The hidden Baroque : Björn Schmelzer, Peter Paul Rubens and Orazio Vecchi


I have never felt this “other” Baroque with quite the sense of anachronistic shock which I experienced when first encountering the cover photgraph for this CD.  At first glance, it almost looks as though it represents the lamenting Mediterrean culture of pleureuses (professional mourners), but it is in fact a funeral procession on the little island of Wieringen in North Holland.”[1]

Paolo Bravusi Missae senis et octonis vocibus – Libera me Domine 



I must admit to having been skeptical of Björn Schmelzer after listening to his version of the Machaut Messe de Nostre Dame.  I was immediately struck by what I heard as eccentricity, and which was only reinforced by his booklet essay.  After further listening and especially with a lengthy colloquy with him on this blog I have softened my view.  I then decided to listen with an open mind to more of the recordings he has released of which there have been twelve over the course of the last decade.

Graindelavoix was formed in 1999, but their recordings for Glossa Classical began to appear only in 2006.  The group is described on their Glossa page like this:

Graindelavoix is much less an early music ensemble and much more an art collective experimenting between the fields of performance and creation, comprising singers and instrumentalists led by Björn Schmelzer. Taking its name from an essay by Roland Barthes (“le grain, c’est le corps dans la voix qui chante, dans la main qui écrit, dans le membre qui exécute…”), where Barthes was looking for what constitutes the gritty essence of a voice, Graindelavoix experiments with what one does with the “grain”, the physical and spiritual reflection of the voice.”[2]

Peter Paul Rubens – St. Cecilia

Schmelzer uses narrative concepts for his recordings and interpretations, spinning webs of associations and cross references between periods, styles and genres.  For his latest, he wishes to contrast the prima prattica polyphony (echoing an earlier time) and the Baroque painting style of Rubens, at whose funeral he posits the music was performed:  “The deceased person inside the coffin was no less than the most famous of all Baroque painters, Peter Paul Rubens, and it is highly plausible that the Requiem Mass performed by the choir of the cathedral at this solemn occasion was an eight-part work including a polyphonic Dies irae, which had been printed in Antwerp 28 years beforehand and written by the Italian composer Orazio Vecchi.[3]

However, there are problems with the attribution of the requiem to Orazio Vecchi.


Vecchi Missa pro defunctis – Dies irae
Orazio Vecchi

The Online Grove Dictionary attibutes a polyphonic Dies irae to Orfeo Vecchi: The text of the Dies irae, attributed to Thomas of Celano (d c1250), is thought to have grown out of a rhymed trope of the responsory Libera me, of which the verse ‘Dies illa, dies irae’ begins with the same melodic phrase. Thomas’s poem has 18 rhymed stanzas, to which a later anonymous author added the final unrhymed couplet with ‘Amen’.  Before the Council of Trent the Dies irae was not normally set polyphonically; Antoine Brumel’s Requiem was exceptional in containing such a setting. Ockeghem, at the end of his lament on the death of Binchois, Mort, tu as navré/Miserere, set a slight variant of the final couplet of the sequence to a paraphrase of the chant. There are also settings by Giammateo Asola, Orfeo Vecchi, G.F. Anerio and G.O. Pitoni in their requiem settings.[4]

However, an earlier edition of the printed Grove attributes the polyphonic Dies irae to Orazio, published in Antwerp in 1612.[5]

There is, in general, some confusion between Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Orfeo Vecchi (1551-1603), two composers with similar names and having almost exactly contemporaneous lifespans but whose careers were quite different.

Orfeo Vecchi wrote almost nothing but sacred music whereas Orazio Vecchi was just the opposite, garnering most of his fame for secular madrigals which culminated with L’Amfiparnaso (1597), a dramatic madrigal cycle and precursor of Baroque opera.  It is somewhat odd that the new online Grove article ignores the earlier reference to Orazio and the 1612 print date, as well as, the Missa pro defunctis attributed to Orazio Vecchi published in Selectis novus missarum, v. 2, ed. by C. Proske. dd. 1861.  To further confuse the issue, Orfeo Vecchi also wrote a Missa pro defunctis, in 1598, as did even a third Vecchi, Lorenzo (c.1564 – 1628).  As far as I can tell none of these composers were related although Orfeo did have a brother who also wrote music.

