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A treasure-trove of outstanding motets, including works by Bach, Buxtehude, Gabrieli, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Palestrina, Schütz and Sweelinck. All performed by the Cambridge Singers at their sensuous and virtuosic best, joined here by the acclaimed early music ensemble La Nuova Musica.
Monteverdi wrote church music throughout his long career, first while he was employed at the court of Mantua, then during his years as maestro di cappella at S. Marco in Venice, but much of it is hard to date because it was published in two large collections—the celebrated Vespers (1610) and the Selva morale e spirituale (1641)—which gathered together compositions written over a period of years. Beatus vir, a favourite among Monteverdi’s sacred pieces, was published in the Selva morale. It calls for only modest instrumental forces, just two violins and basso continuo with three ad libitum instruments doubling voice parts. The origins of this Vesper psalm setting lie in a canzonetta, Chiome d’oro, published in Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals in 1619, a light-hearted secular duet with two violin parts and ostinato bass similar to Beatus vir, though shorter and less ambitiously worked-out structurally. Like so many other composers before and since, Monteverdi did not hesitate to introduce secular material into his sacred music; the catchy tunefulness of Beatus vir must have set even the sternest ecclesiastical toes tapping.
Christe, adoramus te
This devotional motet was published in 1620 in a collection issued by Monteverdi’s former pupil from Mantua days, Bianchi. The collection comprised 31 motets: 24 by Bianchi himself, one by Losio, and six by Monteverdi, whose contributions may well have been recently written for the great Venetian religious festivals. The motet is headed ‘Nella elevatione di N.[ostro] Signore’, meaning it is to be sung at the elevation of the host during mass. The text is proper to the feasts of the Holy Cross (3 May and 14 September), especially important occasions in the Venetian calendar after 1617: in that year a relic of what was held to be the Holy Cross was found by workmen excavating in S. Marco.
Also from Bianchi’s 1620 collection, the brightly festive Cantate Domino may have been intended for one of the two feasts of the Holy Cross, though the text, being a compilation, could not strictly be proper to any church occasion.
Palestrina’s life and work centred around Rome. He was born in the nearby town of Palestrina, from which he took his name, trained as a choirboy in the Roman church of S. Maria Maggiore, appointed to prominent positions in the Roman musical establishment, and brought to international fame by his numerous publications, issued in the first instance from Rome. In 1551 he was appointed maestro of the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St Peter’s Basilica, and in 1555 he sang for a few months in the Sistine choir until the introduction of a celibacy rule by the new pope led to his dismissal as a married man. Periods of directorship at the church of St John Lateran, where Lassus had preceded him (1555–60) and at his old church of S. Maria Maggiore (1561–6) were followed by a return in 1571 to the Cappella Giulia, where he remained till his death. His stream of publications began with a successful book of madrigals in 1555; by the time of his death there were seven books of masses, six of motets, and sundry other volumes of liturgical music and madrigals. Sicut cervus has always been one of the most familiar of Palestrina’s motets, frequently reprinted and anthologized since the nineteenth century, and justly held up as a model of Renaissance imitative polyphony, in this case expressive of serene but fervent spiritual yearning. Its psalm text was appropriately appointed as the first part of the Tract at the blessing of the font on Holy Saturday.
Among Palestrina’s 375 or so motets, Exsultate Deo has always been a favourite. With its joyous tunefulness and vivid word-painting depicting musical instruments, it refutes the inaccurate myth of Palestrina as a cold, bloodless master of abstract polyphony, a myth due in part to the reverence surrounding him even in his lifetime and to the use of his music ever since as a model in the teaching of counterpoint, an unfortunate fate indeed for a composer whose music, at its best, leaps off the page and demands the excitement of performance.
Christus factus est
Like his younger brother Giovanni, Felice Anerio was a composer and priest whose sacred music follows closely in the tradition of Palestrina. Born in Rome, he sang as a boy in the choir of S. Maria Maggiore, and then in the papal Cappella Giulia under Palestrina. On the death of the latter in 1594 he was appointed composer to the papal choir, for which he wrote masses, motets, and other polyphonic music. Christus factus est, perhaps his best-known piece, does not appear in any of the volumes of his work published in his lifetime; the earliest extant source dates from 1840, and all others derive from it. The chromatic harmonic touches may have been added by the nineteenth-century editor; if not, it shows an influence of early baroque madrigal style not found in Palestrina.
O vos omnes
Gesualdo is remembered as much for the single sensational act of murdering his adulterous wife and her lover as he is for his music. Otherwise, his life as Prince of Venosa was that of an Italian noble amateur of music, similar to those who were writing the first operas in Florence at about the same time. His preferred form was the madrigal, of which he published six books, but he also left two books of Cantiones sacrae and a volume of music for Holy Week. His madrigals are noted for their eccentric and adventurous chromaticism, which is found to a lesser extent in his sacred music also. O vos omnes (a text he later set for six voices in his Holy Week volume of 1611) was published in his first book of Cantiones sacrae in 1603. The poignant text, popular with composers of the Counter-Reformation period, is set to music of eloquence and dramatic power, cast in the same responsorial form used by Victoria.
