Easter IV, 17 April 2016

Clemens: Missa Ecce quam bonum
Byrd: Ego sum panis vivus
Palestrina: Regina Coeli

For this fourth Sunday of Easter, we shall sing a mass setting by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1555), which is based on his setting of the 133rd Psalm: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”. This mass opens in 5 parts but Clemens adds and subtracts voices throughout the piece. The north European style of the Flemish composer is evident: particularly notable is that, when a part is included in a movement, it rarely rests. The flowing Kyrie reflects the motet’s mood but one could imagine that the opening of the Gloria came from a battle mass, a lively phrase that would not seem out of place in a trumpet fanfare. An extra baritone part is added for the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, creating a rich, thick texture and an even stronger evocation of the sentiment of the psalm.

The two motets were written by two of the most prolific composers of all time. William Byrd (1539-1623) published his two books of liturgical music (the Gradualia) in 1607 and 1609. These 109 motets are settings of the propers; the first collection focuses on the Marian feasts, Corpus Christi and All Saints: a startling statement of Byrd’s allegiance to the Roman church in that torrid time of the English Reformation. Byrd’s settings are always harmonically and rhythmically creative. He was also often keen to ‘paint’ the words. In this motet “Ego sum panis vivus” note how the voices fall with the bread of heaven descending from heaven. The structure of the piece is also wonderfully crafted: no phrase is allowed to finish until we reach the core of the text, the repeated:”vivet in aeternum” that is, those who eat of the bread from heaven will live for ever. Both statements stand apart.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) wrote over 300 motets, usually in 5 or more parts. His Regina Caeli is unusual in that it was written for four voices; it was not published in his lifetime and the tenor part has been reconstructed as it was lost. In contrast with Byrd’s complex motet, Palestrina’s setting is much simpler; there are few accidentals and no ‘exotic’ harmonies or rhythms. He refers to the original melody throughout and, for emphasis, he brings the choir together for the opening and at ‘Ora pro nobis’; or reduces the number of singers to just two parts at ‘Portare’. Palestrina’s work is for many, the epitome of Renaissance music. In this motet we can see why; on the page there seems to be nothing extraordinary about this piece but there is sublime beauty in its understatement.