The Pope, the Emperor and the Grand Duke: The Rediscovery of a Musical Masterpiece from Renaissance Florence

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The rediscovery of the gigantic "Mass in Forty Parts" by Alessandro Striggio, lost since 1726, sheds important light on the connections between music and politics in the sixteenth century. Dating from 1566-7, it is one of the most extravagant pieces ever composed in the history of music.

Professor Davitt Moroney, University of California, Berkeley.

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Professor Davitt Moroney


It's a great pleasure and a privilege to be giving a musical lecture at Gresham College.  I remember when I was an undergraduate down the road at King's College London, one of my professors there, the eminent musicologist Thurston Dart, who is a great specialist on the music of the English Elizabethan composer John Bull, told me about Gresham College. John Bull had been appointed the first ever Professor of Music at Gresham College.  So it feels rather significant to be giving a lecture today about music that I do not think John Bull himself could never have heard, since he was born about the time the mass was composed.  But nevertheless, the legend of the visit to London, which I will be talking about, of the composer of this piece was still alive and well in England in John Bull's time, so he might have known about this piece.

'The Pope, the Emperor, and the Grand Duke: the Rediscovery of a Musical Masterpiece from Renaissance Florence' - alright, it is a rather fancy title, one of those standard titles in two-parts with the standard colon in the middle, but it does indeed say very precisely what it is that I am going to talk about: I am going to tell you a grand story, or rather, a grand ducal one.  It is about a particularly spectacular manifestation of musical culture in 16th Century Florence, under the rule of the Medici family.  The music is by the composer Alessandro Striggio the Elder, the highest paid composer at the Medici court, by which I mean that his salary was about twice as much as anybody else's, and it took 100 years before any other musician was paid as well.

No story about the Medici and about Florence would be complete without its share of popes and emperors, and this one is no exception.  In 1569, Pope Pius V granted the Medici ruler, Cosimo de' Medici, whose then title was Duke of Florence and Sienna, a new title, a royal one. In Rome, a few months later, in March 1570, ignoring opposition from the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, the Pope crowned Cosimo, making him the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

In honour of the event, Alessandro Striggio wrote an impressive piece of music in twelve voices.  Now, since most choirs usually only use four lines of music - soprano, alto, tenor and base - twelve different voices is a lot - three times the normal complement.  I just want to make sure that we're all on the same page here: if you hear Handel's Hallelujah, for example, from the end of Messiah, you may have 300 singers singing there on stage, but they're singing music in four parts - the soprano line, the alto line, the tenor line, and the base line.  So what I am talking about is not the number of singers, but the number of lines of music, and most music for a choir is for four lines.  A particularly big choir would have maybe five or six lines of music, or a really big choir will have a double chorus with eight lines of music - two soprano lines, two alto lines, two tenor lines, and two base lines.  So Striggio's piece in honour of the Grand Duke of Tuscany was twelve lines of music - three soprano lines, three alto lines, three tenor lines, and three base lines.  This is especially impressive.

My subject today is a vastly grander and vastly more grand ducal work, Striggio's great mass in forty parts - ten times the normal arrangement for a choir.  I will also be talking about its links with Cosimo's campaign in 1569 to obtain his royal title.  This work, as some of you may have already read, since there has been some publicity already with an article in the Observer and so on, was lost for centuries.  Its rediscovery is of major importance in several ways, and if you are in London on July 17th, you will have a chance to hear it when I will be conducting the first modern performance, and no doubt the first one since the 16th Century, at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

The best place to begin this story, however, is not in the 1560s, but much later.  In 1724, the French baroque composer, Sebastien de Brossard, finished cataloguing his huge music library.  He says, in his letters to Louis XV at the time when he was trying to obtain a pension in return for the donation of his library, he says that it is over 10,000 volumes.  In fact, since the library survives, we can now count it rather more precisely than Brossard himself, and it comes out to just over 1,000 volumes.  But it has to be said that some of them do break down into about ten little sub-volumes, so if you actually count the fascicles that were on his shelf, 10,000 is not far from it, but if you look in the catalogue, it comes up to about 1,000 titles.  Either way, if we had bookshelves across the whole wall, it would fill it.

So in 1725, Brossard finished cataloguing his own huge music library.  That handwritten catalogue is now in Paris, in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.  It contains a description, in French, of one of the most extraordinary items - mass for five choirs of eight parts each, or forty different parts, and a basso continuo by Senor Alessandro Strusco, if I am not mistaken, for this name is very badly written at the start of the basso continuo.  Brossard wrongly noted in his annotation that the work dated from the 17th Century.

