Arts: The Mass that shook the world

Brumel's colossal `Earthquake' Mass was a revelation 400 years ago. Tonight, Proms audiences will hear why
Click to follow
IN THE first decades of the Proms, early music meant little more than Bach and Handel; in later years, of course, the selection of Baroque repertoire has become rather more generous. But still there's been no systematic presentation of the vast flowering of music from the Renaissance and pre-Baroque periods which produced a galaxy of great composers. Men such as Lassus, Josquin, Palestrina, Gombert, Cornysh, Fayrfax and their countless successors who conceived much of their music for buildings on a scale similar to that of the Albert Hall.

Just what glories we've been missing will be underlined tonight when Danish conductor Bo Holten, The BBC Singers and His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts present one of the most breathtaking outbursts of the Renaissance imagination, the colossal "Earthquake" Mass by the French composer Antoine Brumel. Out of nowhere, on the cusp of the 15th and 16th centuries, Brumel conceived a work on a scale that had never before been tried - a huge contrapuntal edifice, with 12 separate vocal lines and almost an hour in duration.

He organised his 12 parts into four groups of three: choirboys (castrati) at the top, three contratenori (by which he meant high tenors), three "normal" tenors and three basses. Not only was Brumel stretching the bounds of musical architecture, he was also testing the limits of his singers, happily sending a tenor voice diving below the basses and instructing one of 0the basses to climb way above the tenors. His choristers must have boggled when they saw their parts.

The "Earthquake" Mass, which takes on a tragic topicality after the deaths of so many thousands in Turkey, owes its name to its cantus firmus. Renaissance composers would regularly base a mass on a snippet of melody from a popular song or another religious work. The melodic fragment then became the basis of a new mass: it would be laid out in long note-values, usually sung unnoticed by the tenors while the other voices were woven around it. Brumel's cantus firmus comes from an Easter antiphon: "Et ecce terrae motus est" or "And behold, there came a movement of the earth".

It's easier to discuss Brumel's music than Brumel himself: like a number of early composers, he pops up in the historical records only intermittently. It's a fair guess that he was born near Chartres, to the south of Paris, around 1460, which makes him the first of the great composers to be born in France rather than Burgundy, the kingdom which occupied the south-eastern part of modern-day France. The first documented mention of Brumel comes from 1483, when "the cleric Anthonius de Brumel" was made a singer in the chapel at Chartres. Then there's a three-year gap, until 1486, when he was appointed to a position at St Peter's, Geneva; he stayed there until 1492, enjoying a year's sabbatical in 1489-90 at the court of the Duke of Savoy at Chambery. The Duke was impressed enough to offer Brumel a position, but he turned it down - a decision he may have regretted since, once back in Geneva, he had an argument with his bosses at St Peter's (no one knows why) and had to flee.

Again he disappears from the records, re-emerging only in 1497, at Laon Cathedral. By then he was a canon, which may mean that he had spent those missing years studying to join the priesthood. In January of the next year, he was put in charge of the education of the choirboys at Notre Dame in Paris. But, yet again, he had to leave precipitately after seemingly arguing over the appointment of a new choirboy. Was Brumel just a difficult character, or is there a hint of sexual scandal in these hurried resignations? Forty or so years later, the composer Nicolas Gombert was punished for violating a choirboy and Gombert's Mass "Tempore paschali" pays explicit tribute to Brumel in what could be a gesture of solidarity.

After quitting Paris, Brumel headed back to Chambery and was enjoying a growing reputation. In 1506, he was made maestro di cappella at the ducal court of Ferrara, one of the most buoyant, forward-looking musical establishments in Renaissance Italy. His surroundings were congenial and his salary extremely generous. But once again it didn't last, though this time it wasn't Brumel's fault: the pressure of war on the budget meant that in 1510 the chapel had to be disbanded. Brumel moved on to Rome, where we lose sight of him. He is assumed to have died around 1520.

Though Brumel wrote at least 14 other mass settings, it is the towering "Earthquake" Mass that ensures his plinth in the pantheon. The work survives in a single manuscript from which chunks of the last few pages have rotted away. So next Thursday's conductor, Bo Holten, has had to reconstruct the last few minutes. Between 1568 and 1570, this surviving manuscript was used by Orlandus Lassus, to direct a performance in Munich. Lassus wrote down the names of the singers who participated, three or four to each vocal part, which is more or less the same forces that Holten will employ, and he likewise had an ensemble of brass and reed.

The purists might protest that performing Renaissance polyphony in the Albert Hall is anachronistic. Stuff and nonsense. The best way to enjoy Brumel's inexhaustible textures will be to use the building itself. Take advantage of the 1,000 Promming places for every concert, lie on the floor toward the back, close your eyes, and let the music swirl above you.

Proms 51, 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall, 0171-589 8212