Vox Lucens

The rarest of gems: Discovering the music of Jean Lhéritier

The rarest of gems: Discovering the music of Jean Lhéritier

In November of 2008, Vox Lucens released its second CD, recorded at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Acton, Massachusetts, and titled "The rarest of gems: Discovering the music of Jean Lhéritier".

The CD is for sale in our on-line store (where you can also listen to brief samples of all tracks) and is also available for purchase at our concerts.

Below are the program notes and translations for the CD:

Program Notes

Time has erased much of what was once known about Jean Lhéritier, the composer we feature on this recording. Lhéritier is thus one of those Renaissance figures whose life is known to us not so much through historical records, but through the product of his work: his music. The story that this music tells, however, places him very much in the midst of the creative period that most defines the Renaissance in music.

Scholarship traces the arc of his life from ca. 1480 to some time after 1552. This period overlaps the mature years of Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450-1525), the originator of the polyphonic high Renaissance idiom, and ranges up to the youth of G. P. da Palestrina (1525-1594), the composer whose music largely sums up the final years of the idiom. Lhéritier bridges these two composers chronologically, as well as stylistically and personally. In his youth, Lhéritier had in fact been a student of Josquin's, possibly at the French court. He then followed the same path taken by Josquin and many other Franco- Flemish composers, and went to work in Italy, principally in Ferrara and Rome, but possibly also in Florence and Venice. During one of his later stays in Rome, Lhéritier may well have met the youthful Palestrina—whether he did or not, Palestrina would have been aware of Lhéritier's music through their common tenure at the Vatican. Indeed, Palestrina based one of his most expressive masses on a Lhéritier motet, Nigra sum.

Since we know so few details of Lhéritier's life, we must primarily seek to understand the man through his music.

Lhéritier, however, has not made the task easy for us, as he left comparatively few works (around 50), almost all of them sacred pieces, and almost all of these motets. Unlike the bulk of his contemporaries, Lhéritier wrote very few settings of large-scale works such as the Mass (only one setting) or the Magnificat (only three). What he has left us instead is a collection of delightful miniatures: sacred motets of comparatively short duration, ranging from 100 to 200 measures in modern notation. These are, from first to last, almost all beautifully personal and expressive music. They are the rarest of gems.

To anyone who sings this composer's works, it is obvious that he was himself a singer who knew how to write for the voice. Like his contemporary Jean Mouton, he wrote lines that flow like water, feel effortless on the voice, and are simply a pleasure to sing. What is so compelling about Lhéritier is how he then works these flowing lines into the rhetoric of the text. Sometimes he tempers the imitative flow of counterpoint, and seemingly out of nowhere aligns all the voices on the same rhythm so as to proclaim a key part of the text. More often than not, however, he works the rhetorical emphasis of the text into the piece through musical repetition.

The ending of Nigra sum (track 14) is a particularly good example of this: here, Lhéritier keeps bringing back the key final phrase of the text, over and over, building up the emotional heat with each repetition, and never quite letting the music come to a harmonic resolution until the very last time through. The composer knew what he was doing: Nigra sum is one of the opening love poems from the Song of Songs, and the line being repeated translates to “my king brings me into his chamber.” Even with all its layers of romantic heat, however, this remains music that can be heard as pious: this composition (one of three settings Lhéritier wrote of the poem) magnificently reconciles the romantic intent of the poetry with its sacred context in the Old Testament.

To some degree or other, all of the motets on this recording show this same concern with rhetoric and repetition. In other respects, however, Lhéritier's music reflects the changing styles of his times, and because his compositional career spanned so many of the most inventive and innovative years of the Renaissance idiom, his writing largely encapsulates the musical history of the mid-Renaissance. This is especially true with respect to the texture of the musical parts. In his earlier music, chiefly written in four parts, the texture often thins down to two parts, the so-called paired duet techniques popularized by Josquin (evidence that Lhéritier may have studied with Josquin). This effect is heard at the beginning of In te, Domine, speravi (track 11), where the sopranos are first paired with the tenors, then with the altos; the altos then continue in pair with the basses before the whole choir comes in on the same rhythm. Lhéritier uses the same technique again to begin the second half of the piece with extended soprano-alto and tenor-bass duets, again followed by an aligned declamatory section (on the text “I am weak”).

In later years, Lhéritier abandons this paired duet sound, and adopts the fuller continuous texture common in the later Renaissance. While the voicing sometimes thins out to two or three parts (as in Nigra sum or Surrexit pastor bonus, both five-part settings), it's never the same kind of complete texture shift as one gets with paired duets. While some of his later music remains in four parts, it generally tends to favor larger ensembles of five or six parts (as in Miserere mei, Domine, track 6). This shift to large ensembles is something we also hear in the music of contemporaries like Jacobus Clemens non Papa (ca. 1510 - ca. 1556).

