Johannes De Cleve

Composers: Johannes De Cleve
Released: 2020
Label: Hyperion, Hyperion records
Code: CDA68241


The two composers represented on this recording reflect the ongoing international pre-eminence of Franco-Flemish polyphony in the later sixteenth century. This dominance was guaranteed—at least, until the dawning of a new musical style around 1600—by the presence of Flemish composers and singers in the chapels of several members of the Habsburg dynasty, from Brussels to Madrid to Vienna. This programme illustrates the fruitful interactions between musicians from the various Habsburg chapels, as well as the political and ceremonial role of music in glorifying and commemorating the imperial house in word and sound.


Jacobus Vaet (c1529–1567; pronounced ‘Vaht’), the focus of earlier recordings by Cinquecento (Hyperion CDA67733 and CDA67579), was born at Kortrijk (Courtrai), and received his musical education at the city’s important Church of Our Lady. As a boy he likely encountered the music of Nicolas Gombert, who held a non-resident benefice in the same church. Vaet was probably brought to Vienna by Pieter Maessens, the chapelmaster of King (later Emperor) Ferdinand I. Ferdinand’s son Maximilian II particularly prized Vaet’s music, and appointed him as chapelmaster at Wiener Neustadt. Vaet’s output contained several motets written in honour of his Habsburg employers. Yet he was far from parochial, and maintained contacts with Flemish composers active at other courts, such as Orlande de Lassus at Munich, and Giaches de Wert at Mantua.

The career of Johannes de Cleve (1528/9–1582) followed a similar trajectory. It is not certain where he was born (Cleves?) or trained (Low Countries?), but his first published compositions were printed in Antwerp in 1553. The same year, he was appointed as a tenor in the chapel of Ferdinand I in Vienna. In 1559/60 he undertook a journey to the Low Countries to recruit further singers for the imperial chapel. He sought to strengthen his profile at court by dedicating two collections of motets to Ferdinand in 1559. After the emperor’s death in 1564, Cleve found a position in the chapel of Ferdinand’s youngest son, Archduke Karl (Charles), whose court was at Graz. In 1570 he petitioned leave from his duties because of physical incapacity; Karl granted him an annual pension of 200 florins on the condition that he continue to supply the chapel with new compositions. Cleve moved first to Vienna, and then settled in Augsburg, where his collection Cantiones seu harmoniae sacrae was printed in 1579. In the dedication of this publication to Archduke Karl, Cleve recalled his long service to the Habsburgs, who had always been great patrons of music. The collection contains several ‘state motets’, such as epitaphs on the deaths of Ferdinand I, Maximilian II and Karl Friedrich of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, and pieces dedicated to Rudolf II and Archduke Karl. In total, Cleve’s published collections contain no fewer than thirteen pieces in honour of the Habsburg dynasty.

Vaet’s motet Rex Babylonis (published in 1568) displays many features normally associated with the music of Nicolas Gombert. Although this motet is written for only five voices, its texture is thick, with infrequent use of rests, and closely packed middle voices. This approach differs from the style of a composer such as Josquin, who often broke larger textures into duos, or Palestrina, who generally deployed all available voices only at points of climax. Nevertheless, Vaet’s largely syllabic word-setting allows the text to be heard with relative ease.

Cleve took Vaet’s motet Rex Babylonis as the musical model for his Missa Rex Babylonis, a setting of the Mass Ordinary—that is, those parts of the Mass that remain the same regardless of liturgical season. This technique, dubbed ‘parody’, involves the use of distinctive musical material from one piece (often a motet or secular song) as the basis for a Mass setting. This contrasts with the cantus firmus technique favoured by composers of an earlier generation, in which pre-existing melodic material, often derived from chant, is stretched out into long notes that serve as the structural foundations of the counterpoint.

Parody technique was not simply a mechanical process of cut-and-paste, but involved the creative re-interpretation of the model. For example, Vaet’s motet begins with a distinctive upwards leap of a minor sixth in the superius, imitated soon after by the tenor an octave lower; however, the other voices begin with a rising fifth. Cleve’s art is seen in the way he unpicks and re-stitches Vaet’s material. For instance, at the start of the Gloria, the conspicuous rising minor sixth returns as the head motif in all voices except the bass, which alone keeps the rising fifth. Cleve also spaces out the entries a little, which produces a slightly more open texture. The recurrence of musical materials from the model, treated in a variety of ways, lends the parody Mass large-scale thematic unity.

Cleve’s mastery of counterpoint is evident in his imaginative handling of contrapuntal subjects. For example, in Carole qui veniens the superius begins with a strong melodic gesture: a falling fifth. The next voice inverts this as a rising fifth; the subsequent entries each begin with either a rising or a falling fifth. This piece also creates varietas—an element in polyphonic writing essential to avoiding monotony—through more modern techniques, such as some light chromaticism. The distinctive falling fifth also begins the piece Carole cui nomen, creating a thematic link between these two Habsburg pieces. It is possible that the texts of both motets—whose sense is admittedly not always entirely clear—were also the work of Cleve. Carole qui veniens opens the Cantiones seu harmoniae sacrae, and serves as an extension of the dedication of the collection, with Cleve depicting himself as the Archduke’s client. The text plays on the complex relationships within the Habsburg dynasty: Karl, the addressee of the text, named after his uncle (Charles V), was simultaneously the son of another emperor (Ferdinand I), and the uncle and brother of two further emperors (Rudolf II and Maximilian II respectively). Carole cui nomen is a lament on the death of another Karl: the aforementioned Karl Friedrich of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, son of Duke Wilhelm the Rich and Maria of Austria (daughter of Emperor Ferdinand I), who died of smallpox in Rome in 1575 at the age of nineteen. This shock destabilized the entire dynasty and led indirectly to the loss of their territories to Prussia. Carole cui nomen is the only piece on this recording that is based on a cantus firmus: an unidentified melody accompanying a text from Job 1: 21, often associated with funerals. Once again, the text emphasizes dynastic relationships and the significance of the given names of members of the ruling house; he glosses the name ‘Friedrich’ as ‘Friede-reich’—that is, ‘rich in peace’.

The other pieces by Cleve recorded here show his receptivity to the stylistic traits of two contemporaries who even in the sixteenth century were acknowledged as outstanding, namely Palestrina (1525/6–1594) and Lassus (1530/32–1594). The artistic dominance of these two composers can be gauged in crude terms by the number of reprints of their works, and their wide distribution. The synthetic quality of Cleve’s music shows his openness to major trends in the music of his time.

Laudate Dominum contains several stylistic features that recall the music of Orlande de Lassus, such as the sometimes unexpected harmonic progressions and deceptive cadences (‘cadenze sfuggite’) in which the bass descends by a second (V–IV) rather than returning to the finalis (V–I). Also reminiscent of Lassus is the extensive use of homophony and the strongly agogic rhythms—rhythms that tend to reflect word stress and syllable length rather than the regular musical tactus. All these features are deployed within the first ten bars of the piece. Cleve introduces varietas through features such as a triple-time section at ‘Sicut erat in principio’, and some melodic chromaticism in the superius at the words ‘et in saecula’ towards the end of the piece.

Timete Dominum is written in a mellifluous style reminiscent of Palestrina, characterized by a harmonious balance between disjunct and conjunct melodic motion (i.e. between leaps and stepwise motion), and a smooth and regular treatment of dissonance. The piece is set in the gentle and modern-sounding Ionian mode (the ‘major mode’ of later tonal music): the fear of the Lord enjoined upon the listener is not a source of anxiety, but of consolation. Despite the harmonic centre on C, the piece includes some unexpected harmonic movement, which expands the tonal palette of the piece; for example, the first part cadences unexpectedly on E. The motet Credo quod redemptor displays many of the same harmonic features, and exudes a similar quiet confidence. The piece also shows a degree of madrigalian word-painting: at ‘terra’ (‘earth’), the voices move to the bottom of their tessitura; at ‘surrecturus sum’ (‘I shall rise’), they move upwards by step.

Some of Cleve’s work reflects the complicated confessional situation of the Empire in the last third of the sixteenth century. In the wake of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Roman Catholic church redoubled its efforts to recouping losses sustained through the gradual encroachment of Lutheran and Calvinist ideas. However, the divisions between the two styles of religiosity were not always clear. For example, Emperor Maximilian II showed a distinct sympathy for Protestants. In the 1570s, Andreas Gigler, parish priest at Graz, applied to a Roman Catholic context the same techniques of scriptural education developed by Luther. In 1574, Gigler published his Gesang Postill: a collection of verse paraphrases of the Gospel readings for the entire year’s lectionary, inspired by the work of the Lutheran cantor Nikolaus Herman. Gigler’s book also contained musical settings of twenty Lutheran melodies by Cleve.

The text of Es wel uns Gott genedig sein is Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 67, written probably in 1523 as a final blessing in his evangelical recasting of the Mass. The text was soon sung to different melodies, though gradually a Phrygian melody, first attested at Strasbourg in 1524, became most closely associated with it. Cleve used this melody as the basis for a five-voice polyphonic setting, included in the Cantiones seu harmoniae sacrae, where it is conspicuous as the only piece in German. It is not clear why Cleve wrote or included this piece in the Cantiones: whether to support the Lutheran message or subvert it, as a nod to the eirenic religious politics of Maximilian II, or for some other reason. The tenor, which bears the melody, is the last voice to enter. However, the distinctive profile of the melody is prepared by way of pre-imitation in the other voices, a contrapuntal device often used by the first major Lutheran polyphonist, Johann Walter.

This programme thus displays something of the musical tastes and trends of the imperial chapels in the sixteenth century: a preference for rich musical textures that reflected the glory of the Habsburg patrons and could fill the large churches and halls in which the ruler often appeared; an openness to outside musical influences; and a close relationship with the kind of ceremonial and panegyrical Latin verse so characteristic of sixteenth-century humanism.

Grantley McDonald © 2020