A rediscovered motet by Pierre de la Rue

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Much of the sacred music written before 1600 has not survived. Entire libraries of music manuscripts have been destroyed by wars, fires, vandalism, or natural disasters; other manuscripts have become unreadable due to corrosive ink and deteriorating paper. Still other music manuscripts have survived only in an incomplete form, missing one or more of the parts that are required to sing the music. Surviving inventories from sixteenth-century music libraries contain lists of hundreds of Masses, motets, and other works that can no longer be sung. For generations, Pierre de la Rue’s Salve Jhesu summe bone was thought to be one of these works, appearing in a list of motets sung at the court of the Spanish king Philip II but not surviving in any known manuscript or print source. This omission was particularly unfortunate since only a handful of motets by La Rue have survived at all; he is known today as a composer mostly for his masses. Occasionally, however, a work thought to be lost resurfaces, and in 2018 the musicologist Eric Jas of the University of Utrecht announced the rediscovery of Salve Jhesu, which had been preserved as an anonymous work in a manuscript in the German town of Kassel.

Pierre de la Rue was a prolific composer of sacred music, and his work reflects the prestige of the court where he worked (the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel in Mechelen) as well as the rich devotional tradition of the Low Countries. With its long text on the theme of the Precious Blood of Christ, Salve Jhesu would have been well-suited to use by the many confraternities that held devotional services in churches throughout the Burgundian lands, particularly the confraternities dedicated to the Holy Cross. The great length of this setting (263 measures, lasting about ten minutes) is typical of large-scale motets written around 1500, and it allows La Rue to respond to the different images of the text with expressive changes of texture.

On Corpus Christi Sunday (June 23, 2019), the motet Salve Jhesu summe bone by Pierre de la Rue was sung during Solemn Vespers and Benediction at the Toronto Oratory. The motet was performed by: Andrea Ludwig, soprano; Simon Honeyman, Daniella Theresia, altos; Dave Finneran, James Renwick, tenors; Victor Cheng, Sean Nix, basses; Aaron James, conductor. It was the first performance since its rediscovery – and perhaps even the first performance since its “disappearance” sometime in the seventeenth century.

The text of Salve Jhesu summe bone is printed below; the poem honours the Precious Blood of Christ, setting seven stanzas of a devotional poem by the Cistercian abbot Arnulf of Leuven:

Salve Jhesu summe bone,
Ad parcendum nimis prone,
Membra tua macelenta,
Quam acerbe sunt distenta,
In ramo crucis horride.

O maiestas infinita,
O aegestas inaudita,
Quis pro tanta charitate,
Querit te in veritate,
Dans sanguinem pro sanguine.

Sanguis tuis abundanter,
Fusus est incessanter,
Totus lotus in cruore,
Pendens in maximo dolore,
Praecinctus vili tegmine.

Ecce fluit circumquaque,
Per corpus tuum membraque,
Sanguis tuis copiose,
Rubicundus instar rose,
Magne salutis premium.

O quam large te exponis,
Promptus malis atque bonis,
Trahis pigros pios vocas,
Et in tuis ulnis locas,
Paratus gratis omnibus.

Grates tante charitati,
Nos agamus vulnerati,
O amator peccatorum,
Reparator confractorum,
Dulcis pater pauperum.

Quidquid in nobis est confractum,
Dissipatum aut distractum,
Jhesu bone totum sana,
Tu restaura tu complana,
Tam pio medicamine. Amen.

Hail Jesus, highest goodness,
So inclined to indulgence;
Your tortured limbs are
horridly stained on the rough
branch of the cross.

O Infinite majesty,
O unheard necessity;
who for your great love
seeks you in very truth
and gives blood for blood?

Your blood is abundantly
and incessantly spilled;
entirely stained by the blood stream
you stand in utmost pain,
covered by a shabby garment.

Look, your blood flows
lavishly everywhere
over your body
and limbs, like red roses,
the price of great salvation.

O how generous do you show yourself
towards man, both bad and good,
drawing the unwilling and calling the loyal,
taking them in your arms,
ready to welcome all.

Thanks to this great love
we can stand the injured,
O you loyal friend of sinners,
healer of broken man, and
dearest father of the poor.

That which in me is broken,
scattered or torn,
good Jesus, bring it again together,
restore and rebuild it all
through a sacred medicine. Amen.

(trans. Willem Elders)

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