Musica Sacra

The Crowning of the Renaissance

Victoria's Missa o magnum mysterium and du Caurroy's Missa pro defunctis

Saturday October 27, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Victoria's exquisite Christmas motet was the basis for his mass, while du Caurroy's mass was used in the burial service of French royalty for two centuries.

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Concert Program Notes

Welcome to the opening concert of Musica Sacra's 2012-2013 season: The Crowning of the Renaissance. While many historians consider Palestrina to have brought the style of Renaissance polyphony to its zenith, the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria was certainly a contender for the honor. And, though most modern audiences are unfamiliar with Eustache du Caurroy and his mass, the French theorist Sébastien de Brossard averred in 1724: "This music, in keeping with its subject, is most sad, but it is also of the utmost excellence and no others are ever sung at the funerals and services of Kings and Princes at Saint-Denis." Indeed, it continued to be sung until the overthrow of the monarchy during the French Revolution.

I first became aware of the Missa pro defunctis when the group Doulce Memoire performed it as part of the Boston Early Music Festival series over a decade ago. I was transfixed with its beauty and determined that Musica Sacra should perform it. Of particular interest to me was its deviation from the text of the Requiem Mass one usually hears, such as that used by Mozart, Verdi, and others. The director of Doulce Memoire, Denis Raisin-Dadre, provided the explanation:

The Missa pro defunctis does not follow the Roman Catholic ritual, but that of Paris. Pope Clement VIII's Cæremoniale, which was promulgated throughout Europe in 1600, had been ill accepted by the French dioceses, wishing to retain the privileges of the Gallican church and affirm their independence from Rome. This attitude of resistance explains the distinctive liturgical features of this Requiem: the absence of the Dies irae and the presence of two pieces from Psalm XXII, In medio umbrae mortis and Virgo tua, as gradual-response to the intonation Si ambulem.

In addition, I have decided to follow his example in programming this evening and include settings of the psalms used in the Vespers service for the dead: Psalms 130 and 120. Again, as explained by Raisin-Dadre: King Henry IV "was brought up with the singing of psalms....at the end of the Wars of Religion [in 1593], he abjured Protestantism and converted to Roman Catholicism in order to win Paris and reunify France." Like Doulce Memoire we use settings of Claude Goudimel, but ours are different ones and our Psalm 120 even has a different melody. For Psalm 130 we present the first stanza as a solo of the melody and the second stanza in the version set homophonically, in which all voices move as one, that appeared in the 1564 edition of the Genevan Psalter. As was typical for these psalms settings, the melody appears in the tenor, as it does in 19th century American Sacred Harmony tradition, rather than in the customary soprano of church hymns. For the third and fourth stanza we use the polyphonic arrangement that appeared in the 1580 edition of the Genevan Psalter. You will hear the melody phrase by phrase in the soprano, while the other voices have imitative versions of these phrases to accompany it. For our performance of Psalm 120 we use the 1564 version for the first stanza and the 1580 version for the second stanza.

What about this haunting Missa pro defunctis causes it to have such a profound effect upon the listener? There are no passages that describe obviously in musical terms what the text conveys, as one will hear in the Victoria; rather, the music alludes with great subtlety to the meaning of the text. The music unfolds slowly, like a flower opening in slow motion. Du Caurroy may make use of word stress to shape his phrases, but they transpire so sedately that the rhythmic impulse becomes subjugated to the overall stateliness. Indeed, a persistent solemnity pervades the entire work. In the Rex gloriae section of Si ambulem du Caurroy creates a musical depiction of the phrase "King of glory" that anticipates the Less is more maxim of the 20c architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: each voice enters sequentially to sing the word Rex in long note values that rise stepwise or by small intervals. The listener can both hear the majesty of God and be in the moment of contemplating that majesty. In the three iterations of the Agnus Dei, du Caurroy's music moves from the pervasively minor feeling implicit in the Dorian mode to a major sonority at the moment the singers intone "give them peace." The music acts upon the listener in a way similar to the rays of the sun breaking through dark clouds; in the midst of bereavement, we have the consolation of knowing that the departed are now at peace.