One motet on this recording stands apart from the others. Locutus est Domine (track 7) tells the story of God sending Moses to Egypt, there to tell Pharaoh to set God's people free. The piece is scored for nine independent voices, which is very unusual for its time, and from practically the very first page is filled with Lhéritier's rhetorical repetitions. This is powerful music. Likewise, the Moses in this setting is no shrinking violet: as the music paints him, he is a towering and powerful figure whose voice echoes back and forth between all nine of the parts. This is the same ferocious Moses that Michelangelo carved for the tomb of Pope Julius and completed at about the time that our composer was in Rome. We can't help but speculate whether Lhéritier wasn't trying in this piece to give a voice to the Moses that Michelangelo's contemporaries described with the word terribilità.

Finally, while we're in the business of speculating, it's interesting to consider why Lhéritier should only have given us so few pieces. It's not for lack of having been appreciated during his lifetime, as his 50 or so pieces were copied and reprinted in about 100 different sources, ranging as far away as Spain and the Czech Republic. Another item of speculation: if Lhéritier was so appreciated by his contemporaries, why then is it that he wrote so few Mass settings or Magnificats, as these were actually the bread and butter work of Renaissance composers. For some reason, composing must not have been a primary focus of Lhéritier’s duties as a church musician. We might imagine then that when Lhéritier chose to put music to paper, it was not simply because he had to produce another Kyrie or Gloria to pay the bills, but because he genuinely had something he wanted to say through his music. We, some nearly 500 years later, are very fortunate indeed that he chose to speak to us in this way.


Redde mihi letitiam
Redde mihi letitiam
salutaris tui,
et spiritu principali
confirma me.

(Tenor: Nigra sum sed formosa.)

Restore to me the joy
of your salvation,
and with unsurpassed spirit
strengthen me.

(Tenor: I am dark, but comely.)

Surrexit pastor bonus
Surrexit pastor bonus
qui animam suam posuit
pro ovibus suis,
et pro grege suo
mori dignatus est, alleluia,
et enim pascha nostrum
immolatus est Christus.
The good shepherd has arisen,
who laid down his life
for his sheep,
and for his flock
deigned to die, alleluia,
and for our Passover
was sacrificed for us: Christ.
Angelus Domini descendit de celo
Angelus Domini
descendit de celo
et accedens revolvit lapidem,
super eum sedit et dixit
mulieribus: Nolite timere.
Scio quia crucifixum queritis.
Iam surrexit.
Venite et videte locum
ubi positus erat Dominus,

Et introeuntes in monumentum
viderunt juvenem
sedentem a dextris
coopertum stolla candida.
Et obstupuerunt
qui dixit illis: Noli timere.
Quia surrexit dominus vere.

The angel of the Lord
came down from heaven
and approaching rolled away the stone,
sat on it, and said
to the women: “Be not afraid
for I know you seek the one who was crucified.
He has already risen.
Come and see the place
where the Lord was laid.”

And upon entering the tomb,
they saw a young man
sitting on the right side,
clothed with a white robe,
and they were astonished,
to whom he’d said, “Be not afraid.”
For the Lord is risen in truth.

Sub tuum presidium confugimus
Sub tuum presidium confugimus
sancta Dei genitrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne
despicias in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
virgo benedicta.
We fly to thy patronage,
O holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but from all dangers
deliver us always,
O blessed Virgin.
Usquequo, Domine
Usquequo, Domine,
oblivisceris me in finem?
Usquequo avertis
faciem tuam a me?
Quamdiu ponam consilia
in anima mea
dolorem in corde meo per diem?
Usquequo exaltabitur
inimicus meus super me?
Respice, et exaudi me,
Domine Deus meus.
Illumina oculos meos,ne umquam
obdormiam in morte:
ne quando dicat inimicus meus:
Prevalui adversus eum.
Qui tribulant me exultabunt
si motus fuero ego autem
in misericordia tua speravi.
Exultabit cor meum in salutari tuo;
cantabo Domino qui bona
tribuit mihi; et psallam
nomini Domini altissimi.
How long, O Lord, wilt thou
forget me unto the end?
How long dost thou turn away
thy face from me?
How long shall I take counsels
in my soul,
sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy
be exalted over me?
Consider, and hear me,
O Lord my God.
Enlighten my eyes that I never
sleep in death:
lest at any time my enemy say:
I have prevailed against him.
They that trouble me will rejoice
when I am moved:
but I have trusted in thy mercy.
My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation:
I will sing to the Lord,who giveth
me good things: yea I will sing to
the name of the Lord the most high.
Miserere mei Domine
Miserere mei Domine quoniam
infirmus sum:
Sana me Domine quoniam
conturbata sunt omnia ossa mea
et anima mea turbata est valde;
sed tu Domine usquequo?

Ne proicias me a facie tua
et spiritum sanctum tuum
ne auferas a me;
redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui
et spiritu principali confirma me

(Tenor: Dona nobis pacem.)

Have mercy on me, O Lord,
for I am weak:
Heal me, O Lord,
for my bones are troubled.
And my soul is troubled greatly:
but thou, O Lord, how long?

Cast me not away from thy face;
and take not thy
holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation,
and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.

(Tenor: Grant us peace.)

