Alma redemptoris mater

May 2012

As the unaccustomed February sunshine beat down on the utilitarian façade of the Headington Community Centre, the 47 singers who attended the TVEMF event on 25 February were bathed in illumination of a completely different nature; singing early music is not primarily (or, perhaps, even at all) about making beautiful sounds, but about understanding the structure of the work and realising the composer’s intentions.

We can always expect John Milsom to take us on a voyage into the unknown - Richafort, Loyset Compere and Philip van Wilder come to mind from previous occasions - but this time he provided an intriguing mixture of the familiar viewed in unfamiliar ways, and the totally unfamiliar. We began with the well-known plainchant Alma redemptoris mater, but we explored it in small sections which were put into the context of the polyphony of the setting by Constanzo Festa, the first of the three motets to be studied. It is perhaps surprising that a composer so famous in his time as Festa (“musicus eccelentissimus et cantor egregius” as he was described at his burial), and so prolific both as a composer of sacred music and a madrigalist, should be so little known, and to our lack of acquaintance with his music, John added another layer of separation - the process of “de-familiarisation”. This was achieved by presenting the music on the page in an unaccustomed format, which involved reading right across a double page, dispensing to a large extent with the underlay, and arranging the parts in an unexpected order, so that the two parts making up the canon (A1 and T1) were at the top of the system, with the others (S1, S2, T2 and B) below. As was also the case on Michael Procter’s Hassler day last December, it became clear that we are creatures of habit who expect the highest part to be at the top of the system and are particularly disconcerted by any part designated 1 lying lower in the voice than the corresponding 2.

Festa served as a focus for the question “For whom was the composer writing ?”. The answer, emphatically, is not the audience except, perhaps, to the extent that they wished their patrons to be satisfied with the music which they commissioned; it is other composers. In music, as in the visual arts, there was the desire to emulate, and to surpass their peers. Such was the route to recognition and prestigious appointments - in Festa’s case, the court of Louis XII and the Sistine Chapel. Commercial considerations were also prominent. In 1536, Festa wrote to his patron, Filippo Strozzi of the Florentine banking family, addressing him as “Magnificent Sir” and asking him to have one of his agents find a printer in Venice for his hymns and Magnificats “and if he wants them, I want not less than 150 scudi, and if he wants the basse, 200 in all” (Allan W Atlas, Renaissance Music, Norton, 1998, p.466). There are no such anecdotes about the composer of the second setting which we studied. Not even the years of the birth and death of Andreas de Silva are known, and although there are several references to him both in Reese, Music in the Renaissance (Dent, 1954) and Leeman Perkins, Music in the Age of the Renaissance (Norton, 1999), these writers do not place him in the front rank-for instance, his first two appearances in Reese are under the headings “Carpentras and some lesser figures” and “Corteccia and some lesser madrigalists”. However, it appears that his compositions were of sufficient interest to be drawn on by Palestrina and by Arcadelt, and the Te Deum setting which has been found in more sources of the period than any other is attributed to him (and also to Josquin and Mouton). Indeed, it appears that he enjoyed a high reputation among his contemporaries, being described in 1567 by Bartoli as one of the successors of Josquin “who taught the world how music should be written”. Kirsch, in the New Grove, describes his compositional style as having “a relatively simple technical structure, a straightforward, strongly expressive melody which tends towards declamation, an expressive harmonic sense and an overall formal design which is always clear”. These characteristics were all apparent in the five-part (SATBarB) setting and it is unsurprising that at the end of the day it topped the poll for the participants’ favourite piece.

Finally we moved on to more familiar ground with the five-part (SATTB) setting by Victoria. Here, John drew our attention to a musical jest perpetrated by the composer. Both the Festa and the de Silva settings are based entirely on the Alma redemptoris mater chant and the setting of the words sumens illud Ave mirrors that section of the chant. In the Victoria, however, a setting from Ave maris stella (where the second verse opens with the line sumens illud Ave) is introduced, this being indicated by the insertion of the relevant section of both chants at the start of the corresponding text. After the florid, decorative five bars of sumens illud Ave based on Ave maris stella, the setting returns quietly and almost apologetically to peccatorum miserere as if, so John put it, Victoria was asking pardon for having strayed. Having done some detailed work on all three pieces and absorbed a variety of fascinating insights, we broke for tea (refreshed once again by Mary Reynor’s exceedingly good cakes, beside which Mr Kipling’s productions pale into insignificance) and sang through all three pieces. John was generous in his praise for our efforts and we, I am sure, felt privileged to act once again as a medium for his exploration into some previously uncharted territory. Warmest thanks are due not only to him but to Diana Porteous and Nicola Wilson-Smith for their contributions towards another successful day in Headington.

Sidney Ross

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