Top Forty Music at the Oratory

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There are not many pieces of Renaissance choral music that could be termed “big hits” by contemporary standards, but admirers of the style will recognize a few pieces that are especially frequently performed and recorded – works like Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. All of these motets are part of the repertoire at the Oratory, not only because they are fine examples of liturgical music but also because this music is contemporary with St Philip Neri and the early Oratory in Rome. St Philip knew and loved the sacred polyphony of his time, employing the leading Roman composers as part of the Oratory’s spiritual exercises, and an inventory of 1592 shows that the Oratory church in Rome (the Chiesa nuova) had accumulated a large repertory of music books by Palestrina, Victoria, and their contemporaries by the end of the saint’s life. (It’s unlikely that St Philip heard much music by English composers like William Byrd, but he maintained a close friendship with the students of the nearby English College, where seminarians prepared for the dangerous journey to England to minister to recusant Catholics there; perhaps a case can be made that Byrd, too, belongs to the Oratorian musical tradition.)

Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd would appear near the top of any list of a “core repertory” of Renaissance music for today’s choirs. But is the repertoire that we sing today the same as the music that was most widely sung in the sixteenth century? Musicologist Jennifer Thomas of the University of Florida set out to answer this question through an exhaustive research project that catalogued the entire surviving corpus of sixteenth-century motet collections (printed and manuscript) in a searchable database. Pieces of music that were frequently copied and printed in different locations throughout Europe will appear more frequently in the database, making it possible to compile a “core repertory” list for the sixteenth century. Thomas’s method produces the following top-10 list of Renaissance pieces:

  1. Benedicta es caelorum regina (Josquin des Prez)
  2. Stabat mater (Josquin des Prez)
  3. Praeter rerum seriem (Josquin des Prez)
  4. Si bona suscepimus (Philippe Verdelot)
  5. Jerusalem luge (Arnold Caen or Lupus Hellinck or Jean Richafort)
  6. Sancta Trinitas (Antoine de Févin)
  7. Maria Magdalene (Jacob Clemens non Papa)
  8. Aspice Domine (Jacquet of Mantua)
  9. Pater noster – Ave Maria (Josquin des Prez)
  10. In te Domine speravi (Lupus Hellinck or Ludwig Senfl or Philippe Verdelot)

It’s not surprising that Palestrina and his contemporaries would not appear on a list like this; Palestrina wrote at the very end of the sixteenth century, and only in later generations would he secure his place as a classic reference point for the polyphonic style. Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the enormous gap between this core repertory and today’s performing repertoire. It would be possible to listen to Renaissance sacred music for many years without hearing a single one of these pieces, with the possible exception of the works by Josquin des Prez. Many of these works are by composers largely unknown except to specialists, some are by composers whose identities are uncertain (with attributions to more than one composer in contemporary sources), and others are not available on any commercial recording. Yet by one measure of popularity, these are the most widely admired pieces of the sixteenth century.

A list like this is an imperfect tool; we don’t know how well the surviving sources of sixteenth-century music represent contemporary opinion, and we aren’t in a position to interview a sixteenth-century singer and ask him to list his favourite pieces. Still, research projects like these encourage us to discover pieces of music that were well known in their time but comparatively obscure today. The most recent piece from the Core Repertory list to be sung at the Oratory is Transeunte Domino by Giaches de Wert; ranking at #39 in Thomas’s database, it just barely scrapes into the top 40:

The music of Giaches de Wert has been enjoying a modest revival over the last decade, with several choirs releasing recordings of his motets (oddly, all of these recent recordings omit Transeunte Domino, by far his most popular piece). In his sacred music, Wert favoured narrative texts from the New Testament, composing motets around dramatic scenes such as the conversion of St Paul, Jesus’ calming of the storm at sea, and his healing of the Canaanite woman (Matt 15). Transeunte Domino sets the narrative of the healing of the blind man (Luke 18), the Gospel passage for Quinquagesima in the usus antiquior calendar. The piece follows the events of the story quite closely: we hear the blind man’s repeated cries of “miserere mei, fili David” (“have mercy on me, son of David”), a surprising turn to the major mode on the crucial phrase “Domine, ut videam” (“Lord, that I might see”), and a sudden turn to joyful triple time as the man receives his sight. It is easy to see why this dramatic motet was so popular, especially since it sets a Gospel text that was read on Sunday every year.

Wert’s piece was popular enough that it was used as the basis of at least two Mass settings: there is one Missa Transeunte Domino by Wert himself, and another by the younger composer Jacob Handl. Both Masses share a common feature: the music that accompanies the blind man’s cry “Miserere mei, fili David” is quoted precisely on the words “miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us,” in the Gloria and Agnus Dei of the Mass). This is a subtle but profound piece of Biblical exegesis, that might be noticed only by singers who were familiar with the original motet: at the beginning of Lent, we ask the same Lord who had mercy on the blind man to be merciful to us as well.

By Aaron James, Director of Music, the Toronto Oratory

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