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Encomium Musices – Praise of Music

Like charmed serpents rising from their basket to the sound of the flute, the soul of man is uplifted by the sounds of harmonious music. Since earliest times, the bewitching power of music has been evoked by poets and philosophers. Orpheus, Amphion, Pythagoras, King David remain the major references.

The theme of this year’s festival is inspired by an exceptional collection of late 16th century engravings published in Antwerp. Entitled “Encomium Musices” it contains 16 engravings illustrating musical scenes from the Old and New Testaments as well as the story of King David, musician and author of the book of Psalms.

On the cover, the engraver reproduced a composition by Andreas Pevernage, chapel master at Antwerp Cathedral. We will hear this 6-part piece performed by Brabant Ensemble on Saturday, October 6 in Plouaret. Music is described thus:

Music, the harmony of alternate voices!
Music is a gift from heaven!
Men weep for it, gods are enawed by it and ferocious beasts are tamed.
Those who remain unmoved by music have lost their humanity.
They are not even beasts! They have hearts of  stone!
The engraver added at the bottom of this page an excerpt from Psalm 150 inviting the reader to praise God with all kinds of instruments:
The trumpets shall sound in praise music!
And also the tones of the lute and the harp!
Praise her with song and dance!
Praise with string instruments and pipes!
Praise her with the sound of cymbals!
Praise her with the cornet, the serpent and the organ!
All that breathes, breathes in praise of the Lord! “.

We will find all these instruments in the body of the engravings – and throughout the festival!

This collection shows the essential role of music in the 16th century. It had a magical function. It was thought that the vibration of sounds was a direct link with the heavens. The music also reflected the harmony of the world. Harmony that mankind is constantly striving to achieve.

In the early days of the Renaissance, we were far from this harmony. In these troubled times the Church was sharply criticized. Already in the 14th century there were calls for reform of the Institution. These came to fruition  two centuries later with the open challenge of Luther. Thoughts turned to the earlier golden age of Christianity, that of the fathers of the Church. The rediscovery of the authors of Antiquity helped to plot the path of renewal. Marsile Ficino and Pic de la Mirandole rediscovered  the basic texts. Those of Hermeticism and Kabbalah.

In the first, known as the Corpus Hermeticum, they sought the prisca theologia, ancient theology. In these writings, Hermes Trismegistus, revealed to certain initiates the fundamental secrets of life. During the Renaissance it was firmly believed that he was a contemporary of Moses. He had passed on the art of magic and how to attract the favors of the stars and God.

As for the Kabbalah, it is God’s revelation to Moses concurrent with the Ten Commandments, but to be passed on only to a small number of initiates. For the Kabbalists of the Renaissance, it already contains the premiss of Christ’s coming to Earth. This is well illustrated by the engravings of our collection. The second engraving, the first of the Biblical scenes, represents the tetragrammaton of the ineffable God surrounded by the Seraphim, the Cherubim and the Thrones as well as by angels playing musical instruments. The last engraving represents Christ in majesty girded with the tetramorph. Twenty-four old men kneeling before him play celestial music on lyres and harps.

The belief in the influence of the stars on the destiny of man goes back at least to Antiquity and continued throughout the Middle Ages and considerably later. Thus it was felt necessary to sing a hymn to the Virgin / Venus to attract her favors and repel those of Saturn (melancholy) and Mars (adversity). To attract the favor of the mother-goddess, we begin this festival with a summit of early music, the Mess de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, performed by the outstanding Ensemble Gilles Binchois. Six singers perform the first mass composed entirely by the same composer. It is a masterpiece  in the style of the Ars Nova movement, a development leading up to the great school of French-Flemish polyphony.

This reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries with composers such as Josquin Desprez, Gilles Binchois and Roland de Lassus. This school was sharply criticized by the Church for being incomprehensible and too lascivious. The Council of Trent (1545-1563), which set the outlines of the Counter-Reformation, henceforth forbade this type of music. The pope ordered Palestrina to produce the kind of music that would serve as a model. The Brabant Ensemble, has prepared an original program reconstructing a Roman Easter around 1590 with works by this iconic composer. We will hear in particular his superb Stabat Mater as well as his Missa ad coenam agni providi.

