Saturday, 18 December 2010

A Venetian Christmas

First Mass of Christmas as it may have been celebrated at St Mark’s, Venice around 1600
Music by Giovanni Gabrieli and Cipriano de Rore
Gabrieli Consort & Players
conducted by Paul McCreesh
DG Archiv, released October 2001

Kyrie from the Missa Praeter rerum seriem by Cipriano de Rore:

For the Doge and the Venetian nobility, Christmas Eve heralded a sequence of attendances in the Basilica which were celebrated with the greatest solemnity and ceremonial. The 16th century Venetian historian Francesco Sansovino refers to these andate (processions of state) for which the chapels surrounding the High Altar of San Marco were filled with benches and chairs to accommodate the throng of dignitaries.

At about 14.30 (two hours before sunset), the Doge and the Signoria – a privileged group of his closest political advisers – came down from the Ducal Palace into San Marco itself, where they heard Vespers, celebrated by the musicians of the regular choir, augmented for the occasion by other singers and instrumentalists. Sansovino records that “the musical settings – in eight, ten, twelve and sixteen parts – stupefied and amazed the members of the congregation, and in particular those from beyond the city, who confessed to having heard no finer music in many parts of the world”.

After Vespers, Compline was said , and this in turn was followed immediately by sung Matins set to a format peculiar to the San Marco liturgy. As soon as Matins had concluded – at about 18.30 (two hours after sunset) – the first Mass of Christmas began, the normal obligation to wait until midnight having been removed by a special concession granted to the Venetian Republic by the Pope.

The Office of Matins began in total darkness, but towards the end of the service San Marco was illuminated by the progressive lighting, with a linen wad, of 1500 candles each weighing 400 g. and 60 candles each weighing 5 kg. which were placed around the basilica as high as one could see, almost eclipsing the light of the silver oil-lamps and other candles, both large and small, which were positioned above and beside the High Altar. Sansovino describes the effect as “an illumination brighter than one might see at midday, which astonishes everyone standing to admire the number and density of the candles... one could not see grander, richer, more splendid, more noble or more illustrious illuminations not only in the whole of Italy, but also in the whole of Christendom”.

In this breathtaking setting, the Doge, himself resplendent in the insignia of his office, left his throne, and accompanied by the papal Legate and his Orators, knelt on the first step in front of the High Altar to reply to the Confession made by the Legate. This distinctively Venitian symbiosis of religion, political control and acute sense of tradition and history is epitomized in the motet Audite principes which appears to speak directly to the assembled members of the oligarchy of the Serenissima – the most Serene Republic (many in the congregation would have identified with the phrases ‘O most serene princes... O most reverend elders... O most excellent forefathers’). The musical style complements the ambience, with the three groups, each comprising a declamatory solo voice with varied supporting instruments, soon combining in a grandiloquent 16-part tutti. Giovanni Gabrieli’s characteristic compositional metaphors exploit the basilica’s resonant acoustic, with juxtapositions of harmonies a third apart, extended progressions by cycles of fifths, and a sudden swerve at the word mirabilia on to an E flat triad to illustrate the unexpected marvel of the birth of Jesus.

Agnus Dei from the Missa Praeter rerum seriem by Cipriano de Rore:

The plainchant Propers for the first Mass of Christmas are those used at San Marco, and are contained in the Graduale del Tesoro which was compiled for the basilica in the late 1560s, and is on display today in the Treasury of the basilica.  The chant differs to some extent from that in the contemporary Roman graduals in details of syllabification and melodic outline. The contrast of the unaccompanied monophonic chant with the instrumentally supported flamboyance of the opening motet serves to focus the mind of the listener – however temporarily – on the essential liturgy of the Mass.

Cipriano de Rore’s setting of the Mass Ordinary is a parody to Josquin’s famous six-part motet Praeter rerum seriem, which celebrates the miracle of the birth of God in human form from the untainted Virgin Mother. Even by the mid-16th century, Josquin’s reputation as perhaps the most outstanding composer of the early Renaissance was secure. Written originally for the private chapel of Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, during his tenure of the post of maestro di cappella in the 1550s, Rore’s work is both a homage to the older master and a staggering technical tour de force. To Josquin’s already monumental six-part texture, Rore adds a seventh part, taking his predecessor’s cantus firmus theme and subjecting it to variations of mensuration and pitch. Its densely contrapuntal – often canonic – character, with the voices weaving around the cantus firmus situated in the middle of the texture, reflects Rore’s command of traditional compositional techniques and the stylistic gap which had grown in the space of two generations between the musical practices of Rore and Giovanni Gabrieli. A cappella polyphonic settings nevertheless remained an essential feature at San Marco until well into the 17th century: Monteverdi himself replenished the library with many collections of stile antico mass-settings.

Rore became maestro di cappella at San Marco in 1563, and the possibility exists that, during his short tenure of the post – he resigned the following year – this astonishing mass-setting was performed under his direction. Had it been performed at San Marco, the text of Rore’s original musical tribute to his Ferrarese patron – ‘Hercules secundus dux Ferrariae quartus: vivit et vivet’ – would doubtless have been reworked to reflect the political agenda of the Venetian Republic.

