Tuesday 2 March 2021

Sixteenth-century viol music for the richest man in the world

La La Hö Hö: Sixteenth-century viol music for the richest man in the world; Linarol Consort; Inventa
La La Hö Hö: Sixteenth-century viol music for the richest man in the world
; Linarol Consort; Inventa

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A compendium of viol music created in the 16th century and providing a wonderful window onto the soundworld enjoyed by the richest man in the world, Jakob Fugger

For this disc of 16th century viol consort music, La La hö hö on Inventa Records, the Linarol Consort explores music copied into a 16th century manuscript (now in the National Library of Austria in Vienna) with the unromantic name of Vienna MS 18-810. Its origins, however, are more romantic than its name and the disc contains a wealth of viol consort music by Heinrich Isaac, Pierre de la Rue, Adam Rener, Josquin des Prez, Paul Hofhaimer, Antoine Brumel, Petrus Alamire and Ludwig Senfl.

So what is Vienna MS 18-810? It is a hand-written manuscript created by a single professional scribe, so though the manuscript is quite plain (no decorated capital letters) it would still be a relatively expensive product. We don't know for whom the manuscript was created, but it seems to have been copied by a scribe in the circle of the composer Ludwig Senfl in Munich around about 1533/35. But then things start to get interesting because the manuscript quickly finds its way into the collection of the Fugger family. A rich banking dynasty based in Augsburg, they were headed by Jakob Fugger 'The Rich' who gives the disc its subtitle, 'Sixteenth-century viol music for the richest man in the world'. Though it has to be pointed out that Jakob died in 1525, so whether or not the manuscript was commissioned by him, by the time it was finished it would have come into the possession of his successor, his nephew Anton Fugger.

The manuscript is a practical book, it includes the five part-books necessary for performance (Discantus, Contratenor, Tenor, Bassus & Quinta Vox), so we can imagine it being acquired and used by musicians in the employ of the Fuggers. Whilst printing became increasingly common in the 16th century, manuscripts survive alongside printed copies. Manuscripts were often elaborate, desgned as prized possessions for a wealthy elite, but this one seems to have had a more practical use, a collection assembled for someone, a selection of choice and popular morsels. There are 86 pieces in the manuscript altogether, and David Hatcher of the Linarol Consort has been editing them for modern publication (you can read more about the edition on David Hatcher's website). On this disc we hear a selection of 27 pieces.

More than half the pieces in the manuscript are by the leading musical figures at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519), and with the Fuggers at the pinnacle of their power in the 16th century Augsburg was an important cultural centre in the southern Holy Roman Emperor. It is important to remember that the Holy Roman Empire was somewhat more dispersed in terms of power and focus than its 19th century incarnation based in Vienna. 150 kilometres North of Augsburg is Nuremberg which was the Holy Roman Emperor's treasury. And when Maximilian waged a campaign to ensure that his grandson would be elected his successor as Holy Roman Emperor, it was the Fugger family that provided Maximilian a credit of one million gulden, which was used to bribe the prince-electors. The campaign was ultimately successful it seems, the grandson became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The disc opens with a pair of pieces by Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) who from 1496 until his death served in Maximilian's court becoming master of the Hofkapelle. On of his pupils was Ludwig Senfl (c1486-1543) who also rose to be master of the Hofkapelle and who, as we have seen, is associated with the production of the manuscript. Senfl remained in post till Maximilian's death in 1519, so our manuscript comes from the later period when Senfl ended up in post in Munich working for William IV, Duke of Bavaria and creating what would become the Bavarian State Orchestra (which still exists as the Bayerischer Staatsorchester!).

Other composers on the disc include Pierre de la Rue, the favourite composer of Marguerite of Austria, Maxilimilian's daughter and ruler of the Netherlands, plus other composers with such links, Josquin, Antoine Brumel,  and Petrus Alamire (himself a prolific publisher and producer of illuminated manuscripts). There other intriguing links in the manuscript, tantalising hints; the music in the manuscript has firm links to the Roman Catholic court of the Holy Roman Empire, but Senfl was also sympathetic to the Protestant cause and corresponded with Luther and with Luther's big supporter, Duke Albrecht of Prussia. There may be other intriguing links yet to be discovered.

The viol consort had become popular in the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century, with composers developing their own distinct way of writing for the consort. The melody is in the tenor, with the other lines weaving counterpoint above and below, something that would become popular in other countries too.

All the pieces on the disc are quite short, and many are songs. Perhaps we can imagine the wealthy listeners recognising the music and enjoying the imagination applied to weaving a new and complex work around the familiar melody.

And the disc's title? Well it is a song by Isaac, but for all the booklet article's admirable comprehensiveness, little mention is given to what these pieces are. In fact, for the song transcriptions, it would have been nice to have had the words, as surely when first performed listeners would have recognised the music, after all this was a compendium of popular hits. Still, a little digging on the Ismlp website has come up with this information, 'According to a 1991 book chapter by M. Staehelin and E. Neubauer, the ostinato melody of this piece is based on a dervish song heard in Vienna during a Turkish diplomatic visit, and the title is a corruption of "la ilaha illa Allah". '

The performances on this disc are outstanding, and the soundworld is seductive and delightful. The players use a set of viols created by Richard Jones and inspired by the single surviving viol made by Venetian luthier Francesco Linarol (c1520-1577). The players have also used early 16th century treatises to select the transpositions of the pieces to suit the tunings of the viols. If all this sounds rather academic, worry not. The results are anything but academic, and take you perfectly back to a different period and era. This is music redolent of its time, yet in vibrant modern performances.

La La Hö Hö: Sixteenth-century viol music for the richest man in the world
Music by Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518), Adam Rener (c1485-c1520), Josquin des prez (c1450/55 - 1521), Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537), Antoine Brumel (c1460-1512/13), Petrus Alamire (c1470-1536), Ludwig Senfl (c1486-1543)
Linarol Consort (David Hatcher, Asako Morikawa, Alison Kinder, Claire Horacek)
Recorded at Treowen, Monmouthshire, 11-13 February 2020
INVENTA INV1005 1CD [67.26]

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