Out of the blue someone contacted me to thank me for an old review I had written of Brumel’s Et Ecce Terrae Motus at NLM.
I think I’ll repost it here:
One listen to the “Earthquake Mass” of Antoine Brumel might lead you to believe it is a 20th century composition–perhaps something modern that looks back but nonetheless employs modern harmonies and musical patterns of our age. So it can be disconcerting to discover that Brumel (1460-1512) was actually a contemporary of Josquin, a pre-Reformation composer who had achieved stunning heights of sophistication.
It is the kind of piece that causes you to seriously wonder about the conventional version of history itself, that somehow we became ever more sophisticated from the 16th century and beyond, marching forward into the light. In fact, what we here in this stunning work is the musical equivalent of the most elaborate and majestic cathedral. It suggests a time of advancement in civilization in every way. But what makes this piece different from other signs of advancement in, say, science or technology, is that focus, which is so clearly on transcendence. Every note, every phrase, reaches and stretches, sometimes painfully, to touch a timeless reality.
I’m blogging on this piece in particular since it is common for those who are newly interested in sacred music to focus on and even get stuck in one mode: Palestrina, Victoria, and other Italians of the counter-reformation period. If we get on this path, we can easily overlook the music of people like Brumel, which shows no sign of intimidation by the didactic demands of reformation ideology. We find here a freer and more completely unleashed search for God, with the result of sounds and styles that are, to my ears, astoundingly fresh and even mold-breaking. If you were to compare this 12-part Mass to a more familiar piece, imagine a Mass-length Spem in Alium, with towers of part writing that are built ever higher until the overwhelm you with grandeur.