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Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

Missa Ecce sacerdos magnus, Magnificat & motets

The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: August 2022
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 72 minutes 11 seconds

Cover artwork: Portrait of Saint Thomas of Villanova (1600-before 1611) by Giuseppe Franchi (1550-c1627)
© Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Mondadori Portfolio / Bridgeman Images

With radiant accounts from The Brabant Ensemble of the Mass, a Magnificat and a selection of motets, this album of first recordings is a major addition to Guerrero’s still select discography.


‘I would like to have known Francisco Guerrero. He wrote lovingly about his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1589. He was kidnapped by pirates, had to pay a large ransom, and later landed in a debtor’s prison. Even so, he seems to have been warm-hearted and caring. This especially emerges in the sheer humanity of his music, and in the deep emotions he can often communicate. The Brabant Ensemble communicates much of that wonderfully … all texts are provided, and Stephen Rice’s detailed notes are an absolute model of their kind, so do follow them through as you listen. The acoustic at All Saint’s East Finchley is highly suitable, and suits the music perfectly’ (MusicWeb International)» More

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Of the three great composers of sacred music to have emerged from Spain in the sixteenth century, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) is described by the scholar Robert Stevenson as ‘the most purely Spanish’. That he is also the least internationally famous is no coincidence: both of the other two, Cristóbal de Morales (c1500-1553) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), spent considerably more time outside their homeland than Guerrero, in particular in Rome, and in consequence came to the attention of a broader clientele. Their contemporary fame was certainly boosted by the more developed state of the music-printing industry in Italy as compared with Spain at that time: Guerrero in fact found it expedient to travel to Italy more than once in order to have his works printed. Alongside variations in such stylistic matters as dissonance treatment and scoring, Guerrero’s choice of motet subjects differed from those of composers based outside Iberia. Stevenson points out that fewer than half of the texts set by Guerrero are duplicated in the much larger output of either of his contemporaries Palestrina (1525/6-1594) or Lassus (1530/32-1594), and in this regard he may certainly be viewed as embodying a peculiarly Spanish sensibility.

Francisco Guerrero’s first music teacher seems to have been his elder brother Pedro, who also went on to make his living as a singer and composer. This instruction was of a rudimentary nature; the teacher who developed Francisco’s musicianship to higher levels was none other than the above-mentioned Morales, who had returned to Spain in 1545 following a ten-year stint in the Sistine Chapel choir. After several months’ instruction from Morales, Guerrero was said to be ready to take on a chapelmaster’s role, and indeed he did so on Morales’s recommendation in 1546, at the cathedral of Jaén, some 140 miles east of Seville. This proved a relatively short sojourn: having been granted a leave of absence in August 1549 to visit his family, he returned to Seville as a singer. In 1551 he was offered another maestro de capilla position, this time at Málaga. The chapter at Seville took steps to prevent Guerrero from leaving, however, engaging him immediately to teach the choristers and promising him the chapelmastership upon its renunciation by the already rather aged Pedro Fernández. Unfortunately for the younger man, Fernández, who had been in post since 1514 and was thus certainly over sixty at this point, survived another twenty-three years. Guerrero stayed the course, though, finally becoming maestro de capilla on 9 March 1574. In the meantime he had begun to publish his compositions, with volumes appearing in Venice, Seville (one of the earliest music prints in Spain), Leuven and Paris during these years. No other domestically based Iberian composer of the time managed such wide distribution of his work.

Guerrero’s accession to the chapelmastership did not result in an entirely quiet life for the remainder of his career. In 1579 he was granted a year’s leave in order to travel to Rome; he took a great deal more time than this, but eventually arrived in October 1581 and while there arranged to have a book of Masses and another of Vesper music printed. The Mass book would include Missa Ecce sacerdos magnus, even though its use of an external text (see discussion below) sat uneasily with the prescriptions of the new (Tridentine) Roman Use, which had been adopted in Seville in 1575—despite this, the practice persisted across the Iberian peninsula for several decades more. This Mass was dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII (r1572-85), to whom Guerrero was able to present the book during his visit. He reported in a letter to the chapter back home that the Pope had asked him detailed questions concerning the cathedral foundation at Seville, and in particular its finances.

