Johannes Cornago’s Missa ‘de la Mapa Mundi’

Johannes Cornago first appears in archival documents as a Franciscan resident in Rome in 1455. He was in the service of Alfonso I, king of Naples, Sicily, and Aragon. Cornago worked at the Spanish court in Naples throughout the reign of Alfonso (who died in 1458) and for some years after, under Alfonso’s successor Ferdinand. Eventually, Cornago returned to his native Spain, where he worked for Ferdinand the Catholic. The is no record yet found of the composer’s activity since 1475.

Cornago’s Missa de la Mapa Mundi is especially notable as being a relatively early example of a polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary based on a secular song, placing it in a category with Guillaume Dufay’s Missa Se la Face ay Pale and a few other masses written before the last quarter of the 15th century. The song on which this mass is based is only known from the mass, where it appears in all five movements, sounding in the lowest voice (it drops out for various sections sung as duets, such as the Pleni and the Benedictus).

The song describes the beauty of Sicily: “I have seen the map of the world… and Sicily seems to me the most beautiful”. It may have been compose for some ceremonial occasion when a map of the world was exhibited, or when it was appropriate to celebrate the kingdom of Sicily. One manuscript identifies it, too, as a Mass for the Virgin Mary, the traditional protector of seamen.

Whatever its original destination, Cornago’s Mass is a precious witness to the sophistication and richness of the musical life of Spanish court in Naples during the 15th century.

Luís Henriques

Tomas Luis de Victoria's Music for Holy Week

The Liturgy of Holy Week in the Roman Rite (before recent revisions) was called Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae and Victoria used this title for his publication of 1585 in which he presented his music for the most important services from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. On the Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the triduum sacrum (Feria V in Coena Domini, Feria VI in Parasceve and Sabbato Sancto), the Office of Matins was sung in darkness in the early morning. The extinguishing of the candles as the dawn came during Matins, led to the name “Tenebrae” when the service was performed in the evening because the putting out of the candles gradually put the church into darkness. One of the Friday Responsories begins Tenebrae factae sunt. The special “Tenebrae” Matins on each of the three days is divided into three sections called nocturns. After Psalms, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are sung (solo plainsong) in alternation with three choral responds in the first nocturn. In the second and third nocturns Psalms, the Lesson (recited) alternate with three more Responsories in each nocturn, so that there are nine for each day.

In form, Victoria’s set is stricktly liturgical, following a rigid plan of repeats. The verses are for three voices instead of four (there is just one verse for only two voices). The middle Responsory of each group of three is set for high voices. The third Responsory of each group always has an extra repeat of words and music, in strict accordance with the rubrics of the liturgy, all carefully instructed by Victoria in the 1585 print.

It is important to understand the strict liturgical context and function of Victoria’s music. Within these limits, and in a musical plan that is very concise. Victoria is intensely expressive, using the devices of dissonant suspensions, the rising and falling semitone, the falling fifth and the melodic diminished fourth. Above all is Victoria’s unrivalled setting of the Latin text, propelling the words and music in perfect unity. Nothing is grotesque or exaggerated, the commentaries on the Passion of Christ, the quotations and meditations are full of dignity, but there is a burning intensity that sometimes explodes dramatically. The horror at Judas hanging himself or the sad, poignant tranquility of the burial (Sepulto Domino) are all expressed by Victoria in such masterly way that this music is regarded as some of the finest of the Late Renaissance.

Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories are all written at an apparently high pitch, in the combination of clefs that is called the high chiavette. This means that they should be transposed down for performance. Certainly the music is entirely suited to a group of adult male singers. Spanish adult tiples (falsetto sopranos) were famous throughout Europe; they were used during most of the 16th century in the Papal Choir.

Tomas Luis de Victoria was born about 1548 near Avila. He spent many years in Rome, publishing there a great deal of his work. His last twenty-five years were spent in Spain in the service of the Convent of Descalzas Reales in Madrid. The devout Spanish priest wrote nothing but church music, which he revised and republished frequently. With Palestrina, Victoria is considered the perfect composer of Catholic church music in the spirit of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation.

Tomas Luis de Victoria's Works for Six, Eight, and Twelve Voices

Tomas Luis de Victoria’s maiden publication, a sumptuous volume containing thirty-tree motets, was printed in Venice in 1572. It contains just one eight-voice piece, a double-choir Ave Maria. A twelve-voice setting of Psalm 122, Laetatus sum, the first Roman triple choir music to be published appearing in 1583. From the 1580’s on, three choirs of musicians were becoming standard in Rome for Mass and Vespers on major feast days, and Victoria’s music must have been widely heard, especially where he himself was involved in such services.

These were exciting years for Roman sacred music. However the call of his beloved native land was always strong, and in the dedication (to Philip II) of his 1583 book of Masses, Victoria expressed a wish to return to a quiet life in Spain, “…to spend my time in contemplation of the divine, as befits a priest.”

So, in 1585 Philip II appointed him chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, at the Convento de las Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Victoria was maestro of the convent choir which included boys and priests, until 1604, and then organist until his death in 1611.

In 1600 Victoria brought out a major collection, including the magnificent twelve-voice triple-choir Missa Laetatus Sum, based on his own Psalm setting, and the Magnificats for double and triple choirs. Such triple-choir pieces were still uncommon in Spain, so it excited much attention.

Missa Laetatus Sum often has only tenuous connections with the Psalm. Homophonic writing is contrasted with flowing imitative polyphonic sections for reduced voices in both Mass and Psalm. Unusually, the Psalm opens with a triple time passage (perhaps reflecting the joyful opening words); this is not imitated in the Mass.

The triple-choir Magnificat Sexti toni also shares some music with the Psalm. The opening verse, and that beginning ‘Deposuit potentes’, are copied directly from a four-voice Magnificat Sexti toni, published in 1581.

Victoria’s hymns would have graced many a service. Having fallen out of use, they are now recognized as important parts of the repertoire. They provide a great contrast to the massive and magnificent sonorities of the twelve- and eight-voice pieces, yet lose nothing in the impact of their elegant four-part polyphony. Ad Caenam Agni Providi is for Easter, and Veni Creator Spiritus for Pentecost. Victoria sets the even verses in polyphony, as always in his hymns, and he quotes the chant and paraphrases of it freely in every voice.

Renaissance composers often took texts directly from the Song of Songs with its rich symbolism evoking the desert, the spirit rising as a dove or as smoke, perfumes and incense, of the search for the beloved. Vidi Speciosam and Vadam at Circuibo Civitatem are settings of two such texts in flowing, full six-part polyphony, graceful and of great beauty.

Victoria died in 1611, after a life dedicated to God and Music. For his last words, those opening Psalm 122 would have been entirely apt: “Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi, in domum Domini ibimus” (“I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go up into the house of the Lord”).

H. Christophers


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