After the Collect, the Prophecy – three familiar verses from the Book of Isaiah – is sung “by the priest with the best voice, from the middle of the chancel”. Contemporary Venetian custom replaced the Gradual chant, which would otherwise separate the Epistle and Gospel, by an instrumental piece: the Canzon noni toni exemplifies Giovanni Gabrieli’s mastery of the genre, with incisive syncopation and close imitation between the instruments, and scope for highly virtuosic cornetto playing. His setting of Salvator noster uses the same characteristic techniques to illustrate the exuberance of the joy generated by the Christmas story. Rore’s modal world is a distant memory as the bold fanfare-like opening motive spreads throughout the texture, and rising chordal sequences spiral dizzyingly away from the home key. Gabrieli’s third and – probably – final setting of O Jesu mi dulcissime is a fine example of the early 17th century’s search for new ways of heightening the intensity of textual expression, in which the erotic musical language of the secular madrigal was borrowed to convey similar – if subtly disguised – sentiments: the rhythmic imbalance of the opening phrase is deliberately designed to create a sense of emotional involvement which we would now regard as almost operatic; each entry becomes an extended wave creating its individual momentum before collapsing in a flurry of falling notes; the melodic outline of a diminished fourth at praesepio and the cordal juxtaposition of E flat and G at O Christe and O mira may be more conservative expressive techniques, but the cumulative effect of the setting is one of overpowering emotional fervour. Although Gabrieli declined to indicate vocal or instrumental scoring, it is hard to imagine this motet being performed in any way than with the eight solo voices.

Instrumental music was a recognised feature in celebrations of the Mass in San Marco, particularly after the Agnus Dei, and would have enhanced the communion ritual. The Canzon duodecimi toni for ten instruments divided into two contrasting groups is one of Gabrieli’s most scintillating works, in which the motivic material is developed in increasingly ingenious rhythmic patterning. The Blessing which concludes the liturgy of the first Mass of Christmas was intoned by the Papal Legate, with responses by the Doge’s Chaplain and four of the canons of San Marco.

The final motet Quem vidistis pastores is one of Gabrieli’s more controversial compositions. It is Paul McCreesh’s belief that that work – published posthumously in 1615 – was most likely printed in an incomplete form from a draft score; the vocal texture is mostly very sparse and is supported by a rather crudely-written basso continuo. This version is a quite extensive re-working by musicologist Hugh Keyte, expanding existing material into a sequence of imitative vocal duets, trios and quartets, which aims to recast Gabrieli’s vocal and melodic material in, arguably, a more worked-out and coherent fashion: the instrumental parts up to the final tutti are entirely reconstructed, but the resulting overall texture is surprisingly reminiscent of several other works. An extended introductory instrumental sinfonia prefaces an almost kaleidoscopic permutation of textures and rhythmic variety once the text is heard: the initial questioning is urgent and declamatory, and the pace of invention, with one dazzling duet following on the heels of another, is never relaxed. The expansive tutti at the phrase O magnum mysterium allows singers and instrumentalists (and listeners) to catch their collective breath, only for it to be taken away once more by the audacity of Gabrieli’s transposition of the slow-moving chord progression, followed by a sudden swerve on to the tertial shift encountered in O Jesu mi dulcissime – which shares both the same date of publication and an identical musical treatment of the phrase in praesepio iacentem. The vulnerability of the newborn Christ lying in the manger is expressed by the sudden exposure of the solo voices in their lowest register before this extraordinary emotional motet concludes with one of Gabrieli’s most extrovert Alleluia passages.

Sansovino records that, after the service had ended at approximately 21.00 (around four and a half hours after sunset), the Doge “was escorted to his palace by a great quantity of torches carried by the comandatori and grooms of his retinue”. After over six hours in the Basilica his ceremonial duties for Christmas had begun, and the splendour of the ritual and of the music composed and performed by the musicians of San Marco had paid its distinctive homage to the miracle of Christ’s birth.

- John Bettley/Paul McCreesh

Giovanni Gabrieli
1. Intonazione Dell'undecimo Tono, C 249
2. Audite Principes A 16, C 123
3. Introitus (chant)

Cipriano de Rore
4. Kyrie (missa "praeter Rerum Seriem" A 7)
5. Gloria (missa "praeter Rerum Seriem" A 7)
6. Oratio (chant)
7. Prophetia (chant)
8. Epistola (chant)

Giovanni Gabrieli
9. Canzon Noni Toni A 12, C 183
10. Evangelium (chant)
11. Credo (missa "praeter Rerum Seriem" A 7)
12. Intonazione Del Settimo Tono, C 245
13. Salvator Noster A 15, C 80
14. Praefatio (chant)

Cipriano de Rore
15. Sanctus (missa "praeter Rerum Seriem" A 7)
16. Toccata

Giovanni Gabrieli
17. O Jesu Mi Dulcissime A 8, C 56
18. Pater Noster (chant)

Cipriano de Rore
19. Agnus Dei (missa "praeter Rerum Seriem" A 7)

Giovanni Gabrieli
20. Canzon Duodecimi Toni (n 3) A 10, C 179
21. Postcommunio - Benedictio (chant)
22. Quem vidistis pastores, after C 77

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