Peter Phillips & the Tallis Scholars Return, Part 2

To listen to this show, you must first LOG IN. If you have already logged in, but you are still seeing this message, please SUBSCRIBE or UPGRADE your subscriber level today.

Program: #21-23   Air Date: May 31, 2021

This week, Peter Phillips shares two works by Josquin and a grand mass by Francisco Guerrero.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is performed by The Tallis Scholars directed by our guest Peter Phillips. For complete information:

I. Francisco Guerrero: Missa Surge propera (Gimell CD CDGIM 040).

It has proved difficult to find just the right place for Francisco Guerrero amongst the composers of his time. A contemporary of Palestrina, although they are not known to have met, he was the pre-eminent Spanish composer of the generation between Morales and Victoria. Like Victoria he was a church musician, yet wrote as much secular music as he did sacred. And although he made his career entirely in Spain, he owed more to Palestrina’s methods and ideals than either Morales or Victoria, both of whom lived in Rome for many years.

But the formal perfection on the surface of all Guerrero’s writing – something which is maintained in his chanzonetas and villancicos – often only serves to smooth over an emotionally complex and demanding interior. The way these opposites meet in his church music has long fascinated me and has led to this anthology. Emotion filtered through formal balance can make for especially powerful experiences, and every piece included here has something of this. Usquequo, Domine (track 6) and Hei mihi, Domine (track 8), for example, are classic examples of seemingly understated penitence; passionate in a different way are the great Marian pieces, for which Guerrero was so famed: Ave virgo sanctissima (track 11), possibly the most famous single piece of music to come from Spain in the sixteenth century, and the eight-voice Ave Maria (track 7) and Regina caeli laetare (track 12).

Guerrero lived a colourful life, the details of which were relatively well documented at the time. After studying with Morales he began his life-long association with Seville Cathedral in 1542, initially being appointed as a ‘contralto’ (apparently he was an exceptionally gifted contra alto, or high tenor). Both the cathedral chapters in Jaén and Málaga tried to entice him away, but he always found his way back to Seville where, in 1551, the authorities offered him the right to succeed the ageing maestro, Pedro Fernández. Unfortunately for Guerrero Fernández lived another twenty-three years, and it was only in 1574 that he finally took over. By then he was internationally renowned as a composer, having had his works published not only in Seville, but also in Paris, Venice and Louvain; and outside Europe, in the Spanish–American empire, his works were far better known than those of any of his contemporaries. While seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italian composers, under orders from the Catholic authorities, tried to perpetuate the style of Palestrina, in the New World Guerrero’s music continued to be sung as if it were new, helped by its proto-baroque harmonic clarity. Indeed his Magnificat secundi toni, when published in 1974 from an anonymous eighteenth-century copy in Lima Cathedral, was taken to be an eighteenth-century work.

In 1588 Guerrero undertook a journey which truly sets him apart from every notable composer of the period: he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Leaving Venice on 14 August and travelling via the island of Zante (now Zákinthos), he visited Jaffa, Jerusalem, Beth­le­hem and Damascus before returning to Venice on 9 January 1589. On the way back his ship was twice boarded by pirates, who threatened his life and exacted a ransom. When he finally resumed his duties at Seville Cathedral the cost of publishing his music and the depredations of the pirates had placed him in such serious financial difficulties that in 1591 he was committed to a debtors’ prison. The cathedral chapter secured his release by paying off his creditors; and they also engaged Alonso Lobo to act as his assistant. In 1590 he published what proved to be a popular book about his journey to the Holy Land (El viaje de Hierusalem, which surely would benefit from a modern edition), during the course of which he wrote that he longed to return there. On 11 January 1599 he obtained another year’s leave in order to go, but delayed in starting out and died from the plague that struck Seville in the late summer.

