the chorus and solo parts. Collegium Vocale is also specializing more and more in the Romantic, modern and contemporary oratorio repertoires. To this end, Collegium Vocale Gent enjoys the support of the European Union’s Cultural Programme since 2011. The result is a shared symphonic choir recruiting singers from all of Europe, in which experienced singers stand alongside young talent. Moreover, Collegium Vocale Gent fulfils an important educational position.
Under Philippe Herreweghe’s direction, Collegium Vocale Gent has built up an impressive discography with more than 80 recordings, most of them with the Harmonia Mundi France and Virgin Classics labels. In 2010, Philippe Herreweghe started his own label ? (phi) together with Outhere Music in order to give himself full artistic freedom to build up a rich and varied catalogue. Since then some ten new recordings with vocal music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Gesualdo or Victoria have become available. In 2014 three new recordings appeared: another volume with J.S.Bach’s Leipzig Cantatas (LPH012), Joseph Haydn’s oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (LPH013) and Infelix Ego (LPH014) with motets and the Mass for 5 voices by William Byrd.
Collegium Vocale Gent enjoys the financial support of the Flemish Community, the Province of East Flanders and the city of Ghent. From 2011-2013 the ensemble has been Ambassador of the European Union.