Alessandro Striggio and Thomas Tallis

My friends keep educating me, and the unexpected arrival of a CD of music performed by the excellent British group I Fagionini has introduced me to a new composer, Alessandro Striggio, a Mantuan of the sixteenth century. One of his pieces composed in the 1560s is a forty-part motet Ecce beatam lucem in which a Latin text by a Protestant composer, Paul Melissus, is set to music. Shortly afterwards he produced a setting of the mass, ‘Ecco si beato giorno’, which has a good deal in common with the motet. Further, as the cover notes to the CD tell us, ‘whereas the motet follows an established tradition by using constantly varying groupings of adjacent parts, the Mass is a remarkably early example of true polychorality, the forty parts divided into five choirs of eight parts each…the effect is of melodic ivy entwined around sturdy harmonic pillars.” It’s a wonderful example of the amazingly rich polyphony of renaissance music.

But there are two new things to learn. It looks as though Thomas Tallis heard Striggio’s work performed while the Italian was visiting London, and that his forty part ‘Spem in alium’ was composed in emulation of it. (Here, by the way, is further evidence for the closeness of Renaissance England to Italy, something that every reader of Shakespeare will have tumbled to; it would be interesting to know just what subsequently went wrong with this relationship.) And comparative work on Striggio and Tallis suggests that the latter’s Spem in alium was intended to be accompanied. The version I have, that of the Winchester Cathedral Choir and others conducted by David Hill, takes it more slowly that do I Fagiolini, in a version included on their CD of Striggio, and I would have thought that the rich density of the harmonies made instrumental accompaniment unnecessary. But the accompaniment works well, weaving in and out of the vocal lines rather than providing a sustained line, hence perhaps more like Monteverdi than Mozart. It will be interesting to get to know it better.

The presenter of a classical music program on the radio tells how she was turned on to classical music at the age of 16 when she heard the Tallis piece, and came near to wearing out a tape recorder by playing it over and over again. I understand fully; Tallis and, it now seems, Striggio were responsible for something that is an unending  source of delight.

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