Alessandro Striggio

Born c.1536/7, Alessandro Striggio was the natural son and heir of a Mantuan nobleman and soldier. In 1559 he joined the court of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in Florence, where he was the highest-paid member of its musical establishment. His elevated social status allowing him a dual diplomatic – musical function, he divided his life between work for the Medici, and his family and court connection in Mantua. Seven books of his madrigals were published besides many others in anthologies and a few sacred pieces. Equally important is the occasional music he wrote for Medici marriages and their entertainments. His son, of the same name, would later provide the libretto for Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

Ecce beatam lucem, Ecco sì beato giorno and the Mass

The Florentine Diary of the priest and cathedral singer Agostino Lapini records the performance in April 1561 of “a song for 40 voices composed by Alexandro Striggio”. This was in honour of two papal envoys, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este II and the Jesuit theologian Diego Laynez, who were en route to Paris to make a vital intervention at the Colloquy de Poissy, which would help to restart the stalled Council of Trent. Lapini specifies neither title nor location for the performance, but there is good reason to suppose that the song was the motet Ecce beatam lucem, and that it took place in the cathedral as part of a spectacular sacra scena in the envoys’ honour, masked and costumed singers and instrumentalists descending on cloud machines to portray the celestial vision of the text.

In 1568 we again hear of a Striggio forty-part motet, this time entertaining guests at a banquet during the wedding celebrations of the Wittelsbach heir in Munich. Again no title is given, but the official account of the celebrations puts it beyond doubt that this was Ecce beatam lucem, a work that is widely performed and recorded, though until now with purely vocal forces. Its text sets the second and third parts of an ode by the celebrated Protestant neo-Latin poet and composer Paul Melissus (né Schede). This invokes an ecstatic vision of the New Jerusalem, with the Trinity set amid the cosmos and surrounded by Christian saints and Hebrew patriarchs and prophets; pre-eminent among the latter stands King David, hymning the Godhead with voice and harp.
By 1566, Striggio had composed his Mass based on Ecco sì beato giorno in forty parts. But the musical material the Mass develops is also to be found in Ecce beatam lucem, which suggests that Ecco and Ecce must have been very similar or, quite possibly, one a straight re-texting of the other. Schede’s Latin ode shows signs of having been designed for musical setting, and it fits the music like a glove, making it likely that it was the text that Striggio initially set, Ecco sì beato giorno being a later substitute. The opening line of the Italian work has eight syllables, one too many for the music of Ecce beatam. Hugh Keyte and Silvia Reseghetti have independently conjectured that the Italian title could have been Ecco ’l beato giorno (which would make Ecce’s title a perfect match), the source’s later French scribe mis-remembering this. Whatever the history, the composition of Mass and motet on such a gargantuan scale and at so early a date is extraordinary. There was, though, an established Florentine tradition of larger-scale musical settings, typically for the climactic scenes of stage extravaganzas and of their counterparts in church.

The first known mention of the Mass is in a letter of early 1567, when Striggio was in the midst of an arduous winter journey, the main object of which seems to have been the presentation of his setting to the new Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (who had a penchant for large-scale musical works). Eventually finding Maximilian in Brno, Striggio reports that he was delighted with the gift, which was apparently part of a charm offensive by Duke Cosimo I, who had long been pestering pope and emperor to ignore the protests of rival North-Italian rulers and grant him the royal title of Archduke. But Cosimo had to wait until 1569 before the pope unilaterally granted him the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, the emperor finally ratifying this for Cosimo’s heir in 1575, after the Medici purse had come to his rescue.

