The Mass in 40 Parts (Striggio, ‘Missa: Ecco Si Beato Giorno’)

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 —

FORTY PARTS.

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 ….

Advertisements

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.