I first came across this reference in his catalogue twenty years ago, in 1987, and I have been hunting on and off for this work ever since.  The difficulty of course is that Brossard's catalogue, when you open it, it says that this work is in the fourth cabinet, third shelf down.  That is not much help in trying to find it today, because it was integrated into the Royal Library into the 1720s, then it was re-catalogued when Napoleon took over and it became the Imperial Library, and then it became the Royal Library again when there was the French restoration of the monarchy, and then it became the Bibliotheque Nationale again in the 1880s, and then it has now changed its name once again to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.  It kept moving place during these different changes until it settled down in the 1960s into its present building, but theoretically it is the same collection that has never moved or changed, and certainly nothing ever been sold from it. 

So I have been hunting for it for about twenty years, and I finally held it in my hands for the first time in January 2005.  It was a magical moment that I will never forget.

The difficulty in tracing it had been partly due to the fact that Brossard, as he half suspected, had indeed been mistaken about the name of the composer.  But he was not only mistaken about that, he was also wrong about the date.  I confess it took me some time to link Brossard's 17thCentury Strusco, whose name I promptly forgot because he does not exist, with the 16th Century composer Alessandro Striggio.

Striggio's mass was first alluded to in modern times in 1980 by Professor Iain Fenlon of King's College Cambridge, who had discovered an Italian reference to it dating from 1567.  Two years later, an Oxford scholar, David Butchart, published two newly identified letters by Striggio, also dating from 1567, that refer repeatedly to this same great work.  Both Fenlon and Butchart concluded that the work was lost, so the trace for Striggio's 16th Century mass in forty parts ended there.


On the other hand, since Brossard donated his whole music collection to Louis XV in 1726, the complete source for his so-called 17th Century mass in forty parts should logically never have moved from the national collections in France.  Of course that is, therefore, where I found it in 2005, and the mysterious, non-existent Strusco turned out to be Striggio.

So this mass has been sitting all these years in the Bibliotheque Nationale.  The call number used to be VM1947, but as soon as I pointed out to the music librarian what it actually is, it was immediately reclassified, and it has now been transferred into the Grand Reserve, where you have to sit at a special table and wear white gloves to consult it.  That was my fault - I am sorry!

The paper and the copyists for this source are French, and it probably dates from about 1620 to 1625.  Maybe that was what Brossard was thinking of when he said it was 17th Century.  He was right in that the handwriting is 17th Century and the paper is 17th Century.  However, it was a copy of music that dates from some fifty or sixty years earlier.

Rather than being a large single manuscript of music in score, with all the parts together, it is a series of 42 small booklets, each bound at one end with a little bit of sewing, and each of about eight pages per book.  So a series of 42 of these little booklets, known as partbooks, plus two for the organ accompaniment - forty vocal parts and two organ parts makes 42 partbooks. 

The question is: why did Brossard, who was himself a very good composer and had other music by Striggio in his collection, get this so wrong? 

If you look at the first of the bass partbooks you will see that there is a very illegible little scribble at the top left.  The composer's name is in very small letters, and as Brossard noted, it is not at all clear, especially when the page is as small as it is.  It reads: 'For the forty part mass by Alexander Strigeo'.  Now, the name itself, if we look closely, appears to be written with only one 'g'.  This is the spelling actually used by Striggio himself in his letters about the mass dating from 1567.  So while he was taking this mass around, he was spelling his name with one 'g'.  However, somebody altered the sixth letter of the name from an 'i' to an 'e'.  Brossard correctly read 'str' at the beginning, and he correctly got the 'o' at the end, and then he got stuck.  For the rest, rather than reading 'ig', he mistakenly but absolutely not unreasonably, read 'u' and then was left with a squiggle that he could only interpret as a long old-fashioned 's'.  So he came up with the name Struseo, which he wrote in his own catalogue and added it in an Italian annotation at the bottom.  So the mass was ascribed to Struseo in the early 18th Century, not only on the manuscript itself, but also in Brossard's own catalogue - in the main text of the catalogue, and in Brossard's marginal comments in it catalogue.  He keeps repeating this name Struseo because he really believed in it.

