I have been getting into Renaissance music recently. While I have enjoyed Palestrina in the past, I didn’t really listen to much Renaissance music until my friend Frank made me aware of I Fagiolini & Robert Hollingworth’s recording of Alessandro Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts, then Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno. Out of curiosity, having viewed the YouTube video that discusses the recording, I listened to it on Spotify enough times to make it worth purchasing.*
When I first heard the Mass in 40 Parts, I almost cried, it was so beautiful. This mass is a very fine example of Renaissance polyphony — polyphony is what the word appears to mean, many sounds. Like its Baroque successors, this music tend to utilise counterpoint rather than harmony — Renaissance harmony (I think) tends to be chord-based, unlike what we experience in Beethoven or Wagner.
Counterpoint is the overlaying of multiple melodies, each doing something different. A fugue is a popular manifestation of Baroque counterpoint.** Usually, as in a fugue, music is written in four parts (like what I had to write when I took Harmony with the Royal Conservatory). What makes this particular piece of Renaissance Polyphony mindblowing is not just the expected beauty of it all but —
That means, at the height of the majesty of Striggio’s Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno there are forty parts at once. Not simply forty musicians or singers or anything like that. 40 different parts, multiple melodies laid over strong, chordal harmonies at the base. Forty. Parts. Hence polyphony.
Alessandro Striggio (b. 1536/7) was a court musician of the Medici family of Florence. It recorded that in April 1561, a ‘song for 40 voices’ of his composition was performed for two papal envoys on their way to restart the Council of Trent (the ‘counter-reformation’ council; council of the Catholic Reformation?). The liner notes of this CD reckon that the 40-part song was the magnificent first track of the album ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ a glory of Renaissance majesty. This song is performed again in 1568, it seems.
In 1567, we first hear of Striggio having produced a Mass in 40 parts. This Mass is partly derived from the 40-part ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ partly innovative — it is ‘polychoral’; the forty parts are divided between five choirs each singing eight parts. A clever strategy to achieve the wonder that this piece of music is.
Words cannot properly describe music. The Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio as recorded by I Fagiolini with Robert Hollingworth is … mindblowing, majestic, triumphal, heavenly, beautiful. It brings about those moments when your soul itself feels literally ‘uplifted’, those moments when you are drawn entirely into the moment itself — a moment of beauty, of peace, of wonder.
The Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion — the liturgical event for which this Counter-Reformation Renaissance polyphony was composed — is an act of worship to the holy, Triune God, who is worshipped by the angels with their thrice-holy cry. In the Eucharist, we enter the throne room of God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, the unmoved mover, uncreated creator, whose throne is the heavenlies and footstool is earth.
Should it not be a time to catch your breath? A time to be filled with wonder? A time to weep? A time to be filled with joy? A time for wondrous beauty?
I look forward to I Fagiolini’s 1612 Italian Vespers on 4 June.
*Spotify users: The artists themselves generate very little revenue from Spotify. If you enjoy little-known bands or classical music, purchase your favourites to give them royalties. More money for artists = more art = a better world.
**Like this one, by Bach. 2:40 gives you a good visual representation of a fugue. If logic doesn’t convince people there is a God, Bach might be able to ….