Christmas approaching - 2017

Christmas approaching - 2017

December 18, 2017.  Christmas is coming soon, and this gives us a chance to celebrate several Renaissance composers.  We usually look for special events to mention them throughout the year, since there are no dates associated with their birthday.  What could be a better occasion than Christmas, as all of them wrote church music, and much of it music for Christmas services.  

The Adoration of the Kings, Jan GossaertThe great Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso (or Orlande di Lassus, as his name is sometimes spelled) was born around 1532 in Mons, county of Hainaut in what is now Belgium.  At the age of twelve he followed Ferrante Gonzaga to Mantua, then spent some time in Milan and Naples before settling in Rome.  In 1556, already famous as a composer, he was invited to Munich by Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, who, eager to compete with Italian courts, was hiring musicians from different countries.  Orlando stayed in the employ of Dukes for the rest of his life.  Soon after his arrival in Bavaria, Orlando presented the Duke Albrecht with a set of 12 motets, which he titled Prophetiae Sibyllarum ("Sibylline Prophecies").  The author of the texts is unknown, but all of the “prophecies” foretell the coming of Christ.  Here are two of the motets, Sibylla Europæa and Sibylla Erythræa, both beautifully performed by the ensemble De Labyrintho, Walter Testolin conducting.

One of the key texts and corresponding chants of the Catholic Christmas liturgy is O Magnum Mysterium (O great mystery), which is sung on Christmas Matins.  Many Renaissance composers wrote motets on this text, one of them Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the quintessential polyphonist of the Hight Renaissance.  Palestrina was one of the few Italians working in Rome: most of the famous composers of that time were either Flemish or Spanish (that would change in just one generation and Italians would reign supreme for years to come).  Palestrina was born around 1525 in the town of the same name.  In 1551 Pope Julius III appointed him maestro di cappella at Cappella Giulia, one of the two key choirs at the Vatican, another being the Sistine Chapel choir).  From that point on Palestrina moved from one important position to another.  O Magnum Mysterium, Palestrina’s six-voice motet, was published in 1569.  It’s sung here by the King's College Choir, Cambridge, Sir Philip Ledge conducting.

Tomás Luis de Victoria also wrote an O Magnum Mysterium motet.  Victoria, a Spaniard, is often considered one of the three great High Renaissance composers, together with Palestrina and Lasso.  He was born in a small town of Sanchidrián in the province of Ávila in 1548.  He went to Rome in 1565 and may have studied with Palestrina.  His sublime Mysterium can be heard here, in the performance by the Oxford Camerata under the direction of Jeremy Summerly.

We want to mention another rendition of O Magnum Mysterium, this one by a Venetian, Giovanni Gabrieli.  Gabrieli, born around 1554 in Venice, and in his twenties, went to Munich to study with Lasso and stayed there for some years.  Here’s his version of O Magnum Mysterium, performed by The Choir of King's College and The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.

The Adoration of the Kings (1510-1515), above, was painted by Jan Gossaert, who, like Orlando di Lasso, was Flemish and also born in the French-speaking county of Hinaut.