Victoria, born in Avila, the same town as St. Teresa of Avila, showed such promise as a musician that King Philip II of Spain subsidized his study in Rome at the age of 17. There he could hear the works of the Vatican choirmaster Palestrina, as well as the influences of the many musicians employed by the Catholic Church throughout Rome. His motet O magnum mysterium was published in 1572 and the mass he based upon it in 1592. Between these publications, in 1585, Victoria had returned to his beloved Spain, where he spent the remainder of his life as the choirmaster for the convent in Madrid, where Philip's sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, had taken orders.

The text O magnum mysterium was set by many Renaissance composers, perhaps because it so successfully comments upon the cognitive dissonance of the King of the Universe appearing on earth in a barn amongst animals. Today we tend to gloss over the implications of Christ lying 'in a manger;' most of us have never seen a manger and, for me at least, it conjures up a crude cradle, similar to the drawer of a bureau that some new parents use as their baby's first bed. For everyone prior to the advent of automobiles, however, a manger and a barn would probably cause a visceral reaction of disgust as they contemplated the overwhelming smells and squalor associated with such a venue. Most composers use the text to fashion a mood of hushed awe at such a sacrifice, and Victoria is no exception. He allocates a different musical texture to each part of the text. For the first part, describing the ineffable mystery of God come to earth as a baby among animals in a stable, Victoria uses imitative polyphony. As the text turns to contemplate Mary, the choral texture becomes homophonic, as all vocal parts declaim simultaneously to convey awe-filled veneration. Victoria's introduction of a triple meter to set the word Alleluia gives voice to the happiness of Christians as they rejoice in the birth of their Savior. A cascade of closely imitated falling fifths by stepwise motion brings the work to its close in the same way that pyrotechnics save the biggest display of fireworks for the end of the show.

For his mass, Victoria borrows many of the melodic motifs used in his O magnum mysterium. The opening falling fifth makes the most frequent appearance, along with its associated pairing of the treble voices and those of the bass and tenor in juxtaposition to each other. That the vocal parts do not typically then return to the starting pitch reflects the fact that in the case of the mass, Victoria employs the falling fifth as a musical expression of humility and culpability. Hence its use for the opening of the mass, where the falling fifth is fully in keeping with the penitent nature of the line Lord have mercy. This first movement ends with the same musical phrase ending Victoria's exposition of jacentem in praesepio. For the Credo movement Victoria plays on his use of the falling scalar fifth that ends his motet by having the soprano line use a rising scalar fifth to set Amen. Simultaneously, however, he references the falling fifth opening both motet and mass by having the bass cadence with it, while he sets the falling scalar fifth of the motet's Alleluia in the tenor line. In the Sanctus, the celebratory text inspires him to use both the falling fifth but then also its return to the starting pitch. And, ultimately, the plea of the Christian for mercy in the Agnus Dei once again receives the treatment of the drop of the fifth.

One way to appreciate the texture of du Caurroy's Missa pro defunctis is to contrast it with that of Victoria's mass, which is much more typical of the culmination of Renaissance polyphony. Victoria makes use of triple meters to describe great joy associated with such phrases as et resurrexit, or to allude to the Christian triune God. He groups voices in homophonic iteration of the text in apposition to one voice, creating a duet of three against one, as in the opening of the Gloria. He creates a variety of tempos by setting syllables to notes as short as an eighth and as long as a whole note. While his mass is also in the Dorian mode, he breaks into stretches of major-sounding sonorities to illustrate joyous parts of the mass's text. He composes lines that illustrate by their motion what is being intoned in the text. A great example of this is his line setting et ascendit from the Credo: the alto imitates the bass line of sequencing rising thirds to create a musical staircase of ascension. At the top of their sequence, all four voices declaim homophonically Sedet ad dexteram, a musical representation of Christ "seated" at the right hand of God.

For those who love Renaissance choral music, tonight provides a wonderful opportunity to hear these two great works composed right before the dawn of the Baroque, when the the equal and independent voices of polyphony, which defined Renaissance style or Prima prattica, started inexorably to fall from favor. The French people and their sovereigns have always cherished the du Caurroy; to this day it exists in only one modern French edition. Now we get to share it along with the better known and more traditionally written works of Victoria, a master familiar to all of us who treasure this style.

© 2012 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.