April 2022

The Song of Songs

St Stephen’s, Rochester Row

Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli
Clemens Ego flos campi
Palestrina Osculetur me
Victoria Vidi speciosam, Vadam et circuibo, Nigra sum
Lassus Surge propera
Byrd Laudibus in sanctis

Gilly French, Helen Prentice, Helena Bickley-Percival, Catharine Robertson
Charlie Dart, Manvinder Rattan, Iain Butler, Solly Hardwick, Willow Northeald

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth-century music.  The Missa Papae Marcelli has been described as the most renowned of Palestrina’s works, supreme amongst the composer’s 104 mass settings.  It was first published in 1567 but the date of its actual composition is unclear and has fascinated musicians and historians because of the legends surrounding the work.  Writing in 1828, the Abbé Baini suggested that it was composed for a gathering of a commission established to ascertain whether various mass settings were sufficiently comprehensible to a congregation, following the injunctions of the Council of Trent for the writing of ‘la musica intelligibile’: the whole plan of singing in musical modes shall be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words may be clearly understood by all, and the hearts of the listeners be drawn to the desire of heavenly harmonies, in the contemplation of joys of the blessed.  Baini suggested that the mass was composed to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music was unnecessary – there is a superb dramatization of this in Hans Pfitzner’s great opera of 1917, Palestrina.  The myth has since been demolished and the mass is now thought to date from about 1555, possibly in celebration of the enthronement of the short-reigned Pope Marcellus.  Whatever the legend, the mass is perfectly concordant with the Council’s directives, with a simplicity of manner and a translucent beauty of musical material that has given rise to superlatives from Palestrina’s time to ours. The Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei have a poised serenity whereas the Gloria, with its lengthier text, demonstrates something more deeply majestic.  Its properties of textual clarity, spiritual joy, rhythmic vitality and a ‘simultaneously grand and humble expression of faith of great profundity’ make the mass a timeless, unsurpassed masterpiece.

The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is unique within the Hebrew Bible: rather than teaching about wisdom or the law of God, its subject is erotic love, an allegorical representation of the relationship of God and the faithful as husband and wife.

The texts have inspired many composers, including Palestrina, whose Canticum canticorum of 1584 is a cycle of 29 motets of which the luscious 5-part Osculetur me (‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy breasts are better than wine’) is the first.  Another is Clemens non Papa (c1510-1555), the Franco-Flemish composer Jacques Clément whose nom de plume is thought to have been a joking reference to the fact that he shared a name with Pope Clement (d. 1534).  Ego flos campi (I am the flower of the field) is characterised by a rich texture in almost constant imitation.  The phrase ‘sicut lilium inter spinas’ (‘as a lily among thorns’, also the motto of the Marian Brotherhood in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Clemens’ employer,), towards the middle of the piece, stands out in clear homophony – just as the Virgin is a lily among thorns, so her motto is set in simple chords between complex polyphony.  The motet concludes with descriptions of streams of waters flowing down from Lebanon, aptly depicted in wave-like phrases passed between the voices.  Orlando di Lassus (c.1530-1594), from modern-day Belgium, was one of the most prolific and versatile composers of the late Renaissance.  He writes in a style called musica reservata (or musica secreta), the exact meaning of which is unclear but is thought to involve intensely expressive settings and may have referred to music written expressly for connoisseurs.  Surge propera (‘Rise up make haste my love and come) is full of wonderful word-painting, especially at the start.

Tomas Luis da Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day.  His six-voice setting of Vidi speciosam is for the Feast of the Assumption (15th August), with all its imagery of love turned to the veneration of the Virgin Mary.  The Virgin ascending into heaven is likened to the beautiful one rising like a dove over the rivers, like a lily of the valley or the rose in spring.  It opens with the three upper voices followed by the three lower, after which a variety of combinations for 3, 4 or 6 parts give rise to occasional antiphonal effects. The frequent crossing of the tenor parts and especially of the two sopranos gives a bright shimmering quality to the music.  It is in two sections, with the first revisited towards the end of the piece.  In the six-part Vadam et circuibo, the sadness of the forlorn lover seeking the beloved gives way to increasing agitation. Victoria’s setting becomes a lament of the Virgin Mary (‘in planctu beatissimæ virginis Mariæ’), desperately seeking her lost Son and asking the assistance of the Daughters of Jerusalem in finding him.  Nigra sum, another 6-part masterpiece, is often madrigalian in feel – for example, the opening bars, ‘I am black…’, are written in only black note heads until the final syllable – a fine example of Augenmusik, a term which describes graphical features of scores which are unnoticeable by the listener.  Other examples of word-painting include a rising melisma over a ninth on ‘surge’ (Arise) and a strongly visual ‘flores apparuerunt’ (the flowers appear).

William Byrd (1539/40-1623) was the finest English composer of his age. His life as a recusant Catholic in reformed England gives his music, indeed his whole person, an extra degree of fascination. The athletically ebullient Laudibus in sanctis, a paraphrase in Latin elegiac verse of Psalm 150, comes from his Cantiones Sacrae of 1591. It is full of madrigalianisms, involving rhythmic rhetoric, syncopation, melodic representations of the words, and a wonderful section in triple time as the poet dances before God.