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Striggio & Tallis: Supersize Polyphony

Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2018
St George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Thorne
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & George Collins
Release date: May 2019
Total duration: 61 minutes 34 seconds

Cover artwork: Entry of St Ignatius into Paradise (1685-94, fresco) by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709)
Sant' Ignazio, Rome / Bridgeman Images

Three of the sixteenth century's most extraordinary musical creations, works which to this day have scarcely been matched for their compositional chutzpah and ability to wow. Here the choral onslaught of two top-notch choirs is interwoven with—and tempered by—the timeless meditations of Hildegard of Bingen.


‘A total delight’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘I enjoyed the way they’ve interspersed the Mass movements with plainchant by Hildegard of Bingen … allowing Tallis’s Spem in alium to bring it all to a radiant close’ (BBC Record Review)
Following the great success of Armonico Consort’s Supersize Polyphony concert series, I came across the research of two brilliant academics—Brian Clark and Robert Hollingworth—into a long-forgotten mass rediscovered in 2005. They skilfully reconstructed a work of immense complexity and astounding beauty, bringing Striggio’s truly extraordinary Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno back to life.

In 1561, Striggio wrote the now well-known forty-part motet Ecce beatam lucem and travelled across Europe with it—allegedly with all forty part books strapped to the rear end of a donkey! Striggio’s travels included a visit to England where it is thought that he met Thomas Tallis, who would have almost certainly heard this epic motet. It is widely believed that it was from this piece that Tallis took inspiration for his own forty-part Spem in alium, as is suggested in a note from a law student:

‘In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad(e) a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ‘_____’ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad(e) one of 40 p(ar)ts which was songe in the longe gallery’ at Arundell House.’

It is likely that the elusive ‘Duke’ referred to is the Duke of Norfolk, who is thought to have commissioned Spem in alium as a challenge to English composers to produce music finer than that of their Italian counterparts. Indeed, the piece was first performed at Arundel Castle, as described. The mention of thirty parts seems to be a misunderstanding of Striggio’s forty-part work, but the reference to ‘heavenly harmony’ is something which is highly-significant even today. The overriding response of the listener to these works, especially when positioned at the centre of the sound, is truly mesmerising: it is harmonically indulgent and absolutely inimitable.

Whilst the harmonic language of each of these works is, in itself, relatively straightforward, the true genius can be seen in how the composers use each individual voice part: playing rhythmic games, interweaving melodic lines of intense beauty, using passing notes and other compositional devices which break every rule in the book and would have been completely unexpected for the period. Both the Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno and Spem in alium were composed during the same period for forty individual parts, with the mass expanding to sixty parts in the Agnus Dei.

However, each work was approached in a completely different manner in terms of compositional style. Striggio opts for five choirs of eight voices, working in Venetian polychoral-style blocks, where different choirs would have had dialogues from one gallery of the magnificent St Mark’s Basilica to the other. In contrast, Spem in alium has eight separate choirs of five voice parts which each sing polyphonically, with an individual part essentially a melody line in its own right.

During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, especially in the Venetian school, instrumentalists were used in lots of sacred music. It is likely that the instrumentation, and the parts they played, varied between performances. As modern interpreters of early music, we must employ a combination of academic knowledge, musical instinct and imagination to decide how to divide these parts and create a performance true to the period. These works are simply extraordinary, nothing compares to them, and nothing that has been written since comes close to their sheer scale and genius.

Christopher Monks © 2018

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