Sacred Music of the Papal Court

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The following article is from The Library of Congress Online Exhibition - Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture. The excerpt and images below are from the section on Sacred Renaissance Music.



From Gregorian Chant to Opera's Origins

Throughout the Renaissance, music formed a central element in the activities of the Curia and a bright thread in the rich tapestry of Roman religious and artistic life.

The singers and composers of the papal choir--recruited at first from northern Europe, but in the sixteenth century chiefly from Spain and Italy--appeared at daily services in the Vatican Palace and on greater occasions in the Sistine Chapel. They performed both the traditional chants of the Middle Ages, using splendid chant manuscripts, a few of which are exhibited here, and modern, polyphonic music of great richness and difficulty. In the course of the sixteenth century, the authorities became dissatisfied with the traditional melodies, which seemed to obscure the words of the liturgical texts (humanists and Reformers had long complained about this). Palestrina and others were commissioned to revise the Gregorian chants, and the new versions, printed by the Medici Press in Rome, provided the music that popes heard every day for centuries. Meanwhile music flourished in other Roman institutions as well, like the choir of Saint Peter's, which Julius II reconstituted in 1513, and where Palestrina served as maestro di cappella. The manuscripts shown here present only a few samples of the extraordinary musical life sponsored by the Renaissance papacy and the remarkable musical libraries of the papal singers. These manuscripts give a vivid idea of the ways public performance and high art could enhance the majesty of the papacy.


Cappella Giulia Chansonnier







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Cappella Giulia Chansonnier

c. 1480. The only major source of Renaissance secular music in the papal collections, this compilation of Franco-Flemish chansons was apparently copied in Florence in the late fifteenth century for a member of the Medici family. The opening work is the textless composition Palle, Palle by the Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450-1517), who in 1484 served at the court of Lorenzo de' Medici. The "palle" of the title refers to the six balls or pills in the Medici coat of arms, which is represented in the illuminated P in the cantus part.

Chant manuscript
Chant manuscript

c. 1464. This fifteenth-century manuscript of Gregorian chant, copied for the chapel of Cardinal Pietro Barbo of Venice, was given to the Sistine Chapel choir after he became Pope Paul II in 1464. The lovely illumination of the letter C in the setting of the psalm "Cantate Domino" (Sing unto the Lord a new song) depicts a choir of singers standing in front of a lectern. The musical notes on the manuscript in the miniature are legible.


Chigi Codex
Chigi Codex

Netherlands, with Flemish miniatures c.1475. The Chigi Codex, one of the richest sources of Franco-Flemish polyphony of the last quarter of the fifteenth century, is also one of the most elaborate and precious of all illuminated music manuscripts. It contains thirteen masses of the great Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-97), including this piece, the opening of Ockeghem's Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini. The shields and crests were overpainted by the later Spanish owners of the manuscript.


Antoine Busnois, Missa O Crux Lignum
Antoine Busnois, Missa O Crux Lignum

Late fifteenth century The opening of the kyrie of the mass by the Burgundian court composer Antoine Busnois is shown here. Like Capella Sistina 14 (not included in exhibition), this manuscript is one of the oldest polyphonic mass sources in the Sistina collection and dates from the late fifteenth century.


Book of Motets
Book of Motets

Fifteenth century This fifteenth-century manuscript of sacred polyphony from the choir of Saint Peter's contains the motet "Omnium bonorum plena" (Full of all good things) by the French composer Loyset Compère (ca. 1450-1518). The piece is based on the famous chanson De tous biens playne. The composer prays to the Virgin for salvation for the most famous singers of his day, including Dufay, Ockeghem, Busnois, Josquin, Tinctoris, and Caron


Manuscript of Hymns, Magnificats, and Motets
Manuscript of Hymns, Magnificats, and Motets

This manuscript was copied towards the end of the fifteenth century and preserves a collection of polyphonic music to be sung during the office of vespers (hymns and Magnificats), as well as pieces performed during Mass (motets). The opening folio shows the Gregorian chant of the first verse of the hymn "Conditor alme siderum."


Diary of Paris de Grassis
Diary of Paris de Grassis

31 October 1512 - Paris de Grassis (ca. 1450-1528) was papal master of ceremonies during the reign of Pope Julius II (1503-13). He kept the extensive diary shown here. In this entry describing the vespers that took place on 31 October 1512, de Grassis mentions that Michelangelo's newly-painted ceiling in the Sistine Chapel was displayed to the public for the first time.


Chant manuscript Chant manuscript

Parchment. This manuscript is one of the most beautiful and elaborately illuminated chant manuscripts of the Capella Sistina collection. It was written for the great patron of the arts, Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) (1513-21). The opening displayed here is sumptuously decorated in gold, indigo, ruby, and other vibrant colors, with the initial O encircling Christ and his apostles. The lower border shows the Medici coat of arms with the lion heads symbolically representing the pope, Leo X.


Elzear Genet (Carpentras), Lamentations Elzear Genet (Carpentras), Lamentations

Early sixteenth century The composer Carpentras was master of the papal chapel during the reign of Pope Leo X and wrote, among other things, polyphonic settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah--part of the liturgy of Holy Week. Returning to Rome for a visit after Leo's death, he heard performances or saw copies of his Lamentations that were so different from what he had originally composed that he decided to present the reigning pope Clement VII (1522-1534) with a decorated parchment manuscript, on display here, containing the "correct" and "authentic" version of his music.


