Giaches de Wert from Stile Antico
The young British vocal ensemble Stile Antico (who celebrated their tenth birthday in 2015) are almost as well known for their imaginative and intelligent programming as for the impeccable intonation and blend which they bring to Renaissance polyphony, with recent award-winning discs exploring music inspired by The Song of Songs, the House of Hapsburg, and the practice of domestic worship in Tudor and Jacobean England.
For their latest disc on Harmonia Mundi (recently praised by the Financial Times for its 'high-quality technical brilliance'), they've chosen to focus on a single composer: the Flemish-born, Italian-domiciled composer Giaches de Wert (1535-96), whose remarkably vivid depictions of some of the scriptures' most dramatic narratives have received precious few outings on disc thus far and really deserve to be better known.
I met up with Stile baritone and founder-member Will Dawes a few weeks back (shortly before the group headed off to record the Victoria Requiem) to gain some insight into the life and work of a composer whose music was almost entirely new to me, but has been sitting at the top of my play-list throughout February!
How accurate is it to think of de Wert as being Flemish with an Italian accent?
He was born in Belgium, somewhere between Antwerp and Brussels, probably in Wert (hence ‘Giaches de Wert’) and then moved out to the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua, where he eventually became Maestro di Cappella. At some point he was poached by the Ferraras (at one time he had a wife in one place and a mistress in the other!), but it was Mantua where he developed; he overlapped with Monteverdi and was preceded by Cipriano de Rore. Now there was something about working for the Gonzagas in Mantua which gave him free rein to do slightly outlandish things: Guglielmo Gonzaga [1538-87] had ended up with the ability to have his own liturgy in the Santa Barbara palace, and this meant that de Wert was able to set texts which were quite unusual. As a result, you get a lot of Gospel stories – the famous one being Ascendente Jesu, which depicts Jesus calming the storm at sea. It’s been recorded a few times before (there’s one at lower pitch with the gents of King’s College, and a few others with added instrumental parts) but we discovered it when we were asked to do a whole concert of his music by a festival in Antwerp, run by Bart Demuyt. We started rehearsing the programme and there were several pieces that immediately stood out, including this one: it’s so madrigalian it’s ridiculous! It actually makes you feel quite sea-sick when you’re listening to it, as if he’s trying to throw you around the boat! And there’s one moment when everything is off the beat, and that particular moment is exactly the same in the Dixit Dominus of the Monteverdi Vespers – you have to wonder whether Monteverdi was actually influenced by de Wert, as Ascendente is from 1581 and the Vespers from 1610. Others which leapt out were Vox in rama (Rachel’s lament for her slaughtered children), and the setting of the story of the Canaanite Woman (with a daughter who was possessed by a demon) which is set in a very syllabic way, with hardly any melismas at all. It’s all about the depiction of different characters.
Did the title of the disc, Divine Theatre, grow out of this emphasis on character and text rather than on vocal virtuosity for its own sake?
Yes, ‘dramatising the sacred’ is another way of thinking about it: De Wert’s extraordinary ability as word-painter, coupled with these very dramatic stories from the Bible, is really a match made in heaven. He’s at his best when the music is either extremely happy or extremely sad – he paints particularly the words ‘Gaudete’ and ‘laetare’ very obviously. He’ll often seize on the word ‘Gaudete’ even if the rest of the piece is utterly morbid!
Did this emphasis on the dramatic also come to the fore in his secular compositions? And are these something you’ve explored together?
He’s actually probably best known as a madrigalist – it’s difficult for us to say that, because in this country (with the obvious exception of the madrigals Monteverdi and perhaps de Rore) most people tend to be more familiar with the religious music from Italy during that period. But de Wert’s madrigals are absolutely epic! On balance, though, the sacred stuff suits us much better, and we’ve pared down to one-per-part in quite a lot of the music. The motets are mostly for five and six voices, and then there are two strange ones for seven and eight: Saule, Saule, which is an antiphonal story about the conversion of Paul, with one choir representing God and the other representing Saul, and Egressus Jesus (the most published of any of his pieces in Italy during his life), which is the one telling the story of the Canaanite woman.
You mentioned de Wert’s possible influence on Monteverdi; who were his own influences and mentors?
Cipriano de Rore, certainly. The Flems in Italy is a very interesting school: the lineage is basically Adrian Willaert [1490-1562] then de Rore [1515/16-65], then Wert [1535-96], and of course all of them were influenced by Josquin [c.1450-1521], so in a sense you can think of de Wert as fourth-generation.
Who were the first audiences of these works likely to have been, and how much compositional freedom did his relationship with the Church and his patrons permit?
In terms of the music on this disc, he was writing mainly for services in the chapel at Mantua: I mentioned that wonderful story about Gonzaga having permission from the Pope to devise his own liturgy, so de Wert was free to compose music for lots of sections of the service that were normally either spoken or just intoned on a single note, hence all these Gospel readings being given this very pictorial treatment (which comes from writing so many madrigals as well!) From an English sacred choral standpoint, I’d say the piece he’s best known for is Vox in Rama, because it’s just so beautiful – the melancholy and the despair from the story he’s referencing (the slaughter of the innocents) comes out so well in this music. He paints that particular style incredibly vividly: OK, he might not be as good as Palestrina when it comes to constructing counterpoint, but for the most part that’s not really what he’s aiming to do! Though in quite a few pieces I think he does have to: Hoc enim sentite in vobis is quite a good one for illustrating that side of things, because the first part is pretty mundane, then in the second when he’s talking about resurrection and joy, he halves the note-values and suddenly you’re going incredibly fast! It suddenly comes completely to life.
And how might contemporary audiences find an ‘in-road’ into this music if they’re aren’t already familiar with the composer?
I know there’s a general sense of caution when it comes to buying discs (or going to concerts) where you’re not quite sure how something’s going to sound and you want to find a sense of familiarity, but there’s so much of this where you’ll think ‘Yes, I recognise the style’, and if you like Weelkes and Morley Madrigals – As Vesta was and Thule, the Period of Cosmography etc – there’s a lot of common ground. It’s the same idea: you have a composer at a very good time in their life, writing works which are truly dramatic. And it doesn’t really matter if they’re sacred or secular: the idea is that there’s a story behind it, and that’s where de Wert really excels. Secular madrigals are all about shepherds or sex or death, whereas obviously the Biblical stories involve a deity behind them - but they’re still fairly wacky stories about (for instance) a man getting into a boat and calming the waves during a storm. It’s such good music, and more people should know about it!