Protestants and Catholics sought to consolidate the faithful through the charm of music. At the end of his life Johann Sebastian Bach composed an astonishing work for a Lutheran. His Mass in G minor still surprises. Why did he feel the need to compose such an ecumenical? Vox Luminis, one of the best contemporary ensembles for the music of the cantor of Leipzig, will offer us this superb Mass with no less than forty performers. Perhaps the number of musical items – 27 or 33- is a hidden kabbalistic code?

“Music is a dance of the soul, performed at the same time as a physical dance” (Jacques Viret, The Return of Orpheus, L’Harmattan 2019). In parallel with the image of King David dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, the praise of music would be incomplete without evoking dance. The ensemble currently in residence, Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien, will tackle this task in a programme specially developed for our festival. François Lazarevitch, a master of English, Scottish and Irish music, and his ensemble, will present the playful pieces of John Playford, the famous 17th-century dance master.

The second engraving of the Antwerp collection depicts angelic musicians with all kinds of instruments used in the 16th century: cornets, sackbuts, viols … The microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, it is in San Marco of Venice that the such choirs used to perform. Giovanni Gabrieli, chapel master at the golden basilica, gave the art of polychorality its letters of nobility. The young ensemble, La Guilde des Mercenaires, directed by Adrien Mabire reconstitutes a religious service where singers and instrumentalists unite around the Robert Dallam organ of the church of Lanvellec.

Heinrich Schütz spent four years in Venice studying music with Giovanni Gabrieli. No matter that one was Lutheran and the other Catholic, the language of music in the service of the Divine remained the same. Schütz immersed himself in the Italian style transcribing it into a Germanic style and thus laying the foundations of German music. We invited Le Parlement de Musique, led by Martin Gester, to interpret the small spiritual concerts that Schütz had composed when he was exiled to the Danish court to escape the terrible war between Catholics and Protestants, the Thirty Years War.

Magic and Alchemy are close relatives whose recipes are transcribed in the corpus hermeticum. Artists in the Medici entourage used all their art to make the most of it. The kingdom of France succumbed to the charms of such practices with the arrival of Catherine de Medici at the court of France.

Magicians are legion in mythology and baroque composers gave free rein to their imagination to write the most beautiful airs to give life to these fascinating creatures. Lucile Richardot, one of the greatest French mezzos today, will play Medea, Armide and Circe. She will be accompanied by the young and talented harpsichordist, Jean-Luc Ho.

The primary goal of alchemy is to turn lead into gold. Léon Berben  with his incomparable fingering, will transform the lead in the pipes of the Robert Dallam organ into musical gold. His program contains some rarely performed pieces including that of Charles Raquet cited by Marin Mersenne in his treatise The Harmony of the Spheres or that of John Bull’s Walsingham, a series of virtuoso variations on the eponymous theme.

We have already alluded to the close relations between the court of France and the Medici of Florence. A highly symbolic gesture on the part of Louis XI in 1465 allows the Medici to insert the three fleurs-de-lis in their coat of arms. These links remain close until the end of the line of Medici dynasty. Marguerite Louise of France, niece of Louis XIII married Cosme III de Medici. Their son, Ferdinand ordered the composer Giacomo-Antonio Perti to write an oratorio staging St. Francis de Paule at the court of Charles VIII, Anne of Brittany and Louise of Savoy. He was to announce the coming birth of Claude of France, and of the future Francis I, guaranteeing the continuity of the kingdom. This oratorio, given its world-premiere revival performance in 2015 in the context of the Lanvellec and Trégor Festival, was recorded for our new label Lanvellec Editions by Concerto Soave directed by Jean-Marc Aymes. This CD will be released officially on October 20th. We invited the same ensemble to close the edition of the festival with a superb selection of Perti motets composed for the Florentine court. The Festival began with a hymn to the Virgin “Gaudeamus omnes in Domino” composed in the 14th century. We will hear this same hymn composed four centuries later in a world where the skies were opening: men had stopped fighting in the name of  religion and imposed the word Tolerance!

Christian Langenfeld
Artistic director of the Festival of Lanvellec and Trégor