Alessandro Striggio’s “Missa sopra ‘Ecco si beato giorno'”
The motet Spem in Alium by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis is one of the great musical discoveries of my life. I have an ear for choral harmony, and Tallis’ magnificent motet represents one of the pinnacles of harmonic part-writing in western music. The sprawling song is written in forty separate parts, divided into eight five-voice choirs. Many excellent recordings of this piece exist, my favorite being the recording made by Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars.
I was thrilled to learn, then, that Berkeley musicologist Davitt Moroney had discovered and reconstructed several additional Renaissance compositions written for forty and sixty voices by other composers of the Renaissance, when I had long thought Tallis’ work to be unique. Most notably, he discovered a large motet and a parody mass based upon the same, entitled Ecco si beato giorno and written by the Florentine composer Alessandro Striggio.
For those of you who aren’t classical music fans, I should perhaps clarify that a piece written for forty voices is not the same as a piece written for a choir of forty singers – rather, it has forty individual and distinct vocal parts, meant to be sung at the same time. The Renaissance and to some extent the Baroque represent the apex of writing for many voices in western music.
After many long years of searching, Moroney discovered a badly-mislabeled copy of the mass in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2005, where it had languished in obscurity for centuries. (1) Moroney prepared a critical edition of the score and led its first modern performance in 2007.
Last night I had the privilege of hearing Moroney lead a choir of sixty in performing Striggio’s mass. The choir’s roster was drawn from area early music ensembles including Magnificat, the Philharmonia Chorale, the American Bach Soloists, Perfect Fifth, and the Schola Cantorum San Francisco, accompanied by a period orchestra consisting of the Chalice Consort and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts. An eyebrow-raising feature of the evening was the colossal bass sackbutt, a Renaissance bass trombone of prodigious exclamatory power.
The natural point of comparison for anyone encountering Ecco si beato giorno is Spem in Alium, and to my ears the piece suffers by comparison. While Tallis’ motet is characterized by its beguiling use of bold thematic material, Streggio’s mass is characterized by rigid structure and lack of movement, producing an effect rather like a droning cloud of bright major chords rooted firmly in the tonic.
Perhaps in an effort to control and unify so many voices, Striggio’s mass employs a structure that is at all times dominated harmonically by its tendency toward strong consonance (unisons, octaves, and fifths abound), and melodically by a fixed line that never strays far from the tonic. The principle elements of variation consist in internal ornamentation, at times with striking effect, but always overshadowed by the looming diatonic major.
Despite what I find to be significant aesthetic limitations, it was glorious to hear both mass and motet. Striggio unquestionably produced a work that is the acme of its idiom, expressing a preposterously-gargantuan account of Renaissance polyphony. The piece may be painted with a narrow palette, but then, so was the Sistine Chapel.
Also included on the program were instrumental interludes, a Christmas motet in 50 voices by Stefano Rossetto that was inexplicably performed twice, and Unum cole deum, an anonymous setting of the Ten Commandments in a forty-part canon. The introspective and haunting Unum, also found and restored by Moroney, was the evening standout for me.
An encore re-presented Striggio’s Agnus Dei, which I found mildly disappointing – I was hoping for a surprise performance of Spem in Alium. After all, how often do you find a Renaissance choir of 60 assembled?
The performance of February 4, 2012 was produced by CalPerformances at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, a mediocre venue with flat acoustics, most notable for its inadequate supply of bathrooms and drinking water.
Moroney D. “‘Never Heard Before For So Many Years’: Renaissance Masterpieces Rediscovered.” Program Notes. 2011-2012 Season. CalPerformances. Jan 2012. p 32. Available online (PDF) here.
A performance of Striggio’s Ecco si beato giorno, performed by I Fagiolini and conducted by Robert Hollingworth, is available from Decca Records.