Striggio continued his journey to Munich, where the Mass was performed for Duke Albrecht V (quite possibly with Lassus directing) and on to Paris, where he directed a non-liturgical performance in front of the young Charles IX and his mother, the formidable Catherine de Médicis, a cousin of Cosimo. The Mass itself was believed lost until Davitt Moroney uncovered the parts in Paris very recently. His fascinating article on the subject can be found in the Journal of the American Musicological Society April 2007, Vol.60, No.1. (For a more recent consideration of Striggio’s forty-part works, see www.ifagiolini.com/striggio)

Musical style and performance
Ecce beatam and the Mass are laid out for the same combination of parts, but whereas the motet follows an established tradition by using constantly varying groupings of adjacent parts, the Mass is a remarkably early example of true polychorality, the forty parts divided into five choirs of eight parts each. A striking feature of both works is that the same thirteen parts (plus four more in the Mass) employ florid and syncopated writing, the remainder providing a more chordal background. To the ear of the listener (and the eye on the page), the effect is of melodic ivy entwined around sturdy harmonic pillars.

All forty parts of both works are underlaid with text in the sources, but to conclude from this that purely vocal forces were intended is to misunderstand the nature of sixteenth-century (especially continental) performance practice. Composers accepted that their works would be adapted and performed according to local taste. Lassus, for example, devised an extraordinary instrumentation for the motet’s 1568 outing – highly effective, but based on the misapprehension that Striggio’s purely pragmatic clef layout implied three choral groups and seven ensembles of three instruments and a solo tenor. Striggio was present and is not known to have objected. In the Mass Robert Hollingworth has chosen to emphasise the antiphony between the five eight-part choirs with contrasted scorings: choir I with strings, III with brass, V with a broken consort (mixed double reeds, brass and strings, all doubling on recorders), leaving choirs II and IV predominantly vocal. In the motet, a different but complementary scheme assumes the musicians will have been arranged for the scena sacra in the cathedral nave on five levels of cloud machines (such was documented for a comparable presentation in the duomo in Florence a few years later). This would divide the forty parts over the five levels. Unfortunately, neither stereo nor surround-sound reproduction conveys height well, so for this recording we have set out the choirs left to right with the “top” choir on the extreme right, its timbre of recorders and a single soprano in pursuit of a similarly ethereal effect. (Listeners unwilling to forgo the Pillar-Of-Cloud Experience could switch to a second pair of vertically aligned speakers for this item, while the less technically minded could try lying on their sides.)

What is striking about Mass and motet is how successfully Striggio writes on such a large scale, with little or no precedent to guide him. His sense of drama is terrific, the ever-changing combinations of choirs cunningly judged and never predictable. The harmony is conservative (this is only 1560s Italy), but there is no lack of expressive touches: soprano suspensions at “gloria tua” (thy glory) in the Sanctus; the dark harmonies at the Last Judgement clause in the Credo (“And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead”). Striggio is careful not to over-use the full ensemble. In the Kyrie the five choirs are introduced in turn, allowing our ears to map out the aural geography before all five come together at the words “Glorificamus te” (we glorify you) in the Gloria, a magnificent moment. The Credo begins with a direct quotation of the opening of Ecce beatam, reserving the full ensemble for key textual moments. Predictably, one of these is “Et resurrexit tertia die” (And the third day he rose again). Less to be expected is the length and overt triumphalism of the tutti at “Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam” (And I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church). Was Striggio emphasising Florentine doctrinal orthodoxy and fidelity to Rome at the behest of would-be Archduke Cosimo? Or was he expressing the resurgent self-confidence of the Roman Church as the Council of Trent drew towards completion, its work of reform accomplished and the faithful prepared for the fight-back against what had once seemed irresistible Protestant incursion?

The relatively modest two-choir Sanctus is a sensuous fantasia with flowing imitative lines. Full forces burst in at its “Hosanna”, which reprises and extends the overwhelming climax of the motet (“still singing and making music to the everlasting God”). Here the dizzying swirl of melodic figures against the slow-moving harmony is as potent an evocation of religious ecstasy as any composer of the time could hope to achieve. The Benedictus reflects the solemnity of the central acts of consecration and elevation which it would immediately follow in a celebration of Mass. The forces are reduced to a single eight-part choir; the idiom is a deliberately “religious” type of traditional imitative counterpoint – after which the repeat of the “Hosanna” has redoubled impact.