But Brossard's catalogue was no doubt beginning to fall to bits.  It iss in a very bad state, even though it does survive.  The binding has had to be rebound a couple of times since.  The minute the collection entered the royal collections, there was a young librarian who worked at the Royal Library who made a scribal copy of Brossard's catalogue, one that they could use as an everyday catalogue.  The young librarian making his scribal copy faithfully copied everything that Brossard had written, so in his catalogue he writes, sure enough, 'Alessandro Struseo' without the long 's', but with a small one, and in the margins, he also writes 'Alessandro Struseo'.  However, this copyist's copy of that dubious sixth letter 'e', which is wrong anyway, was written with an extremely faint and high crossbar so it left the name looking like 'Strusco'. 

These cumulative changes to Striggio's name made it unrecognisable - Strigio with one 'g', Strigeo, Struseo, copied three years later looking like Strusco.  So of course, it is as Strusco that the name appears next in 1914 in a published catalogue of early music in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and the mass is perfectly well listed there, complete with the first two measures of the music, in the first voice only.  But it is listed of course under this name of a non-existent composer.

Nevertheless, a librarian in Paris correctly listed it in the 1930s in the card catalogue.  Even although in the Bibliotheque Nationale they have gone over to computer catalogues, they did not throw away all their cards.  They are still sitting in the corner of the room.  I showed the card to the head music librarian and asked if it was known whose handwriting it was.  She asked all the music librarians and nobody recognised the handwriting, but one of the oldest librarians there said, 'Those cards with green lines and a single red line across them were only used in the 1930s.'  So somebody in the 1930s correctly listed this mass under Striggio's name in the card catalogue, so a reference to this forty part mass has been sitting there quietly for seventy years and no scholars had seen it.

By 1914, the work had suffered in three ways.  First, in the 1724 and '27 catalogues, it had lost its original title.  The title is found only on partbook number 42, the second organ accompaniment book - 'Mass on Ecco si beato giorno divided into five parts by Alessandro'.  That was the first way it had suffered by 1914.

Second, as we have seen, the composer's name had by that time morphed through Struseo to Stusco, and third, most amusingly perhaps, in 1914, the poor work was also deprived of any reference to its most striking musical feature.  Perhaps it was a proof corrector who found the idea of forty voices ridiculous.  At any rate, the '0' disappeared!  Ecorcheville's catalogue listed Striggio's great mass 'En Ecco si beato giorno' in forty parts as 'Stusco's nameless mass in four parts'.  Not surprisingly, scholars have not been in a hurry to look at that one!

Now, let's return to Florence, nearly 200 years before Brossard catalogued the work - Cosimo de Medici, the first of the Grand Dukes of Florence.  His name is never mentioned in all the letters that refer to the mass, but he is undoubtedly the major silent player in this story, despite the fact that all Striggio's official letters were addressed to Cosimo's son, Francesco. 

In June 1564, Francesco had assumed power as Regent for governing Florentine domestic policy, but Cosimo still maintained a tight hold on foreign policy.  Eighteen months later, in December 1565, Francesco married Archduchess Johanna of Austria.  She was the youngest daughter of the former Emperor Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, and she was therefore the little sister of the current Emperor, Maximilian II. 

Eleven months after their marriage, in November 1566, Alessandro Striggio left Florence on a long journey, with the forty part mass in his baggage.  His first stop was Mantua, north of Florence, the court of Guglielmo Gonzaga, where the Duchess, Eleonora Gonzaga, was an older sister of Johanna, the new Princess of France.  They were both Archduchesses of Austria, sisters of the Emperor.  Striggio had been born in Mantua of a noble family, although he was illegitimate, but he had been recognised and was acknowledged as a gentleman of the court.  He was not some employed musical lackey like so many musicians of the period; he had a position as gentleman and therefore had a status where he could talk directly to the princes.

By 1561 he was already working for the Medicis and he had composed a now unidentifiable forty part motet in order of Guglielmo and Eleonora's wedding, and a letter written in August of 1561 states that it was the first such piece he had ever written for so many voices.  This means, interestingly, that the forty part mass was definitely composed between August 1561, when he wrote that letter, and the start of his trip in November 1566.  My hunch was that it was in fact composed in 1565 or 1566.

After Mantua, he headed to the Imperial Hapsburg Court, the court of the Emperor.  Unfortunately, when he reached Vienna, he found that Maximilian was not there.  He caught up with him a week later in Brno, which is now in the Czech Republic, the modern day Czech Republic, in early January 1567.  It was probably around the sixth or the seventh of January because we know he left Vienna on the first of January.  He reported back to Francesco that he had presented the mass to the Emperor, who had said - Emperors are very polite - that he could not have received anything that would have pleased him more.

