The Mass in 40 Parts

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Program: #11-17   Air Date: Apr 18, 2011

Our Easter program looks at the inspiration for Tallis' famous 40 voice motet, a huge work by the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio, in a new recording by I Fagiolini.

NOTE: All of the music on this program came from the recording Alessandro Striggio--Mass in 40 Parts featuring I Fagiolini directed by Robert Hollingworth, and is Decca CD 4782734.

For more information on this ensemble, you may check the website:

Alessandro Striggio 

1 Ecce beatam lucem (1561?/1568) 

Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno (by 1566) 

2 Kyrie 
3 Gloria 
4 Credo 
5 Sanctus
6 Benedictus 
7 Agnus Dei I 
8 Agnus Dei II 

9 Vincenzo Galilei – Contrapunto Secondo di BM (1584) 

Alessandro Striggio 

10 Fuggi, spene mia (1565) 
11 O giovenil ardire (1568) 
12 Altr’io che queste spighe (1570) 
13 D’ogni gratia et d’amor (1567?/1571) 
14 O de la bella Etruria (1560) 
15 Caro dolce ben mio (1560) 
16 Misero ohimè (1560) 
17 Sarum plainchant – Spem in alium 
18 Thomas Tallis – Spem in alium (1567-71)

Hugh Keyte writes of this extraordinary mass:

Genesis of the Striggio 40-part works

No record exists of the origins of either Striggio’s 40-part mass or his surviving motet in 40 parts, Ecce beatam lucem. This latter work is probably the second such motet that Striggio composed and is first clearly mentioned at the Wittelsbach wedding in Munich in 1568 (more on this in the CD sleeve).

Striggio’s first 40-part work – lost, text unknown, and until now thought to have been Ecce beatam – is known to have welcomed papal envoys to Florence in July 1561. No title is given. The next month, Striggio sent a work for 40 parts to his native Mantua in honour of a recent Gonzaga marriage and his letter to the Duke partially implies that the two pieces are the same. Similarly no title is given and no further record of the piece has been found.

The most likely scenario for the inception of the motet and mass on this recording (the mass uses and develops material from the motet) is that both were commissioned for a 1565 Florentine dynastic marriage of enormous importance to the Medici, between the Prince Francesco (later Grand Duke Francesco I, but then regent, with his father Cosimo I retaining most of the executive power), and Archduchess Johanna of Austria, daughter of the recently-deceased Emperor Ferdinand I. By a calculated piece of symbolism, the music was by the leading Florentine composer, its text from a neo-Latin ode by Paul Melissus (né Schede), a young German poet then resident in Vienna (the bride’s home town), and whom her father had the previous year declared Poet Laureate. (Melissus was a cradle Lutheran, and may already have had leanings towards the Calvinism that he later espoused: but both Ferdinand and his successor Maximilian II were nominal Catholics sympathetic to the Protestant cause.)

The wedding festivities were on the most lavish scale, and the mass setting will have graced the extravagantly-staged nuptial mass in the duomo, Striggio’s five choirs presumably ranged around the quire beneath Brunelleschi’s great dome and conceivably on a cloud machine and attired as Angels.  The motet will have featured a few days earlier in the course of the bride’s formal entry into the city, at her ecclesiastical reception in the duomo nave. The printed account of a comparable reception of a Medici bride recounts how singers and instrumentalists, masked and costumed, descended on cloud machines from the vault of the easternmost bay to present a spectacular scena sacra. Assuming that Ecce beatam was similarly mounted in 1565, the sacred scene will have embodied the vision of the New Jerusalem of Melissus’s ode, which is entitled ‘Enthusiasticon’: at the summit, the Holy Trinity enthroned against the cosmos; around and below, Christian saints and Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, with a singing and harping King David given pride of place.

Mysteriously, Ecce beatam comprises only part of Melissus’s ode. In the unset initial Strophe the Holy Spirit infuses the poet with divine rapture and Christ leads him to view the celestial vision. It is possible that Striggio did set this section. He was celebrated for his unique performances of small-scale works, singing the leading part while simultaneously playing the entire texture of up to four parts on a lirone, a kind of multistringed bass viol with flat bridge (to be heard clearly on the recording in the Galilei track, with two lutes). If Striggio did indeed set Melissus’s Strophe and performed it thus, there would have been a splendid coup de théatre when, towards the close, the sky shutters above him were withdrawn and the massed cloud-borne forces of Ecce beatam began to descend.

Composer Info

Alessandro Striggio

CD Info

CD 4782734