Striggio provides two Agnus Dei settings. The expressive harmonies and constant choral exchanges of the first underline the pleading of “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us): but then comes the surprise. It was a convention of sixteenth-century vocal publications for the final item to require an enlarged ensemble – six voices in a book of otherwise four-voice madrigals, for example. In this concluding Agnus Dei, Striggio expands his forty parts to an unprecedented sixty, the eight parts of each choir swelling to twelve. The choirs enter in turn with the same figure in each voice, the effect that of a simple sung prayer gradually taken up by some great host of penitents. Once each voice has worked through to “dona nobis pacem” (give us peace), Striggio brings back some gently florid movement which draws his setting to a radiant close. Listener reaction would surely have mirrored that of the English traveller Thomas Coryat on hearing a multi-choir extravaganza in Venice some forty years later: “so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent … that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul unto the third heaven”.

Other works
Striggio was a virtuoso player of the viol, the lira da braccio and above all the lirone, a multi-stringed, flat-bridged relation of the bass viol which, in his hands, could play up to four contrapuntal parts, sounding like a whole consort of viols. Our selection of Striggio’s smaller-scale pieces is preceded by a short work from the lute collection Fronimo (by Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer), which we have arranged for lutes and lirone.

Besides composing chamber madrigals for the Medici court, Striggio provided music for special occasions, notably for the short sung semi-dramatic scenes known as intermedi that punctuated the acts of plays. These were an indispensable element in the celebrations surrounding dynastic weddings. Fuggi, spene mia was for the 1565 marriage celebrations for Cosimo’s son and heir, Francesco. The setting survives in a lute arrangement in Galilei’s Fronimo from which Striggio’s instrumental parts have been reconstructed, the solo line decorated by Robert Hollingworth in period style. We have been left a wonderful glimpse of the original performance by Vasari, who was present. The singer was Psyche, a mortal who has broken her promise not to discover the identity of her nocturnal lover, Cupid, and is accordingly being consigned to Hell. The earth opens and breathes smoke and flame as she descends, goaded by four Evils – Envy, Jealousy, Care and Contempt – who seize four “most horrible” serpents and beat them with thorny branches. Suddenly the serpents split open to reveal four viols, on which the Evils accompany Psyche’s lament with bows concealed within their thorny branches. The viols are doubled by four off-stage trombones – a favourite intermedio combination. O giovenil ardire is from a comedy for the 1568 celebrations of the baptism of Francesco’s first child. It was sung by advancing monsters, furious with Hercules for boasting of having vanquished them.

The three works that follow all have political angles. O de la bella Etruria invitto Duce opens Striggio’s first book of five-voice madrigals of 1560 and is part of a body of artistic work that sought to legitimise Cosimo’s rule by harking back to Florence’s supposed roots in the ancient Etruscan civilisation. Just a few months after its publication, Cosimo gained a long-sought victory over the city of Siena, becoming Duke of Florence and Siena. Ten years later, for his coronation as Grand Duke of Tuscany, Striggio set Altr’io che queste spighe as a dialogue between three four-part groups that represent the cities of Siena, Florence and Rome and declare their unworthiness to garland Cosimo’s quasi-imperial brow.

In the Spring of 1567, having completed his planned itinerary with the performance of his Mass before the French court, Striggio wrote to Cosimo to ask if he might visit England to meet the “virtuosi of the music profession there”. He was graciously received by Queen Elizabeth and D’ogni gratia et d’amor was written in commemoration of the visit. The madrigal celebrates Britain’s mythical foundation by Aphrodite, who came to England’s shores in the guise of a leopardess. It is an (apparently) affectionate tribute to the Virgin Queen, stressing her supposed marital eligibility.

