Pierre de la Rue

1452 1518

Pierre de la Rue



La Rue’s music was widely performed across Europe at the time, winning respect from his fellow musicians and praise from notable figures including the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. In style la Rue seemed mostly strongly influenced by the music of his contemporary Josquin, and there is evidence of a feeling of competition, or at least one-sided rivalry on la Rue’s part, between the two.

Having served a long and fruitful career for the Hapsburgs, he retired comfortably to one of his prebends, Courtrai, in 1516, performing only nominal church duties from that point on. Soon after he drew up his will, and passed away in 1518.

Header image courtesy Domenic Selwood Other images courtesy of Musicks Monument and public domain

Pierre de la Rue is widely seen as the last great exponent of Medieval music, with compositions that pushed the boundaries of multi-part polyphony. A member of the Josquin generation, he was one of the few that chose to remain in northern Europe rather than follow his contemporaries to Italy.

Although it is known that la Rue was born in the town of Tournai near the present day Belgian/French border, much of the actual information about his childhood has been lost, with many of the records destroyed during World War II. The earliest accounts of his existence are church membership registries which refer to him by his Flemish name, “Pieter vander straten.” These indicate that he lived in Brussels from 1469-1470, in Ghent from 1471-1472 and in Niewpoort until 1477. He is also believed to have lived around this time in Cologne and spent some time in Siena, Italy. However even with these surmises it is impossible to know for sure if Pieter vander straten and Pierre de la Rue are even the same person.

In 1492, la Rue found his first permanent employment at the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel. In contrast to most other musicians at the time who bounced around from one church to another, la Rue was extremely faithful to the Habsburgs, working first for Emperor Maximilian I, then his son Philip the Fair, Philip’s widow Juana, his sister Marguerite and finally, briefly, for Emperor Charles V. At this time Italy was seen as the cultural and musical center of the world, and la Rue was notable for not overtly including Italian influences in his works, contrary to the current trend. Indeed the very fact that he worked at the same court for so long was noteworthy, and it allowed him to steadily rise through the ranks until he was the chief court composer for arguably the most powerful dynasty in Europe.

In addition to being handsomely rewarded financially for his loyalty, la Rue was often chosen to attend court functions and diplomatic missions to other countries. He made two trips to Spain, with the second ending in shipwreck that forced a three-month layover in England at the court of Henry VII. During that trip Philip died while in Spain and la Rue remained there for a time at the service of his widow Juana, until Philip’s sister Marguerite of Austria assumed power and summoned la Rue back north. During his service with the Habsburgs, la Rue was granted at least ten lucrative prebends, and this financial and professional stability is probably a reason for his incredibly prolific career.

Since the first known manuscripts of la Rue’s music date from 1492, there is little to no documentation about his musical development. The style that can be observed in his earliest known works is already fully formed, mature and innovative. Many of his works, such as the six-voiceMissa Ave sanctissima Maria , make extensive use of musical canon as well as cantus firmus and other ostinatos. The massMissa ‘O salutaris hostia’ also uses canon but this time in the strictest sense, with three other voices entirely dependent on the first. La Rue was able to achieve this increased complexity and density of voices by widening the vocal range beyond common practice at the time. This allowed for a unique independence of each voice, and the ability to vary and modify them without the work becoming too cluttered.

(Above: Emperor Maximilian I)

La Rue’s large and varied repertoire includes over thirty masses – already making him one of the most prolific composers of his generation – in which he made extensive use of both homophony and imitative and non-imitative polyphony. Although he was definitely a fan of repetition, he preferred not to use it in a strict sense, instead inserting subtle variations to preserve the momentum and keep the listener engaged. In addition to his masses, La Rue wrote around 25 motets, two Kyries and five Credos, some of the earliest recorded Requiems and the first complete Magnificat cycle. He also wrote up to fifty secular chansons, mostly featuring four voices.

Although few of la Rue’s works are performed today, his significance on the musical trends of his time can be deeply felt, especially in Germany. La Rue was the most extensive user of accidentals during his time, going as far as to use the nearly unprecedented D flat inPourquoy non and G flat in Absalon fili mi . Many anonymous compositions from the time have been attributed to him solely because he is the only composer who would write such accidentals. La Rue also made use of a much larger range, particularly on the low end, with some of his masses extending as low as D, C or B flat for the bass voice. He was not afraid to double voices as a means to lighten the texture, or to employ parallel voices and passing dissonances.