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A celebration of Christmas from the Nativity through to Candlemas, in music from across sixteenth-century Europe: Renaissance polyphony at its finest.
Just as many European composers beat a trail to Venice to study with the renowned musicians there, the Venetian Giovanni Gabrieli’s earliest studies were with his uncle Andrea, at St Mark’s, before he travelled north to Munich to learn from the esteemed and influential Lassus. Returning to Venice, he was appointed to St Mark’s as organist and subsequently, following his uncle’s death, as principal composer. Giovanni’s first collection of motets was published in 1587, with a touching dedication to the elder Andrea, to whom he described himself as ‘little less than a son’. O magnum mysterium comes from this collection, scored for two unequal choirs. The sense of quiet, reverential awe suggests a real proximity to the Christ-child in the manger, giving way to a modest joy in the ‘alleluias’.
Alleluia ‘Dies sanctificatus’ is the Proper Alleluia for the Mass of Christmas Day and can be found in the early tenth-century Cantatorium from the library of the St Gallen monastery. One of the most important chant source manuscripts, the Cantatorium was used by the monks of Solesmes when they produced their nineteenth-century editions which enabled the restoration of Gregorian chant to the Catholic liturgy. Gregorian chants are often used to link together feasts, and so this second-mode melody is also used on the Feast of the Epiphany to recall the Nativity.
Hans Leo Hassler studied in Venice under Andrea Gabrieli, and brought back to Germany the newly emerging Venetian influences of the concertato style. This can be seen in Verbum caro factum est in the groups of voices that call and answer to one another, frequently dividing the six voices into two three-part choirs. The text, concerning the Incarnation, is used at Matins during Christmas, and derives from the Prologue to John’s Gospel.
Born in northern France in the mid-fifteenth century, Jean Mouton was choirmaster at Amiens Cathedral before his talent came to the attention of Queen Anne of Brittany. Thereafter he worked in royal service as principal composer for the French court. Known for the mathematical ingenuity of his compositions, his setting of Nesciens mater arranges the eight voices into four independent canons at the fifth, the two voices in each singing two breves apart. The brilliance of this astonishing technical feat aside, Mouton’s motet somehow manages to sound utterly unconstrained by its mathematical construction, the polyphony instead emerging in a seamless and unending stream of ravishing beauty. The motet was included in the Medici Codex of 1518: an illuminated collection of motets presented as a wedding gift at the marriage of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Princess Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne.
A pupil of Sweelinck, Samuel Scheidt was born in Halle, where he became organist and then Kapellmeister at the court of the Margrave of Brandenburg. His tenure there was disrupted by the Thirty Years’ War, but he later went on to become organist at the city’s Marienkirche. Puer natus in Bethlehem appears in his 1620 publication Cantiones sacrae, where it is provided with a single verse each for Christmas and Easter (‘Surrexit Christus hodie’). Over time, additional strophes have propagated; the edition heard here has three verses.
Francisco Guerrero, named after St Francis of Assisi on whose feast day he was born in 1528, was a chorister at Seville Cathedral, where he returned in later life as maestro de capilla. Whilst returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he was twice captured and ransomed by pirates, a story detailed in an account he published about his journey to Jerusalem. His music was published in the furthest reaches of the Spanish Empire, as far away as Mexico and South America. A 1585 Roman publication of sacred motets by Victoria additionally includes two works by Guerrero, including the six-part Pastores loquebantur, whose text is based on Luke’s account of the shepherds. The rhythmic excitement as the shepherds are depicted hurrying to Bethlehem (‘Et venerunt festinantes’) gives way to a broader sense of majesty as they encounter the holy family: ‘Mariam et Joseph, et infantem.’
Lassus was the most influential musician working in Europe at the time, and his Resonet in laudibus is based on a fourteenth-century carol which was popular throughout the Continent. Switching between duple and triple time, the ingenious textures employed usually feature the original medieval melody intact in either the second tenor or the treble part; however, all the parts are closely derived from the original material, bestowing a truly organic feel to the closely woven polyphony. The ‘Eia’ exclamations serve almost as instrumental ritornelli between the more conventional declamations of the text.
Inspiring many composers to write musical settings, O magnum mysterium has proved to be one of the most prevalent of the Nativity texts (for Matins on Christmas Day), but Victoria’s is hard to surpass in terms of its pure devotional simplicity. This is perhaps best demonstrated at ‘O beata virgo’, where the music reaches its deepest intensity. Victoria was a chorister at Ávila Cathedral and later travelled to Rome to study for the priesthood. After ordination, he lived for a time with St Philip Neri, forming a lasting relationship with St Philip’s Oratory. After some years in Rome, he returned to his native Spain as chaplain to King Philip II’s sister, the Empress María, at the Descalzas Reales in Madrid where he was also chapelmaster.