Caro dolce ben mio and Miser’oimè are again from the first book of five-voice madrigals. Caro is harmonically more adventurous than most of Striggio’s works, bringing to mind the more colouristic madrigals of Lassus and Rore. Miser’oimè is in five low parts, and we have scored it here for the piquant combination of solo tenor, four sackbuts and lirone.

Virtually nothing is known about Striggio’s two-week stay in England, but one begins to see that whatever the political motive for the trip, Striggio, as an educated and wealthy musician, was indulging in a kind of musical tourism, happy for his diplomatic credentials to open doors. (Despite the religious divide, England’s trade links with Florence had remained strong.) Our only clue to his London exploits is a short anecdote jotted down some four decades later by Thomas Wateridge, a London law student:

In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called Apices of the world) which beeinge songe made a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ____ bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he could undertake the Matter, which he did and made one of 40 parts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundel house which so farre surpassed the other that the Duke hearinge of it songe, took his chayne of Gold from of his necke and putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him (whiche songe was againe songe at the Princes coronation).
(The duke was almost certainly Norfolk, the Earl of Arundel’s son-in-law. The “Princes coronation” was the creation of Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, as Prince of Wales in 1610.)

Spem in alium, Tallis’s masterwork, is simultaneously a tribute to Striggio and a determined effort to upstage him. It draws on several specifically Italian techniques to be found in Ecce beatam and the Mass, besides others from the nascent North-Italian (“Venetian”) multichoir tradition that was supposedly terra incognita to English musicians of the time: and all seamlessly fused with his own native idiom. Striggio deploys the forty parts of his Mass in five eight-part choirs; Tallis has four choirs of ten though, like Striggio, he sets them out in convenient clef-groupings, which gives the false impression of eight five-voice groups. Striggio avoids the intricacies of scholastic counterpoint; Tallis shows off his mastery by driving chains of fugal entries through the entire ensemble: and to do so with so many parts he is virtually forced to forge a harmonic idiom that embraces unprecedented types and degrees of dissonance, adding a captivating element of harmonic spice that contrasts sharply with Striggio’s Italianate suavity.

What will the Arundel House performance have been like? Analysis of the motet strongly suggests that, like Striggio, Tallis wrote for a combination of solo voices and instruments. (The modern a cappella tradition stems from the performances with a substitute English text at the banquets associated with the creation of successive Princes of Wales, beginning with that of the tragically short-lived Henry.) The Earl of Arundel would have had little trouble in assembling the necessary forces, since the then-recusant family had huge numbers of instruments of all kinds available at Nonsuch Palace (its Surrey seat), plenty of musicians on the books to play them, and to supply the voices a celebrated chapel choir, the whole described in a eulogy of 1580 as a “solem queer / by vois and Instruments so sweet to heer”. All were directed by the talented Netherlandish composer Derrick Gerrard.
Our recording is the first to use Hugh Keyte’s radical new edition of Spem, and we have chosen to divide the forty parts over viols, sackbuts, cornetts, and dulcians (in England usually called curtals) as well as solo voices.

As for the venue, music was certainly played in long galleries, and the Arundel House example was a grand affair, a free-standing two-storey building with bay windows projecting on each side that ran through the gardens from the main block to the Thames. But its narrow width would have made it a rather eccentric choice for a work on the scale of Spem. Perhaps Wateridge’s “longe gallery” was shorthand for the double-height riverside banqueting house in which the gallery terminated. If so, Tallis’s antiphonal exchanges may well have been geared to the first-floor-level gallery that is thought to have surrounded the interior.
Preceding the motet is what may be the first recording of the Sarum plainchant setting of Tallis’s text, a matins responsory sung during the annual readings from the Apocryphal Book of Judith. Tallis makes no use of the chant, but will have known it from his pre-Reformation employment as organist of Waltham Abbey.
Robert Hollingworth & Hugh Keyte
2/2011