Renaissance polyphony, readily available for decades on any number of high-quality recordings, has become a sort of go-to bliss-out music, for listeners who are drawn to gorgeous harmonies, sung a cappella and bathed in cathedrals of reverb, and who can't quite bring themselves to purchase an Enya CD.
Those folks are on to something, and they're amply rewarded by the music, even if few notice the rigorous counterpoint practiced by Josquin des Prez (late 1400s), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (mid-late 1500s) or Carlo Gesualdo (late 16th century), the notorious Prince of Verona and alleged murderer with a futuristic harmonic palette.
Composer Hannah Lash thinks about counterpoint more than most; among her other classes, she teaches 16th-century counterpoint at Yale, where she's an assistant professor, and her personal relationship to Josquin's music goes back even further. More than a year ago, Lash was approached by Jeffrey Douma, director of the Yale Choral Artists, to compose a new piece for his ensemble. Her work, "Out of the Depths I Cry (after Josquin)," will be premiered at Echoes: Early Music Reimagined, a concert that takes place on Friday, June 20, at 8 p.m. at the Church of St. Mary in New Haven. The program of Echoes juxtaposes works by J.S. Bach, Thomas Tallis and Josquin with new works by Lash, Sven-David Sandström and Ted Hearne that are intended to reflect on those pieces in some way.
Lash's "Out of the Depths" responds to Josquin's late five-voice setting of a motet, "De Profundis" (a text he set many times), which involves a three-voice canon — voices chasing each other, a la "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" — that maintains strict spacing and intervals between the voices, plus two additional vocal parts. Feeling as though merely glancing off the surface of Josquin's setting would be disingenuous, Lash wanted to compose a motet that responds to Josquin's treatment of dissonance and the same rhythmic constraints he set for himself, without simply mimicking his style.
"The way Josquin makes it act so plastic and beautiful was intriguing to me," Lash said. "I wanted it to be Hannah Lash if I had lived in the 15th century," she said.
The first step was to transfer the Latin text into what she calls a "completely secular English." "It wouldn't be honest for me to set a religious text," Lash said. From there, it took Lash eight attempts before she was happy with the final work, a 10-minute composition for five vocal parts, three of which are strict and the other two freer, like Josquin's "De Profundis."