I was delighted when John Bradley selected Ego Flos Campi by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510- c. 1555) as the second motet for Polyhymnia’s series of virtual choir recordings. This was in part because of the transcendental beauty of the piece, and partly because it calls to mind a happy memory from a recent singing holiday in the Caribbean.
Seemingly the suffix to Clemens’ name is more likely to have been a tavern joke than an attempt at clarification. That doesn’t surprise me because it seems consistent with the direct and often brutal humor of the Dutch. I lived in Holland for eleven years, and came to love their culture once I developed a thick enough skin to accept their frequent insults, because the directness made doing business there so much simpler. Our daughter lives there now, just five miles from Middleburg, the most likely birthplace of Clemens, in the south-western province of Zeeland bordering Antwerp and Belgium.
Clemens must have been a bit posh to have had two names even without the amusing suffix. Most Dutch acquired surnames only when Napoleon’s military bureaucracy invaded, presumably to control the populace and collect tax. Names were handed out in taverns. Many just indicated where people were from (van Elburg) or what they did (Bakker, Boer), but some involved more wit. I had to conceal a smile when I was first introduced to a Man in ‘t Veld (man in the field). My favorite is the name of a soccer player, Vennegoor of Hesselink. The key is to understand that the preposition translates into English as “or”. His unfortunate predecessor in the tavern was being reminded that nobody could be sure who his father was.
Perhaps Clemens’ nickname related to active carnal tastes, and if so it is no surprise that he chose a text from the Song of Songs for his motet. This part of the bible was popular among composers struggling to squeeze some emotion into yet another setting of a Credo. Parts of the Song of Songs are quite explicit, though the clergy tried to insist that the object of devotion had to be the Virgin Mary. Ego Flos Campi is merely beautiful, and Clemens responds with a setting of pure beauty, full of flowing lines and rich imitative harmony. The tenors are blessed with repeated cascading lines down from a high A flat, and have to remember that in renaissance music the individual line, no matter how expressive, always has to remain secondary to the whole choral sound.
Friend of Polyhymnia JanJoost van Elburg chose Ego Flos Campi among many Song of Songs settings when Carmela and I met with twenty other singers for as week on the island of Tobago in February 2019, correctly sensing that the idyllic setting would suit those texts better than a mass. We had a lovely week.
The venue of Castara could have been lifted directly from a tourist brochure. It is a fishing village at least twenty minutes from any sizeable population center. Every morning we were swimming in the sea within ten minutes of waking up, finding only chickens and coconuts on the unspoiled beach.
The tourist brochure might have neglected to mention the other consequences of this remoteness. The electricity worked nearly all the time and the Internet often enough, but the hot water was less reliable. The single ATM in the village would not yield cash for any of our cards so we were forced to barter with the course organizer. There were half a dozen restaurants, but we discovered that they were all run by members of the same family and shared the same single menu item. Chicken, rice and beans were pleasant enough, though some fish would have made a nice change at some point.
Still, I should not carp. The setting allowed us to get to know JanJoost and our fellow choristers more closely than usually occurs on these holidays, and the locals were welcoming and charming. Singing Clemens all day amid peaceful nature represented something close to paradise.
These weeks always close with an informal concert, and often the choir outnumbers the audience. However Castara rose to the occasion and half the village and several tourists came to hear us, perhaps sixty altogether. We opened the windows in the small church to benefit from the evening breeze and started our performance.
Unfortunately, we had not accounted for the other half of the village. We sang the first three songs and then embarked on Ego Flos Campi, my favorite song on the program. After a week singing every day my voice was floating happily in all the high A flat entries and life felt as good as it can get.
Then we were rudely interrupted by a heavy bass sound and loud strains of Bob Marley coming from down the hill, completely drowning us out. JanJoost was uncharacteristically nonplussed – he must have encountered many challenges over his career, but this was new. Once we had stopped laughing, he went to consult with a village elder in the audience, and a delegation set off down the hill to negotiate. Ten minutes later silence reigned once again and we were able to complete our program. Our choir and our lucky audience were able to enjoy the renaissance music in peace, followed by the bonus of walking down the hill ourselves for plenty of Bob Marley and yet more chicken, rice and beans.
I have rarely enjoyed a week more than our holiday in Castara. And the beautiful Ego Flos Campi, replete with its A flats, will forever be associated with the Caribbean sea, rain forest, chicken rice and beans… and our doomed attempt to compete with Bob Marley.