The Brabant Ensemble is an a cappella choir based in Oxford and directed by Stephen Rice. Their repertoire focuses on early music and to date the group has released thirteen CDs on the Hyperion label, each focusing on a single composer. There is also a recording of selections from the so-called “Chirk Castle” partbooks, which include compositions by English composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. Tomorrow Hyperion will release Brabant’s latest recording (currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com), consisting entirely of works by Pierre de la Rue.
La Rue is one of those composers whose legacy owes much to the publication of his Mass settings by Ottaviano Petrucci. As many readers may know, the very first publication of the works of a single composer dates from 1502, when Petrucci published a series of Mass settings by Josquin dez Prez. This publication was so successful that Petrucci followed up with similar Mass collections of music by other composers the following year. La Rue was one of those composers, along with Jacob Obrecht, Antoine Brumel, and Johannes Ghiselin. As the pioneer of the music publication business, Petrucci was more interested in getting content into circulation than in providing any background material; and, as Rice observed in his notes for the accompanying booklet, it is very difficult to attach dates to any of La Rue’s compositions with any certainty.
With that qualification in mind, Rice makes the case that the ordering of the two masses on his new recording is chronological. The earlier takes its thematic material from the Spanish song about an untrue lover “Nunca fue pena mayor” (never was there greater pain); and the later is based on the plainchant sequence “Inviolata, integra et casta es Maria” (inviolate, spotless and pure art thou, O Mary). (That sequence was set as a five-voice motet by Josquin.) Both La Rue compositions are set for four voices, as is his motet setting of the Marian antiphon “Salve regina” (hail queen), one of six existing settings by La Rue. The concluding selection is a Magnificat setting in Tone 6 set for five voices.
Information about La Rue’s life is about as sparse as evidence that would contribute to dating his works. However, we know that his most steady employment came from the Grande chapelle of the Burgundian-Habsburg court under Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Those familiar with the a cappella group Stile Antico will find one of La Rue’s motets (“Absalon fili mi”) on their harmonia mundi album From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Habsburg. Rice has put together a far more extended account of La Rue’s music, which is certainly consistent with the representative albums he has prepared for other composers from the sixteenth century and earlier. Whether or not La Rue rises above any of the other composers from this period can be debated at length by those more scholarly, but he is definitely part of the landscape. That should be reason enough for him to be known for more than a single motet!