La Rue as doyen

A specific orientation for discussing La Rue is immediately more difficult to establish than it was for Obrecht or Josquin. While La Rue's relatively lofty position in the Low Countries is virtually unassailable, comparing his work and influence to that of more widely-traveled composers raises some interesting paradigmatic concerns. Adding to the difficulty of developing a coherent advocacy position, there is not yet a complete critical edition. Moreover, while she has provided some valuable descriptions of La Rue's style, leading La Rue scholar Honey Meconi has been mostly content to accept a secondary stature for La Rue's work. Turning to the context of the present series, one is immediately struck by its backwardness, at least as regards the composers' chronological ages. While La Rue was once thought to be as much as twenty years younger than Josquin, recent discoveries make him a few years older than Josquin (whose date of birth is now the least secure of this group), who was in turn a few years older than Obrecht. La Rue did not reach fame on the international stage, however, until after Josquin did. In fact, the datable works and manuscripts associated with La Rue evidently date from rather late in his life. At least according to a naïve view, we are left with the conclusion that these three composers reached their artistic maturities in precisely the order opposite to which they were born. Such a view cannot necessarily be accepted at face value.

First of all, musical creativity in the region of the Low Countries & closely associated northeastern France — from which all of the major polyphonists of the era hailed — was a competitive, incestuous affair. Techniques were developed and borrowed, often in obscurity, before reaching the annals of written history. What few chronological assessments we are able to make securely increasingly suggest that this-or-that technique was often used first by a relatively unknown composer. The idea that writers tell us (or knew) when developments occurred is increasingly difficult to accept. This small part of Europe, from which composers were sought and hired far & wide, takes on the mysterious character of a secluded research laboratory. After all, it was mainly in Italy that their works were discussed in print, analyzed, and eventually published. We have come to view stature according to what Italians believed, and of course Italians believed in what they knew, and in turn in their own importance. Italy became glamorous in the 15th century, and many prominent composers wanted to work there. However, why should everyone have wanted to do so? In our present sequence, it was the younger Obrecht who first went looking for an Italian city post (leaving aside the Vatican, for the moment) — precisely the same Obrecht who had trouble fulfilling his duties and holding down a job. In this light, circulation of musical compositions can be seen as virtually an advertisement for an Italian post. Josquin did the same when he decided he would like to return to Italy.

It is a simple fact that La Rue held the best post in their native land. While Italy may have been glamorous, and the Ferrara post was well-compensated, La Rue worked for the Habsburg emperor — hardly a low-rent position. Indeed, La Rue retired far wealthier than his contemporaries. Moreover, he was able to work in the land of his birth, as its leading representative, while retaining the opportunity to travel (to Spain and elsewhere). La Rue's was the best job, the deciding factor being the relatively short period that Josquin was willing or able to remain at his Italian posts. Consequently, I want to suggest the following thesis: La Rue's music did not circulate earlier because he had no incentive to circulate it. Later, as a matter of prestige, the Habsburgs produced their own elaborate manuscripts, but only because Italy had been boasting so much of its own fruits. Prior to such a reorientation, might not a royal court have been more inclined toward selfishness? It would want to dazzle visitors, surely, but why spoil the surprise? The Vatican certainly felt no need to distribute its music, and the French court angrily demanded that Agricola return to them. It was the new breed, the city-states, who took up the cosmopolitan cause, and with them the composers who sought their posts. History came to favor the Italian way, and subsequently accepted Italian decisions on stature, but that is no argument that they were widely accepted at the time. How giddy might an Italian city have become, had it lured away the native court composer of the Holy Roman Emperor?

So while his contributions can be difficult to qualify, I am suggesting bluntly: La Rue may have been widely viewed by his contemporaries as the leading composer of his generation. The quantity & quality of his music certainly does not argue against such an assessment. In keeping with the mass as symphony paradigm, although he is not often presented as a leading master of the form, La Rue's set of mass cycles may be the most impressive of the era. He seems to have sought a methodical completeness, writing masses for the most important feasts of the year, including the Requiem and other important functional settings. This suggests an overall design to his oeuvre, something lacking in the output of most of his contemporaries (the exception being Isaac, with his massive — but rather simpler — Choralis Constantinus). La Rue was also apparently the first to write a Magnificat cycle (unfortunately, unrecorded). Given his long & distinguished tenure at the Habsburg-Burgundian court, many of La Rue's works are also exceptionally well-preserved in careful & elaborate manuscript sources; much like those of Machaut, most of his works are found in multiple parallel sources. While this leaves relatively few authorship debates, the manuscripts suggest barely a hint of chronology. The idea that La Rue wrote most of his music late in life is difficult to accept, and the foregoing discussion might provide some rationale for the appearance of the manuscripts. With few exceptions, we are left to infer chronology only from ever-perilous stylistic observations.

Together with the superbly polished style he continually exhibits, these factors leave us little in the way of a starting point to discuss the specifics of La Rue's oeuvre. His music could be described in terms comparing or contrasting it with Josquin's, but such an orientation is derivative by nature. There have been suggestions that La Rue undertook a one-sided rivalry with Josquin, based upon the techniques he used and the borrowing he did. Such suggestions rest upon assumptions regarding chronology, and of course upon the idea that Josquin was the greater composer. I believe that La Rue may have been the first in many cases, as he demonstrably was in some, and certainly borrowing was typical of the era. Actually, La Rue did relatively little borrowing for his time, e.g. basing his full parody compositions on his own original secular works. Originality aside, La Rue's compositions often show more polish than Josquin's attempts in certain directions, and if there was a rivalry, it seems clear that La Rue felt secure in his position with respect to it. At least as a technician, his subsequent theoretical fame, especially in Germany, offers no apology on that point.

I will continue directly next week, with a discussion of La Rue's musical style.

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Todd M. McComb