Cappella Pratensis haunts with eerie Renaissance romance

Capella Pratensis, a Dutch vocal ensemble, gave an evocative performance on Saturday night. courtesy of ism.yale.edu
Capella Pratensis, a Dutch vocal ensemble, gave an evocative performance on Saturday night. courtesy of ism.yale.edu

Saturday night brought Thompson Memorial Chapel a haunting performance of both spiritual and historical dimensions. Cappella Pratensis, a visiting Dutch-based vocal ensemble, immersed the grand old building in its evocative rendition of the polyphonic melodies of the High Renaissance.

The group is named most appropriately after Josquin des Prez (Latinized to Pratensis), a Dutch composer of the Renaissance who is considered to be the first master of the polyphonic music that began to emerge in his lifetime. This particular texture of music consists of two or more layered voices as opposed to just one centrally featured sound. Cappella Pratensis produces music according to this style, singing pieces of this era in Latin while clad in entirely black outfits closely resembling priestly habits. They perform in a formation gathered around a central music stand and sing from the original mensural notation scored in a large choirbook just as in Pratensis’ time. The ensemble revels in eccentricities. More specifically, it “combines historically informed performance practice with inventive programs and original interpretations based on scholarly research and artistic insight,” according to its website.

Jennifer Bloxam, professor of music, shed light on the historical background of this particular performance in the brief presentation that preceded the bulk of the performance. She began the lecture with a brief explanation, stating, “This program offers an evocation of the royal exequies – [music accompanying funerals] –  for Phillip the Fair, the men of Cappella Pratensis assuming the role of the Burgundian chapel choir whose responsibility it was to provide music for these solemn ceremonies.” She then went on to describe the particular historical incident of Phillip the Fair’s death which inspired such music. Phillip was only 28 years old at his tragic and inexplicable demise, but had been a significant figure in European affairs since 1494. He ruled for 12 years as the Duke of Burgundy and the heir-apparent to his father Maximilian I as the Holy Roman Emperor. But it was for the events following his death that Phillip was most distinguished. His wife Juana of Castile escorted his corpse over 400 miles to Granada for burial alongside her mother Isabel of Castile, just as his will had recommended.

The journey was a musical one of questionable motives. Juana travelled with a crew of singers from the Burgundian court chapel by torchlight at night, carrying their solemn obsequies from church to church. Whether this was a demonstration of the most undying of marital loves or a carefully calculated attempt to secure her late husband’s claim over the southern kingdom of Andalusia is unclear. Whatever the true motive, the journey did not find its final destination due to the widow’s father’s intervention, and Phillip’s corpse ended up in the Monastery of St. Claire.

The atmosphere of Saturday’s performance reflected the eerie yet romantic nature of its historical inspiration.  Set in total darkness with only two rows of candles at the altar for illumination, the group began to “conjure the sonic outlines of the royal obsequies beginning with the procession that bore the body to church,” Bloxam said. As the all-male group sang in Latin, the translations were projected onto the screen behind them. This was integral to the emotional quality of the performance. The translations were poetic, with some songs such as “Kyrie” having lyrics as simple as “Lord have mercy/ Christ, have mercy./ Lord have mercy.” Graduale, one of the most important chants to the liturgy, had similarly evocative lyrics: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of/death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me./ V. Your rod and your staff comfort me.” More than religious, the atmosphere was inclusively spiritual. Its conclusion was appropriately meaningful, ending on the same note on which it began, with the ancient prayer for the soul’s repose: “Grant him eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”