Read next week's Proms picks by Pliable here.
Tuesday's late night BBC Prom by the Tallis Scholars includes a little known work by Alessandro Striggio. A search on Amazon.com for Thomas Tallis’ mighty forty part motet Spem in alium returns 43 results. But a search for Striggio’s motet for the same forces, Ecce beatam lucem, returns just 2 results. The popularity of Tallis’ masterpiece is perfectly understandable, but the neglect of its progenitor is something of a mystery.
Alessandro Striggio worked in Florence and Mantua in the 1550s, and developed a luxurious and opulent style of choral writing that culminated in a Sanctus for sixty voices that has sadly been lost over the intervening centuries. The motet Ecce beatam lucem was composed in 1561 as a celebration of Catholicism. It was written to mark the visit of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este to France where he was preaching against Protestantism, and uses forty voices organised in varying groupings through the course of the work.
In 1567 Striggio travelled to London where Ecco beatam lucem was received rapturously. It is thought that a request by Thomas Howard fourth Duke of Norfolk prompted Thomas Tallis to start composing Spem in alium in 1567 as a response to the popularity of Striggio’s motet. There are some striking similarities. They both use the same forces, share the key of G, and exploit the spine-chilling impact of forty-voice polyphony. Tallis however raised the game, Spem is more overtly sacred, and the technical writing and development is more accomplished.
But as they say on Amazon.com if you like Spem in alium you will also like Ecce beatam lucem. I have the first Huelgas Ensemble version directed by Paul van Nevel (photo below). This 1994 CD was recorded was made in the St Barbara Church, Gent, Belgium with the choir standing in their signature circle (photo above). The couplings are also well worth hearing, including some more little known Renaissance polyphony from Costanzo Porta, Josquin Desprez, Johannes Ockeghem, Pierre de Manchicourt and Giovanni Gabrielli, as well as Spem in Alium itself. The same forces have recently re-recorded Ecce beatem lucem for Harmonia Mundi in SACD surround sound. Despite these two fine versions by the Huelgas Ensemble there is still a real gap in the market for choral groups with forty top flight voices to fill, and some additional recordings of Ecce beatam lucem would make a real change instead of the 44th version of Spem.
* Now hear the similarities for yourself with this brief sample from the first Huelges Ensemble recording of Ecce beatam lucem, or listen online to both works complete for seven days after the concert.
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Image credits, Huelgas Ensemble Berliner Festpiele,
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