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Magnificat Performs Striggio Mass at Berkeley Early Music Festival

Magnificat will appear at the Berkeley Early Music Festival this June in performances of Striggios’s Missa sopra ‘Ecco sì beato giorno’, in cinque corri divisa, in 40 and 60 parts. The concerts will be directed by Davitt Moroney of the Univeristy of California at Berkeley Music Department. The concerts will be on June 7 at 8:00 pm and June 8 at 7:00 at First Congregational Church. Tickets are available here.

Professor Moroney (pictured at right) prepared the following notes for performances of Striggio’s Mass at the BBC Proms in September, 2007. They have been slightly adapted for posting here. More information about this performance can be found here.

It has been known for over 25 years that in December 1566 Alessandro Striggio (pictured at left) travelled from Florence, where he was the chief musician at the Medici court, to Vienna, the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II. He crossed the Alps in mid-winter, on horseback with a servant and a baggage mule. (The mule died.) This harrowing journey seems to have been timed to enable him to make an exceptional musical gift to the emperor, a gigantic setting of the ‘Ordinary’ of the Catholic Mass (the parts that do not change from service to service: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei), composed in 40 parts divided into five eight-part choirs.

Striggio’s work was based on a now lost piece of secular music entitled Ecco sì beato giorno. The Mass was thought to be lost, but a manuscript survives in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris, having been donated to Louis XV in 1726. The work escaped identification because in the library’s catalogue, printed in 1914, it occurs without a title, is listed as being for ‘4 voices’ instead of 40, and is described as being by a non-existent composer, ‘A. Strusco’. With these three strikes against it, Striggio’s magnum opus became invisible.

This is one of the major artworks of the Italian Renaissance, a symbol of all that is magnificent in Florentine art of the 16th century. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Florentine music at that time was as spectacular as Florentine painting, sculpture, literature and architecture. The full title of the work is ‘Mass on Ecco sì beato giorno divided into five choirs’.

The Mass’s importance derives not only from its overwhelming musical power, but also from the innovative ways it uses space, with the different choirs answering each other back and forth. This polychoral technique is used with consummate skill and with greater complexity and assurance than any Venetian music of the period.

The Mass is also unique for the unprecedented political role it played at a time when the Medici family had just (in December 1565) concluded a matrimonial alliance with the imperial Habsburg family in Vienna. Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and Siena, was hoping that the emperor would now grant him a more important title. The musical work was a clever gift. By its choice of the Latin Mass text, it explicitly underscored that the Medici could be relied on to uphold unwavering Catholicism during the turmoils of the Reformation. In addition, by its musical sonorities of unrivalled complexity and richness, it implicitly demonstrated the regal splendour of the Medici, as well as their worthiness of a higher royal title. However, the work failed to convince Maximilian of the political matters involved and he declined to grant the new royal title. Cosimo’s ambitions were only answered two years later by the Pope, who in 1569 unilaterally named him Grand Duke of Tuscany. This title was ratified by the emperor seven years later, but only after a very large donation of Medici money helped him at last make up his mind.

In January 1567, Striggio’s journey took him to Vienna, where he presented the Mass in person to the emperor, and then to Munich, where in early February it was performed liturgically at High Mass in front of the Duke of Bavaria. The Duke’s musicians were normally directed by Lassus, who one year later conducted three performances of another 40-part work by Striggio, an unidentified motet that might have been Ecce beatam lucem. This link explains the presence in tonight’s programme not only of Striggio’s motet but also of polychoral works by Lassus. The two composers were certainly colleagues and probably friends.

After Munich, Striggio travelled to Paris where on 11 May 1567 the Mass was performed non-liturgically, in a concert performance at the Château de Saint-Maur, in front of King Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici. While in Paris Striggio wrote to his Medici employers asking for an extension to his leave of absence in order to visit England ‘and the virtuosos in the profession of music in that country’. It seems almost impossible that during his two-week trip to London in June 1567 he didn’t meet the composer who was unquestionably the leading virtuoso in England: Thomas Tallis. There is strong evidence that Tallis wrote his own Spem in alium as a direct result of the younger man’s visit. If Tallis’s masterpiece shows the strengths of his great maturity (he was in his sixties at the time), the quite different work by Striggio (who was about 30 in 1567) shows no less forcefully the strengths of his ambitious and energetic youth.

Performing the Mass

For the Berkeley Festival performance, I am including a wide variety of instruments. A full double choir of sackbuts and cornetts adds immeasurably to the sonorities, like gold leaf on a fine picture frame. But unlike a frame surrounding the picture, I have chosen to have these instruments double the third choir, in the very centre. I also chose to use a substantial group of different instruments to support the Bassus ad organum line, the general bass line that accompanies the whole work. Evidence from Striggio’s time implies that this line was performed by a double-bass trombone, and we are very fortunate to have been able to include such a rare instrument tonight. This also suggested the use of a stringed instrument at double-bass pitch.

I have included a wide range of instruments capable of providing chordal accompaniment to play the fundamental bass. It would be anachronistic to call this a continuo group since such terminology did not emerge until some 40 years after Striggio wrote his Mass; but that’s nevertheless what it is. Florence was well in advance of other cities in this respect and by the 1550s Florentine musicians were already regularly using such fundamental instruments to accompany chordally. The instruments I have chosen for Striggio’s bass line range from the ubiquitous organ (whose suave sustained sonorities can bind the sounds together), to the harpsichord (whose rhythmic precision, by contrast, can help hold the disparate choirs together); also included are the theorbo and the harp, which offer a different range of expressive nuance from the keyboards. On the manuscript of Ecce beatam lucem all these instruments are mentioned as forming the accompanying group. The result is only one of many instrumental possibilities that would be appropriate. Our use of instruments tonight is conservative, not extravagant. A performance paid for by the Medici or the Habsburg families would have had access to vastly richer resources.

I have added the Our Father (Pater noster) sung in plainsong to provide a moment of repose before the two settings of the Agnus Dei. The text of the various plainsongs heard tonight is derived from the Roman Missal printed in 1563. As a closing gesture, we have also included the short Ite missa est/Deo gratias, the closing words of the Roman Mass signifying that the Mass is ended. This text was usually considered part of the Ordinary of the Mass, but was almost never set to polyphony.

Forty singers is not in itself an exceptional number. The effect of Striggio’s 40-part writing, at least for modern audiences, is not so much one of astonishing volume, especially since for many sections of the Mass only one or two choirs are singing simultaneously.

(Striggio saves the first moment in full 40-part sonority for the seventh phrase of the Gloria: ‘we give you thanks for your great glory’.) Rather than sheer volume, the richly woven musical texture is a key characteristic. The 40 voices create luscious, luxuriant sonorities, comparable to the rich brocades, fine furniture and other opulent ornaments that were considered appropriate for a royal or imperial chapel.

In the second setting of the Agnus Dei, Striggio subdivides each of his five double choirs even further, requiring an extra set of four voices in each choir, a third sub-choir. The result is a piece for five 12-voice choirs, a tour de force in 60 real parts unique in the history of Western music. It alone should surely earn Striggio a place in all musical history books. This remarkable appeal for peace, dona nobis pacem, begins much like Tallis’s Spem in alium, with the voices coming in one by one (heard tonight as a wave of sound, from left to right). Whether Tallis borrowed this idea from Striggio or not is hardly important. What the two composers have in common is less significant than what makes each one of them unique. Striggio has usually been labelled by music historians as a rather unexceptional musical conservative, but historians don’t always get things right. The listeners to tonight’s concert have a chance to decide for themselves, discovering this music along with everyone else.

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