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Francisco de Peñalosa

born: c1470
died: 1 April 1528
country: Spain

We know surprisingly little about the life of Francisco de Peñalosa. The bare facts are that he entered the Aragonese chapel in 1498, served there until the death of King Ferdinand in 1516 and subsequently joined the papal chapel in Rome before returning to Seville, where he held a canonry. There he passed his final years. It is immediately apparent from his cantus firmus Mass settings, which closely follow Franco-Netherlandish models in their subtle deployment of borrowed melodies, both sacred and secular, that he was a composer of considerable technical skill. Indeed, this is a technique that he extends, with a flourish of ingenuity, to one of his songs in the Madrid 'Palace Songbook'. In Por las sierras de Madrid, for example, he combines four popular melodies, all well-known refrains, adding a fifth borrowing in the bass, a Latin gloss taken from the Acts of the Apostles, which punningly alludes to the polytextuality of the upper voices: ‘They tell out in many languages the mighty deeds of God’.

In his motets, Peñalosa is less concerned with artifice than with an expressive projection of the texts. These are generally devotional in nature, with Marian and penitential themes predominant. Peñalosa’s approach to text-setting in his motets—surely influenced by his studies with the Sicilian humanist Lucas Marineus who taught Latin to the members of the Aragonese chapel—is largely syllabic, with due attention to the correct accentuation of the words and melismas largely restricted to the penultimate syllable of a phrase. Often entirely free of borrowed material, these motets use the phrase structure of the text as the basis for the musical framework. Peñalosa exploited this expressive freedom to the full, notably in the four-voice Precor te, Domine, a meditation on the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Here the declamatory, homophonic sections intensify the affective character of certain passages in the text, the effect being rendered still more dramatic by the use of rests to offset these words.

from notes by Tess Knighton ©

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