Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 6.27: Magnum Mysterium 3

November 19, 2016

magnummysteriumcover1400x1400This is our third post highlighting another polyphonic setting of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium” from our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, and we also announce the availability of our new companion book of scores from the recording.

In previous posts, we have offered background and details on versions by William Byrd and Tomás Luis de Victoria.  This week’s post is devoted to the beautiful setting of “O magnum mysterium” by Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553), offering background and essential insights that lead to an historically-sensitive performance.

Morales was a gifted and prolific composer who took pride in his Spanish heritage to the extent that his publications described him as “Christophorus Morales Hyspalensis”.  His extensive output consisted primarily of sacred music, leaving behind only a handful of secular pieces including the anonymous romance, “De Antequera sale el Moro”, a piece that survives in an intabulated setting found in Miguel de Fuenllana’s Libro de música para vihuela, intitulado Orphénica Lyra, Sevilla, 1554.   If Morales was proud of his Spanish identity, Spain was likewise proud of him:  Music theorist and author of Declaración de instrumentos musicales, Fray Juan Bermudo (c.1510 – 1565), described Morales as “the light of Spain in music.”

Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” is not found among his ample corpus of published works, but appears in at least three separate manuscript sources; Biblioteca Casa Ducal de Medinaceli, Madrid, Parroquia de Santiago, Valladolid, and also in the more recently studied manuscript at the Catedral, Archivo y Biblioteca Capítulares, Toledo.  Michael Noone, in  Códice 25 de la Catedral de Toledo, (Madrid, Alpuerto, 2003), speculates that Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” may have been copied into the Toledo manuscript while the composer was there, circa 1545-1547, a case for assigning the motet to the latter part of Morales’ career.

A unique aspect of Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” is that the manuscript sources agree on notation in high clefs, a much misunderstood feature that has had a lasting influence on performance and reception of the motet. Bernadette Nelson mentions the stratospheric disposition of parts in her article, “A Little Known Part-Book From Toledo. Music by Morales, Guerrero, Jorge de Santa Maria, Alonso Lobo and Others in Barcelona, Instituto Espanol de Musicologia, Fondo  Reserva”, MS 1 Anuario Musical, N.º 65, enero-diciembre 2010, 25-56.

“O magnum mysterium and Monstra te may be distinguished for having been written for a quartet involving at least three high voices, which is indicative of intended performance by the choirboys, or seises.”

While stratospheric performance by choirboys may very well have been intended by the scribes who copied Morales’ “O magnum mysterium” into the surviving manuscripts, it may just as likely have not been the composer’s intention.  Polyphonic music notated in high clefs was typically intended to be transposed down according to what is known today as the chiavette.

“Chiavette (It.: ‘little clefs’): Term for certain combinations of clefs used in 16th- and 17th-century polyphonic music, distinct from the chiavi naturali (the combination of soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs); it is especially used for the combination of ‘high clefs’ (treble, mezzo-soprano, alto and baritone clefs). Some theorists stated that the chiavette implied transposition by a 4th or 5th into the register of the ‘normal’ clefs, whence the alternative term chiavi trasportate (transposing clefs). These terms arose in the 18th century, when the practice was no longer current outside the papal chapel in Rome. Some modern scholars see clef combinations as an important clue to the mode of particular compositions, especially ones from late 16th-century Italy.”

“Pieces notated in high clefs were intended to be transposed downwards, according to Ganassi, by a 5th, and according to Banchieri (Cartella, overo Regole, 1601) and Picerli (Specchio secondo di musica, 1631) by a 4th when the Bb is present in the signature and by a 5th with no key signature.”

“High clef notation was used for much longer: in the age of Palestrina and Victoria the vast majority of a cappella polyphony was notated in this clef grouping. It remained in use in the stile diatonico osservato alla Palestrina of the Roman school throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, when it was last used by Giuseppe Baini (Apparuit Dominus Salomoni, 1837). This conservative practice was, however, restricted to composers writing for the papal chapel.”

Patrizio Barbieri, Grove Music Online

While the sources mentioned by Barbieri date from a bit later in the 16th century—just like the application of accidentals and many other commonly employed aspects of the performance of polyphonic music at the time—the practice was observed and in use much earlier, and there was no need to state the obvious to skilled musicians who would have recognized that the high clefs with a flat in the key signature in Morales’ “O magnum mysterium” should naturally be transposed downward by a fourth.

Again, according to the principles of chiavette that were in common use during the 16th century, a piece that appeared in high clefs was intended to be transposed downward by a fourth.  While most modern performances take the high-clef distribution literally, employing high women’s voices rather than choirboys, in our performance, we observe the essential downward transposition, carrying the result a step lower sung at our typical pitch standard of A=392.  The lower tessitura results in a much more relaxed performance allowing for a calm interpretation and communication of the text and also allowing Morales’ characteristic overlapping syncopations and delicate parallel duets to emerge convincingly and with greater ease.  Our recording may be heard here.

Now for the bad news: Like the setting of “O magnum mysterium” by fellow Spaniard, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Morales’ adaptation of the text indicates that his setting of the motet was actually proper to be sung In Circumcisione Domini, for the Feast of the Circumcision.  But even with Morales’ adaptation of the text, the motet can be considered proper to the Nativity and, happily, the (no longer observed) Feast of the Circumcision falls within the Octave of Christmas.  As music historians, church musicians, and performers of historical music, we feel it is important to be informed of these details that guide performance practice.  But we also feel that Morales’ setting is wonderfully evocative of the mystery of the Nativity, and have thus placed the motet as the opening track of our new recording.

Now for the good news:  This week, we begin shipping Mignarda Editions’ new book of scores as a companion to our new recording.  The book includes all of the music on the recording with lute parts notated both in French lute tablature and, in a separate section, with all the lute parts transcribed in keyboard notation.  As a Christmas season offering to our readers, our new edition is available for a limited time for a special low price, and can be purchased with a CD or by itself.  Visit our Mignarda Editions page for more information.

  1. I believe hyspalensis refers specifically to Seville rather than Spain as a whole; it’s the Roman name for Seville like Eboracum is for York in England. A good point about transposing clefs – a lot of people don’t seem to understand these today. They sometimes occur in early 17th century Italian alfabeto songbooks and singers often perform such songs at impossibly high pitches. They were used in Spain until at least the end of the 17th century the Spanish being somewhat conservative. A beautiful piece – which I hadn’t heard before so thank you for a chance to listen to a lovely performance.

  2. Thank you for your helpful clarification, and for your kind words. Hopefully, by easing Morales’ setting of “O magnum mysterium” down from the stratospheric high clefs there may be more performances cropping up. Morales is one of our absolute favorite composers and we would happily spend the rest of our music careers concentrating on his music alone.

  3. As Palestrina is mentioned above: Does this high-clef transposing rule also apply to Sicut cervus & Sitivit anima mea? I always thought your rendition was a fourth lower than the others I knew. And I prefer the lower pitch.

  4. Thanks for your observation, J. We actually perform Sicut cervus/Sitivit anima mea in the clefs in which they were originally notated. Most people seem to transpose them up for some reason.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 6.30: Intabulation | Unquiet Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: