Composing Brumel

Ivan Moody


This is a slightly amended version of an essay which originally appeared in the booklet accompanying "Hilliard Live 3" (Hilliard Ensemble/BBC, 1997)


For a composer, the experience of editing music by another composer is always an exciting one. In a sense, it is "virtual composing": one sees the music appear under one's fingertips with something of the same breathlessness which accompanies the gradual materialization of one's own work, but there is an added element of unpredictability, and, with a composer as imaginative as Brumel, of excitement.


Brumel's music has an almost architectural sense of space: as one sees during the course of transcription the cascades of melody materializing around the scaffolding of the long notes of the cantus firmus, one has the feeling that he is moulding musical material in what one might describe as a plastic way. He is also a composer of astonishing range, as one might expect of the man who wrote the twelve-part Missa Et ecce terrae motus: at the opposite end of the scale are his tiny three-part motets, which show just as much invention and, since he is not able to count upon the sheer vocal extravagance of twelve independent parts, arguably more.


It is clear that Brumel was much admired in his own time:


"Agricolla, Verbonnet, Prioris,

Josquin Desprez, Gaspar, Brunel, Compère

Ne parlez plus de joyeux chantz ne ris,

Mais composez ung Ne recorderis,

Pour lamenter nostre maistre et bon père."


Thus Guillaume Crétin, in his Déploration on the death of Ockeghem. Josquin, Brumel and Compère are also called upon to lament the passing of Ockeghem in another Déploration, by Jean Molinet (the one set to music by Josquin):


"Acoutrez vous d'habits de deuil,

Josquin, Piersson, Brumel, Compere,

Et plourez grosses larmes d'oeil"


It is no accident that Brumel appears in both summonses, at the side of Josquin; he was in fact one of the most talked-about composers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He is mentioned by Rabelais in the Quart livre des faicts et dicts héroiques du bon Pantagruel (1552), by the Italian poet Teofilo Folengo in his Le Maccheronee, by the chronicler Eloy d'Amerval, by the theorists Gaffurio and Glareanus, and, finally, by Thomas Morley (who praised his and Josquin's canonic skill in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke); and on his death Brumel in his turn was commemorated by an extraordinary number of laments. His career took him from Chartres, near which city he was born in around 1460 (thus making him genuinely French rather than Burgundian) and in whose cathedral he became a singer at about the age of twenty-three, to Geneva, Laon, Paris, Chambéry, and the d'Este court at Ferrara, where he spent the years 1506-10.


Brumel's output includes a series of fifteen complete Masses (whose gems include a Missa pro defunctis which boasts the first-known polyphonic setting of the sequence Dies irae, and the aforementioned Missa Et ecce terrae motus for twelve voices), four independent Credo settings, and a further thirty or so liturgical works of other kinds. The secular music comprises five chansons and nine instrumental pieces.


The Missa Victimae paschali survives in various sources, and was printed in Petrucci's Misse Brumel of 1503. It is built upon the first phrase of the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes: one of Brumel's characteristics, and one which is typical of that "architectural" approach, is the building up of works from relatively short melodic fragments or tags. This technique is seen at its height in the twelve-part Mass, in which the composer could hardly depend upon conventional imitative counterpoint: he uses the first seven notes of the antiphon Et ecce terrae motus, in three part canon in long notes over which the gothic extravagances of the remaining eight parts may unfold. In the Missa Victimae paschali the treatment is more conventional, but even so, it is significant that he uses only this short motif as a basis for generating his melodies: these are the bricks and mortar from which he constructs his edifices.


In the Kyrie, for example, three of the voices enter, from the bass upwards, with the first three notes of the cantus firmus, G-F-G, and then spin entirely independent melodies from this. (The insistent alternation of G and F seems to have held something of a fascination for Brumel - the motets Nativitas unde gaudia, Mater Patris and Ave, Ancilla Trinitatis all open in this way). When the cantus firmus itself enters, the other voices begin new phrases built around a minor third, an interval which has a great melodic importance throughout the Mass. The Christe is a free melodic fantasy (the minor third very prominent) over the cantus firmus which is transposed up a fifth. Noticeable here is the great distance at which Brumel sometimes chooses to imitate melodies: the entire first phrase of the uppermost voice is repeated verbatim by the bass at the entry of the cantus firmus, and there is a further example between the two upper voices near the end of the section. It is as though the composer wished to establish very clearly the melody in one's mind before working further with it, and this, together with the insistence on certain notes or figures within a phrase, naturally emphasizes the rather obsessive quality of much of his writing. The second Kyrie abandons the cantus firmus in favour of freely imitative four-part writing.


The Gloria opens with Brumel's favourite alternation of G and F chords, and is in predominantly long values, in contrast to the much more active Kyrie. A real change occurs, as one comes to expect in 15th century Mass settings, with the "Qui tollis" section. The time changes to triple metre and a certain breathless wildness characterizes the melodic writing, recalling - to this composer's ears - both Ockeghem and Obrecht. The final section, "Cum Sancto Spiritu" dispenses with the chant altogether.


A stately pace characterizes the Credo (it is surprising just how leisurely Brumel allows himself to be, with so much text to set, both in the Gloria and the Credo) until the duets at "Et resurrexit" and "Et iterum", both constructed from imitative fragments. From "Et in Spiritum Sanctum" until the end a kind of disciplined chaos reigns, and we encounter in rapid succession pure unadorned homophony, frantic melodic roulades, imitative duets and tremendously resourceful textural variety. The only thing holding this compendium of Brumel’s various compositional techniques together until the very end is the cantus firmus in the first tenor part. The Sanctus appears to offer relative calm, but its stately pace is thrown to the winds with the utmost subtlety: "Pleni sunt caeli" is a duet between the top two parts which becomes increasingly active and is then passed on to the second tenor and bass, so that by the time we land on the word "gloria", the full four-part scoring, the change of time, which produces an emphasis on the tripleness of the word "gloria", create an effect that is positively electrifying. The Osanna which follows crowns this with a series of astonishing scalic passages (they are astonishing in that one wonders just how climbing the octave and then cadencing can sound quite so exciting) exchanged between the two upper voices - the only composer who comes near such a combination of facile musicality with sheer bloody-mindedness is Obrecht. The Benedictus offers some respite, but Osanna ut supra…


The triple Agnus Dei is constructed rather like a motet. It opens with the traditional imitation at the fifth and octave, and then the cantus firmus enters. The second section contrasts upper and lower paired voices and finishes with a triple time section for all four voices, and the third is an extended, elaborate imititative trio, well displaying Brumel's contrapuntal resource, over the cantus firmus in the bass. Brumel's motets are as little-known as his Masses. In transcribing a selection of them for the Hilliard Ensemble, I had the sensation almost of learning the craft of composition afresh, since each piece offered new revelations employing a huge variety of techniques, and all within the bounds of liturgical propriety; a lesson indeed for the contemporary composer of sacred music.


Nativitas unde gaudia – Nativitas tua is a magnificent example of Brumel's large-scale motet writing. It comes from Motetti Libro Quarto, published by Petrucci in Venice in 1505. The conventional imitative opening leading immediately into an extended, flowing section for three voices. When the superius finally enters, it does so with the appropriate plainchant, in long note values as a cantus firmus, leaving the three lower parts to weave their virtuoso counterpoint underneath it. The same procedure is adopted in the second part, though the note values are shorter and the superius participates in a complex four-part Amen.


With Mater Patris something extraordinary happens. The canonic entries which open it overlap in such a way that for seven bars of modern transcription one hears nothing but alternating G and F chords, creating a dark, lugubrious G minor counterpoint with only three voices which resolves into a crystalline clarity, using only a few decorated chords. I have suggested elsewhere that this work (which was transcribed from the Cancionero de Segovia) and others like it may have had a stylistic influence on Iberian composers of the period - this kind of writing is very common in Escobar, for example(1).


Ave, Virgo gloriosa (also from the Petrucci print of 1505) is one of the most magnificent of Brumel's motets. It has a breadth of utterance and a confidence in its stylistic range which make one understand why the composer was so revered by his contemporaries. The rich four-part passage at the beginning is followed by a lengthy and beautiful duet between first tenor (altus) and bass before four-part writing returns at "Finis lethi". Brumel reacts with magnificent melodic outbursts to the clues provided by such words as "florida" or "lucis", and ushers in the more contemplative secunda pars with simple, rapt homophony ("O Regina pietatis") which is succeeded by a series of duets, reverting to four voices at "clementer considera". Triple-time homophony characterizes the final section, "Dulcis Iesu Mater bonae", and Brumel finishes this masterpiece with the most elaborate Amen of all.

Another work which survives in the Segovia Songbook (with three voices) as well as in a manuscript in Annaberg (with four), is O Crux, Ave, spes unica. It begins imitatively, and, indeed, the altus is in canon with the superius throughout, but in character is a lush, hymn-like piece, probably, according to Edward Lerner, part of a series of pieces for use at the Mass of the Holy Cross. The text is an additional stanza for the famous hymn by Venantius Fortunatus Vexilla regis. Brumel's only other hymn setting, Gloria laus, is a far more contrapuntally elaborate work: the suavity of O Crux, Ave would seem to be specifically connected with its liturgical function. Characteristic of Brumel is the insistent e-f motif in the top voice at the end; less typical are a pair of parallel fifths between the top two voices! Barton Hudson, who first transcribed the piece, considers that it must nevertheless be by Brumel, adducing the canon as evidence (Lerner considered that the alto voice was added by a local German composer).


In his edition, Hudson further remarks that "as in no other group of works, Brumel shows himself in his motets to have been an international composer, grappling with problems posed by a period of rapid change and by the interpenetration of two national musical languages". Indeed, those two languages (the Italian and the Netherlandish) would have provided any musician with a considerable repertory of techniques, but only a composer with the extraordinary imagination of Brumel could have made such music of them.




(1) "¿Una Obra desconocida de Escobar? Algunas observaciones sobre el motete Fatigatus Iesus en el Manuscrito Musical No. 12 de la Biblioteca General de la Universidad de Coimbra", Anuario Musical vol. 49, 1994


© 1997, 2002 Ivan Moody

Return to Homepage