Guerrero’s Missa Surge propera is the only one of his eighteen settings to be scored for six voices; all the others are for fewer. Its model has not been identified, but it certainly is not the motet Surge propera included here, which inhabits a quite different sound-world. The Mass has a sweep of phrase which may remind the listener of some of his Marian motets – Maria Magdalene immediately comes to mind. The polyphony seems to glow with an inner sonority, yet the melodic lines are always grateful to sing, the classic shape of them often anticipating later writing. One might use words of this kind about much of Palestrina’s music, but there should be no confusion. Guerrero’s underlying harmonic sense is so strong that he hardly ever needs to resort to block chords, instead always keeping some sense of independent movement alive between the voices, even when setting a long text in an economical way (as in this Credo). The beauty is in the stability which the harmony brings, coupled to the easy flow of the melodic ideas as they move between the contributing voices. In this Mass Guerrero favoured full textures more than was usual for him, and also liked to group the three higher voices against the three lower ones, as at the beginnings of the ‘Christe eleison’, the ‘Qui tollis’ and the ‘Agnus Dei’. The Missa Surge propera was published in Guerrero’s Missarum Liber Secundus, in Rome in 1582.

Usquequo, Domine and Hei mihi, Domine must rank as two of the most powerful penitential motets of the period. Both scored for SSATTB they were eventually both published alongside Requiem Masses. The surface of Usquequo, Domine is faultlessly spacious and sustained, the material not looking on paper – there are few dissonances or suspensions – as though it could bear the weight of these words. Yet it creates an unforgettable atmosphere, the simpler the more passionate, and nowhere more remarkable than at the first inversion chords on ‘dolorem in corde meo’. In Hei mihi, Domine the imitation at the opening is similarly architectural, though here a chromaticism in the manuscript has led to the editorial addition of two further accidentals which greatly intensify the prevailing mood of desolation. Later on Guerrero allows himself a very brief moment of madrigalian word-painting, at ‘Ubi fugiam?’ (‘Where should I flee?’), before the music culminates, as in Usquequo, in simple block chords, here to underline the words ‘Miserere mei’ (‘Have mercy on me’).

Surge propera and Beata Dei genitrix are the most substantial motets included in this collection, by virtue of having two halves. Many composers of the period, including Palestrina, liked to work with this format because it gave them the opportunity for the symmetrical restatement of material. In Beata Dei genitrix this is obviously the case when the ‘Alleluias’ we have heard at the end of the first half return at the end of the second; in Surge propera the use of the two halves is more strictly mathematical. This elaborate motet is unusual on this disc in having a long-note, so-called cantus firmus, chant part. This is given to the second sopranos, who sing an ostinato made up of the first five notes of the chant melody associated with the words ‘Veni, sponsa Christi’ (‘Come, bride of Christ’); and they also very deliberately sing these words against the voluptuous text of the other parts, thus sanctifying the sensuousness of the love poetry of the Song of Songs. Guerrero set this love poetry in the other parts with suitably diaphanous music, while tempering it with the chant which is quite severely disposed according to the kind of abstract pattern which might have been found in music of a hundred years earlier. At the beginning of the motet the chant motif starts on a C, and in five statements descends by step until it reaches F. In the second half it starts on F and rises back up to C, meaning that the piece ends with the part on its highest notes. Such a complicated marriage of texts and musical styles was not usual by the 1570s, when Surge propera was published, and it poses some exceptional interpretative challenges.

One of the features of Guerrero’s music is the number of outstanding motets he wrote on texts praising the Virgin, to such a degree that commentators in his lifetime and beyond have been tempted to say that he had a fixation about her. His contemporaries even called him ‘El cantor de Maria’. But this is really a tribute to the power of his music, since Mary has been of central importance to most Catholic composers, even if they could not match Guerrero’s balance and serenity. Beata Dei genitrix is one of the most admired, its gentle mood culminating in a plea ‘pro devoto femineo sexu’ (‘for all women devoted to God’), asking the Virgin to intercede for them. More famous still is Ave virgo sanctissima, which became so popular in Guerrero’s lifetime that it was regarded as the quintessentially perfect Marian motet and used as a parody model by a host of composers, many of them Flemish. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this masterpiece is that the intense emotion is generated within the confines of a canonic structure: the two sopranos parts echo each other throughout at an eight-beat interval, yet they move so smoothly and effortlessly that it would be easy to assume that there was no complexity involved. The phrase at ‘Margarita preciosa’ (‘as precious as a pearl’) is one of the loveliest in all renaissance music.

