Earthquakes and Music

The region where I’m from – the Azores archipelago – is known for its seismic activity that is documented almost since the first settlers arrived in mid-fifteenth century. One of the Azorean chroniclers, Doctor Gaspar Frutuoso, wrote by the end of the sixteenth century his eyewitness account of the volcanic eruption in S. Miguel Island and how volcanic material was dropping in the ocean near the coastline when the boats were arriving. Other accounts also reflect the fear of the local settlers of these uncontrollable phenomena. The most notorious earthquake in Portugal was, by far, the 1755 one, that occurred on November 1st (see an old post about this HERE).

It was by the time the first Azoreans were experiencing the seismic activity of the islands that a composer, Antoine Brumel (c.1460-c.1512-13), was active in France, and later, in Italy. One of his most famous works and the first music I listened of him is the Missa Et ecce terrae motus, a monumental vocal work for the time. There was much to say about this work but, due to the character of this blog, I will be concise. This mass survives incomplete in a manuscript prepared in the Bavarian court under the supervision of Orlando di Lasso, since the last pages of the first Agnus Dei are missing.

The twelve-parts of the mass are not structured in the usual manner, it is made of twelve equal voices that were divided into four groups of three voices each according to vocal function. Each group has a characteristic vocal ambitus. The first group is made of three Superius parts; the second of three high tenors and the third of three regular tenors while the fourth group is made of three basses. Each of the three voices of each group have the same register with their melodic lines crossing one another. At the center of this texture are the two tenor groups in which most of the counterpoint occurs, again with the voices crossing one another with odd melodic progressions and frequent octave leaps.

The work is built on a cantus firmus from the Easter antiphon Et ecce terrae motus. Brumel used little melodic material from the antiphon. He carved an intricated and complex canon for the first Agnus Dei. In his mass, Brumel achieved the most prominent architectonic structures in flamboyant late-Gothic music. The work avoids the usual sonorities of late-fifteenth-century polyphony, notably the use of fauxbourdon, going beyond the boundaries of imitation counterpoint of his day.