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Hyperion Records

CDGIM003 - Palestrina: Missa Nigra sum
Venus and Mars (detail) by Sandro Botticelli (c1445-1510)
Reproduced by permission of The Trustees, The National Gallery, London
CDGIM003

Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Bob Auger
Release date: September 1983
Total duration: 47 minutes 54 seconds

Missa Nigra sum

The plainchant Nigra sum is followed by a motet from Jean Lhéritier that is based on the same melody and then by Palestrina's parody Mass based on the Lhéritier motet. The album concludes with motets by Victoria and De Silva that are also based on the same plainchant melody. This analogue recording made in 1983 in the Chapel of Merton College is an excellent example of The Tallis Scholars innovative programming.


It is rare to be able to highlight the music of Jean Lhéritier, the composer of the motet Nigra sum which Palestrina parodied. In the reverential atmosphere which has long surrounded Palestrina’s music, it has been thought that his style was born perfect, needed to change little during his lifetime, and died with him, leaving theorists with a code of mathematical perfection which they have not tired of trying to crack to this day. The idea that he owed little to anybody in his formative years is attributable to the lack of any obvious predecessor; his music does not sound like that of Josquin, and there are no major figures to bridge the gap between the two of them. Lhéritier, with de Silva, Penet and Morales, fills this gap – and, on the evidence of Lhéritier’s five-voice motet Nigra sum, very obviously so. Lhéritier’s music has much of the balance that is associated with Palestrina; the points unfold slowly and spaciously, and the part-writing is sonorous. The principal difference is that Lhéritier wrote counterpoint throughout, whereas Palestrina added homophony to his general technique.

Palestrina wrote fifty-three parody Masses, of which thirty-one were based on music by other composers. Almost all of these models were by French, Flemish and Spanish composers – not Italians. This strongly suggests that Palestrina was showing his own appreciation of the Franco-Flemish style, and probably at the same time learning to write in it himself. Another feature of these thirty-one models is that almost all were available to Palestrina in print by 1563. It has been said (Lewis Lockwood, ‘Palestrina’, The New Grove Dictionary, London, 1980) that the resulting parody Masses by Palestrina pre-date the remaining twenty-two based on his own motets, and that they must be – in the broadest sense – apprentice works, as Palestrina refined in his own way the styles of those he most admired. This recording shows what he gained from Lhéritier.

The text for the plainchant Nigra sum, sed formosa combines three Marian antiphons – Nigra sum, Iam hiems transiit and Speciosa facta es – sung now at Second Vespers for the common Feasts of the Virgin; with the Alleluia placed at the end of each antiphon, the plainchant is proper to the Easter period. It will be seen from the words how Church authorities tried to tame the erotic imagery of the Song of Songs and make it serviceable; the effusions of praise are reinterpreted to refer to the Virgin Mary.

Jean Lhéritier (c.1480–after 1552) was a French disciple of Josquin, and widely known in his own time – copies of his music may be found in Poland and Bohemia, even though he himself worked in France and Italy. He joins Josquin’s style to Palestrina’s by developing the technique known as ‘ad imitationem’, ‘using imitation consistently’, which he then helped to make more generally known throughout Italy. That his melodies can be described as presenting ‘nicely balanced arches … resulting from predominantly step-wise motion’ (Leeman L Perkins, ‘Lhéritier’, Grove op. cit.) is tribute to his influence on Palestrina.

Lhéritier was clearly impressed by this text, since four- and six-part versions survive in addition to this five-part one. It is not very closely based on the chant, though two phrases carry through to him, to Palestrina, and to the settings by Victoria and de Silva: the falling and rising third, and the falling scale. In the motet the third can be heard on the same words – ‘sed formosa’ – and the scale at ‘ideo dilexit’. The motet and Palestrina’s Mass, including the second Agnus Dei, are scored for soprano, countertenor, two tenors and bass.

Palestrina’s Missa Nigra sum (published in 1590, but written many years earlier) follows its model unusually closely. Whereas with the Missa Benedicta es Palestrina adapts Josquin’s music very noticeably, in this case he feels himself unable to add very much. Most of the movements start with the opening of the motet which thus becomes a head-motif. The ‘Hosanna’ takes a point which occurs almost incidentally in the motet and turns it into an impressively spacious piece of counterpoint. The falling scale, which Lhéritier probably took from the chant, is put to a wide variety of different uses by Palestrina; it is interesting to see what can be made of so simple a phrase. At ‘descendit de caelis’ in the Credo it contributes to some exciting word-painting. At ‘miserere nobis’ in the Gloria the phrase takes on a much more supplicatory air. At ‘dona nobis pacem’ it carries the Mass to a peaceful conclusion. The motif of the falling and rising third is also used consistently throughout the work. This Mass has no musical connection with Palestrina’s own motet Nigra sum, as has been maintained (Zoë Kendrick Pyne, Palestrina, his Life and Times, London, 1922). Palestrina’s motet is not recorded here because it has a different text, after its initial phrase, from these settings.

Victoria’s Nigra sum is scored for six voices – SSATTB. After the words ‘et recessit’ the text is replaced by ‘flores apparuerunt in terra nostra, tempus putationis advenit’. Instead of Palestrina’s poise, Victoria tilts more at the words: ‘Surge’ goes up in a blaze, and there is a strongly pictorial feel about ‘flores apparuerunt’. Andreas de Silva (c.1475/80–c.1530) has already been mentioned as another link with Lhéritier between Josquin and Palestrina. Probably a Spaniard, he joined the large circle of musicians around Pope Leo X in Rome between 1513 and 1521. Though short, this motet shows off his gift for sonorous writing, and his straightforward, almost declamatory melodies.

Peter Phillips © 1983

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