The two eight-part motets included here are also on Marian texts. Ave Maria is a classic late-renaissance double-choir setting, with short answering phrases between the groups which culminate in sonorous eight-part sections. The alternatim method is especially effective at ‘ora pro nobis peccatoribus’ (‘pray for us sinners’). Regina caeli laetare, by contrast, is a more through-composed eight-part setting, with Guerrero picking out the vocal groupings at random. Behind this teeming polyphony are repeated chant statements – whole sections built up on them in fact – though, as with so much else on this disc, the writing is so fluent the listener can easily not notice them. To be able to write eight-part counterpoint of this calibre has been the dream of many composers, but very few in the history of music have been able to rival what Guerrero shows us here. —Peter Phillips

Missa Surge Propera, 31:12

1   Kyrie 3:29
2   Gloria 5:30
3   Credo 8:54
4   Sanctus And Benedictus 7:17
5   Agnus Dei 5:42
6   Usquequo, Domine 5:24
7   Ave Maria 4:15
8   Hei Mihi, Domine 4:21
9   Surge Propera 7:21
10   Beata Dei Genitrix 6:22
11   Ave Virgo Sanctissima 3:57
12   Regina Caeli Laetare 4:25

II. Josquin : Sine nomine & Ad fugam (Gimell CD CDGIM 039).

This recording presents the only two Masses by Josquin which are entirely based on canons. He wrote other single movements which are canons – the second Agnus Dei in his Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales is an especially complex example and is recorded on CDGIM 019 – but only here did he explore the possibilities as exhaustively as the idiom would allow. To write this kind of music may seem academic to the modern mind: who is interested in mathematical scaffolding which most people can’t hear? But Josquin was interested in it – as were many later composers, from Bach to Brahms to Webern – and it is clear that, like every composer of genius, Josquin relishes the challenge inherent in being tied down to a pattern.

These two settings seem to stand at the extreme ends of Josquin’s career. The Missa Ad fugam, an early work, is the easier of the two to follow; the Missa Sine nomine, which may have been Josquin’s last Mass-setting before the great Missa Pange lingua, shows the fruits of his experience in mathematical writing like no other. Indeed, Ad fugam is so much more straightforward than Sine nomine that it is possible Josquin wrote the later work as a foil to the earlier, to show how much more he knew about handling this kind of composition by the end of his life. This would have been more important to him than we may recognize now: every Flemish composer up to Josquin’s time had proved himself with canonic writing, Ockeghem being a leading example. If it is true that Josquin learnt from Ockeghem, it is possible that he saved up this tour de force just to show he could rival his master. In fact there does seem to be a personal note of this kind: at ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo Josquin quotes from his own lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois.

The word ‘canon’ means that a single melody is stated in different voice-parts at different times so that it overlaps with itself. The mathematical element comes in making sure that one part of the chosen melody can combine with another part of it, possibly at a different pitch or in a different tempo, and still make musical sense. The easiest examples to follow are those which are at the same pitch (at the unison or octave) with the second voice following very closely on the first. One famous (and very audible) example of this is in the second Agnus Dei of Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, between the two soprano parts; this work is recorded on CDGIM 008.

In Ad fugam the canon is always between the top part and the third part down, and always a fifth apart. At the very beginning of the first Kyrie, for example, the top part begins on a G with the answering tenor beginning on a C, three beats later. Since all of the five movements begin with exactly the same musical material, the canon is the same every time. Later in all the movements the distance between the two canonic voices grows wider – to three whole bars – but still the writing is so transparent that after a hearing or two the influence of the canon should be apparent. This transparency is helped by the fact that the second and fourth parts hardly join in at all.

Ad fugam is thought to be an early work partly because the canon is so rigid; partly because the common material which opens every movement lasts ten bars (substantial by Josquin’s later standards); and partly because there is an original source (MS31 in the library of Jena University) which seems to carry some second thoughts by someone – possibly Josquin – who wanted to rework the canon in the Sanctus and Agnus. Since these revisions have something of Josquin’s maturer style about them, we have decided to include them on this recording as a point of comparison. It is not often in music of this period that we are given a glimpse of a revision; and certainly in this case the difference between the elongated, Ockeghem-esque lines of the original, and the sparser, tauter thinking of the later music is revealing.