Striggio's route to Vienna, we know again from his letters, had been via Innsbruck.  You only have to look at the map when you know he had gone to Mantua and his next stop was Innsbruck to see that there was only one way across the Alps.

Last year, I was pondering this fact when it suddenly struck me that here was something very strange.  Striggio can only have travelled to Innsbruck by crossing the Alps through the Brenner Pass, which was then a mere track for mules and horses.  So why did he do so in the middle of winter?  Why did he make such an arduous journey at that difficult time of year?

After considerable research into the Medici and Hapsburg archives, I came to the conclusion that both his journey and the gift of the mass to the Emperor had to be directly connected with the fact that on almost exactly the same day that he arrived with his big gift, a long, legally worded, diplomatic letter from Cosimo de' Medici had also arrived on the Emperor's desk.  In case you are under any misapprehensions about how one might write to the Emperor, when you are Duke of Florence, you write very bluntly.  So, this letter argued exceedingly forcefully why Maximilian should now officially acknowledge that the Medici rulers had precedence over all other Italian princes, and in particular over that pretentious Duke of Ferrara.  The coincidence of dates suggests that Cosimo's argument about precedence must be somehow behind Striggio being sent across the Alps in mid-winter with his servant and his baggage mule.

It is perhaps difficult for us today to understand how important matters of precedence really were.  Political power stemmed from it.  Precedence was the public recognition of rank, and therefore of influence and importance.  The precedence that Cosimo sought could have been acknowledged by the Imperial bestowal of a royal title on the Medicis, since no other Italian princes or dukes had such a title, carrying the right to a crown in their coat of arms.  Indeed, it turns out that precisely such a royal title had just been proposed, in 1565, by Pope Pius IV, as fate would have it, a Medici Pope, although not actually related to the Florentine Medici.  At this time, Cosimo de' Medici was busy writing to the Pope saying, 'Even though we do not know our families are actually related, I am sure they must be.  Having such a name, we must, if we go back far enough, have ancestors in common.' 

Pius IV had suggested making the Medicis kings.  This is all to do with trying to marry off young Francesco.  The first bride proposed by the Pope had been a Portuguese princess, and as a princess and a prince the heir to a king, their rank would have been equal.  However, that marriage did not work out and there was a proposal to marry him off to a Spanish princess, the daughter of a king, and it would have again worked out if Francesco had been the son of a king, but that marriage did not work out either.  Then eventually they settled on the third candidate, who was Johanna of Austria, the youngest sister of the Emperor.  So Pius IV had suggested making the Medici kings, but then, most inconsiderately, had died, on the 9th of December 1565, just nine days before Francesco and Johanna's wedding in Florence.  In the end, the suggested title of king turned out to be diplomatically untenable as the Hapsburgs would not have it.

So in 1566, the new Pope, Pius V, instead proposed the title of 'Archduke' - still a royal title, giving the Medici the right to a crown over their coat of arms, which would of course have given them the precedence over all the other Italian princes.  The presentation of Striggio's forty part mass to the Emperor coincided exactly, to the week, with Cosimo's most formal pleading for a title that would grant him Italian precedence, as proposed by two Popes.  Cosimo even slyly says, 'Would your Imperial Highness like me to convince the Pope that you should give the title rather than he should?'  He was a clever manipulator, Cosimo de' Medici.  The Emperor did not reply, so Cosimo tried again in another letter, and said, 'I will if you want tell the Pope that he should not make me Archduke.'  He was a very clever person, manipulating everybody around the political chessboard.

So the presentation of the forty part mass coincides exactly with all this business.  Alas, I have to report at this point that, in this respect, the mass was a complete failure.  The Hapsburgs were themselves Archdukes.  The title of Emperor was only an honorary title.  Their official royal title is Archduke, and they did not look at all kindly on the idea that these upstart Florentine bankers should have the same rank as themselves.  They even threatened war on Florence if this title was given. 

So, sadly for the Medicis and for Striggio, in Brno, Maximilian had also not had his musicians with him because he was travelling, and so the impressive mass could not be performed and allowed to work its magical musical influence. The Emperor remained unmoved, and the Medici rulers became neither kings nor archdukes.

