The Requiem by Jean Richafort

Requiem by Jean Richafort

Jean Richafort (c. 1480 – c. 1547) was one of the most important (and perhaps least known) polyphonists of the early 16th century. I would like to use this space at my disposal to tell you something about him and an unpublished project involving some contemporary composers. They and their friend Ekaterina Antonenko (director of the Russian vocal group Intrada) deserve credit for creating a musical thread between the Renaissance and the era in which we live.

In 1556, the famous Parisian music publisher Le Roy et Ballard published a posthumous volume devoted exclusively to Richafort’s music that included nineteen of the composer’s motets.
Between 1519 and 1598, his music was included in over seventy anthologies containing one or more of his works. It is even more extraordinary to note that at least two hundred manuscripts of the time included copies of Richafort’s compositions. Of these, some were created at the request of patrons belonging to the higher social classes. His motet Quem dicunt homines was counted among the best compositions of the time and was performed several times by the Sistine Chapel choir for at least 70 years. Until the end of the 16th century, Richafort’s compositions remained among the ‘top ten’ of Renaissance composers. Divitis, Mouton, Lupus, Morales, Gombert, Ruffo, Pullauer and even Palestrina composed Masses on Richafort’s musical models. Surely our composer could not have dreamt of a greater homage.

Having said that, one might think that Jean Richafort’s life and career are amply documented in contemporary archives. However, we are faced with a paradox: the extent of the survival and fame of his work is inversely proportional to the known facts of his life. I will outline some of the scarce details below.

Jean Richafort was a French-speaking Dutchman and was born in 1480 in a place that was probably called Ricartsvorde. Nothing is known about his life and education. In 1507, he became chapel master at the Saint-Rombaud Cathedral in Mechelen. It is not clear what happened to him after that.

Saint-Rombaud Cathedral in Mechelen

It must have been the time of contact with the French court, where he was employed for a not too long period in the palace or in the king’s chapel. Even Pope Leo, meeting the musicians of the French royal court in Bologna, was impressed by his skills.

In July 1542, Jean Richafort took up the post of chapel master at St. Gilles in Bruges, a post he held until 1547. Since 1548, nothing more can be found about Richafort in the archives, so it is assumed that this was the year of his death, which probably took place in Bruges.

The pinnacle of Richafort’s art is undoubtedly his Requiem for six voices. The work is based on two cantus firmi, both referring to Josquin Desprez. It was probably written at Josquin’s death (1521) and is in every way a homage to the latter’s art. The first cantus firmus, which recurs in all parts of the Requiem, is the Gregorian quotation Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis, dolores inferni circumdederunt me (the groans of death surrounded me, the pains of hell surrounded me). This is a quotation also frequently used by Josquin Desprez. This cantus firmus is only used in the canon in the two tenor parts. In the majestically constructed Gradual and Offertorium, Richafort also uses, in the same tenor parts, the fragment C’est douleur sans pareille (it is a pain without equal) from Josquin’s chanson Faulte d’argent.

Around these two cantus firmi Richafort builds a counterpoint that excels in a balanced construction of meditative melodic lines, coloured sparingly but effectively by the commixtio modorum (the simultaneous use of several modes).

The project Requiem, in memoriam Josquin Desprez is the union of Jean Richafort’s Renaissance masterpiece, Requiem (1532), in dialogue with five new compositions, which complete the missing parts in the texts of the original work. Since it was composed within a different liturgical tradition than the canonical Roman Requiem Mass, its ‘incompleteness’ lies in the absence of those parts familiar to us, Catholics: the Absolve, Domine section and the Dies Irae sequence, as well as the prayers Libera me and In Paradisum, traditionally sung after the Requiem Mass. These parts, as well as the Pie Jesu, the last verse of the Dies Irae sequence later isolated in an independent piece, are written in the Requiem in memoriam Josquin Desprez project by modern composers and included in the Requiem in their traditional order, thus creating an unprecedented form, almost a process of dialogue between distant historical times. The new parts were written especially for this project by five contemporary composers: Arman Gushchyan, Vladimir Rannev, Alexey Sysoev (Russia), Klaus Lang (Austria), Franck C. Yeznikian (France).

The new Requiem is not a reconstruction of Richafort’s opera. It is a new realisation, a kind of time machine, through the encounter (but also the clash) of different forms of expression in a single musical space that allows the listener to go beyond the closed systems of conventions and concepts of beauty and enter deeper into the spirit of music, past and present. The premise for this kind of unity is the unevenness of Richafort’s original Requiem, which includes quotations from Desprez’s music as well as French poems incorporated into the Latin text of the Requiem Mass.

The world premiere of the ‘Requiem in memoriam of Josquin Desprez’ was performed by the Intrada Vocal Ensemble under the direction of Ekaterina Antonenko, accompanied by soloists – Aylen Pritchin (violin), Sergey Poltavsky (viola), Sergey Suvorov (cello), Carlos N. Herrero (double bass).

You can listen to the original version of the Requiem and the added version of the missing parts by scanning the two QR codes shown here. A third QR code will allow you to download the score of Richafort’s Requiem, as conceived by the composer in 1521.


Requiem in memoriam Josquin Desprez at 6 voices:
1. Introitus Requiem Aeternam

Requiem in memoriam J. Desprez (1532/2017) — Richafort, Lang, Yeznikian, Rannev, Sysoev, Gushchyan

Requiem Music Score

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