The venerable Orlando Consort has embarked on its farewell tour. Its concert program called “1521: Josquin’s World” finds the a cappella vocal group in fine form, expanded from a quartet to a quintet to sing the music of the great 15th- and 16th-century French composer Josquin Desprez and some of his contemporaries and followers.
The New York City concert, part of the Miller Theatre Early Music series, took place November 19, 2022 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, whose glowing acoustics limned each individual voice. The program is a mix of motets, other religious music, and a few secular pieces. The most glorious of it is the innovative Josquin’s. But it rewards the mind as well as the ear to listen, with the help of the detailed printed program, for his influence on other composers from around Western Europe.
Even the one not-so-inspiring selection held interest, as Martin Luther himself wrote it. And if the reformer himself was not a first-rate composer, he apparently had an acute appreciation for greatness. Luther wrote that unlike other composers, who “must do what the notes dictate,” Josquin was “the master of the notes, which must express what he desires.”
Europe and Beyond
We heard music by Spanish and Portuguese composers whose work is known or speculated to have been performed in India and the New World. It’s fascinating to think of this “ancient” music, which sounds so old-Europe, being exported to, say, Florida’s Gulf Coast with Ponce de Léon. The brief “Virgen bendita sin par” by Pedro de Escobar, while devotional, has a folksy flavor, even reminding me of a party or drinking song. I could imagine it ringing from the deck of a caravel into the bleakness of a windy Atlantic.
The Consort built the program around a series of themes that cast light on the music and culture of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It began with music by Josquin and by his immediate successors at the Duke of Ferrara’s court. We then heard music that was easier to learn and sing than some of the great motets – music that became worthwhile to compose only after the invention of printing enabled the “common folk” to own copies for singing at home. One such song, Josquin’s “Adieu mes amours,” got a laugh from the audience: “My purse is empty and flat / And, in short, I am in disarray / Until it please the King / To give me an advance.
The Orlando Consort: Quitting While They’re Ahead
However, neither scholarship nor visual imagination is needed to enjoy this music. There’s much pure pleasure in simply reveling in its often transcendent and sometimes quite intricate three-, four- and five-part harmony and counterpoint. Making it sound as good as it can requires the kind of supreme skill that each of the Orlando Consort’s five members – alto, two tenors, baritone and bass – possesses. Sometimes, as when they sang the Credo from Josquin’s “Missa de Beata Virgine,” they sound like a whole roomful of voices. At any volume they create a sound of ineffable beauty.
Visit the Orlando Consort website for a schedule of upcoming appearances in Spain, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, the U.S., Canada, Luxembourg, Germany, and the UK. It’s our last chance to hear the group before it disbands next year after a June 23 concert in Boston.