From Darkness into Light: Antoine Brumel’s Complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday

One can thus imagine the excitement experienced by Musica Secreta’s
co-director Laurie Stras, when

the discovery

of what she describes as ‘seventeen verses, which were found hiding in
plain sight in a sixteenth-century manuscript’ revealed Antonine Brumel’s
setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah to be much more monumental,
intricate and imposing than previously imagined.

The result – Musica Secreta’s recently released

From Darkness Into Light

(on the Obsidian label) – is a compelling fusion of scholarship, instinct,
creativity and hypothesis. So much depends, in such matters, on
circumstance: clues are tantalising but confirmation rare; conviction
relies on the heart as much as the head. For example, as Stras points out
in an

online guide

to accompany the recording, we do not even know the date of Brumel’s death
for certain: ‘Richard Sherr, the esteemed historian of Roman musical
culture in the 1500s, presumed that Brumel died in 1512, based on the
circumstances of a letter written in mid-May 1512, from Mantua, that
suggests he might have been mortally unwell. And while the Florentine
Vincenzo Galilei, writing near the end of the sixteenth century, said that
Brumel had been called to Rome by Pope Leo X in 1513, musicologist Daniel
Heartz rejected this as muddled thinking on Galilei’s part, based not on
Galilei’s knowledge but on his assumptions.’

Brumel’s Lamentations have been known and heard – in performance and
recording – in the form of two verses and a refrain, ‘Jersualam,
convertere’. Stras has revealed them to be a much more expansive setting in
five ‘movements’ spanning 45 minutes – quite unusual, even remarkable, for
a work composed c.1480-1520 – which, while having no specific liturgical
function, are likely to have been performed during Holy Week.

There is much finely observed and detailed scholarship in evidence in this
recording and the materials associated with it. It is noted that there are
five refrains, not three; and the verses do not divide in correspondence
with the liturgy, so adaptation would be required for liturgical function.
But, there is also evidence of creative thinking. Given that
‘[t]he five sections with their refrains do not correspond with any
existing musical or liturgical structure, but they do map exactly onto
another art form, extremely familiar to the Florentine elite’, there is a
suggestion that Senecan tragedy, ‘the literary model for many Elizabethan
dramas’, provides a model with its five-act narrative arc: ‘the Exposition,
the Beginning of action, the Complication of action, the Reversal of
fortune, and the Catastrophe. Each section of Brumel’s Lamentations then
becomes an act in a drama, and the refrains take the place of the classical
Chorus, concluding each act.’

There is no clear route through such scholarly and theoretical debates,
other than to let the music itself speak. From the start of the first ‘Act’
of Brumel’s Lamentations (Heth. Cogitavit Dominus) the mood is
confidently declamatory and pressing of pulse, and the intensity grows, the
urgency compels, as the Lord’s breaking of the wall of the daughter of Zion
threatens dissolution and anarchy. There is an energetic uplift to the
ensemble sound at the start of the second Act ( Joth. Sederunt in terra) though this is complemented by some
gritty harmonic ‘obstructions’ and a taut dialogue between flowing
counterpoint and more ingrained homophony.

The sound is bright but also grainy at times; individual voices fly free
though they are anchored by the organ’s unobtrusive but solid foundations.
‘Perfect’ harmonies are repeatedly troubled by ‘problematic’ piquancy –
there are some terrific/terrifying false relations! – but the over-riding
impression is one of life-relishing forward momentum. There is a wonderful
registral expansiveness which tells of the elder daughters of Zion who ‘sit
upon the ground and keep silence’ as ashes are thrown upon their heads.
‘[T]he virgins of Jerusalem have girded themselves with sackcloth: the
virgins of Juda hang their heads to the ground,’ we are told. The music is
unpredictable and vitalised, episodic and striving.

The third Act (Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt) is riven
with restlessness and anxiety, as the wounded, fainting daughters question
their mothers, ‘Where is the wheat and the wine?’ The vivacity and optimism
of the account of the daughter of Zion, whose grief ‘is great like the
sea’, is astonishing, and speaks of an underlying faith of which most of us
can, I suspect, scarcely imagine. Act 4 flourishes with assertive forays,
‘Your prophets have seen vain and foolish things for you’, which release
the highest voices to reach and soar. At times there is such energy and
power in the singing that one feels one’s feet lift from the floor. The
sense of individual voices crying out – ‘He has made my flesh and skin
old’, ‘He has … surrounded me with gall and travail’, ‘He has set me in
dark places, as they that are forever dead’ – is almost overwhelming
emotive, as melodic lines assert themselves within a fraught but flowing
discourse, and the dissonances coalesce almost painfully.

In the final Act, the individual voices seem to come together in a
collective, homophonic expression of despair that the Lord ‘has made my
paths crooked’ and ‘has turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces’, the
organ binding individual voices to a common cause. Even if tense
dissonances express pain experienced, there is hope: ‘Jerusalem, return to
the Lord your God.’

The historical source of Brumel’s Lamentations that Stras discovered was
undecorated and not for display, but its friar-copyist, Fra Antonio Moro,
left clues for the modern-day musical detective to interpret. He also left
another Florentine manuscript – the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript – which
belonged to two nuns, Suor Agnoleta Biffoli and Suor Clemenzia Sostegni,
and which is filled with details and minutiae revealing much about the
nuns’ daily lives.

The second half of this disc draws upon that Florentine manuscript, with
anonymous works settling alongside those of masters such as Josquin,
Antonio Moro and Loyset CompËre. A 16th-century Ave maris stella seems somehow to ‘free’ the voices and in the
unison episodes there is a wonderful sense of joy and life: the final
upwards-reaching cadence is quite extraordinary. Similarly, the organ
impels the voices with terrific buoyancy in Moro’s five-part Sancta Maria. Listening, I began to wonder about – and feel a
surprising persuasive pull towards – lives and loves, faiths and fidelities
in such distant times and places. The repetitive tropes of the brief 16 th-century Jesus autem cum ieiunasset are no less
entrancing, though the strong lower voices of the contemporary Multiplicati sunt qui tribulante me, with its succinct
final cadence, seem to speak even more assertively of assured devotion.

The freedom and energy of the anonymous 16th-century Verbum caro factum est sweeps up the listener in its glorifying
cadence and propels one into the unison affirmation of an anonymous Salve Regina, the harmonic and sonic richness – and episodic
confidence – of which seems to defy and deny our 21st-century
assumptions and complacencies.

The liner book contains Latin texts and English translations, and
explanatory essays are supplemented by more extended online analysis of the

historical and musical context
. This is a recording that will delight scholars and laymen, theorists and
practitioners, alike.

Claire Seymour

image_description=From Darkness Into Light
product_title=From Darkness Into Light: Antoine Brumel, The complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday.
product_by=Musica Secreta, directed by Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras (sopranos: Hannah Ely, Deborah Roberts, Yvonne Eddy; mezzo-sopranos: Sally Dunkley, Katherine Hawnt, Victoria Couper; altos: Kim Porter, Caroline Trevor, Laurie Stras; bass viol, Alison Kinder; organ, Claire Williams)
product_id=Obsidian CD719 [CD]