Guerrero also made one highly significant voyage in the later part of his life, namely a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (an account of which he published in a book which continued to be reprinted well into the seventeenth century, and to which we owe much of our knowledge of his life). In 1588 he successfully petitioned the Seville chapter to accompany the Archbishop, Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600), on a trip to Rome. Guerrero thence travelled to Venice where he arranged publication of more compositions: a book of motets and another of Canciones y villanescas espirituales, which were printed there by Giacomo Vincenti the following year. Leaving Venice on 14 August 1588, he reached the Holy Land and visited many Biblical sites, returning on 9 January 1589, but only after having been ambushed twice by pirates, and forced to pay large ransoms. Whether as a result of these depredations, the financial risks of printing his music, or both, Guerrero found himself in a debtor’s prison by 1591, from which he was rescued by the chapter, who paid 280 ducats (nearly a year’s salary) to his creditors. Meanwhile the cathedral had appointed the composer Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) as master of the choristers, a duty which Guerrero had held alongside that of maestro de capilla, but had struggled to fulfil even before his financial problems became overwhelming. After Guerrero’s death, Lobo was to return to Seville in 1604 to take up the more senior role, having been chapelmaster at the primatial cathedral of Toledo from 1593.

Perhaps surprisingly given the unwelcome turn of events during his first voyage, Guerrero was hoping to return to the Holy Land in 1599, but instead fell victim to a plague that swept through Seville that summer. He was buried in the Antigua chapel of the cathedral, with the honours of a prebendary on account of his lengthy service.

Given the high quality of Guerrero’s compositions, it is surprising that so many have yet to be recorded. So far as we have been able to ascertain, all of the pieces presented here are first recordings.

The six-voice motet Gaude Barbara is one of Guerrero’s most joyous pieces: its comparative obscurity is perhaps explained by its dedication to a saint who is little celebrated. The work’s texture is weighted towards the upper voices, as is common in Iberian music, and Guerrero makes extensive use of the potential for the divided superius and altus parts to intertwine expressively. The word ‘Gaude’ receives energetic treatment with rapid scalic writing, both at the beginning of the piece and a minute or so later when further reasons for rejoicing are listed (‘for you have been raised to highest heaven, and are clothed in the glory of noble martyrdom’). Meanwhile at ‘Impetrare quod petisti’ and ‘elevata / Es in caelo’ there is contrasting use of ‘fauxbourdon’: chains of first-inversion chords creating a mellifluous semi-homophonic effect. The secunda pars begins with antiphony between upper and lower voices, following which Guerrero creates a fine climax with rhetorical repetitions of the phrase ‘bring them with you into glory’ (‘Trahe post te ad gloriam’). The motet ends with a plea, again repeated several times, that the saint should intercede for us with Christ.

In setting verses from one of the most expressive of the Psalms (No 137, ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’), Quomodo cantabimus? displays Guerrero’s ability to wring out extreme emotion with quite straightforward compositional techniques. The piece begins with the upper four voices entering imitatively: the two sopranos have an almost identical motif but the initial version with a minor third (a'–c''–e'', sung a tone lower here) in the superius is chromatically altered to a'–c#''–e'' in the quinta pars, a device used elsewhere in Guerrero’s motets for similar purposes. The bassus enters only at the second text phrase, ‘in a strange land’, which is set almost homophonically and heard four times. The word ‘Jerusalem’ is accorded especial treatment, with lengthy melismas in fauxbourdon format first in the lower voices (at 1'52) and then the upper, and finally ‘If I do not remember thee’ also receives an extended setting, of fourteen breves, with a motif that begins by bobbing between d' and f' as if to cement in the singer’s mind the thought of the lost homeland.

