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Music at St. Giles

September 2016

The sun shone brightly on Saturday, 16 July, marking the occasion of the first visit of TVEMF to the Friends’ Meeting House in St Giles, Oxford, and its attractive and well-kept garden. Once again, we were delighted to welcome Patrick Allies, with whom we had previously explored the unpredictability of Lassus and the unknown reaches of Hieronymus Praetorius. The event, in which both singers and instrumentalists took part, was devoted to the study of the six-part motet (SAATBB) in illo tempore by Gombert, the text being taken from Luke xi, vv-27-28, and the parody mass based on it (SSATTB, with an additional alto part in Agnus Dei II), by Monteverdi.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) began his musical career in Cremona, and joined the group of musicians maintained by Vincenzo I, duke of Mantua, at some time between the publication of his second and third books of madrigals (1590-92). Notwithstanding the firmly established reputation as a composer that he had achieved by 1600, he was heavily criticised by the musical theorist and canon of San Salvador, Bologna, G.M. Artusi, in the second part of his discourse ‘On the Imperfections of Modern Music’. This consists of a Socratic dialogue between two gentlemen, Luca and Vario, in which Luca tells of the recital of madrigals which he attended the previous evening, and Vario expatiates on the iniquity of breaking the good old rules handed down by so many theorists and excellent musicians, as displayed by the passages to which Luca refers. He prophesies that this mode of writing will not endure, and the dialogue terminates, leaving Luca perplexed. Both Monteverdi, in his fifth book of madrigals (1605), and his brother Giulio Cesare replied vigorously to Artusi’s criticism, generating even more publicity for Monteverdi’s music. It is also thought that Monteverdi’s later compositions were intended, in some degree, as a riposte to criticisms such as those of Artusi.

After the death of his wife in 1607, Monteverdi’s relationship with the ducal court at Mantua took a turn for the worse, and it is known that he no longer wished to keep on producing entertainment music and was looking for a new position. The year 1610 saw the publication, in Venice, of his collection of sacred music Sanctissimae virgine missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros ac Vespere pluribus decantandae, which included the Vespers, and which he dedicated to Pope Paul V and delivered to him in person. If he hoped thereby to persuade the Pope that he was worthy of employment as a serious church musician, he was unsuccessful. Michael Bloom was able to provide us with some information on the visit to Rome; unfortunately the BBC programme1 which is its source is no longer available in full. It appears that the duke wished to retain Monteverdi in his service despite the composer’s dissatisfaction, and would not permit him to leave Mantua, so he left without permission. However, the Pope was forewarned of the intending visit, and in the result the journey proved fruitless. Monteverdi returned to Mantua but in July 1612, duke Vincenzo’s successor, Francesco, abruptly dismissed him and a number of others. Following the death in 1613 of Martinengo, the then maestro di cappella of St Mark’s, Venice, he was invited to Venice where, according to the New Grove, he performed some of his church music before the procurators as a test. He was then appointed to the post, which he held for the rest of his life.

The Missa in illo tempore, which is included in the 1610 collection, is the subject of a letter from his assistant at Mantua, Don Bassano Cassola, to Cardinal Fernando Gonzaga; a translation is reproduced in the booklet by John Whenham accompanying the Hyperion recording, by the King’s Consort, of the 1610 Vespers and the mass. In part it reads ‘Monteverdi is having printed an a cappella Mass for six voices…building up more and more the eight points of imitation [actually ten]2 which are in Gombert’s motet ‘in illo tempore’.

Patrick explained to us that the Mass, composed in the stile antico, which involved very little homophonic writing, was an unusual type of parody mass, since it did not replicate the entire structure of the motet on which it was based, but extended and reworked the points of imitation. There was a perhaps jocular suggestion that a competition should be held later in the day to see who could identify the most points, but no more was heard of it. Gustave Reece, in Music of the Renaissance (1954), p.500, instances the reworking, in Kyrie II and in Deum de Deo in the Credo, of the motif applied by Gombert to the words ‘loquente Jesu ad turbas’ and a sequential figure in Kyrie II and elsewhere, derived from the opening notes of that motif. Because the Mass is structured in that way, we explored several movements of it before turning our attention to the motet.

Gombert (ca. 1495-1560) was one of the most prolific composers of motets; various works of reference credit him with between 160 and 180. Reece (pp.344-45) comments that he did not always follow Josquin’s practice of working out a motif in imitation only once, but rather might rework it several times, with different numbers of entries in the various parts, and quotes the loquente Jesu section of in illo tempore as an example of this. The motet vividly depicts the dialogue in which the woman in the crowd extolls and blesses the attributes of Jesus’ mother, with a particularly florid rendition of et ubera quae suxisti, (which would no doubt have attracted the severe disapproval of the Council of Trent when they finally got down to business in 1557) and Jesus magisterially replies that, rather, the man is blessed who hears the word of the Lord and keeps his commandments. By the time we had worked through the whole of the Mass, including the Credo, which at 288 bars is by far the longest movement, the tea break, in the shade of the garden, was particularly welcome. The day concluded with a sing-through of the motet and the Kyrie, Sanctus and Benedictus and Agnus Dei I and II of the Mass.

Once again we are most grateful to Patrick for calmly and patiently directing us through the intricacies of the music. The TVEMF management is to be congratulated on having found such a charming venue, and warmest thanks are also due to David King for his meticulous organisation of the event and production of the music, and to all those who helped in providing and distributing refreshments. Even at thirty-three degrees in the shade, a cup of tea in a traditional English garden is a boon.
Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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