Cyprien de Rore's Missa 'Praeter Rerum Seriem'

In the revival of interest in Renaissance composers very few have become known through a balanced appraisal of all their work. Such lop-sidedness is extreme in the case of Cipriano de Rore, who since his lifetime has been celebrated as an epoch-making composer of madrigals, one of the most significant precursors of Monteverdi. Inconveniently for those who like to keep things simple, Rore was also a composer of sacred music of genius, a true successor to Josquin des Prés.

Rore followed the natural course of a talented Renaissance musician born in the Low Countries. Having been educated in his native Flanders, he sought employment in Italy where he made contacts in Venice, not least with Adrian Willaert, maestro di cappella at St Mark's and also a Netherlander. From 1547 to March 1558 he was employed uninterruptedly at the court of Ferrara by Duke Ercole II d'Este, for whom he composed the Missa Praeter rerum seriem. When, in 1559, Duke Ercole's successor, Alfonso II, refused to continue Rore's employment in Ferrara he moved, at the request of the Farnese family, to Parma. In 1563 he was elected to succeed Willaert at St Mark's, Venice, which was even then probably the most prestigious post for a musician in Italy. At the age of 47 it must have seemed as though Rore's future was set very fair indeed; unfortunately, for whatever reason, it appears he was not suited to the task at St Mark's and by September 1564 he had returned to Parma where he died in August or September 1565.

Despite the impressive number of madrigals which Rore wrote, his sacred output was not small: over 80 motets and five Masses. Of this music it is the motets which show most clearly Rore's training as a Franco-Flemish musician in the Josquin tradition; the Mass, although not in the least madrigalian, contains some fascinating pre-echoes of Monteverdi despite the fact that it was written some years before his birth. This Mass, based on Josquin's Christmas motet Praeter rerum seriem, is one of the most elaborate parody masses of its epoch. In writing it, Rore was paying homage both to his employer, Duke Ercole II of Ferrara, and to Josquin, who was not only the greatest single influence on him but also his most celebrated predecessor at the d'Este court.

Josquin's Praeter rerum seriem must rank amongst his very greatest achievements. It takes the form of a succession of carefully worked motifs around the devotional song on which it is based. For much of the piece the polyphony is presented antiphonally between the three upper voices, when the song is in the first soprano, and the three lower voices, when it is in the tenor. This method is introduced at the very opening with the lower scoring, resulting in so powerful a piece of writing that Rore based the openings of all five of his movements on it, as well as one subsidiary section (at 'Et iterum' in the Credo). The second part of Josquin's motet is rather freer than the first, concealing the song in what has become a more consistently six-part texture, which breaks into triple-time where the text makes final reference to the mystery of the Trinity, before returning to the duple time of 'Mater Ave'.

In one sense very little of Rore's Mass is original composition, yet he parodies his model so resourcefully that the stated material seems to take on new perspectives. To Josquin's original six voices Rore added an extra soprano part. He then turned one of the existing parts, the first alto, into a long-note cantus firmus line which sings the words 'Hercules secundus dux Ferrarie quartus vivit et vivet' throughout to the devotional song melody quoted by Josquin. Rore's extra soprano line gives a new colour to the writing, creating a brighter sonority which seems to take the music out of the middle Renaissance period altogether, even occasionally hinting at the Baroque. The passage at 'Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum' in the Credo is almost pure Monteverdi.

The most impressive writing of all comes at the start of each of Rore's Mass movements, where he develops the magisterial opening of Josquin's motet. In the Kyrie Josquin's version is given almost straight for lower voices, though Rore adds a new line in the second alto. In the Gloria an inversion of Josquin's ascending scale is used alongside its original; this occurs again in the Credo in a more ornate form. But it is only in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei that the full potential of Rore's two soprano parts becomes apparent in the context of this phrase, which seems to have expanded and broadened. The Sanctus opens with long rhapsodic lines in a widely-spaced sonority; the Agnus Dei goes a stage further in involving all the voices from the outset and for the first time underpinning everything with a statement of the song. In general the song is not heard until a movement or a section is well under way, when the extreme length of its notes effectively prevents it from blending into the texture. Only in two reduced-voice passages, the 'Pleni' and 'Benedictus' (both in the Sanctus), is it omitted altogether.

Peter Phillips
(1994)




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