With the six-voice Simile est regnum caelorum, Guerrero returns to the light and sunny scoring of Gaude Barbara: the subject matter is less obviously joyful, however, setting the parable of the vineyard labourers from Saint Matthew’s Gospel. The motet is a model of concise and clear storytelling, blending traditional imitative writing with extensive use of homophony and antiphony. The text-setting is rather conversational in places, with words such as ‘operariis’ and ‘denario’ treated syllabically and with the unstressed syllables placed on semiminims, without loss of intelligibility. When describing those standing in the forum ‘idle’ (‘otiosos’, 1'31), long notes are used, with a succession of suspensions stretching out the time; but the vineyard owner gives these individuals rapid instructions to get to work (‘Ite et vos in vineam meam’). Finally his generosity in paying in full even those who did not work a full day (the point of the parable: all who come to the kingdom of heaven, however late, are welcomed as equals) is illustrated again with longer notes and a broad tessitura for ‘dabo vobis’ (‘I will give you’).

O crux splendidior brings a solemn grandeur to the subject of the Holy Cross, with slow movement in the Dorian mode, whose raised sixth degree gives rise to more major chords than a modern minor key and consequently lends the motet a bittersweet quality. The music slows further at the words ‘Dulce lignum, dulces clavos’ (‘Sweet wood, sweet nails’), which are set almost chordally; later the word ‘salva’ uses the characteristic four-note melody from the beginning of the antiphon Salve regina, adding a Marian flavour to this text on the Crucifixion of her Son. The piece ends with an unusually poignant ‘Alleluia’.

In Ductus est Jesus, a Lenten text which Guerrero also set for five voices, the story is told of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. The work begins calmly, describing the length of the fast undertaken; but the appearance of the devil once Jesus is hungry creates action. The tempter challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread, but he is unruffled, quoting the scripture’s line that man lives by the word of God alone. Guerrero’s setting demarcates these three episodes very clearly, suggesting a more dramatic mode of performance than is customary for Renaissance motets.

Missa Ecce sacerdos magnus, published in Rome by Domenico Basa in 1582, is scored for five voices with divided altus for nearly all its duration. Like many sixteenth-century works, it is based on plainsong; but (as noted above) unusually for a Mass postdating the Council of Trent (1545-63), the chant melody is in several sections sung to its own text, rather than those of the Mass Ordinary, and in the first part of the Agnus Dei, the melody is set in canon between the second altus and the tenor parts, so that only three voices sing the standard text. With musical material in several other sections being based on the same tune, the Mass is suffused with this melody, yet Guerrero achieves great variety in his treatment of it.

The tripartite Kyrie introduces the four free voices first, with the chant entering only after eight breves and in long notes, in the manner of earlier cantus firmus settings. Only the first phrase maintains the chant in breves, however, and thus the entire melody is able to be heard within a section just thirty breves in length. The Christe is freely set: the second altus, which begins with the chant melody, is last to enter, though without using the plainsong text. In the second Kyrie the extraneous text is heard again, this time in the first altus, entering after two breves: this voice sings only the first phrase, twice in breves and then effectively in semibreves (though in fact the 1582 print notates this last cursus of the melody in breves but under a mensuration signature indicating diminution by half). Meanwhile the free voices achieve a climactic effect by the superius extending its upper range to a notated g'' (sounding f'' in this performance) and a series of cascading semiminim figures in this voice and the tenor and bassus.

The Gloria begins, after the usual intonation, in a more chordal fashion, and this texture is not entirely broken throughout, so that the long text is delivered in just 101 breves. Nevertheless, there are moments of imitative writing, most notably at ‘Domine Deus, rex caelestis’ (track 11, 1'02) where four of the five voices state the opening of the plainsong melody. The movement breaks before ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis’, which is introduced chordally, and initially without the superius. As is standard, the ‘Quoniam’ section raises the temperature with livelier writing, again using the characteristic c''–a'–c''–d''–c'' opening of the chant; the second occurrence of the name of Jesus is emphasized with a broadening of the harmonic rhythm, before the final ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ energetically presents the chant melody once more, this time in tenths between superius and bassus.

