Heu me domine, Lusitano

This motet was published in an appendix to a Music Theory treatise in 1553.* It is for 4 singers. The text is included at the end of the post. You can read a bit about the composer, and listen to it here. Like I said last week in my post, I did this analysis predominantly from listening. I did get a copy of the score from IMSLP, but I only used it to double check my hearing of the piece.

The musical elements of this piece that make it original – that is, how would I recognize it if I heard it on the radio – first and foremost: (1) chromatic movement – the notes are usually only a half step away from each other – which is a bit unusual in a long series. Usually half steps are used to emphasize cadences and important notes, but to have a whole string of them in a row, especially in the Renaissance era, is quite striking. This makes it hard to tell if it’s “in a key” at first, and obscures whether it’s major or minor.

Other features: (2) as it is a motet from the Renaissance, I am not surprised to find that it is contrapuntal, meaning the voices enter all at different times and hardly ever sing the same words at the same time. (3) a mostly syllabic text setting – there’s usually only one pitch per syllable. (4) while the chromatic motion makes defining a key difficult, when I do hear a localized pitch center, it’s usually defined by contrary steps (ie: one voice up, one voice down – usually the lowest for this) and sometimes emphasized by a new voice entering. Finally, (5) upward movement seems to be employed to create tension, with downward movement to decrease tension.

I hear this piece as having three sections, with the middle section a bit like a dependent clause, depending on the last section. The text is in two parts, but I hear a fairly prominent cadence between de morte aeterna and in die illa tremenda, around 2:45 in the recording. The first section ends with the first stanza of text at around 1:50. None of the three primary cadences are on the same pitch level, but they all end on major triads.

The first section is defined by an ever upward feeling; as each voice enters it drives the pitch upward, and even with a small amount of downward motion (voices only have so much range after all), I get the sense of UP or LIFT for the whole section. This section is hard to tell if it is in major or minor: what local pitch centers there are don’t last long, there were a lot of what felt similar to cadential set-ups, but then got elided into further upward motion. Also, because the piece has just started, we don’t have any previous sections to use to inform our judgement. This section has the highest pitches in it, and all this helps underscore a text that describes “fleeing” toward God. The end of the section is heralded by longer bass pitches that add some stability, and around 1:26 the upward motion is reversed and the section falls to a cadence about 1:50. The cadence uses the contrary step motion.

The second section starts with the new text stanza libera me, which even to me who doesn’t do Portugese Latin is pretty easy to pick out auditorily. This section has more low bass pitches that support the still-upward motion, so that the section doesn’t feel so UP, and the height of the section is not as pronounced as the first. I get the feeling of struggling toward freedom/heaven/God, and not necessarily succeeding. Even though local pitch centers fluctuate, there is more of a sense of being in minor in this section. The cadence at around 2:45 has a fifth motion in the bass line.

The primary reason I hear the second section as distinct from the third is because the motion changes. In the third section, the emphasis is on downward motion for the first time. This underlies text about the “awful day” when heaven and earth move. I find it fitting that the downward motion leaves us to end on et terra, back on earth at the final cadence, underlining even more the failure of the struggle to flee in the first 2 sections. This section definitely feels like it is in minor, possibly because a descending chromatic bass-line is not uncommon in minor keys. While the final cadence does have contrary motion, the upward movement is not stepwise, and three voices step down, unlike many of the other cadential moments in the piece. (ok, I did look at the score for that part.)

So overall, this motet uses upward chromatic motion to create tension and a feeling of fleeing/flight, and then balances it with downward chromatic motion, leaving a feeling of failure in that struggle. The major triad at the end does imply some hope to me, but it’s also typical of the time, so I’m not sure.

Text: (lightly edited google translate)

Heu me, Domine,
quia pecavi nimis in vita mea:
quid faciam miser, ubi fugiam,
nisi ad te, Deus meus?

Libera me, Domine,
de morte æterna,
in die illa tremenda,
quando celi mouendi
sunt et terra.

Alas, Lord,
for we have sinned too much in my life!
poor wretch, what shall I do, where shall I flee,
but to you, my God?

Free me, Lord,
from eternal death
on the awful day;
When Heaven
and earth move.

* Because this is from 1553, that’s in the squishy time-period where we start to see tonal-ish movements in some parts of some pieces, but the every-piece-is-in-a-key and starts-and-ends-on-the-same-note is not the standard practice yet.

This is not a piece that throwing Roman numerals or Functional Analysis at it would help, pretty much ever.

Most pieces from this era you might be able to describe some chords, especially near cadences, but the primary compositional technique at the time was horizontal – mostly composers didn’t even use scores laid out like we use today, but wrote each voice part on separate sheets. I don’t know about you, but I would have a very difficult time writing counterpoint on 4 separate sheets!

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