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Saturday morning quotes 3.7: Sacred not scary

June 29, 2013

MelozzoDaForliIn the Renaissance, sacred music was the discipline in which the very best composers plied their elevated trade.  A vehicle for sometimes intense spiritual inspiration – as well as financial sustainability – the sheer volume of sacred music composed in the 16th century eclipsed all other areas of repertory, and some of the more enduring composers including Tomás Luis de Victoria left behind no secular music at all.

It turns out that, early on, music was recognized as the thread that connects us with the idea of a higher power, and all music that was worth notating was sacred music.

“Thus it follows that, since there are four mathematical disciplines, the others [Arithmetic, Geometry,  Astronomy] are concerned with the investigations of truth,whereas Music is related not only to speculation but to morality as well.  For nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites…Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato which holds that the soul of the universe is united by a musical concord.  For when we compare that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound–that is, that which gives us pleasure–so we come to recognize that we are ourselves united according to this same principle of similarity.”

- Boethius, De institutione musica, 5th century

While most informed lutenists of our modern age understand the significance of sacred repertory from the 16th century, many players stop short of exploring the deeper music in favor of more accessible dance tunes and abstract fantasias that show off instrumental prowess.  But we are sometimes surprised to discover that a well-known instrumental fantasia is really an intabulation of a sacred motet, as was the case when I recognized ‘A Phantazie’ for lute attributed to Alfonso Ferrabosco and found in the Margaret Board manuscript (circa 1620), is actually a paraphrase of Jacques Clement’s (Clemens non Papa) motet, ‘Eravi sicut ovis’ (see Ron Andrico, “A parody fantasia?”, Lute Society of America Quarterly, May 2001, which can be accessed as a word doc here).

Probing a little deeper, we learn that some of the better-known ricercars or fantasias of the famous Francesco da Milano either quote directly from or make passing reference to sacred motets or Mass settings by popular composers of the early 16th century; references that would have been easily recognized by contemporary musicians.  Why wouldn’t Francesco, a musician known to have served three different Popes, be familiar with and quote from the best sacred polyphony of his time?

You might very well ask: How do I, as a lutenist, discover this repertory so that I might become a better musician?

A working familiarity with 16th-century vocal polyphony greatly enhances our ability to play other genres of music from the period with a better understanding of the interplay of musical lines.  As a singer, this writer sought out and took advantage of the opportunity to sing for a regular Tridentine Mass, accessing some of the same music that a functional 16th-century musician would have sung on a daily basis.  Making lute intabulations of particularly good motets was a matter of course, and the process revealed just how so much sacred music entered the instrumental repertory.  The experience also resulted in the serendipitous meeting of the person who is described as possessing “One of the finest voices, in interpreting late medieval/early Renaissance music I have ever heard…”

Harmonia Cælestis: An anthology of 16th-century sacred music for voice and lute

Our new publication, volume one in a series titled Harmonia Cælestis, offers a sampling of some of the best music from 16th-century Iberian composers including Brito, Guerrero, Morago, Morales, and Victoria.  Each piece is newly intabulated from the original vocal part-music in sensitive arrangements that are kind to the fingers and rewarding to the ear, and the Latin texts are conveniently cross-referenced with the chants found in the Liber Usualis.  If a compatible singer is not to be found, the vocal lines are, of course, playable as a solo line for a melody instrument or a second lute.  And with a generous selection of 16th-century motet intabulations, mass movements and themed fantasias for solo lute (or vihuela) from the publications of Daza, Fuenllana, Mudarra, Narvaez, and Valderrabano, this collection truly has something for all lutenists.

Background information includes biographical notes on the composers, English translations of Latin texts, a description of the liturgical use of each piece where appropriate, and helpful performance notes.  Our new publication will be available for shipping July 15th, and those who have asked to be on our mailing list will soon be receiving more information.  Visit Mignarda Editions for details and ordering.

3 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Un cuvînt de la Boethius despre muzică
    “Thus it follows that, since there are four mathematical disciplines, the others [Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy] are concerned with the investigations of truth,whereas Music is related not only to speculation but to morality as well. For nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites…Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato which holds that the soul of the universe is united by a musical concord. For when we compare that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound–that is, that which gives us pleasure–so we come to recognize that we are ourselves united according to this same principle of similarity.”

    - Boethius, De institutione musica, 5th century

  2. Erika permalink

    This was a very timely article for me. A couple of weeks earlier I had been wondering idly about sacred music for the lute. I Googled the topic and while there are a lot of throw-away lines about “The lute was popular for both the secular and the sacred repertoire during the 16th century,” actual examples (or even names of) sacred lute music were conspicuous by their absence. Instead I ended up rather hot under the collar about a publication called “The Sacred Lute”. There is no excuse for calling a publication “The Sacred Lute” when it has nothing to do with lutes, the title is a blatant contravention of just about any fair trading act you care to name.

    So I look forward to “Harmonia Caelestis”, even if it will be months or even years before my playing skills are up to the challenge.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      It’s a fact that almost every published collection of lute music from the 16th century included intabulations of sacred motets and Mass movements. Since we live in an almost aggressively secular age, that treasure trove of the best music of the period lies neglected.

      Of course, The Sacred Lute is a 19th-century collection of rustically-composed American hymns – in ’round’ notes rather than shaped notes like the more widely known book, The Sacred Harp. It’s interesting to observe how the imagery of early instruments was used to evoke a religious sentiment in the 19th century. Perhaps a reference to an earlier age of innocence?

      We hope you enjoy the music both now and for years to come. The duos (for one person to play) set by Fuenllana and Valderrábano make excellent study pieces for technical advancement on the lute.

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