But let’s assume that Björn Schmelzer is correct about which Vecchi wrote the Requiem recorded here, since there are several recent sources[6] that do attribute an eight-voice Missa pro defunctis to Orazio Vecchi, and it doesn’t alter the point he wishes to make even if he were mistaken.

Vechhi Missa pro defunctis – Kyrie

For his latest Glossa CD with Graindelavoix, Björn Schmelzer takes his lead from the funeral rites for the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens in 1640 – which might well have encompassed the Requiem Mass by Orazio Vecchi as recorded here – to demonstrate the coexistence in Baroque Antwerp of two apparently contradictory, but interconnected facets.

Flemish huik

One of these facets was the continuing presence of prima prattica polyphony; the city was a major center for music printing and Vecchi’s Requiem was brought out there – as were works by other composers represented on this disc: George de La Hèle, Duarte Lobo and Pedro Ruimonte (the recording ends with three successive Agnus Deis). The other facet is that of the image of Rubens’s art: full of energy, seductive, optimistic and scintillating: The Northern Baroque par excellence.[7]

As we listen to the music and think of Rubens’s paintings we have a visceral feeling of a strange rupture or a gap.  Something does not seem right, as if we have trouble associating this music with the traditional image of the Baroque as represented by the Antwerp painter.”[8]

Of course part of the problem is with the terminology used by historians and musicologists for the same periods.  Consensus among music historians has been to start the Renaissance era around 1400, with the end of the medieval era, and to close it around 1600, with the beginning of the Baroque period, therefore commencing the musical Renaissance about a hundred years after the beginning of the Renaissance as it is understood in other disciplines.  Vecchi wrote his requiem in 1597 (published, 1612), within the Renaissance period, whereas Rubens was clearly a Baroque painter.  However the date of composition matters less than the evidence that Vecchi’s Requiem might still have been performed well into the 17th century – and that is the point for Schmelzer.

Duarte Lobo Missa Dum aurora – Agnes Dei

[Schmelzer’s] hypothesis is that the Baroque in Antwerp had two faces.  The first is the face of Rubens and his colleagues: the victorious, grandiose, counter-Reformatory Baroque with it endless folds of matter and materials.  The second is more complex and relatively unknown expression of the Baroque, a face that is turned away, a face taken by darkness or reduced to a gaze through a black veil, a Baroque which is itself in disguise. .… We should not consider these two faces as separate, but as two sides of the same coin.”[9]

My understanding of his hypothesis is that the first side of the coin would be Rubens’s sensual paintings and the other side would be Vecchi’s austere polyphony.  No matter how you understand what Schmelzer is doing, his recordings are intriguing and offer excellent singing and a new way of hearing early music.

George de La Hèle Missa Praeter rerum seriem – Agnes Dei .

To purchase

[1] Björn Schmelzer, CD booklet, “Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605): Requiem.”  Glossa GCD P32113.
[2] Glossa website, “Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605): Requiem – Rubens’s funeral and the Antwerp Baroque.” accessed March 16, 2017,
[3] Ibid.
[4] John Caldwell and Malcolm Boyd. “Dies irae.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 16, 2017,
[5] Grove, George, and J. A. Fuller-Maitland. 1910. A dictionary of music and musicians. New York: Macmillan, p. 700.
[6] Chase, Robert. 2006. Dies irae: a guide to requiem music. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
[7] Glossa website, “Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605): Requiem – Rubens’s funeral and the Antwerp Baroque.” accessed March 24, 2017,
[8] Björn Schmelzer, CD booklet, “Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605): Requiem.”  Glossa GCD P32113.
[9] Ibid.

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