Locutus est Dominus
Locutus est Dominus ad Moysen
dicens, Descende in Egyptum,
edic Pharaoni ut
dimitat populum meum.
Clamor filiorum Ysrael
venit coram meam.
The Lord spoke to Moses
saying, “Descend into Egypt
announce to Pharaoh that he
may release my people.
The cry of the sons of Israel
has come before me.”
Ave mater Matris Dei
Ave mater Matris Dei,
Per quem salvi fiunt rei.
Ave proles fecundata.
Anna Deo dedicata.
Pro fideli plebe tota,
Apud Christum sis devota.
Ora pro nobis, beata Anna.
Hail mother of the Mother of God,
Through whom sinners become safe;
Hail, fruitful with child,
O Anne, dedicated to God,
For all the faithful people
Intercede before Christ.
Pray for us, blessed Anne.
Alma redemptoris mater
Alma redemptoris mater
que per via celi porta manens,
et stella maris,
succurre cadenti surgere,
qui curat populo.
Tu que genuisti,
natura mirante,
tuum sanctum genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius.
Gabrielis ab ore sumens illud ave,
peccatorum miserere.
Loving mother of the Redeemer,
that passage to heaven, gate of the morning,
and star of the sea,
lift up the people
O you who cure.
You who bore,
to the wonderment of nature,
your holy Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel's joyful greeting,
have mercy on us sinners.
Beata Dei genitrix Maria
Beata Dei genitrix Maria,
cuius viscera intacta permanent.
Hodie genuit salvatorem seculi.

Beata que credidit,
quoniam perfecta sunt omnia,
que dicta sunt tibi a Domino.
Hodie genuit salvatorem seculi.

Blessed Mary, Mother of God,
whose womb is kept intact,
today gave birth to the savior of the world.

Blessed are you who believed
(for everything is now perfected)
in everything the Lord said to you.
Today you gave birth to the savior of the world

In te, Domine, speravi
In te, Domine, speravi,
non confundar in eternum;
in iustitia tua libera me.
Inclina ad me aurem tuam,
accelera ut eruas me.
Esto mihi in Deum protectorem,
et in domum refugii,
ut salvum me facias.
Quoniam fortitudo mea
et refugium meum es tu;
et propter nomen tuum
deduces me et enutries me.
Educes me de laqueo
quem absconderunt mihi.
Quoniam tu es protector meus.
In manus tuas, Domine,
commendo spiritum meum;
redemisti me,
Domine, Deus veritatis.

Ego autem in Domino speravi;
exultabo et letabor in misericordia tua.
Quoniam respexit humilitatem meam,
salvasti me de necessitatibus animam meam.
Infirmata est in paupertate virtus mea,
et ossa mea conturbata sunt.
Eripe me de manu inimicorum meorum,
et a persequentibus me.
Diligite Dominum, omnes sancti eius;
quoniam veritatem requiret Dominus
et retribuet habundanter
facientibus superbiam.
Viriliter age, et confortetur cor vestrum,
omnes qui sperant in Domino.

Gloria Patri et Filio,
et Spiritui Sancto;
Sicut erat in principio,
et nunc et semper,
et in secula seculorum. Amen.

In you, Lord, I have hoped;
let me never be confounded.
In your justice, deliver me.
Incline your ear to me,
hasten to rescue me.
Be for me a protector God
and a house of refuge,
so as to accomplish my salvation.
For my strength
and my refuge are you;
and for the sake of your name,
you will lead me and nourish me.
You will lead me out of the snare,
which they have hidden for me.
For you are my protector.
Into your hands, O Lord,
I commend my spirit.
You have redeemed me,
O Lord, God of truth.

But I have hoped in the Lord;
I will exult and rejoice in your mercy.
For you have looked upon my humility;
you have saved my soul from needfulness.
My virtue is weakened in poverty,
and my bones have been disturbed.
Rescue me from the hand of my enemies
and those persecuting me.
Love the Lord, all you his saints.
For the Lord will require truth,
and he will abundantly repay
those who act with arrogance.
Act manfully, and let your heart be strengthened,
all you who hope in the Lord.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
into all generations of generations. Amen.

Regnum mundi
Regnum mundi
et omne ornatum seculi contempsi,
propter amorem Domini mei,
Jesus Christi,
quem vidi,
quem amavi,
in quem credidi,
quem dilexi.
The kindom of the world
and all adorned things of the age have I disparaged,
because of the love of my Lord,
Jesus Christ,
whom I have seen,
whom I have loved,
in whom I have believed,
whom I have esteemed above others.
Beata es, virgo Maria
Beata es, virgo Maria
que Dominum portasti,
creatorem mundi.
Genuisti qui te fecit
et in eternum permanes virgo.

Ave Maria gratia plena
Dominus tecum.
Genuisti qui te fecit
et in eternum permanes virgo.

Blessed are you, O Virgin Mary,
who bore the Lord,
the Creator of all things.
You brought forth Him who made you,
and remain forever a virgin.

Hail Mary full of grace,
The Lord is with you.
You brought forth Him who made you,
and remain forever a virgin

Nigra sum
Nigra sum sed formosa
Filia Jerusalem,
ideo dilexit me Dominus
et introduxit me
in cubiculum suum.
I am dark but comely
daughter of Jerusalem,
therefore the Lord has chosen me
and he has brought me
into his chamber.