Monthly Archives: August 2016

Parody and Paraphrase

Music for September 2016.

This month we sing four mass settings based on music composed in earlier times. From a twenty first century perspective, the motivation for this is hard to fathom. We prize creativity and scoff at those who copy: derivative is one of the harshest criticisms levelled at a piece of music.

Parody masses take music from a, usually famous, motet, chant or even secular song and set the words of the Ordinary (the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) to them. Often the music is directly taken from the original motet; as the mass continues, it transforms and evolves. The final statement of the Agnus Dei is often very different; sometimes with an additional part.

During the sixteenth century, imitation really was the sincerest form of flattery. Palestrina, Italy’s first great composer, wrote four masses based on the music of Jacquet, a French composer who moved to Mantua. On September 4 (XXIII per annum) we will sing both the mass and the motet that it is based upon: Spem in Alium. Jacquet’s motet was published in 1539; the mass was published in 1570, only a few years after the more famous 40 part motet by Tallis was first performed.

Composers often used a well-loved chant to unify the music within the liturgy. For the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity (Thursday 8 September) we will sing one of Morales’ two settings of the mass based on the chant ‘Beata Virgine’. Before the Council of Trent removed them (starting just five years after this mass was first published), many Beata Virgine masses (including the other setting by Morales) have Marian tropes. The devotion to Our Lady during the sixteenth century, and the special nature of these masses, including those by Josquin and Palestrina, show how popular this chant was.

Lassus was an incredibly prolific composer: his 2,000 compositions eclipse even Palestrina’s prodigious output. It is possible to guess a third reason why composers wrote parody masses: the combination of wonderful motet and a pressing deadline. On 11 September (XXIV per annum) we will sing Lassus’ Missa Credidi propter; this mass was published in 1574 and is based on his own motet that was published five years previously.

A mass based on a melody, rather than on a piece of polyphony, is known as a paraphrase mass. During the mass on 18 September (XXV per annum) we will sing Victoria’s magnificent 8 part setting Missa Alma Redemptoris. This mass was written soon after Victoria was ordained priest in Rome. The melody that Victoria used in this setting is not the one we are familiar with; he presents it to us clearly as well as weaving it around the parts.

Over the weekend of 24-25 September we will sing three masses in Venice. We are very grateful for the support and efforts of Frs Jeff and Lorenzo in organising this tour. We will be performing all of the music for the tour, including the mass by Victoria, in in a concert on 18 September at 19.30: the programme includes music by the three most influential Renaissance composers: Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus; those who influenced them: Dufay and Gombert; and those who were influenced by them: Guerrero and Gallus as well as English music by Sheppard, Tallis and Byrd; . We hope you can join us.