Published in the same 1572 Venetian volume was Victoria’s extended five-voice setting of Alma redemptoris mater, the Marian antiphon for the season of Christmas. The opening draws on the plainchant melody of the same name, but much of the subsequent music seems to be a very personal and contemplative response to the prayer, with a quotation from the Gregorian hymn Ave maris stella at ‘sumens illud’, towards the very end.
We now arrive at the Feast of the Epiphany. Palestrina’s setting of the Epiphany text Surge, illuminare, Jerusalem was published in 1575 a few years after he began his second tenure as maestro of the Cappella Giulia, the Choir of St Peter’s Basilica—a position he held until his death. The ascending lines of the opening portray the text—‘Arise’—and Palestrina demonstrates his characteristic mastery of double-choir antiphonal effects.
In his motet Omnes de Saba, Lassus combines the Epiphany texts of the Gradual and the Offertory. The regal grandeur of the opening speaks of the nobility of the earthly kings as they come to pay homage to their heavenly king. The triple iteration of ‘munera’ recalls the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
John Sheppard held the post of Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, and was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Reges Tharsis et insulae is based on the Gregorian cantus firmus, which runs like a thread through the entire piece, giving rise to an all-encompassing polyphonic texture that seems to envelop the listener just as it does the chant. The motet follows a responsorial structure, with alternations between chant and sections of polyphony. Initially, the entirety of the polyphony is presented, before a chant section is followed by a repeat of the second and third parts of the polyphony. After another section of chant, the third part of the polyphony repeats once more to conclude the piece.
Of the four Epiphany motets heard here, Magi veniunt ab oriente is the most modestly conceived, employing just four voices, but it is by no means the least for doing so. Clemens non Papa’s motet is in two parts, the second section, ‘Magi videntes stellam’, recounting the excited joy of the Magi as they resolve to set off in search of the Christ-child. Clemens, whose epithet ‘non Papa’ has long been assumed to be a means of distinguishing him from Pope Clement VII, worked in Flanders during the first half of the sixteenth century. He constantly refreshes the polyphony with new points of imitation, and an exotic modality underpins the whole piece, reflecting the Eastern origins of the Magi, whose three gifts are proffered in a series of fermata chords just before the final ‘alleluias’.
Diffusa est gratia is the Offertory for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, celebrated on 2 February and also known as Candlemas due to the custom of bringing candles to church to be blessed. This major feast, now more commonly called the Feast of the Presentation, marks both Christ’s presentation at the temple and the ritual purification of the Virgin, but it also serves to mark the end of the greater Christmas season. Giovanni Maria Nanino, also called Nanini, was maestro at San Luigi, the French church in Rome, and a singer in the Sistine Chapel Choir. A popular madrigalist, he wrote sacred music in the more conservative style espoused by Palestrina, including this rather beautiful miniature, which, despite its concise construction, contains several exquisite suspensions.
Tallis’s setting of Videte miraculum shares many conceptual characteristics with Sheppard’s motet: six vocal parts, the same responsorial structure and a cantus firmus foundation. The polyphonic texture at the opening seems to emerge from the seed of the Gregorian melody, Tallis responding to the Phrygian nuances of the mode with the greatest subtlety. Whilst the conventions of textual underlay by English Tudor composers can sometimes seem strangely at odds with their counterparts on the Continent, they often give rise to very beautiful repetitions of unworded pitches which create a sense of great insistence, as heard here at ‘onerata’ and ‘uxorem’ in the treble part. Equally compelling are the treble’s imploring invocations of ‘Maria’. The hypnotic opening, wreathed in the incense of the temple, suggests the miraculous mystery of Simeon’s encounter with Christ. Perhaps Simeon’s sense of fulfilment is something Tallis unwittingly conveys to us—a small glimpse at the very least.
Charles Cole © 2020
Through these recordings, the Schola seeks to bring to a wider audience the music which adorns the liturgies at the London Oratory. These motets have an important function within the liturgy and are not solely beautiful works of art to be appreciated in a removed context such as a museum or art gallery. Their sacred purpose, the way they are experienced by the boys who sing them, and the manner in which they are heard at the Oratory are before all else within the liturgical context. It is this living and breathing tradition which we humbly extend to our listeners in the wider world.
The motets we present here celebrate the Nativity itself, before moving on to the Feast of the Epiphany and the Adoration of the Magi, and concluding with the Purification of the Virgin.
Charles Cole © 2020