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 The opening page of the first of 40 parts written for Striggio's ambitious Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno. (Courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Lost 16th-century mass discovered by Berkeley music scholar
Final movement of Striggio's choral work, for 60 voices, is 'Florentine art at its most spectacular,' says music professor Davitt Moroney

28 November 2007

Editor's note: This is an expanded version of a story first published by the College of Letters and Science on its website, ls.berkeley.edu.

More than 400 years after Italian composer Alessandro Striggio wrote his extravagant 40-part Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, it has been rediscovered by a Berkeley music scholar who identified the work and rescued it from obscurity.

Although most of Striggio's piece is in 40 different voice parts, the last movement is for 60 separate voices (five 12-part choirs) and is the only known piece of 60-part counterpoint in the history of Western music. "It's one of the first great pieces to use architecture and space, with musical phrases physically moving around the ring from choir to choir," says Professor of Music Davitt Moroney, who after years of research located a complete set of partbooks for the mass in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. "It is an intellectual achievement of the highest order. There are other large choral works, but Striggio's mass is unique, with its five eight-part choirs. This is Florentine art at its most spectacular."

This gigantic choral setting of music for the Catholic mass was composed in Florence for the Medici family, whom Striggio served as a highly paid court musician, and sent as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1567 as one element in a campaign by the Medici to obtain a much-sought-after archducal title. The 30-minute mass, composed for a massive ensemble of five eight-part double choirs, is one of the most extraordinary artworks of the Italian Renaissance; but while references to it exist in period correspondence, the score itself had been lost since 1726.


Davitt Moroney has traced the journey the composer Alessandro Striggio took through Western Europe as he presented his 40-part mass to various crowned heads while serving as an emissary of the Medici family. (Scott Hewitt photo)
 

In late 1566, Striggio embarked on a quasi-diplomatic mission to the leading courts of Europe - with the first stop perhaps the most important: the Viennese court of the Holy Roman Empire. The trip was intended, Moroney says, to convince Emperor Maximilian II of two key points. First, Cosimo de' Medici, Duke of Florence and Striggio's patron, wanted the emperor to know that the Medici could support him militarily and materially and now deserved to be granted the archducal title. The audaciously complex mass functioned, essentially, as a signifier of that capability by implying the unlimited extent of Medici artistic patronage, and therefore also of ready hard cash. Second, the religious nature of the gift could only underscore Cosimo's commitment to the Catholic faith, a strategy that Moroney has written was "essential for such an ambition in a time of reform."

To present this gift, Striggio journeyed from Florence to Vienna, over the Brenner Pass in the depths of winter, only to find his quarry had removed to Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. There, in January 1567, he gave a presentation copy of the mass to the emperor, who expressed his eagerness to hear it performed once he returned to Vienna - his musical retinue away from court being numerically insufficient to the task. However, the mass was performed at full strength for nobles and royals at the courts in both Munich and Paris shortly thereafter, to considerable acclaim, and presumably under Striggio's direction.

While the mass was a success, the diplomatic trip was less so: It took two more years for the Medici to be granted their royal title (Grand Duke), by the pope, and nearly 10 years for the emperor to approve it. No case for the influence of Striggio’s mass on this decision can yet be constructed, Moroney says. (Its proximate cause was probably a gift of money to the financially strained emperor from the Medici.)

Striggio also visited England on his trip, though for reasons personal rather than diplomatic: He wanted to "visit that kingdom and the virtuosos in the profession of music that there are there," he wrote to Francesco de' Medici, Cosimo's son. His visit there included meetings with Queen Elizabeth I and, Moroney speculates, with Thomas Tallis, whose own still-much-admired composition for eight five-voice choirs, the motet Spem in alium, likely took the Striggio mass as its inspiration.

Following his short visit to London, Striggio returned to Florence via Flanders and France ... which is where the mystery of the "vanished" score for the 40-part mass ultimately brought Moroney in pursuit of its solution.

Hidden in plain sight

The score of Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno was never, in fact, missing so much as hidden in plain sight. Its failure to be studied in depth by the musicologists of the past several centuries has more to do with the vagaries of bibliographic notation than with popular notions of treasures being forgotten in abandoned storerooms by forgetful descendants.

Having traced the peregrinations of at least four copies of the score over the decades, Moroney concluded that one complete set of partbooks came to rest in the "extraordinary library" of Italian and French scores (and books about music) of the composer Sébastien de Brossard (1655-1730), which ultimately was donated to the French King Louis XV in 1726 in return for the promise of a small pension. It thus entered the holdings of the Bibliothèque royale, which after considerable political turmoil later in that century were transferred to the Bibliothèque nationale.

At several points, human error intervened. A series of misspellings of the name Striggio by a series of copyists and archivists rendered the composer's name, variously, as "Strigeo," "Struseo," and "Strusco," while the number of choral parts was, early in the last century, reduced to a mere four (from 40) by a proofreader (Moroney speculates) who thought the number more reasonable.

For these simple but ultimately confounding reasons, Striggio's grand 40-part mass essentially came to be regarded as lost, even as it remained accessible to scholars in France's greatest library under a different name. In Moroney's words: "[T]he forty-part Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno ... by Alessandro Striggio languished throughout the twentieth century disguised as a nameless four-part Mass by Strusco. Since such a work would appear to be entirely banal, and since no such composer ever existed, scholars have not been in a rush to study this music."

Moroney's scholarly pursuit of the mass lasted 20 years, until, in January 2005, he recognized information published by a French scholar as the crucial final piece of the puzzle that enabled him to locate the missing manuscript. Finally holding the prize in his hands was "a magical moment," he says, still visibly thrilled from the discovery.

In 2007, Moroney received a UC President's Research Fellowship in the Humanities to return to Paris, where he was able to identify the site of a documented performance of the mass in 1567. He also transcribed the mass into modern musical notation and prepared the first modern performance.

That occurred in July, as part of the BBC Proms classical-music festival, when Moroney conducted two of the finest choirs in the world, the BBC Singers and the Tallis Scholars, in London's Royal Albert Hall. The 7,500-seat hall was sold out, and some 7 million more listeners around the globe tuned in to listen. "The concert was a huge event," Moroney smiles. "We got Striggio back on the map."

Moroney's view of the impact of the mass's rediscovery and performance extends beyond the purely musicological. "For those of us who do research in the humanities," he reflects, "this is an example of one of the many kinds of musical scholarship we do: not only identifying a lost work, tracing its historical importance, and translating it into practical modern notation, but also taking that extra step that brings the music back to life in a performance, giving pleasure to modern listeners."