Neither Ad fugam nor Sine nomine is known to be based on pre-existing material: in both cases Josquin seems to have invented the canonic melodies himself. The main difference between the two Masses is that in Sine nomine the canons are distributed all over the texture – any of the voices may take any other as its partner. And where one of the voices does not actually have the main melody, it may well join in through imitation. The opening Kyrie again is a good example. It is written around a canon between the top and second parts (a fourth and fourteen bars apart), but before the second part enters – rather late in the writing – the third part has accompanied the top part with music very obviously related to the canonic melody. Eventually the bass enters doing the same thing. The Christe and second Kyrie then go on to have their own canonic schemes. The Gloria begins with imitation between the top and second parts, which is a feint since neither of them has the canon in earnest, despite singing the opening notes of it. And so on: such subtlety of writing over the length of a whole Mass would take a short book to do it justice.

I have listened to many pieces of music from all periods with the greatest enjoyment, not knowing that they had canons buried inside them: it is not necessary to follow even the skeleton key to Josquin’s mathematics I have given above to find these Masses as engrossing as those which are free. Yet in a sense any successful piece of canonic writing is bound to have an extra dimension to it. The listener will always have the apprehension, however vague, of a presence in the music which complicates and intensifies. It is quite possible that you will never get to the bottom of why a canonic Mass fascinates you, yet it is not necessary to analyse everything to enjoy it. Polyphony is always complex and canonic writing makes the most complex polyphony of all. The best polyphony does not have to be mathematically ingenious, but it should add something if it is.—Peter Phillips

III. Josquin Masses: Malheur me bat & Fortuna desperata  (Gimell CD CDGIM 042).

It has recently become a favourite intellectual game to compare Josquin’s career with that of Beethoven. Essentially the point is that Josquin was as influential a composer in his time as Beethoven was in his; but the subplot is that Josquin ought to be taken as seriously as any later composer even though he lived so long ago and only wrote for voices. To invoke his name in the same breath as Beethoven’s is the best way to put him where he deserves to be. The average music-lover will take the point.

There isn’t much substance in this except to point out that Josquin travelled constantly whereas Beethoven didn’t. But one intriguing idea that has come out of the comparison is that a Josquin Mass is presented these days like a Beethoven symphony – a succession of movements, making a satisfying musical experience when performed without break, in a concert hall. Unlike a symphony, the Mass traditionally ends with a slow movement, the Agnus Dei, while stacking the most positive music in the middle of the succession of events, in the Gloria and Credo; but in the hands of a master this doesn’t matter, since the musical logic will extend through all the movements, culminating in the last one, pro­ducing a rounded emotional experience comparable to, if different from, that of a symphony. In fact I personally have come to think of Josquin’s sixteen or so authenticated Mass-settings as an equivalent achievement to Beethoven’s nine symphonies: each one exploring a different aspect of the form, each one an intellectual and technical tour de force, each one showing a different side of his personality. In this respect there is more substance in comparing Josquin with Beethoven than with, say, Mozart or Haydn, since Josquin and Beethoven both seemed more concerned to individualize every work they wrote, to make each work tell.

The Mass-settings included on this disc are two of the finest to come from any pen. They are linked by having secular polyphonic songs as their models, coincidentally neither of which are safely attributed to any single composer. Malheur me bat is probably not by Ockeghem but by a little-known Flemish composer called Malcort, whose obscurity should not detract from the beauty of his song, nor from the fact that it became a favourite model for Mass-settings by composers active around the year 1500. How strange, then, that not one of the nine sources for it provides any words apart from the title – the performance given by The Tallis Scholars at the 2008 Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, London, was made possible by commissioning a contemporary poet – Jacques Darras – to complete the text. The attribution of Fortuna desperata to Antoine Busnoys is more secure, though the manu­script evidence is not conclusive.

The two Masses sung here are also linked by the way Josquin borrowed his material from the chansons. Both of these chansons were three-voice compositions. Before Josquin the normal procedure in basing a Mass-setting on a chanson was to take one of the original voice-parts, often the tenor, and derive all the motifs to be used in the Mass from it. This was called paraphrasing a melody. However in these two settings Josquin went a stage further by plundering all three of the voice parts for quotable material, at a stroke tripling the stock of ideas he could draw on. Thus the art of parodying a poly­phonic model was born, in which tradition Missa Fortuna desperata, which is reckoned to be earlier than Missa Malheur me bat, was one of the first. We can hear Josquin refining and developing these techniques in Missa Malheur me bat.

