By Cristina Schreil
You might not know Henricus Isaac—and you’re not alone. The Renaissance-era, Franco-Flemish singer, composer, and fixture of the Medici court has been nearly forgotten, despite his mastery of counterpoint and polyphony. Even writer Aldous Huxley pondered how Isaac fell out of cultural memory.
Now’s your chance to get acquainted. Jordi Savall presents a robust survey of Isaac’s work on a new album with La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Savall’s early-music ensemble Hespèrion XXI. The album takes a chronological format in a “musical homage” to Isaac. The pieces chosen relate to significant moments in his life, from his birth in Flanders through his moving to Innsbruck in the early 1480s, his arrival in Florence shortly thereafter, and finally his death in 1517. This makes for richer listening, says director and viola da gambist Savall. “I think the context of the history gives you always a good perspective to understand the music in a deeper way.”
Speaking from his home in Spain, Savall paints Isaac’s complex music—both secular and religious—as uniquely brilliant. He also explains how Isaac almost faded forever.
What inspired this project?
The first aspect: It’s the 500th anniversary of his death. Practically, the idea was to celebrate a fantastic composer who is very little known. It’s very rare to hear pieces by Isaac. Another aspect was the idea to develop the counterpoint and composition style of this time. I think Isaac represents, really, one of the most important composers, working with such extreme perfection in counterpoint and in using all the polyphonic possibilities. With this music, I realized that Isaac is using a lot of polyphonic aspects like Monteverdi used in his verse prose and his spiritual compositions. Isaac used very similar aspects in his work a hundred years before.
Your liner notes mention he was so well regarded yet fell out of memory. Why?
It was normal to think of music as a progress, [that] every new composer makes a better art of composing [than] the composers before. And this goes through until practically the time of Beethoven. And I think this was something very typical, because it was a sort of fixation, every new composer [develops] the art of composing in a better way and the composers before are not interesting any more. But, it’s not true, because every great composer of every time is magnificent. These [ideas] are corresponding with the styles of the time, which have nothing to do with the development of the language. Nobody would say Picasso is a better painter than Caravaggio or the Impressionists are better painters than Flemish painters. They’re different styles, you know? Velazquez is a great painter, and Picasso also—but nobody could say Picasso is more developed, more rich, more interesting.
Why a chronological program?
I think it’s interesting to know the important moments of his life and to see how his life was shared between Italy and Austria. And this is what we feel in the music. His music has the beauty, the inspiration, and the melodic freedom of the Italian music, but also the construction, the counterpoint, and the intellectual ideas of a composer from the north. His music is a beautiful mix of, I would say, an Italian style and a German or Flemish style.
Could you speak about the role of stringed instruments in this music?
In this time [period], as you can see in the picture [on] the CD [cover], there are a lot of viols in this. Viols were playing a lot in the concerts in the churches, and it was a very important instrument as companion devices [to voice]. Of course, the winds are important also but the viola da gamba is always an instrument that’s declared to be better at imitating the human voice. And this is why I use it for certain moments, and for certain instrumental pieces also.
Isaac is not making himself these instrumentations. This is a decision that I take myself and this is typical of this period—the people use what they have. Sometimes, for example, in church when they do mass on Wednesday, they have six singers, the bassoon, and maybe a violone. But for mass on Saturday or Sunday, they have the whole vocal ensemble and then cornets, woods, viols, flutes, and everything for the same music. It depends on the circumstances.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I love all the pieces because they’re all great, but one of the pieces that impressed me a lot is the piece Angeli, Archangeli, which is so beautiful, so spiritual. Another piece I love very much is the motet we use to represent the death of Isaac, Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis, music from the funerals, which is also beautiful, so expressive.
What is it like performing this music for modern audiences?
The people are enthusiastic. It’s music that touches you because it’s beautiful, but also because it’s rich. Like when you go for the first time to see Hamlet, you understand only a little part of what happens there, this music is the same. It’s like with a good movie: The first time you see a good movie, you understand maybe the half of the things and the second time you capture different things than the first time. Because the music is so complex, you need to have the score or listen very well or many times to really match the whole complexity. Even if you are not reading any music, only the beauty of the music involves you and gives you so much intensive and spiritual pleasure . . . it’s like going to a beautiful church in Firenze to sit there and just look. You don’t need to be an architecture specialist. You are touched by so much perfection of the forms, the space, the colors, the lighting, everything. It’s an experience.