Timor et tremor
The sacred music of Lassus is often held up alongside that of Palestrina as one of the twin peaks of the late sixteenth century. Although this is not unjust, the backgrounds and careers of the two composers differed, and this was reflected in their music. Whereas Palestrina spent all his life in or near Rome and devoted himself predominantly to sacred music, Lassus was a cosmopolitan who travelled widely and wrote vocal music in every genre, sacred and secular. Born in Mons (now in Belgium) he was a choirboy in the service of Ferrante Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whose retinue he accompanied to Italy. His first important adult post was as choirmaster at the church of St John Lateran in Rome (1553–5). After various travels, in 1556 he joined the court of Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich, first as a singer, later as maestro di cappella. He remained there for the rest of his life—though continuing to visit other musical centres—composing prolifically, and enjoying widespread fame. After his death, his two sons published much of his music (some of which had already appeared in his lifetime) in a massive collection, the Magnum Opus Musicum. Timor et tremor, one of the most celebrated of his motets, first appeared in 1564, in a collection published in Nuremberg. Its text was compiled from the psalms, possibly by Lassus himself; this was a not uncommon Renaissance practice (as in the Gabrieli Jubilate Deo), enabling the composer to make a particular expressive, religious, or sometimes political point. In this case, Lassus portrays in vividly madrigalian fashion the contrast between human fear and uncertainty, and the firm trust that may be placed in God.
Ave verum corpus
Lassus’s treatment of this familiar Eucharistic text is serene and elegiac, with imaginative use of the six-voiced texture to create expressive interplay between high and low voices, and restrained word-painting at the words ‘unda fluxit sanguine’. The motet—which would assuredly enjoy wider renown were it not for Byrd’s and Mozart’s settings of the same text—was first published in a 1582 collection issued in Munich, and reprinted in the posthumous collection of 1604.
Born in the Netherlands, Sweelinck spent his whole working life in Amsterdam, where he became organist of the Oude Kerk and a renowned teacher. As a composer, he wrote keyboard music, madrigals, and chansons, but his magnum opus was a four-volume collection of polyphonic settings of all 150 Psalms in the French translation of Marot and De Bèze, a work spanning his entire creative life. He published only one volume of Latin motets, the five-voiced Cantiones sacrae of 1619: the Netherlands then being officially Calvinist, these thirty-seven pieces (including the famous Hodie Christus natus est) would have been intended for private rather than liturgical use, at least in Sweelinck’s own country. The sparkling Laudate Dominum indeed calls for the lightness and agility associated with secular rather than liturgical music-making. The basso continuo, although not independent from the vocal bass, indicates that accompaniment was expected.
This charming little work, a favourite in Germany though less well known elsewhere, survives only in a single, manuscript source: a set of parts and a score from the extensive collection of Gustav Düben, who was Kapellmeister at the German church in Stockholm from 1663 till his death in 1690. Düben knew Buxtehude (who lived in Lübeck), and over 100 Buxtehude pieces are in his collection; but the Magnificat cannot be shown to be one of them. The manuscript did not originally bear the name of any composer, although Buxtehude’s name has been added in square brackets on the title page by a later hand. The basis of the attribution appears to be solely that Bruno Grusnick, the editor of the first modern edition (Bärenreiter, 1931), believed that the music bore all the marks of Buxtehude’s style. A more recent scholar, Martin Geck, pointed out the obvious: the Magnificat does not actually resemble any known work by Buxtehude. Its lilting triple-time melodies with frequent hemiolas, its simple diatonic harmony with much use of thirds, and its clear sectional structure, are all features of the Franco-Italian middle baroque bel canto style of Carissimi and Lully which was widely imitated, but not by Buxtehude. The authorship of the Magnificat remains in doubt, but there is no doubt of its delightful melodic appeal and endearing simplicity. The scoring is for two violins, two violas, cello, bass, and continuo.