The Credo is perforce the longest movement, extending to 202 breves or twice the length of the Gloria. The opening is in a way old-fashioned for the 1580s, with a duet between superius and altus I echoed when the tenor and bassus enter nearly five breves later. The free entry of altus II in the meantime reduces the effect of early sixteenth-century pair imitation, however. From ‘Et in unum Dominum’ the text-setting becomes more concise, with this phrase heard only in the top three voices, the tenor and bassus joining in for ‘Jesum Christum’. As usual the tone becomes more reverential as the Incarnation approaches, from ‘Qui propter nos homines’ (track 13, 2'01) onwards. The ‘Et incarnatus’ itself is chordal, and explores the ‘subdominant’ tonal area.

For the first time in the Mass the texture is reduced at the ‘Crucifixus’, to a trio of superius, altus I and tenor. This scoring persists into the ‘Et resurrexit’, which builds in energy through ‘Et iterum venturus est’. The full texture resumes at ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, with the four lower voices beginning chordally before the superius enters with a very clear statement of the plainsong (‘et vivificantem’). The movement reaches its climax at ‘resurrectionem mortuorum’ (track 15, from 1'40) before ending with a bouncy ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’.

The superius begins the Sanctus with a long-note exposition of the chant melody, though sung to the standard Mass text: the true cantus firmus enters in altus I after seven breves, with the ‘Ecce sacerdos’ text stated in full over the remaining thirty-one breves of the first section. In the triple-time ‘Osanna’ the material is again chant-based, with altus I and superius opening in close canon. Guerrero makes extensive use of hemiola, frequently setting the words ‘[O]-san-na in ex-cel-sis’ thus, but also varying the stress patterns to achieve a feeling of sprung rhythm. The Benedictus is a lower-voice trio for the two altus voices and the bassus, leading as is customary to a repeat of the ‘Osanna’.

The bipartite Agnus Dei draws out some of Guerrero’s best writing, as this movement so often does. As noted above, the first section features the plainchant melody in canon between altus II and tenor, both with the ‘Ecce sacerdos’ text. There is a caesura at track 20, 1'04, where a full cadence on the ‘subdominant’ is reached before the superius resumes the Agnus text with ‘miserere nobis’. After the section break, the texture expands to six voices: unusually this does not simply involve a divisi in one voice (though the bassus does indeed divide), but a reorganization of the upper parts as the two altus voices merge and a second superius is introduced. It is superius II that carries the external text, beginning after six breves and at the highest pitch that these words have been heard, though superius I and bassus I also sing a modified version of the melody, while the remaining three voices have a syncopated rising figure in much shorter notes. The statement of the ‘Ecce sacerdos’ text concludes at 2'31 of track 21, and from this point superius II joins the other voices in the final ‘dona nobis pacem’. Guerrero expands the tessitura to its widest by introducing a low bassus II lead shortly before the last cadence, while superius I is near the top of its range. As usual, once the cadence is reached in two voices (3'22) there is a plagal extension in the remaining parts to bring the Mass to a peaceful conclusion.

The five-voice Peccantem me quotidie is one of Guerrero’s most expressive works, the penitential text drawing an intense synthesis of controlled dissonance and rhetoric. The opening imitative point winds around the pitches G (in altus II and bassus) and D (in superius, altus I and tenor) before the responding ‘et non me paenitentem’ explores lower ranges. The ‘fear of death’ (‘timor mortis’) is set in a more impassioned style, rightly since there is no redemption in hell (‘quia in inferno nulla est redemptio’). The texture moves to chordal writing as it implores God for mercy (4'12), and the word ‘Miserere’ is repeated several times, its dotted rhythm imparting a regular and ominous footfall to the final section of the piece.

