La Rue's style

In discussing La Rue's reputation, while certain assumptions can be questioned, and a vague affirmative basis can be established on account of his court position, a more specific affirmative basis is still sought purely in terms of musical style. In that arena, a direct comparison with Ockeghem is particularly apt, at least as a starting point. Whereas Obrecht made use of only a subset of Ockeghem's later ideas, and Josquin used them only in limited fashion, La Rue seems to have most thoroughly embraced the older composer as a technical starting point. This observation is especially evident in La Rue's development of full-fledged parody technique, and in his continued exploitation of increased vocal range in the lower registers. His vocal dispositions, especially as regards the many five-voice mass cycles, and his willingness to use free composition, seem directly inspired by Ockeghem. However, La Rue truly developed these ideas, and did not use them only in a derivative way. As opposed to some of Obrecht's masses, La Rue's works are always distinctively his own. This is another trait he shares with Ockeghem, and so one can coherently argue that La Rue was the older composer's clearest direct successor. The fact that La Rue did not subsequently become the most influential composer of his age is the one important fact arguing against such an assessment.

Besides his continued exploration of formal ideas, much of what makes La Rue's music distinctive is his approach to individual melodies. As did Josquin, La Rue had a definite predilection toward imitative textures, especially paired imitation. Within that context, his individual lines are often rather free, with relatively little concern for incidental dissonance treatment. That freedom of line is also maintained internally, as each tends to have a distinctive profile. The way that La Rue strung ideas together in a vaguely sequential manner to form one line, and the way that his more compact melodies tend to explore ways to return to a specific note, is almost reminiscent of raga exploration. This correspondence is underlined by the frequent syncopation, but is also part of a more general stylistic trait: Constant variety. La Rue did not often use strict sequences for much the same reason that he did not often treat his cantus firmus repeats literally. He constantly varied the way in which melodies & motives are presented, just as he used all the techniques of his era as differing formal foundations. The result is an integral & internal sense of melody, which again continues to develop ideas broached by Ockeghem: Distinct ranges for individual parts, rather than crossing parts, were an innovation of the previous generation, and La Rue took that idea farther. He also continued to stretch the gamut, just as Ockeghem had done, and was unique among his contemporaries in his frequent use of written accidentals. His more rational approach to cadential planning was his clearest departure from Ockeghem's style.

While such technical factors can be identified as distinctively La Rue's, his music also offers much in the way of overall aesthetic satisfaction. For all of their variety, his mass cycles always have a sense of unity to them, the large-scale forms offering a compelling sense of development and completion. While it is difficult to identify a specific trait of his large-scale forms as distinctively La Rue's, they frequently evoke a similarly fluid state of mind. La Rue's profiled melodies, and resulting freedom of interaction, do tend to produce a subtly characteristic sound, even as textures vary. His mass cycles are particularly successful in this regard, and indeed La Rue seems to have produced (at least for posterity) no awkward works. Perhaps what makes his style most evocative of Ockeghem is precisely that grace, the sense that everything is free yet under control. La Rue's music has an incredible "psychological choreography" in this regard, perhaps analogous to Obrecht's sense of acoustic space, and when he did profile a melody in soaring leaps, the contrast makes it that much more triumphant. Similarly, while La Rue's individual melodies are often close-knit & syncopated, the combination can seem expansive and complete. Along with the texture changes, longer works are balanced expertly, with pregnant pauses adding to the choreography. In this, La Rue's mass cycles do not seem episodic, but neither do they seem to be in a headlong rush akin to those of Obrecht. They keep forward momentum, but with a sense of poise. The variety of La Rue's formal schemes also knew no bounds, from strict canon (including 4-part works where all voices derive from one, and 6-part works on three strict canons), to cantus firmus masses which never literally repeat (including some with a succession of chants), to freely composed settings. La Rue developed the full-fledged parody mass, used unusual intervals for canons, and occasionally indulged in word painting. Indeed, it is precisely the variety of his output which has impeded the formation of a coherent public image.

Perhaps more than those of any other composer of his generation, La Rue's chansons are central to his output and style. Clouding our ability to use them to form a coherent image, however, they are the least securely attributed portion of his output. As opposed to his masses, they are found in fewer manuscripts, and often with attributed works surrounded by unattributed works. If we accept many of the modern ascriptions, chansons come to form the bulk of La Rue's output, just as they do Ockeghem's (and note that La Rue left fewer motets than mass cycles, just as Ockeghem did). Here, La Rue's stylistic genesis is perhaps most clear. He used very little borrowed material, the only exceptions being three songs by Ockeghem. As did many of his contemporaries, La Rue moved away from the formes fixes: He left a few true rondeaus, many rondeau-like works of unclear textual intent, and several free compositions. Some of his secular works are quite lengthy, including some of the finest examples in the motet-chanson genre (Plorer, gemir, crier / Requiem, Cueurs desolez / Dies illa). His Tous les regretz is a model of the late Burgundian style, and inspired La Rue's own parody mass upon it. In fact, La Rue chose only his own works on which to write full-fledged parody masses. One gets the strong sense from this, and from his secular work in general, that he was very much concerned with working out his own ideas, and that any notion of "copying" Josquin or others was done without any feeling of inadequacy (or "competition" as sometimes claimed). There may be a touch of vanity perceptible in La Rue's chansons, something which is not present in his graceful mass cycles.

Of course, La Rue's music continues to be relatively little-known, and I have not attempted to list even his greatest masses. His Requiem & Missa L'homme armé appeared on recording a few times near the beginning of the CD era, and his Missa de Septem Doloribus has been recorded twice recently. All are fine works, illustrating the grace & variety of which La Rue was capable, wrapped in a satisfying formal whole. La Rue's motets are even less well-represented, and often seem almost to be stylistic appendices to his masses. That may change, as works such as Absalon fili mi (once credited to Josquin) are added to his oeuvre. Returning to the ever-important topic of meaning and relevance, it is clear that La Rue lacks Ockeghem's direct potency; his is a more subtle art. Still, his individually profiled parts are choreographed so elegantly into a whole, that he may have expressed the individual-in-society metaphor better than any other composer. Indeed, he captured understatement so well that his works remain difficult to grasp, leaving little in the way of a distinct public image. Such a synthesis is still underway.

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Todd M. McComb