Mon Dieu me paist
Psalms by Claude Le Jeune
The Choir of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, Edward Wickham
Resonus RES10206. 58’26
This fascinating recording from the mixed-voice choir of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge under their director Edward Wickham looks at a little-known part of the late Renaissance vocal repertoire – settings of Psalms from the Genevan Psalter during the Calvinist Reformation in France composed by the Franco-Flemish composer Claude Le Jeune (c1530-1600). Le Jeune’s Psalm collection, Dodecacorde, was published in 1598. Four of the twelve multi-verse settings are performed here, each preceded by a simple harmonised setting from the Calvin Psalter.
The programme notes explore the gruesome background to the Calvinist Reformation in France, a period that saw the persecution of the Huguenots ranging from the Affair of the Placards in 1534, the Protestant massacre at Vassy in 1562, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, the 1590 Siege of Paris and the relative peace of the Edict of Nantes in 1598, the same year as the publication of Le Jeune’s Dodecacorde.
The very survival of the manuscript, and indeed of Claude Le Jeune, throws a depressing insight into conditions in Paris during the 1590 siege. Le Jeune, a Calvinist Huguenot in Catholic held Paris was stopped at the gates of St Denis while fleeing the city. It was only the intervention of a fellow musician who managed to save the manuscript from being burnt.
The recording opens on familiar grounds with one of the few Geneva Psalm tunes known to many in the UK today – the ‘Old Hundredth’ (Psalm 134), harmonised by Le Jeune and Claude Goudimel. It is Goudimel’s settings that are used for the other harmonised Psalms. The other Psalm tunes may not be familiar outside of Calvinist circles, but the theme is heard through each of the verses in long notes within the often complex surrounding musical texture.
In sharp contrast to the Catholic tradition of vocal polyphony, Le Jeune’s setting are more closely related to the Italian madrigal and chanson. He writes in the musique mesurée style, reflecting word stress. He dramatises the text in several of the verses, notably in Psalm 76, C’est un Judée, where the trembling of the earth is depicting by a dramatic pause, and in the concluding Psalm 46, Dès qu’adversité, where Le Jeune depicts the erratic flow of a river and dramatically depicts God’s calming of chaotic nature.
Le Jeune’s interest in the music of the ancient Greeks is reflected in his use of all twelve ancient modes in his twelve settings, which he described in his preface as embodying specific emotional powers which he wanted to use to nurture harmony amongst nations “that a firm harmony becomes established in our hearts and that peace become a lasting tranquility“.
The 27-strong choir of St Catharine’s make an attractive choral sound, although it should be remembered that this music would never have been performed at the time with such forces. The sheer number of singers does occasionally make the words a little unclear and the sound a little think, but the experience of the student singers in exploring this repertoire surely makes up for that. The harmonised Psalm settings feature smaller groups of singers and, in one case, a solo from the pure-toned soprano Agatha Pethers, who deserves a special mention. She was the winner of the 2015 BBC Young Chorister of the Year competition.
As well as his sensitive direction of the choir on this recording, the St Catharine’s Director of College Music, Edward Wickham, brings his lifetime of experience of the Renaissance repertoire through his own professional consort, The Clerks. Their earlier CD, O Gemma Clarissima: Music in Praise of St Catharine is reviewed here. More information, and a link to a download of the CD booklet, can be found here.
Or sus serviteurs du Seigneur (Psalm 134. The Old Hundreth)
Mon Dieu me paist (Psalm 23)
Propos exquis (Psalm 45)
C’est un Judée (Psalm 76)
Dès qu’adversité (Psalm 46)
Le Cantique de Simeon (St Luke. The Nunc dimittis)