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Striggio's Big One

June 10, 2008

On Saturday night, the Berkeley Early Music Festival hosted the U.S. premiere of the largest work of vocal polyphony in the history of western music at Berkeley's First Congregational Church. The 16th century Italian composer Alessandro Striggio wrote his mammoth 60-part Missa Sopra "Ecco Si Beato Giorno" for five choirs between 1565 and 1566.

Berkeley music scholar Davitt Moroney (pictured left) unearthed the manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris in 2005 and it received its world premiere, under Moroney's direction, at the BBC Proms in London last year.

Hearing it performed by the members of five Bay Area choirs on Saturday together with an ensemble of period instruments (cornetts, sagbutts, organs, harpsichords and a violone) was quite an experience, not least because the work completely defied my expectations. For one thing, it sounds nothing like the other big cannonical choral work of the period -- Thomas Tallis' magnificent Spem in Alium -- even though Moroney contends that Tallis was inspired the work following a visit from Striggio. The Striggio is comprised of much simpler and cleaner blocks of sound. For another, it's a much more modest work than I supposed a 60-part mass would be.

The sound throughout comes at the listener in gently undulating waves, more than a crashing tsumani. Quite often, choirs sing alone or have "conversations" with just one or two other choirs in the group. These conversations often take the form of plain call and response passages.

Only in the second setting of the work's two Agnus Deis does the whole 60-voice party kick in. At this moment, the choirs come in one after another until every singer has joined the fray. But even then the effect is like a warm caress rather than a barrage of sound. If I didn't know I was listening to 60-part polyphony, I would guess that there were maybe only 15 - 20 parts.

This warm timbre is one of the most wonderful things about the music. Striggio's mass may not be as impressive a piece as similar works by Monteverdi or Tallis. But it's beauty lies in its understated magnitude.

Finally, here is a June 1 article with some interesting background on the work by The San Francisco's Chronicle's Joshua Kosman.

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