The new year completes the celebrations of Christmas. The astonishing breadth of music written for the church is on show this month. We are able to take music from lesser known, earlier composers like Fayrfax, Mouton, and Brumel whilst enjoying the works of the greats: Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus. The full music list can be found here.
1 January: Missa Iste Confessor – Palestrina (1525-1594)
Most of Palestrina’s 105 settings of the mass are based on earlier music. This setting is based on the 10th century hymn ‘Iste Confessor’. The theme winds its way through the Kyrie with no respite in any of the three movements. The contrast with the Gloria is striking: for whole sections of the piece Palestrina discards imitative writing and uses blocks of singers – two, three, or all four parts – depending on the effect he wishes to create. As is so often the case, the master composer saves the most beautiful writing for the ending. With an extra part for the second Agnus Dei (unusually a second bass part), the rising first line is reflected with the final descending “dona nobis pacem”.
8 January: Missa Dormendo un giorno – Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)
Inspiration for the settings of the mass came to composers from many sources. For this energetic setting, Guerrero ‘parodies’ a madrigal by the French composer, Verdelot, that was published in Venice twenty years before this mass was written. From the madrigal, Guerrero has taken not only the main themes but the exuberant rising runs that permeate the piece.
15 January: Missa Sans Cadence – Jean Mouton (1459-1522)
Mouton spent most of his career working for the French court. He was responsible for the French music at the Field of the Cloth of Gold when Francois I of France met Henry VIII in an attempt to improve the relations between the two countries. It feels like a very modern setting because, unlike contemporary settings, he doesn’t stop the music after each line of text but continues. This approach was the standard from the second half of the sixteenth century.
22 January: Missa de Beate Virgine – Antoine Brumel (1460-1520)
This is possibly Brumel’s final work, composed after the chapel, in Ferrara, where he was director of music, was disbanded. Like Verdelot, Brumel was born in what is now northern France and held important musical posts throughout Europe before settling in Italy. This setting of the mass was famous throughout the sixteenth century: it is heavily based on chant and, unlike some of his more extravagant works, it is a delicate, intimate piece for four voices.
29 January: Missa Albanus – Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521)
Fayrfax led the Chapel Royal when they accompanied Henry VIII to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. He died the following year and is buried in St Albans; the choir of the abbey was the recipient of this wonderful mass. Liturgical music of this era is rhythmically very complex; it is possible that this was to differentiate it from secular dance music. Long phrases in every part with many notes for each syllable look very unwieldy in modern notation but the effect is glorious.