Jacques Barbireau, Missa Virgo parens Christi Jacques Barbireau, Missa Virgo parens Christi

Early 16th century This manuscript is one of three in the Sistina collection copied probably in Brussels or Mechlin at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and sent to Rome as a gift for Pope Leo X.. The pope's coat of arms is prominently displayed in the lower portion of the right hand initials. The volume contains Masses and Mass movements. The opening work is anonymous in the manuscript, but can be shown to have been written by Jacques Barbireau (ca.1420-1491), a composer who worked mostly in Antwerp.


Manuscript of Polyphonic Music
Manuscript of Polyphonic Music, Palestrina

Late sixteenth century This important manuscript containing polyphonic psalm, hymn, and motet settings is believed to have been owned by Palestrina. The excerpt shown here is called a "falsobordone," or chordal harmonization of a psalm tone, which is said to have been added in Palestrina's own hand.


Josquin des Prez, Missa de Beata Virgine
Josquin des Prez, Missa de Beata Virgine

Early sixteenth century Recognized as the greatest and most versatile composer of the High Renaissance, Josquin des Prez (ca. 1445-1521) was a singer in the papal chapel intermittently from about 1486 to 1494, serving two popes, Innocent VIII and Alexander VI. This is the opening of one of Josquin's masterpieces, the Missa de Beata Virgine, from a manuscript collection of masses dating from the papacy of Pope Leo X (1513-21).


Antiphoner
Antiphoner

Parchment. 1535 One of a series of sumptuous chant manuscripts produced during the reign of Pope Paul III (1534-49), this volume preserves music to be sung during ceremonies that took place on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The manuscript is richly ornamented and a few folios are spectacularly decorated, such as the one shown here containing the opening chant of the liturgy of Good Friday, the antiphon "Astiterunt regem terrae." The miniature, by the papal miniaturist Vincenzo Raymondo, depicts Christ carrying the cross, while the coat of arms of Pope Paul III is at the bottom of the folio.


Constitution of the Sistine Chapel singers
Constitution of the Sistine Chapel singers, 1545

The earliest complete extant constitution outlines the singers' duties, privileges, and code of behavior and offers detailed rules for their daily personal and professional life. The beautiful illuminated full-page opening miniature portrays the reigning pope Paul III presenting the constitution to the master of the papal chapel, with the singers of the chapel kneeling behind him.


Elzear Genet (Carpentras), Lamentations Costanzo Festa, Collection of Polyphonic Hymns and Magnificats

Early sixteenth century The composer Carpentras was master of the papal chapel during the reign of Pope Leo X and wrote, among other things, polyphonic settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah--part of the liturgy of Holy Week. Returning to Rome for a visit after Leo's death, he heard performances or saw copies of his Lamentations that were so different from what he had originally composed that he decided to present the reigning Pope Clement VII (1522-1534) with a decorated parchment manuscript, on display here, containing the "correct" and "authentic" version of his music.


Records of the Papal Singers
Records of the Papal Singers

28 April 1565 The constitution of the papal singers required that individual singers be fined varying amounts if they came late or missed any of the daily services. Beginning in 1535 these fines were recorded in books known as the Diarii Sistini. Many people in the late sixteenth century were very concerned that the congregation could not understand the sacred words of a Mass sung in polyphony. Here the papal singers try out some Masses--unfortunately not named--that addressed this problem: At the request of Cardinal Vitellossi we were assembled in his residence to sing some Masses and to test whether the words could be understood, as their Eminences desire; and those who were absent were fined.


Liber quindecim Missarum
Andreas Antico, Liber quindecim Missarum

Rome. 1516 This large folio choirbook of polyphony, printed entirely by woodblock and containing fifteen masses by Josquin, Brumel, de la Rue, and others, is the first major Roman publication of sacred polyphonic music. Here we see the table of contents, listing the masses included in the work


Antoine Brumel, Laudate Dominum Antoine Brumel, Laudate Dominum

Early sixteenth century Antoine Brumel's setting of Laudate Dominum for four voices is one of the earliest motet settings of a psalm. It is found in a manuscript copied during the reign of Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II (1503-1513), whose coat of arms appears in the upper left-hand corner of the opening.


Stefano Landi, Sant'Alessio Stefano Landi, Sant'Alessio

Stefano Landi (ca. 1586-1639) was a member of the papal chapel in Rome and also worked for the powerful Barberini family. In 1632 his opera "Sant'Alessio," with a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), later Pope Clement IX, was premiered in the Barberini palace in Rome; the score was published two years later. Although most early operas drew their plots from pagan mythology, this work is based on Christian hagiography--the life of the fifth-century Saint Alexis--yet also contains comic characters and elaborate scenic effects. The woodcut illustration displayed here shows one of those scenes, depicting nothing less than Hell itself.


Etienne Dupérac, Maiestatis Pontificiae dum in Capella Xisti Sacra Peraguntur Accurata Delineatio (The Papal Majesty in the Sistine Chapel) Etienne Dupérac, Maiestatis Pontificiae dum in Capella Xisti Sacra Peraguntur Accurata Delineatio (The Papal Majesty in the Sistine Chapel)

1578. An early engraving of the Sistine Chapel shows the full pomp of a papal religious ceremony, with the pope, the entire papal curia, and the singers in their box (lower right) gathered around a lectern. Every important participant is identified by a number corresponding to a legend at the bottom of the page. The pope on his throne at the left is no. 4, and the papal singers in their "cantoria" are no. 51.



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