'No Spanish composer of the sixteenth century was more lauded during his lifetime and for two hundred years after his death than Morales.'
So writes the leading modern expert (1) on the subject - a remarkable claim when one considers the talent and number of Spanish composers in the High Renaissance, not least Victoria. Morales has been lauded again in the recent revival of interest in renaissance music, but it is not clear that his particular cast of mind has been properly understood. For someone as culturally Spanish as Morales, writing music meant more than just borrowing from the prevailing Franco-Flemish or Italian styles. Morales, like Victoria, never lost that mystical intensity of expression which found its roots in Spanish Catholicism.
Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553) spent the beginning and end of his career in Spain, with a crucial ten years in the middle singing with the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome. He was appointed to the Papal Choir on 1 September 1535 by Pope Paul III, the same day that the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment. Since Morales did not return to Spain until 1545, and Michelangelo finished his great work in 1541, the composer would have had the privilege of watching The Last Judgment come into existence, more or less day by day. In fact there was little chance of his being influenced by Michelangelo's almost- baroque Italian style: Morales was sufficiently proud of his origins, especially of Seville where he was born, to follow his own muse. Although his Missa Si bona suscepimus was almost certainly written in Rome, and shows something of the consummate smoothness of the international polyphonic idiom Rome hosted during the papacy of Paul III (1534-1549), it is not an Italianate work.
A sign of the seriousness with which Morales approached the composition of his six-voice Missa Si bona suscepimus is the way it is introduced in the source - the Missarum Liber Primus, published in Rome in 1544 under his direct supervision. Before the first stave of music is a woodcut of the Prophet Job naked, with the motto spread around him 'The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away'. This is a quotation from Job (1:21) which Verdelot included in his motet Si bona suscepimus, which Morales in turn very deliberately chose as his parody model. Verdelot's text continues from Job in this despairing state of mind, including the remark (Job 2:10): 'If we have received blessings from the hand of the Lord, why then should we not endure misfortune?' Obviously something in these challenging words and in Verdelot's sparse setting of them appealed strongly to Morales, who anyway considered Mass composition to be the most important aspect of all his work. With this material as his starting-point he produced his most substantial and arguably his most heart-felt composition.
In purely musical terms Philippe Verdelot's Si bona suscepimus (published in 1526) was an ideal composition to parody, with its transparent melodic lines, clearly delineated sections and austere textures. The formal beauty of it is increased by a hidden repeat in the music, so that, although the phrases run continuously, the words 'the Lord has given, the Lord has taken away' are used as a refrain, giving the overall shape of ABCB (this incidentally was Verdelot's repeat, not Job's). Morales therefore had at his disposal a wealth of instantly recognisable musical motifs, arranged into three broad groupings, in a texture which gave plenty of scope for contrapuntal elaboration. He duly increased the number of voice-parts from five to six, adding a second soprano part, whilst being careful to borrow Verdelot's motifs from within their pre-existing sections, and not mixing them up.
This led Morales to concentrate on filling out Verdelot's spare and sombre score, intensifying the imitation and extending the polyphonic argument in ways which can be easily heard. Some of these extensions build into passages of exceptional power-like the 'Amen' to the Creed; others, like the highly elaborated Agnus Dei, acquire a tenderness which points straight to Morales's Spanish upbringing. The very opening of the first movement, the first Kyrie, shows how resourcefully he borrowed from, filled and enlarged his model - all the notes of the opening of the Verdelot are there, but buried in a far richer and more complex texture. It is as if an austere line-drawing of the Virgin and Child has been taken as the centrepiece of a large and intensely coloured painting of the Holy Family with Saints in glory.
In order to put the particular qualities of Morales's style in relief, I decided, when planning this disc, to include a motet long attributed to him, but now reckoned (2) to be by a Franco-Flemish composer, Thomas Crecquillon. This motet, Andreas Christi famulus is one of the greatest compositions of its time-a supreme piece of sustained eight-part writing - indeed every bit as impressive as Pater peccavi, recorded by the Tallis Scholars as being by Clemens non Papa, now also attributed to Crecquillon. The measured solidity of Crecquillon's style contrasts very obviously with the more fluid, less dense writing of the Missa Si bona suscepimus, leading one to wonder how the misattribution of Andreas could have gone on for so long. At any rate a reappraisal of Crecquillon is obviously called for.
Thomas Crecquillon (c.1505/10-1557) was best known in his lifetime as Court Composer to the Emperor Charles V, probably the most prestigious job of its kind, and one which Morales himself dearly wanted. They both applied for it in 1540; after being appointed Crecquillon stayed there until 1550 when he retired. Andreas Christi famulus was written for the 1546 meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece, of which Saint Andrew ('Andreas' of the title) was the patron saint. This meeting probably took place in Utrecht and is supposed to have been attended by Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England as well as Charles V: the first performance of this motet was therefore a most august occasion. To emphasise the importance of Saint Andrew, Crecquillon, in the second half of the motet, gives the second tenor an independent line of music with its own text. This generates the emotional heart of the setting, which ends in a sustained burst of the most sonorous praise.
©2000 Peter Phillips
(1) Robert Stevenson in Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age (Greenwood Press, 1961, page 3)
(2) Discussed by Martin Ham in Early Music (May 1997, page 315)