But Cosimo was undeterred by this imperial brick wall.  He continued to court the new Pope, and was rewarded in 1569 by a papal bull that unilaterally, without the Emperor's approval, granted him and his heirs the royal title and thereby the precedence.  The Pope, who was a clever man as well, to avoid open conflict with the Hapsburgs, opted for the less inflammatory title of 'Grand Duke' of Tuscany.  This was a title that had not been used in Europe. It was used in Moscow, in Muscovi and Eastern European countries, but in parts of what we think of as Western Europe, it was a title that was no longer used. 

The bull creating Cosimo Grand Duke of Tuscany even includes a drawing of the precise design of the proposed royal crown, supposedly designed by the Pope himself.  The Pope then actually offered the physical crown to Cosimo - he sent the design and the jewels, and it was made up by a Florentine jeweller.  It was a very slightly different version of the proposed crown, with rather more curving spikes to it. 

Here is Cosimo in his full grand ducal regalia.  The crown with its curving spikes was then of course added to the Medici coat of arms.

Despite the mass's failure with Maximilian in 1567, its public relations exercise was not over.  Striggio's next stop was Munich.  In February of that year, the mass was performed at the court of Albrecht V. His wife, Anna, was yet another of Johanna's sisters, another Archduchess of Austria and another sister of Maximilian II, the Emperor.  Perhaps I should explain that their father, the Emperor Ferdinand I, and his wife had had fifteen children, ten of whom were girls, and they were very cleverly married off.  The only ones who escaped being married off to little princes all over Europe were the ones who went into nunneries.

Striggio reported back from Munich to Francesco de' Medici, 'The Duke of Bavaria wished to hear my mass for forty voices at sung mass in his Great Hall, whereupon I was forced to give him my very own copy, and it was sung very well.'  Interestingly, in the payments books for Munich, we find six months later a payment for 100 gold florins to the Italian composer Stritseo, which must be yet another transformation of poor old Striggio's name.  A hundred florins would be equivalent to about four months of his salary, so he was very well paid, but it still took the ducal administration in Munich six months to pay him.

Incidentally, one year later, in 1568, a forty part motet by Striggio was heard three times in Munich, directed by the great composer Lassus at the wedding of Albrecht and Anna's son, Wilhelm.  For many years, this work was assumed to be Striggio's other surviving forty part piece, the motet Ecce beatam lucem. 

So the first three destinations on Striggio's journey - Mantua, Vienna and Munich - were all courts of Francesco de' Medici's new Hapsburg in-laws and their eminent husbands.  The fourth destination on Striggio's great trip, by contrast, was not to the Hapsburg in-laws.  It was to the Valois court of the French king Charles IX.  Now, Charles IX was of course the son the of the French king Henry II, and his wife was Catherine de' Medici.  Cosimo de' Medici and Catherine, who was now the Queen Regent in Paris, had both of them been born in Florence in the same year - 1519.  They hated each other.  Six years earlier, they had been at war.  They did not trust each other one bit, but they sent wonderful letters to each other professing their undying admiration and love for each other.  But they now saw that there was political benefit to be had from fostering a link between their sons - Francesco and Charles.

Striggio had reached Paris by April of that year, and his grand mass clearly played its part in the ensuing diplomatic courtesies. On the 11th of May 1567, it was sung in front of Charles and Catherine.  Striggio reported back to Francesco: 'The King and Queen have wished to have sung my forty part mass, which by the grace of God was performed very well and satisfied the King greatly.'  He also mentions that it satisfied very greatly all the musicians of the court, which is not surprising when you find out who the musicians were at the French court of Catherine de' Medici and were all Italians.  This is not a case of Italian music impressing French musicians; it was Italian musicians in Paris saying, 'Look, Italian music is best!'

The French performance was entirely paid for by the Duke of Nevers, Louis de Gonzag, who is none other than Guglielmo Gonzaga's younger brother Luigi Ludovico Gonzaga.  So the Duke of Mantua, his younger brother, had gone to Paris and had married the Duchess of Nevers and had become the Duke de Nevers, changed his name from Luigi Gonzaga to Louis de Gonzag.  So when we read that this mass was paid for by a member of the French nobility, it was actually the younger brother of Striggio's own patron in Mantua, his home town.  Since Striggio himself was a nobleman growing up at court, he would undoubtedly have known him.  They were probably boys playing together.

The young Gonzaga incidentally paid all the musicians and even offered them all dinner, which I find a very nice touch, since the musicians were so numerous - I wish someone would offer dinner to all the musicians at the Royal Albert Hall on July the 17th!