These techniques are astonishingly complicated. Just about every bar of every movement on this disc is underpinned by a quotation from the model in question, though there seems to be no logic to how Josquin decided which of the three voices he was going to home in on, or whether more than one is being used at any given moment (all three tend to appear at the beginning of the movements), or what speed the chosen melody is being quoted at. In general he liked to construct his polyphonic lines out of quite short motifs, often quoted as sequences which become building blocks (the Sanctus of Missa Fortuna desperata gives a good example of this). More often than not his resourcefulness is not clearly audible: the best chance of hearing the chanson material is when he quotes their melodies in very long notes. This happens in the Credo of Missa Fortuna desperata, for example, where he takes the top part of the chanson and quotes it four times in the top part of the Mass in ever diminishing speeds (in the ratio 8:4:3:2), giving the movement a power­ful drive to its end since the last statement is going four times faster than the first. But the processes can be opaque: in Missa Malheur me bat, in both the Gloria and the Credo, he quotes a melody, stops, goes back to the beginning of it again and quotes more of it, stops again, returns again to the begin­ning and quotes yet further in a kind of expanding loop. Yet this thematic scaffolding is only part of the story. Around the ‘big’ quotations, Josquin borrows or invents literally endless tiny motifs, which serve to disguise the pure mathematics which underlie so much of the writing, while at the same time expres­sing the essential nature of the texts and driving the musical argument forward.

All this wisdom in the art of composition cul­minates in these Masses, as it tended to culminate in the Romantic symphony, in the last movement. By intensifying the learning which underlies both Agnus Dei settings, as well as intensifying the symbolism inherent in the borrowed themes, Josquin in his own style achieves a symphonic breadth of expression.

In the Agnus settings on this disc he was thinking as follows: Missa Malheur me bat’s Agnus has three invocations, which was the normal procedure in Josquin’s time and place. Missa Fortuna desperata only has two, though it is possible that a two-voice section, which would have come between the two four-part ones that exist, has got lost over time. In the first Agnus of Missa Malheur me bat the tenor carries a simplified version of the chanson tenor in long notes, while the other voices surround it with a classic example of Josquin building blocks with a repeating motif. The second Agnus, for two voices, is a free canon at the second. This, the most difficult canon of all to write, produces a mesmerizing, unearthly effect. The third Agnus is one of the great tours de force of the repertory, similar in method to the final Agnus of Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé sexti toni. The four voices of the earlier movements have become six. The outside parts of the chanson are retained without alteration while the middle part of the original is removed altogether and replaced with a double canon (that is, with two sets of two voices in canon with each other). In this way the music from the chanson acts as a scaffolding for the filigree detail of the canonic parts, coming and going as they like, as it seems outside time.

In the Agnus Dei of Missa Fortuna desperata Josquin invented an arguably simpler but no less effective formula. Again we are in the world of building-block motifs, but this time over a very long-note bass part, which at times explores the most sonorous depths of the voice. In the first Agnus these bass notes are formed from the original top part of the chanson, transposed down an octave and a fifth, augmented and inverted. The second Agnus follows the same pattern, only now the bass long-notes are taken from the chanson’s tenor, here transposed down an octave but uninverted. It has been suggested that the inversion in the first Agnus was intended to represent a catastrophic turn of Fortune’s wheel, with the return to normality made possible through the good offices of the uninverted melody in the second Agnus.

However one likes to view the very plausible symbolism inherent in these Agnus Deis, there can be no denying that by reviewing at the end the themes which have been circulating throughout the earlier movements Josquin brings his settings to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Not that the listener will consciously grasp everything that is happening – one needs a score for that, and even then it is hard to spot all the references. But subconsciously the mind is enthralled. —Peter Phillips


Composer Info

Francisco Guerrero, Josquin,

CD Info

Gimell CD CDGIM 040, Gimell CD CDGIM 039, Gimell CD CDGIM 042