Jesu, dulcis memoria
Victoria has long been regarded as the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer, despite being both less prolific and less versatile than many of his contemporaries: virtually his entire output, all of it Latin church music, is contained in only eleven volumes, all published in his lifetime. He began his musical life as a choirboy at Ávila Cathedral, then moved to Rome to study at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico; he may have received tuition from Palestrina. He was made director of music at the Collegio in 1573, and was ordained priest in 1575. In 1576 he joined St Philip Neri’s community, later taking chaplaincies at two Roman churches. Despite growing European fame from his compositions, he wanted to return to a quieter life in his native Spain, and in 1587 he accepted Philip II’s offer to become chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, who lived in retirement at the convent of Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Victoria remained at the convent, first as choirmaster and later as organist, until his death. Jesu, dulcis memoria, essentially a polyphonic hymn setting, is found under Victoria’s name in two nineteenth-century collections, Alfieri’s Raccolta di mottetti of 1840 (also the source of Anerio’s Christus factus est), and the Prince of Moscow’s collection of 1843–5 (from which the John of Portugal Crux fidelis comes). There is no earlier extant source, and on stylistic grounds it appears very unlikely that Victoria can have written the piece, exquisite as it is: it belongs rather to Monteverdi’s generation, or later. Pedrell included it in the complete edition of Victoria, his version being the basis of most later editions.
O vos omnes
Victoria set this poignant Holy Week text twice, first as an individual motet (published in 1572), and then as the fourteenth of eighteen Tenebrae Responsories which formed part of his monumental Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae [Office of Holy Week] published in 1585. The present setting, considered the finer of the two, is the second one. As set by Victoria, it was the fifth Responsory at Matins (the first part of Tenebrae) for Holy Saturday, actually observed on Good Friday evening; the text recurs later in the Office as an antiphon. The correct pitch of Victoria’s setting is a matter of doubt. It is notated a fifth higher than performed here, and the part-books designate it ‘quattuor vocibis paribus’ [for four equal voices]. Some scholars believe that this high notated pitch was dictated by modal convention, and that all the Tenebrae Responsories should be sung at a lower pitch by male voices AATB. The present pitch, suitable for SATB, represents a compromise.
This favourite polyphonic setting of the eighth stanza of the hymn Pange lingua was first published in an eleven-volume collection of ‘musique ancienne’ issued in Paris in 1843–5, where it is given a date of 1615 and ascribed to John IV, King of Portugal. He was indeed a composer, but as he was born in 1604, the date, at least, is unlikely. All but this and one other of his compositions were said to have been destroyed with the royal library in the Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755, so there is scant basis for stylistic comparison, but it must be seriously doubted whether Crux fidelis was written in the seventeenth century at all. Its chromaticism extends to notes and chords far-fetched for all except an experimenter of Gesualdo-like boldness: eleven dominant seventh chords (to use an anachronistic term) occur in the piece’s thirty-one bars. The effect is more like the consciously ‘churchy’ sacred music of Liszt than the work of a younger contemporary of Monteverdi. This is not to question the excellence of Crux fidelis (which, within its brief span, is a deeply expressive piece) but rather to open up the issue of its true origin.
Josquin has always been regarded as the greatest composer of his generation, the fullest embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance and one of the most impressive and prolific exponents of both sacred and secular vocal music. Believed to have been born in north-eastern France, his first documented appearance is as a member of Milan Cathedral choir (from 1459), followed by a period in the service of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in Rome and in the choir of the papal chapel there. He developed associations with French courts and with the Italian court of Ferrara, the latter coming to an end in 1504 when the court was dissolved due to the threat of plague. Josquin returned to north-eastern France, spending his remaining years as a canon of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Condé, his compositions known and revered throughout Europe. Of his 100 or so surviving motets, Ave Maria, probably written shortly before 1500, is one of the loveliest and most celebrated. As early as 1502 it was chosen by the Venetian publisher Petrucci to open his first collection of motets, and it is extant in at least ten other sixteenth-century sources. Distinctive features of Josquin’s style are in evidence, including the use of contrasting pairs of voices, canon, and paraphrased Gregorian chant (the pre-Tridentine sequence Ave Maria), though this appears only at the opening as a kind of prelude to the main part of the motet, which is a free setting of a five-versed poem starting with the words ‘Ave cujus conceptio’. The verses deal in turn with the five Marian feasts (Conception, Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption) and at the end the prayer ‘O Mater Dei, memento mei’ is added. The poem is found in a number of French and Belgian books of hours and was used as a votive antiphon.
One of three musical brothers born in Nuremberg, Hassler studied under Andrea Gabrieli in Venice before returning to Germany where, in 1586, he was appointed chamber organist to the wealthy Fugger family in Augsburg. He published his first collection of sacred music, dedicated to his patron Octavian II Fugger, in 1591; it was evidently successful, with a new edition appearing in Nuremberg in 1597. Hassler seems to have had a restless and entrepreneurial streak, moving to new posts in Nuremberg in 1601 and Dresden in 1608, while being involved in instrument making and music publishing. Much of his music is popular in style: Dixit Maria (from the 1591 collection) is written in the secular style of a canzona or chanson rather than a motet, with a typical ABB structure, an attractive melody starting with the characteristic long–short–short canzona rhythm, and simple, clear counterpoint. The piece is designated for the Feast of the Annunciation.