About six weeks ago I managed to track down exactly where this performance in Paris took place, and it was at the Chateau de Saint-Maur, just outside Paris.  It was destroyed at the French Revolution, so unfortunately, you cannot visit it anymore.

The French performance, unlike the one in Munich, did not take place during a church service.  It was something of concert performance.  It occurred after dinner, which means in the middle of the afternoon, since dinner was the main meal of the day, at midday.  The performance took place in Luigi Ludovico's lodgings somewhere in the chateau. 

On the very day of that Parisian performance - the 11th of May 1567 - the Mantuan agent - for lack of a better word like 'spy' - reported immediately back to Guglielmo Gonzaga in Mantua about Striggio's mass.  He says: 'Young Striggino has arrived,' referring to him almost affectionately, and he stressed of course the role that His Excellency's younger brother, Louis de Gonzag, had played in the whole business.  'I am glad to report that the mass had considerably more success here than with the Emperor.'  Indeed, from this, Striggio was offered an extremely lucrative job, with about three times his Italian salary plus a role at court with an increased status over the one he had in Florence, plus a horse, a house, three servants and the freedom to return to Italy for six months a year.  It was a pretty good deal, but Striggio turned the job down.  No doubt he used it to bargain for a pay increase in Florence.

This French part of the tale, I think it is worth noting, is really the story of ambitious young men.  Charles IX was only sixteen at the time it happened.  Francesco de' Medici is 25.  Luigi Ludovico or Louis de Gonzag and his brother Guglielmo Gonzaga, were 28 and 29, and Alessandro Striggio himself was not yet thirty - we do not know exactly which year he was born.

So this young composer, with aristocratic lineage from Mantua, but who worked in Florence, was thus an excellent person for the second round of artistic diplomacy, one taking place between the Italian and the French Medici, in which the Gonzaga house of Mantua saw its own opportunity to score some points.

After Paris, the farthest stage of Striggio's journey was here in London, at the English court of Elizabeth I.  He even wrote a madrigal in her honour, saying how wonderful and beautiful river the Thames was.

This last destination on his journey was entirely his own idea, not part of his pre-approved itinerary that had been planned by the Medicis in Florence.  In March, he wrote to the Medicis saying, 'After Paris, I will return immediately to Florence,' but on the 18th of May, he writes to Francesco saying: 'I have thought that, now that I am near England, a mere week's journey away, I would go and visit that kingdom and the virtuosos in the profession of music that there are there.' 

The English visit, in June 1567, as has been noted by Iain Fenlon, suggests a direct link with Thomas Tallis, then the most eminent of all virtuosos at Elizabeth's court and the composer of that iconic English 16thCentury composition, the forty part motet, Spem in Alium.

A document dating from 1611, now in the Cambridge University Library, suggests that Tallis composed Spem in Alium in reply to a challenge from the Duke of Norfolk, after hearing a huge Italian piece that had apparently made 'heavenly harmony'.  Norfolk had, and I quote, 'asked whether none of our Englishmen could set as good a song, and Tallis, being very skilful, was felt to try whether he could undertake the matter.'  I like that quote because it reminds me of iPod users, who tend to call everything a song these days, even if it is a Beethoven symphony because the Duke of Norfolk obviously had the same approach - he would have been happy with an iPod I think!

The Duke of Norfolk was the second most important Catholic nobleman in England at the time.  A few years later, he had his head chopped off of course, in 1572.  But the 1611 document refers to a performance not in Norfolk House but in Arundel House, which means that the person responsible for putting on the performance of the original great Italian work that made heavenly harmony was Norfolk's father-in-law, Henry FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel.

It was FitzAlan who was the leading Catholic nobleman in England.  He actually came to physical blows with Lord Clinton during a Cabinet meeting in front of the Queen in the 1560s, and he was defending the rights of Catholics in England at the time.  For those of you who have forgotten this little brief period of your history, after Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and England once again moved towards Protestantism with the re-establishment of the Anglican rights, things were actually very ambiguous for the Catholics during the 1560s.  There was something of a status quo, where there was not really persecution and everybody was hoping they could all manage to live together. Then Pope Pius V made that great political error of excommunicating Queen Elizabeth in 1570, which made it impossible for English Catholics.  This was because either they obeyed the Pope and did not give any abeyances to Queen Elizabeth, or they obeyed their Queen and then they were in trouble with the Pope.  So the Pope's excommunication of Elizabeth put the English Catholics into an impossible position.  But that was not the case in 1567 when Striggio was visiting London.  There was an uneasy truce in which Elizabeth's own position was basically that she did not care what people believed, as long as they would observe, in public, the rights of the Anglican Church.  They could have mass in private if they wanted, as long as they would agree to go to the Anglican Church in public.  But that all changed in 1570.

