striggio mass coro

Alessandro Striggio (c1536/7-1592)
Mass in 40 Parts
I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth
rec. 2010 at All Saints, Tooting, London, UK
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from RDMR
Coro COR16199 [69]

Alessandro Striggio has become almost exclusively known for his motet Ecce beatam lucem, scored for no fewer than 40 voices. This disc sheds new light on this composer who apparently liked large-size performances, as his Missa Ecco sì beato giorno shows, which is also scored for 40 voices.

Striggio was born and died in Mantua and was one of the main composers of madrigals and music for the stage in the second half of the 16th century. In the title-pages of his publications he is referred to as gentilhuomo, emphasizing his aristocratic roots. In 1559 he entered the service of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence. He excelled on various instruments, such as the viol, the lute and the lirone. He developed into the main court composer and contributed to the intermedi which were performed at the occasion of the marriage of Cosimo’s heir Francesco and Joanna of Austria in 1565. When Cosimo was crowned Grand Duke of Tuscany in Rome in 1570, Striggio composed a madrigal for 12 voices in three choirs, Altr’io che queste spighe, one of the pieces recorded here.

Two years earlier Striggio’s motet Ecce beatam lucem had been performed in Munich on the occasion of the marriage of Duke Albrecht IV of Bavaria, under the direction of Orlandus Lassus. According to Iain Fenlon in New Grove the motet was commissioned for this occasion, but in the liner-notes of this recording Robert Hollingworth and Hugh Keyte mention a report from 1561 about “a song for 40 voices composed by Alexandro Striggio”. As it is unlikely this refers to another composition the motet must have been written much earlier. It was probably performed at the cathedral of Florence in the presence of two papal envoys.

Little is known for sure about the way specific pieces were performed. Robert Hollingworth mentions that all 40 parts of Striggio’s motet are underlaid with text. This, he believes, does not indicate a purely vocal performance. It was quite usual to add instruments, supporting the singers or replacing them. Hollingworth’s scoring of the various choirs is just one of the options. The same is true for the Missa Ecco sì beato giorno, which has first been mentioned in a letter of 1567. Two performances are documented: one in Munich in the presence of Duke Albrecht V, and probably under the direction of Lassus, and one in Paris for Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de Medici. The manuscript of this mass was considered lost – it isn’t mentioned in Striggio’s work-list in New Grove – but it was discovered in Paris, not long before the recording was made, by Davitt Moroney. It is notable that in the last section, Agnus Dei II, the 40 voices are extended to 60.

The performances of the motet and the mass are based on the performances in Munich. As it is known that Lassus had many singers and instrumentalists at his disposal in the Bavarian chapel, Hollingworth decided to use a large number of instruments, as the list of the musicians in the header shows. This is basically nothing more than ‘historically informed guesswork’. As long as no historical evidence is found, that is the only option, and it seems plausible enough.

Striggio didn’t compose much sacred music. Apart from the motet and the mass for 40 voices, just one other composition, a 5-part mass, is known. The largest part of his oeuvre consists of secular music. Nine collections of secular vocal works have been printed, and a considerable number of his madrigals are included in anthologies, bearing witness to the popularity of his music. Three madrigals from the first book of five-part madrigals have been included in this recording. Like Altr’io che queste spighe mentioned before, O giovenil ardire was an occasional piece, from a comedy for the celebrations of the baptism of the first child of Francesco de’ Medici. D’ogni gratia et d’amor is another piece written for a special occasion, this time Striggio’s visit to England in 1567 where he was received by Elizabeth I. This visit is the reason for the inclusion of the 40-part motet Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis. “Spem in alium, Tallis’ masterwork, is simultaneously a tribute to Striggio and a determined effort to upstage him”, Robert Hollingworth and Hugh Keyte write. According to a contemporary report, Striggio’s motet was known in England, and someone – assumedly the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard – asked whether any English composer was able to compose a work of the same quality. Thomas Tallis took up the challenge, and the result was Spem in alium.

The authenticity of this story is not universally accepted, though. Other theories are that the motet was first performed at the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s 40th birthday in 1573, or that it had been composed for her predecessor, Mary Tudor. The report mentioned above refers to a performance in Arundel’s house – the Earl of Arundel was the Duke of Norfolk’s father-in-law – and this has given Robert Hollingworth the idea of performing the motet with voices and instruments. He mentions that the Earl of Arundel was not short of instruments and singers, and this is reflected by this performance with voices, viols, cornetts, sackbuts and dulcians. The motet is preceded by a setting of the same text in the so-called ‘Sarum chant’, a form of plainchant which developed in England in the Middle Ages.

One may be surprised to find out that this disc is not in surround sound. This option was offered by the DVD which accompanied the original production released by Decca in 2011 (review), and which included both the mass and the motet. Although I don’t have the equipment to listen in surround sound, it is likely that this kind of multichoral pieces can never be done full justice in a recording. It is something which one has to experience in a large space like a cathedral. Every disc can only suggest the full impact such pieces must have made on the audience when they were performed in Striggio’s time. Part of the problem is the lack of transparency. The many instrumental colours, the dynamic contrasts as a result of the entrances of the various groups and the balance between voices and instruments are problematic. That isn’t the fault of the interpreters, but just the result of the relatively narrow space of a recording. In all fairness it has to be said, though, that the performers don’t make it easier for the listener to follow the various lines because a number of them use quite a lot of vibrato. In the passages for reduced forces the bleating of some singers is all too obvious. As a result the text is often hard to understand. This is also a problem in some of the madrigals, for instance D’ogni gratia et d’amor. I am also not impressed by the singing of Matthew Long who is the ‘soloist’ in Miser’oimè whose other parts are performed instrumentally.

That said this disc is unique in offering performances of the motets by Striggio and Tallis which are very different from previous recordings, and presenting a mass which is quite exciting. This, along with the inclusion of some of Striggio’s secular music, delivers a fascinating portrait of a composer who was quite famous in his time and is largely ignored today. The quality of these works suggests there is much more to Striggio than that one motet for which he was famous. There is every reason to further explore his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen

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Alessandro Striggio
Ecce beatam lucem
Missa Ecco sì beato giorno
Vincenzo Galilei (?-1591)
Cotrapunto secondo
Alessandro Striggio
Fuggi, spene mia
O giovenil ardire
Altr’io che queste spighe
D’ogni gratia et d’amor
O de la bella Etruria invitto Duce
Caro dolce ben mio
plainchant (Sarum)
Spem in alium
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)
Spem in alium