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Saturday morning quotes 6.29: Willaert

December 3, 2016

This week we feature a new video and offer more insights on the music that may be heard on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, and seen in its companion book of scores.  Highlighting the fourth of four settings of the Christmas responsory text, “O magnum mysterium”, we turn to the lute-friendly composer Adrian Willaert (c.1490 – 1562).

In addition to his estimable output of sacred music as maestro di cappella at San Marco’s in Venice (1527 – 1562), Willaert composed an ample amount of secular music including French chansons, Italian madrigals and  Villanesca alla napolitana.  Some of Willaert’s most beguiling madrigals are the settings of texts from the Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), published in Musica Nova, 1559.


Among modern lutenists, Willaert is known for his Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto da cantare et sonare nel lauto, intavolati per Messer Adriano, published by Scotto in 1536.  As the lengthy title indicates, this work consists of  madrigals from Verdelot‘s Il primo libro de madrigali, 1533, arranged for solo voice and lute.  It is from such historical intabulations that we take inspiration for our own work as we continue to create arrangements of particularly good historical polyphony.

Returning to the subject of Willaert’s motets:

“Willaert’s greatest and most enduring compositions are his motets. Out of a provisional total of 175, 79 are for four voices, 51 for five, 38 for six and five for seven or eight voices. The motets enjoyed wide circulation during his lifetime in manuscripts, printed anthologies and a series of influential publications issued by Scotto and Gardano from 1539 on. These publications, which include two books of motets for four voices (1539, repr. 1545), one book for five voices (1539, repr. 1550) and one for six voices (1542), were among the first printed books to focus on the music of a single composer, attesting to the high regard in which Willaert was held at the time.”

Michele Fromson, “Adrian Willaert”, Grove Music Online

Although Willaert was very highly regarded in his day, his music is rarely performed today.  We aim to rectify this situation in future performances of our vocal ensemble.


“O magnum mysterium” and its secunda pars, “Ave Maria” (which we have featured in a past post) are from Willaert’s Motecta … liber primus, 4vv, Venice, 1539 (reprinted 1545).  Setting the entire Christmas Responsory text, Willaert’s music is sublimely calm and understated, the cantus part almost narrative and descant-like as the lower parts weave and intertwine in leisurely imitation.  The work is obviously the result of a thoughtful and deliberate composer aiming to create the perfect music to express the text—no matter how long it may take.

“Willaert is known to have been a slow worker.  His pupil Gioseffo Zarlino writes that he composed in great concentration and without haste.  In a letter of 15 March 1534 Ruberto Strozzi, a nobleman resident in Venice, writes to his mentor, the humanist and historian Benedetto Varchi, that he will do all he can to get Willaert to set an epigram to music, but that he can promise nothing, for much patience is required to persuade Willaert to compose.”

Ignace Bossuyt, “O socii durate: A Musical Correspondence from the Time of Philip II”, Early Music, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), p. 441.

Much patience indeed.  We all know the type who is compelled to try every possible approach to a thing, and its inverse, until the correct solution emerges.  But Art cannot by rushed.

The quiet beauty of Willaert’s setting is established at the outset with his delicate treatment of the lower voices that tread lightly on tiptoes, following one another in not-quite perfect imitation while whispering among themselves; in awe of the great mystery unfolding before their eyes.  The cantus enters midway through the ninth measure with an arcing line that is gently declamatory, the notes expressing the text perfectly right down to the “blue” note that colors the word “mysterium”.

10Willaert O magnum mysterium_Notes

Our performance of Willaert’s “O magnum mysterium” may be heard on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, available with a companion edition of scores arranged for voice and lute, with transcriptions of all lute parts in standard notation for harp or keyboard.

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