I think it is worth adding, and I'd like to thank Geoff Pavitt for this little  piece of information just before the talk, it's possible that Sir Thomas Gresham himself even attended this performance.  He was a great music lover, and in 1567, he was certainly around in London and was very intimately associated with everything that was going on at court, and must have been a colleague of the Earl of Arundel's.

But Henry FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, had just been abroad, in Italy for 18 months, between 1566 and early 1567.  So it's not at all impossible that he met Striggio, my guess is in Paris, on his return journey.  He would have almost certainly gone via Paris and then up to Calais and across to England, staying to Catholic countries rather than have gone up through all the Protestant countries like Germany and the Low Countries.  We know he arrived back in England on about the 20th of April.  We know from Striggio it was a week's journey, and we know that Striggio arrived in Paris at the beginning of April, so it leaves about ten days or two weeks, for them to have overlapped at court in Paris.  That would also explain why Striggio, in March, writes back to the Medici's saying 'I will return directly,' but in May he says, 'I am going to go to England.'  Something happened while he was in Paris to change his mind and make him go to England.

All of this is speculation of course, but what we do know is that the visit to England did take place and that the work that he did have with him was the forty part mass which he had been performing in other European capitals in all the previous months and that some great Italian work was definitely performed in London and 'made heavenly harmony'.  So I think we may now justifiably assume that composition of Thomas Tallis's great motet Spem in Alium, for eight five-part choirs, was directly inspired by Alessandro Striggio's mass for five eight-part choirs.

This brings me back to the mass's title, which specifically mentions the choirs - Mass on Ecco si beato giorno divided into five choirs.  This title, incidentally, implies that the music for at least one of the movements must be based on an earlier musical work, Ecco si beato giorno, and this was clearly not a liturgical work because the text is not in Latin but in Italian.  Logically, it ought to be another festive work which has been lost, and it was probably also in forty parts.  Striggio was after all a specialist in such pieces.  As we've seen, during the '60s, he composed certainly at least two other works in forty parts for Hapsburg weddings, and if you think about it, it would have been rather odd if he had not written one for the 1565 marriage of yet another sister of Maximilian II with his own master, Francesco De' Medici.  The words of 'Ecco si beato giorno', 'Behold such a happy day' would certainly not have been out of place at a marriage.  But was 'Ecco si beato giorno' a distinct piece of music, or a revision of an earlier one with a new Italian text specially written for the occasion?

In fact, the mass turns out to contain a brief musical quotation from Striggio's other known forty part work, the Latin motet, 'Ecco beatam lucem'.  The first two bars of the Credo are the same music as bars three to four of the motet.  I do not have time to go here into the conundrum that this opens up, but the complex links between the lost Italian work 'Ecco si beato giorno', the surviving motet 'Ecco beatam lucem', and the forty part mass raise more questions than we can answer for the moment.

The mass is not in forty parts all the time, I should stress.  The Kyrie, the first movement, is in eight voices for choir one; and then the Christe eleison is for sixteen voices of choirs two and three - that is voices nine to 24; and then we move up to 24 voices for the second Kyrie with voices seventeen to forty.  So there is a gradual increase in the seniorities. 

We are not absolutely sure how the musicians were positioned, but there seems good reason to think they were standing in a semi-circle.  That is how I am going to be doing it at the Proms, in the Albert Hall.  So you would have your semi-circle, with choir one on the left, choir one at nine o'clock, choir two at 10.30, choir three at twelve o'clock, choir four at 1.30, and choir five at three o'clock, stretching round in a semi-circle.  You can see that this means the music started on the left and works its way over to the right.

So, it is not in forty parts all the way through.  This Kyrie, in a church service, would lead directly into the next movement, which is the Gloria without a pause between then two but the first moment in forty parts arrives almost immediately at the words 'Glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam' - 'We glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory' - a good moment for the first forty part seniorities.  Forty parts are often heard during the Gloria and the Credoa, and the Sanctus opens with sixteen voices (choirs one and two), then the next section, is for 24 voices (choirs three, four and five).  The two settings of the word 'Hosanna in excelsis' are of course for forty parts, but between them, the introspective 'Benedictus, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' is set for a mere eight voices, a very small choir, but let us not forget, it is already double a regular choir, which would only have four voices normally.

The grandest effect of all is reserved for the end.  The first Agnus Dei is in forty parts throughout, but Galvanni's letter from Paris to Guglielmo Gonzaga mentions the astonishing fact that Striggio's mass had an Agnus Dei in sixty parts.  Now, this really is extraordinary, and sure enough, yes, the second Agnus Dei does have sixty real parts. This means that the work is totally unique in the whole history of music.  It is the only known such piece of such contrapuntal extravagance.  You might wonder, since I said there were 42 partbooks in that little box in Paris, are forty of them for the voices and two for the organs that accompany?  The way it works is that, for the last movement, out of the forty books, half of them, twenty, when you get to the last movement, have one part on the left and one on the right, so there is two parts in the book at that point, which is where you get the extra 20 voices from.

The sixty parts all enter in imitation with the same melody being sung in all the voices.  It starts in voice one, right over at the left, and progressively works its way right round to the entry of voice 60, right over on the right, like a great wave of sound.  I think it should be one of those moments that sends thehairs on the back of your neck up.  The fact that this grand ducal musical story took place in 1567, however, also reminds us that the whole story needs to be understood in the immediate context of the Council of Trent, a meeting of Roman Catholic bishops which convened sporadically between 1545 and 1563.  It was largely concerned with the Catholic Church's answer to the Protestant Reformation.  In 1562, it had duly considered the place of music in worship.  The Council avoided imposing too restrictive a style on music, but most people nevertheless interpreted the Council's intentions as, above all, wanting the words to be clear.  This was a point which the Catholic bishops shared with all the Protestant churches.  The reforms that made the words clearer in music necessarily made the music simpler, yet these simple styles hardly corresponded to the political needs of emperors, kings, and grand dukes, who, despite their Catholic orthodoxy, still required their chapels to be filled with music that reflected their sovereign power.

Striggio's great mass is a unique answer to this princely problem.  Making a courtly virtue out of musical necessity, he achieves a stylistic squaring of the circle.  It was a brilliant solution to the problem of how to respect the constraints of two antithetical kinds of decorum: one that required simplicity and verbal clarity in accordance with the spirit of the times - Catholic or Protestant; and the other, quite opposite, which required richly, extravagantly elaborate, princely music for an imperial or royal chapel.  Much 16th Century music relies on the technique of imitation, with voices coming in one at a time in melodic imitation of each other, but this means that the different voices are all singing different syllables at the same time and the text is thus less clear.  Moreover, imitation in forty or sixty parts is obviously not very practical, or is at least extremely long-winded.  It's really incredible what Striggio manages to do in this piece.  In most of the mass, Striggio opts for a style that is largely what musicians call homophonic, that is one in which the different voices all tend to enounce the syllables of the text together, making chords.  The result is a kind of music that is fully in accordance with the Council of Trent's principles of clear verbal declamation, and yet, this musical setting in forty and sixty voices, and the use of the vast polychoral seniorities absolutely excludes this mass from being simple music for a parish church.

At the level that mattered most to Cosimo de' Medici - the political religious level - one sub-text of sending the Emperor in 1567 a setting of the Catholic mass was to stress something that was essential for his own royal ambitions.  It stressed that the Medici were rulers whose Catholic orthodoxy was imperturbable at this time of Reformation.  The other sub-text of the mass, by its being in forty parts and with its closing request in sixty parts, made it clear that the Medici could perfectly well play their royal part.  Alessandro Striggio's great mass, 'En Ecco si beato giorno', lost for so many centuries, was a flagrant demonstration that the Medici were worthy of being taken seriously at the highest social and diplomatic levels, and as patrons of the arts with taste and a bottomless purse.  It demonstrated that they were capable, if I may borrow Queen Elizabeth's famous words, of 'playing their roles as princes, set as it were upon stages in the sight and view of all the world'.  Perhaps they were not kings or archdukes, but certainly princes and, in the end, grand dukes


©Professor Davitt Moroney, Gresham College, 18 June 2007

This event was on Mon, 18 Jun 2007


Professor Davitt Moroney

Professor Davitt Moroney, University of California, Berkeley

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