Beatus es is a short motet at only fifty-eight breves, in praise of St Sebastian. Its contrapuntal surface is relatively untroubled, with a predominance of stepwise motion and small leaps combining with its major mode to portray a sense of well-being that might be thought somewhat at odds with the martyr’s suffering. Guerrero is as usual well attuned to the theology of his text, however, since the reason for this assurance is explained: ‘For with the saints you will be joyful.’ At this point a slightly more energetic approach is taken, with shorter notes illustrating the heavenly rejoicing while retaining the earlier stepwise motion: the piece concludes with a cascade of semiminims repeating the words ‘in aeternum’.

The four-voice Quae est ista? was, like Peccantem me quotidie, among the motets published in Seville by Martin de Montesdoca, in 1555 when Guerrero was in his late twenties. Not surprisingly, it is rather more traditional in style than more homophonic works such as Simile est regnum caelorum a 6, beginning with a fully worked-out imitative point in superius and altus followed by tenor and bassus, and continuing with the pairing of voices for the appropriately rising phrase ‘quae ascendit per desertum’. At the end of the prima pars the words ‘[electa] ut sol’ are set to an upward leap of a fifth: few composers who approached this text could resist the reminiscence of their boyhood lessons in sol-fa (‘ut’ being the original syllable that is now ‘do’ in this system). The secunda pars begins with an example of dissonance treatment that would be eliminated in Guerrero’s later style, where in two-part writing the superius leaps down a fifth (on the last syllable of ‘propera’) to a dissonance of a second with the altus. But the young Guerrero was able to write smooth and mellifluous polyphony as well, such as at ‘vulnerasti cor meum’ (1'18) where the altus and tenor sing together in thirds, and later the superius and bassus in tenths.

In 1563 the Leuven printer Pierre Phalèse released a publication devoted to Magnificat settings by Guerrero. Each of the eight tones was set twice, once for the odd-numbered verses and once for the even. Here we present the even-verse Magnificat secundi toni, largely for four voices (as is the case with the entire print) but with verse 6 reduced to a trio by the omission of the tenor, and verse 12 expanded to achieve a climactic effect by dividing the superius. The odd-numbered verses are as usual sung to the plainsong tone, which also provides much of the melodic material for the polyphonic sections.

In verse 2 the entire texture is imbued with the canticle tone, and the verse structure is articulated by a clear cadence at the midpoint, with the superius and tenor taking up the thematic material thereafter. Verse 4 takes a contrasting approach, the altus commencing with the tone in long notes while the other voices have a free, gently descending figure. Again the two halves of the verse are quite clearly distinguished: as the second phrase, ‘et sanctum nomen eius’, is introduced, all four voices have free material, though the tone re-emerges in the tenor just before the end.

The trio ‘Fecit potentiam’ is less pugnacious in style than some settings of this verse, though still quite energetic despite the absence of the tenor; the second half (‘dispersit superbos’) is more ruminative, with the altus and bassus presenting lengthy rising melismas on ‘mente cordis sui’. In verse 8, ‘Esurientes’, the full texture resumes, though the writing is relatively gentle in feel, with little if any sign of the plainsong tone. These two quieter verses set up the increasing energy of verses 10 and 12: in the former the tone is heard once again in long notes, this time in the altus, before a strongly chordal ‘Abraham et semini eius’ ushers in the Gloria. The expanded texture of verse 12 is used to striking effect, with each voice stating the tone before ‘et nunc, et semper’ brings two strong cadences on B flat (here sounding as C). The final ‘et in saecula saeculorum. Amen’ is stronger still, with chordal writing to the fore, and the added superius II holding the Magnificat tone at the upper end of the texture.

Stephen Rice © 2023

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