We probably rarely give a thought to how important librarians are, cataloguing and systematising our literary and musican heritage to make it available to us. Nevertheless it happens now and then that they make mistakes, as when a librarian at the French National Library in Paris recorded the 1561 original score of Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno by Alessandro Striggio the elder (1537–1592) under the wrong name. There was contemporary correspondence referring to the mass, but it was lost without trace. Until, that is, Davitt Moroney, conductor, organist and musicologist, happened upon it in Paris in 1978. He had it transcribed and performed it at a Proms concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 2007. However, it is due to conductor Hervé Niquet and his ensemble Le Concert Spirituel that Striggio has become known as a significant Renaissance composer.
Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno is what is known as a parody mass, a misleading term, since it is not related to humour and satire but merely to imitation. In a parody mass the composer uses polyphonic musical material, sacred or secular, from pre-existent works such as motets or chansons. It was the predominant type of mass during the Renaissance era, but it fell out of favour with the church, and was banned by the Council of Trent in a document dated 10 September 1562. The church in Italy adhered to this ban, so Striggio’s mass was one of the last parody masses ever composed there, and the genre had already gone out of fashion in France by this time. In Germany however the ban was ignored and parody masses remained in use for some years.
The body of the mass is written for forty parts, but its final section, Agnus Dei, is for sixty voices. This was not concert music, as it frequently is today, but was liturgical music for church use, along with the other permanent texts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and Sanctus. In 1570 the forty singers would be divided into five choirs of eight singers and placed in small galleries throughout the church, producing a spatial sound. The same applied to Striggio’s motet Ecce beatam lucem (Behold the blessed light), which was composed according to Venetian polyphonic practice, with four choirs of 16, 10, 8 and 6 voices respectively.
Striggio’s works are Italian Renaissance music at its very best. He was primarily in the employ of the Medici Court in Florence, but also composed for the house of Este in Ferrara and the Gonzagas of Mantua. Furthermore, in the diplomatic service of the Grand Duke of Tuscany he visited Munich, Vienna and London. It was on these tours that he performed both the mass and the motet. At the London performance the English composer Thomas Tallis (1505–85) was so inspired by Striggio’s music that he wrote his own 40-part mass, Spem in alium, for eight choirs of five singers each.
Although the main focus of this concert is on Striggio, he is supplemented by Francesco Corteccia (1502–71), his predecessor at the Medici court, Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) and Orazio Benevolo (1605–72). Monteverdi, who from 1613 worked principally at St Mark’s in Venice, was actively involved in the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music, while Orazio Benevolo from Rome was a notable composer in the early Baroque style. In their church music – to which this concert is devoted – all of the evening’s composers wrote works to be performed by multiple choirs.
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English version: Roger Martin