When in Rome….

January 2015

As usual, the pre-Christmas TVEMF event at the Amersham Community Centre attracted a large number of participants, the singers outnumbering the instrumentalists by about two to one. It has always been a great pleasure to participate in an event directed by David Allinson, and this one was no exception. The programme, as is invariably the case with David’s programmes, was interesting and varied, spanning, as it did, the entire sixteenth century, with works by Morales (1500-53), Palestrina (1525-94), Victoria (1548-1611) and Viadana (1560-1627).

Once organised into the formation in which we remained throughout the six selected pieces (three of which were for double choir) we engaged in an unusually low-key warm- up, which omitted some of the more exotic bodily contortions and weird noises that have been required of us on other occasions, though the angry librarian made a brief but welcome reappearance, ‘Bella Signora’ mercifully (for your reviewer, at any rate) terminated after Act I, Scene 1, and the confusion engendered by chanting the alphabet in reverse order was, as usual, plainly audible.

We began with Victoria’s antiphon Alma redemptoris Mater, for SATB x 2. The Marian antiphon formed an important category of Victoria’s works and Victoria based this and two other of his masses (Ave regina coelorum and Salve regina) on those antiphons. The New Grove tells us that the two masses Ave regina coelorum and Alma redemptoris Mater were so popular in Mexico City that in 1640 they had to be recopied by hand because the original part books were worn out and that copies were sent to such distant places as Graz, Urbino and Bogota. Despite their contemporary popularity in mainland Europe and Latin America, Victoria’s masses (apart from the Officium pro defunctorum) aroused little interest in England until relatively recent times.

While drawing this to our attention, David also told us about the change in attitude towards Palestrina which has resulted in the ‘vanilla’ image of Palestrina that prevailed in Victorian times being supplanted by a more recent perception of him as a darker and more complex composer. Allen W Atlas (Renaissance Music, Norton, 1998, p.587) traces this earlier image back to the seventeenth century, when Palestrina ‘was held up as the model of the so-called stile antico, the strict style of a cappella diatonic counterpoint that was still cultivated from time to time as a way of giving sacred music an aura of nostalgic religiosity…a tradition that would live on well into the nineteenth century’ Nineteenth century England, as the literary, musical and theological aspects of the time clearly show, would have been receptive to this perception of Palestrina. There and then, Dr Bowdler was busy sanitising Shakespeare (volume 1 of The Family Shakespeare was published in 1818), Coventry Patmore was celebrating domestic piety and tranquillity with The Angel in the House, the after-life loomed large in the consciousness of many - in particular, earnest young men from Oxford - and English sacred music rarely (as evidenced by Shaw’s entertaining criticisms in his London Music in 1888-89 as heard by Corno di Bassetto and the subsequent three volumes of Music in London) rose above the mawkishly sentimental or the reverentially turgid. There was no space in this cultural landscape for the sensuality of Victoria’s Marian music, particularly anthems with texts from the Song of Solomon such as Trahe me post te and Quam pulchri sunt, and the masses based on them, or for the brittle darkness (to use David’s phrase) of Palestrina’s O Magnum mysterium (SSATTB) which was the second item of the programme. This motet displays a great deal of syllabic homophony and, given that it was published in 1569, may have been written in this style as a gesture of conformity with the decrees of the Council of Trent, which, earlier in the decade, had been greatly exercised over the elimination of ‘every admixture of the secular’ (as Palestrina’s biographer, Baini, put it) from sacred music. The same may be said of the third item in the programme, Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est (SATB x 2), published in 1575. After the convivial lunch which is a feature of these pre-Christmas Amersham events, we were aroused from the resulting torpor by having to cope with the rhythmic complexities of a motet by Viadana, perhaps the least well-known of the composers to whom the programme was devoted. Viadana, a friar, was a member of the Order of Minor Observants and held posts in Mantua, Cremona, Concordia and Fano, though he is known to have spent some time in Rome. The motet which we sang was his Hodie nobis caelorum, written for SATB x 2. After the opening statement has been made by all eight parts in succession, the motet proceeds at a measured pace, alternating antiphonal and full double choir sections until all eight voices embark on the three-time section gaudeamus omnes in Christo. Once the participants begin rejoicing (jubilantes cantabimus) the action becomes much faster, the full-choir rejoicing being intermingled with the statements by the upper parts in each choir of glory to God and peace not (as is usual) simply to men of goodwill but to men of goodwill and true faith (verae fidei). One may wonder whether that unusual inclusion in any way reflected the doctrinal conflicts of the Counter-Reformation period. According to the New Grove, Viadana’s latter years were troubled by differences with other members of his religious order and he died in a convent in 1627.

From the most recent, we moved to the earliest of our composers, Cristobal de Morales, a native of Seville who held appointments at Avila and Plasencia before moving to Italy and, in September 1535, becoming a member of the papal choir at Rome, from which he resigned in 1545. His two books of masses were published during his ten years at Rome. The five-part (SATBB) Missa Queramus cum pastoribus, which expands to six parts (and also contracts to four parts) in the Agnus Dei, which was the next item in our programme, is from the first book, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici, and is based on a similarly named four-part motet by Mouton. It provided a distinct stylistic contrast to the two pieces which preceded it, particularly in the opening five-part section which is full of melismatic writing in the upper parts. The motifs from the motet are more easily recognisable in the central four-part section, which is much less ornamental, and in the final six-part dona nobis pacem section where the setting of dona nobis is reminiscent of the Noe, noe refrain in the motet.

We ended with the longest of the chosen works, Palestrina’s Canite tuba, (SSATB). This, again, was a largely homophonic setting in which very few words are ornamented, the conspicuous exceptions being those related to salvation, and ‘tardare’, which takes up about two bars wherever it appears. It is in two parts, the second part, which contains a good deal of dialogue between groups of voices, being a setting of the Advent antiphon text Rorate caeli desuper. Thus, the programme ended, as it had begun, on a Marian note, the dew of heaven being an emblem of purity particularly associated with Mary. We are all deeply indebted to David Allinson for an instructive, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable Christmas in Rome. Warmest thanks are also due to David Fletcher for producing the music, to Vicky Helby for her overall organisation of the event and to all those, too numerous to mention, who helped with the preparation and distribution of refreshments.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017