Heinrich Isaac

Written by Anne E. Johnson

On March 26, 1517, Heinrich Isaac died. Although the Netherlander was one of the most important composers of his day, he’s hardly a household word half a millennium later. Nevertheless, a few stalwart ensembles have released albums to remind us that Isaac’s music is well worth remembering.

And it’s not just unknown academic groups marking the occasion. No less than Grammy-winning conductor Jordi Savall has put out a new Isaac CD, with the voices of La Capella Reial de Catalunya and his instrumental ensemble Hespèrion XXI. Henricus Isaac nell tempo de Lorenzo de’ Medici e Maximillian I (1450-1519) was released in early 2017 on Alia Vox.

The CD’s track listing is presented as a timeline of major events (primarily coronations and deaths) in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, with Isaac, powerful Florentine statesman Lorenzo de Medici, and Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, all lived. The idea seems to be not that these pieces were actually played at certain events, but rather that they might have been.

The chanson “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” (Innsbruck, I must leave you) is Isaac’s only famous work today, and that only because it is so often included in music history textbooks as an ideal example of the pre-baroque German song tradition. “Innsbruck” has the folk-like, strophic melody of a Lutheran chorale, but remember, there was not yet such a thing as a Lutheran: Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, the same year that Isaac died.


Lorenzo’s death is marked on the CD with a Lamentation by Isaac. It opens with several instrumental phrases that show why Hespèrion XXI is a great early music ensemble. There’s a depth and richness to their sound that sets them apart from others. Capella Reial uses only the choir’s men on this track. The wide distance from highest to lowest vocal range, a fairly new concept in composition when Isaac wrote this music, is perfectly balanced, and the lines handled with delicate clarity.


Isaac’s motet Circumdederunt me shows up on the CD’s timeline at the point of the composer’s own passing in 1517. “The sorrows of death surrounded me,” the text begins, “the sorrow of hell encompassed me.” The women join in this mournful polyphony. Any composer should hope to be eulogized with such ringing voices.


As was true for most composers of the time, much of Isaac’s output was music to be sung at Mass. Heinrich Isaac: La Spagna (on the Bon Giovanni label) is a new release by the vocal group Odhecaton, directed by Paolo da Col. The album also features Paolo Pandolfo on viola da gamba and Liuve Tamminga on organ.

The CD is primarily movements from Isaacs Missa La Spagna, a four-voice Mass using the anonymous tune “La Spagna” as musical material. The album opens with a haunting rendition of the basic “La Spagna” melody played on unaccompanied viola da gamba:


Here is the Kyrie, the first section of the Mass. The melody of the song “La Spagna” is hidden as a “cantus firmus” (fixed melody) in an inner voice, moving more slowly than the decorative upper voices.


Odhecaton’s singing has a pleasant smoothness to it, with a flowing sense of rhythm that makes historical sense. In the Renaissance, vocal polyphony was notated without bar lines, so it’s appropriate to perform it in a way that avoids a strong repeating downbeat every three or four beats.

Interspersed between the Mass movements on this recording are motets and instrumental works. Tota pulchra es (You are utterly beautiful) is Isaac’s motet setting of a popular liturgical prayer to the Virgin Mary:


Da Col and Pandolfi are well matched in the instrumental duos on this CD, all of which are tied to the “La Spagna” theme. A ricercar was a popular form of instrumental piece in the Renaissance and Baroque that allowed a musical idea to be explored. Of course, the ricercare on this album are explorations of our now-favorite tune, “La Spagna”:


While it was very common for Renaissance composers to use secular pop tunes to connect the movements of their Masses, sometimes they chose holier material. Isaac’s Missa Virgo prudentissima is an example. “Virgo prudentissima” (most prudent virgin) was originally a Gregorian chant. Isaac then used that chant melody as compositional material in a 6-voice Mass.

The veteran Ensemble Gilles Binchois, directed by Dominique Vellard, has released a new recording of the Missa Virgo prudentissima. To answer the obvious question: No, a chant-based Mass doesn’t automatically sound more devout than one using a profane song. Here’s the Agnus Dei movement from this Isaac Mass:


Ensemble Gilles Binchois, being sticklers for authenticity, present the Isaac Mass in an authentic context. The polyphonic movements Isaac composed are the Ordinary of the Mass, so called because the texts the use are ordinary (sung at every Mass). Those Isaac movements are interspersed with monophonic Gregorian chants (Propers of the Mass, text that change each day), as they would have been in the actual worship service at the time.

The Binchois singing is not as smooth as in the Hespèrion and Odhecaton recordings; it’s a bit strained and oversung. Although the Agnus Dei discussed above is the only track on YouTube, you can hear the entire recording on Spotify here:

Isaac also wrote a motet based on the same chant, “Virgo prudentissima.” That motets has been used as a promotional piece lately by the Tallis Scholars, one of the most revered early-music choruses. They’re promoting Isaac himself: the video is captioned with a lengthy, heartfelt essay about the composer’s importance through history. (They were hoping for 100,000 views, “more than would have heard Isaac’s music in his lifetime,” but are currently under 2,000.)

This recording of the motet illustrates why the Tallis Scholars are top drawer. Under director Peter Phillips, they manage to make this unaccompanied, rarified music sound as compelling as a dramatic scene in an opera. The expressiveness of their singing somehow does not seem anachronistic or interfere with the sense of authenticity.


That video is also meant to promote a program they’ve toured in 2017, Heinrich Isaac at 500. For some reason (maybe because Isaac really does remain unknown, despite their efforts), Tallis Scholars did not record a new album to support on the tour, which includes other non-Isaac programs as well. Instead, they are trying to revive interest in a 1991 CD on the Gimell label that was remastered in 2002. It features Isaac’s Missa de Apostolis. Here’s the Gloria movement from that recording:


OK, so maybe Heinrich Isaac isn’t destined to be the new Renaissance bestseller. But he was a master of his craft, and that makes his music worth preserving for another 500 years.

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