Schütz’s position as the first German-speaking composer of international repute, and the greatest of his century, is not disputed, but his legacy of some 500 works is only now becoming widely known outside Germany. Born in the little town of Köstritz, not far from Leipzig, he studied first at Kassel and then with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, a fruitful period which came to an end with Gabrieli’s death in 1612. He returned to Kassel, but his talents were spotted by the Elector of Saxony, who secured his services for the Dresden court in 1617. With the exception of brief interludes serving temporarily at courts in Hildesheim and in Denmark, Schütz spent the rest of his long life in or around Dresden, in charge of music at court through the difficult period of the Thirty Years’ War but maintaining a prolific output of published collections of his work, the majority of it sacred music for Lutheran use. Psalm 100 (which also exists in an earlier version for three choirs) comes from his first collection, the Psalmen Davids of 1619, in which the influence of Venetian polychoral writing is successfully blended with a more square-cut German style of text setting.
Selig sind die Toten
This dignified and consolatory motet, one of the relatively few by Schütz to be widely known and appreciated, was first published in the Geistliche Chormusik of 1648, an important collection of 29 of the composer’s motets. They represent a turning away from the Venetian extravagance of Schütz’s earlier work, with more emphasis on traditional imitative polyphony, which the composer’s preface to the volume recommends as a discipline for budding composers. Selig sind die Toten is indeed just as imitative in style as any Renaissance motet, though the strong expressive contrasts between the slow-moving sections and the more active treatment of the words ‘und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach’ belong clearly to the Baroque era. Schütz discusses the issue of instrumental accompaniment in his preface, stating that the basso continuo has been included because it is considered desirable, not out of necessity. Hence, he sanctions performance either with organ continuo or (unusually for the seventeenth century) a cappella.
O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht
This lovely motet is all too often overlooked in Bach’s sacred output. Despite being recognisably a motet (as that term was understood in eighteenth-century Protestant Germany) and being explicitly described by Bach on its title page as ‘motetto’, it was mistakenly included among his cantatas in the old Bach-Gesellschaft edition, presumably because of its independent instrumental accompaniment. As a result it lay hidden among the 200 or so real cantatas until the Neue Bach Ausgabe put matters right by placing it in their volume of motets. Even now, it is generally omitted from recordings and publications of Bach’s other six motets, for which reason alone it is worth including here. Bach wrote it in 1736 or 1737 for a funeral service in Leipzig. The accompaniment was originally scored for an outdoor group comprising two litui (curved trumpets used at funerals), a cornetto, and three trombones, which suggests processional performance. Only one stanza of the hymn text is given in Bach’s manuscript, but Behm’s hymn (subtitled ‘for the dying’) has fourteen more, enough to accommodate even the longest procession. Ten years later Bach rescored it for indoor use: the litui were retained, woodwind doubled the voice parts ad libitum, and the cornetto and trombone parts were reassigned to strings and continuo. The chorale melody upon which the motet is based comes from a Leipzig hymnal of 1625, As hymnodus sacer. Mendelssohn later used this melody in his oratorio St Paul; his version, with an altered last line, is the one usually found in modern hymnals, under the name Breslau.
Collegium Records © 2009
The Reformation affected not only the northern European countries which embraced it. Catholic southern Europe, in the spirit of what became known as the Counter-Reformation, saw a revival of religious fervour in the mid-sixteenth century, which resulted in an extraordinary flowering of sacred music by such composers as Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus; their music remains a pinnacle of the high Renaissance.
Italy had been the cradle of the Renaissance, and around 1600 it also saw the birth of the more lavish, extravagant and secularised spirit of the baroque. A generation of composers led by Monteverdi no longer confined the main focus of their work to church music in a recognised sacred style, as had Palestrina and Victoria, but cultivated secular forms, notably the exciting new genre, opera. This was the stile nuovo which Monteverdi introduced into his church music, refreshing what had by then become the hidebound tradition of the stile antico with a strong dash of the music of the opera house and even the streets: Beatus vir brings the music of the itinerant fiddlers and florid solo singers of Venice into the hallowed setting of the basilica of S. Marco, to signal a new revival in sacred music which set the agenda for the next two centuries. Sacred and secular became intertwined, making possible such music as the Buxtehude Magnificat, which musically is no different from a pastoral cantata, or Schütz’s Psalm 100, which is catchy and rhythmic enough to have been played as a tavern dance.
Some composers of the time are strongly identified with the centres where they were active: Palestrina in Rome, Monteverdi in Venice, Lassus in Munich, Schütz in Dresden, Bach in Leipzig. Others such as Josquin (widely revered as the father of Renaissance sacred music) led more peripatetic lives or settled far from their birthplace, as did Victoria who was born in Ávila but worked for most of his career in Rome. Yet even the most widely separated composers in the European continent were, to a surprising degree, aware of each other’s work and animated by a single unifying spirit in writing for the Church during a turbulent but exceptionally fruitful period in its musical history.
John Rutter © 2009