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Saturday morning quotes 6.24: Magnum mysterium

October 29, 2016

magnummysteriumcover1400x1400We are very pleased to announce the November 1st release of our new Christmas CD, Magnum Mysterium, which features four polyphonic settings of the evocative Christmas responsory text and includes other seasonal and contextual music.  The recording is available to pre-order as a digital download on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, and the CD will be available on its own or packaged with an edition of all the scores, notated for voice and lute with transcriptions of lute parts in keyboard notation.

Since all of the music on the recording is newly arranged for solo voice and lute from historical sources, we take this opportunity to provide a bit of insight into our working process and how we follow the  examples from the 16th century.  We will also offer details describing each of the four settings of “O Magnum mysterium”, this week beginning with that of William Byrd.

The fact that printed works for lute solo and printed works for the combination of voice and lute appeared within the span of 1507 and 1509 indicates that the format was in common use well before that time.  And the fact that Francesco Spinacino’s 1507 book–the very first published work for lute–contained mostly intabulations of vocal polyphony by 15th-century composers, indicates that abstract instrumental works for the lute were really a secondary, if digitally satisfying, indulgence.  Following the cookie-cutter categories established by historians, we tend to believe that the earliest surviving printed evidence marks the beginning of a musical format, style or technique.  But consideration of surviving paintings and earlier contextual clues informs us that music for solo voice with a lute playing more than one part with the fingertips of the right hand was a common practice many years before the appearance of Petrucci’s publications.

The first printed works for solo voice and lute are attributed to Franciscus Bossinensis, published in 1509 and 1511.  These works were mostly transcriptions of four-part frottole by Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Marco Cara and other composers writing what amounted to pop music of the time. Bossinensis produced fairly straightforward arrangements with the cantus part in mensural notation and with the tenor and bass parts arranged for the lute appearing below.  This legible format that facilitated performance by one singer-lutenist persisted throughout the 16th century and was found in Adrian Willaert’s 1536 arrangements of Verdelot’s first book of madrigals.

We see a bit of variation in the 1552 print of Pierre Phalese, who printed the voice and lute parts on separate pages, making it difficult for one person to sing and play the lute part, and creating a host of problems for those of us who edit old music.  We performed Josquin’s “Stabat Mater dolorosa” from this source only last month and had to borrow heavily from the five-part vocal score in order to arrive at a plausible performing edition.   And in order to create a more satisfying lute accompaniment, it was also necessary to borrow bits of figuration from other intabulations of Josquin’s “Stabat Mater” for solo lute, including those by Francesco da Milano and Simon Gintzler.



In choosing a polyphonic work to adapt for solo voice and lute, it is essential to have a complete grasp of the original piece; its character, its compass, the function of the cantus part within the polyphonic context, the nature of the text and its expressive possibilities, the shape and length of musical phrasing, and whether it is possible to create a convincing and playable arrangement of the lower parts for the lute.  The keyword is “polyphony”, and the primary task of the lutenist is to observe the horizontal aspects of the multiple moving lines and avoid falling into the trap of turning a flowingly transparent and textural piece into a dull chordal clomp.

In choosing William Byrd’s setting of “O magnum mysterium”, we face a primary challenge in that, unlike the friendlier works of many sixteenth century composers, Byrd’s music is not particularly easy to play on the lute.  His individual vocal lines have a tendency to be quite rhythmically active with an abundance of quirky syncopations tossed to and fro between the parts.  Despite the appearance of several of Byrd’s keyboard and other instrumental pieces arranged for lute by his English contemporaries, unlike Palestrina, there is nothing to indicate that Byrd ever composed with lute in hand.

But among those arrangements by his contemporaries is a collection of Byrd’s vocal polyphony arranged for lute and voice, with most of the solo voice parts unfortunately missing.   The Paston manuscripts have been amply studied by Stewart McCoy (“Edward Paston and the Textless Lute-Song”, Early Music, Vol. 15, No. 2, Plucked String Issue (May, 1987), pp. 221-227.), Hector Sequera (link is pdf), Samuel Schmitt (“The Paston Manuscripts in Context: A Study of Folger Shakespeare Library MSS V.a. 405-7”), and Philip Taylor.

“One would dearly like to know in just how many Jacobean households Catholic Mass was celebrated in choir with music from the Gradualia. Appleton Hall in Norfolk was one, the home of Edward Paston, member of a distinguished family best known for the 15th-century “Paston Letters”. At court in the 1570s Paston had been known as something of a poet, but he had soon retired to the quiet life of a country squire, a life that allowed him to practise the old religion with less interference and to indulge his hobbies, poetry and especially music. He had a mania for copying music; perhaps a third of all the surviving manuscripts of the time were written by his personal scribes, and we know from his will that cupboardsful of others existed which are now lost.  A dozen anonymous consort songs in these manuscripts were identified as Byrd’s by Dart and Brett.”

– Joseph Kerman, “William Byrd,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980), 5:543.

Byrd’s setting of “O magnum misterium” (Byrd’s spelling) was published in the second book of his Gradualia in 1607, a rather risky time to be publishing Catholic music in Protestant England.

“The political climate may well have appeared favourable in early 1605, but things changed with the Gunpowder Plot and there is record of someone being arrested in possession of Gradualia partbooks. Byrd seems merely to have withdrawn the edition and stored the pages. He issued a second volume of Gradualia in 1607 and reissued both, with new title-pages, in 1610.”

– Kerman, “William Byrd,” 5:543.

Regardless of the sudden shifts in attitudes towards Catholicism in early Stuart England, Byrd’s reputation as “a Father of Musick” persisted until his death in 1623.  Representing the generation before Dowland and the lute song composers, Byrd managed to create and maintain a unique style of music that resisted the character of foreign influences.




Back to Byrd’s setting of “O magnum misterium”, we have a beautifully independent cantus line that clearly carries the complete text of the responsory after a quiet and pensive introduction by the lower parts. The standard text for the responsory is “et admirable” rather than Byrd’s “O admirable”, which could be a printing error by someone unfamiliar with the liturgy.  We adopt the standard text.



However, Byrd indulged in a bit of clever text-setting by introducing and tossing back and forth the braying leap of a fourth at the words “ut animalia”, a playful imitation of  a donkey in the stable.   The complete responsory text includes the secunda pars “Beata Virgo” and the versus “Ave Maria”, which thins the texture down to the top three voices.  The setting then repeats “Beata Virgo”, ending on a unresolved dominant harmony.  And we will end for now with an invitation to join us next week for a look at another setting of “O magnum mysterium”.

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