Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week, Striggio: Mass in 40 Parts

One of the most important musicological discoveries of recent years took place in 2005 at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. There, musicologist Davitt Moroney located a previously misidentified work by Alessandro Striggio which turned out to be the long lost Missa Ecco si Beato Giorno – a mass in 40 separate parts, rising to an incredible 60 for the final Agnus dei. Dating from 1566 it pre-dates Thomas Tallis’s famous 40-part Spem in Alium by four years and as we know that Striggio visited London (and almost certainly met Tallis) in 1567 it seems almost certain that this mass (and its accompanying motet) was the inspiration behind Tallis’s most popular work.

A few of the numerous musicians involved
A few of the numerous musicians involved

Striggio’s newly discovered Mass received its first performed at the Proms in 2007, and this week sees its first release on CD, in a fabulous recording by Renaissance specialists I Fagiolini under Robert Hollingworth.

Alessandro Striggio (1536-92) spent virtually all his life in Italy, working particularly in Florence and Mantua, and became well connected to the Medici Family, for whom a lot of his music was written. The singers in this huge 40-part mass are split up into five choirs of eight singers (unlike the Tallis which is eight choirs of five singers), and when performed they are often distributed throughout the venue. From here these choirs have what Hollingworth describes as a “sacred conversation” with each other – sometimes singing individually, sometimes in pairs or groups and sometimes all together.

In terms of performance practice it is not known exactly how this would have been performed in Striggio’s time, and there is indeed every probability that it would have been performed quite differently in different towns and courts. As viol player John Bryan (of the Rose Consort of Viols) says, “performing this music today is a blend of research and imagination”. For this recording Hollingworth decides to add instruments to the choirs (which was certainly done in the Munich court at that time). He does this very cleverly by having different groups of instruments with the different choirs so, for example, one choir is accompanied by viols, one by lutes and one by sackbuts and cornets, etc. It helps tremendously differentiate the choirs from each other, as each one has a slightly different sound. Tallis’s more famous Spem in Alium is also on the recording and here also features instrumental accompaniments which make it sound quite different from the usual a cappella version which is generally heard and recorded.

Musically the Striggio is much simpler than the Tallis. The harmonies move in much slower sequences and there aren’t any of the real dissonant moments which make the Tallis so special. But there are other things to enjoy with Striggio’s Italian style, which is often much more intricate and ornate (particularly in the inner parts), and the mass of sound, particularly in the concluding 60-part Agnus dei is stunning.

The disc is superbly recorded, capturing the huge scale of the music, whilst retaining plenty of detail, and it comes with a DVD, which contains surround sound versions of the major works on the disc, and a short documentary about the Striggio.

I’ve put a short video on the website which you can see via the link below. This gives you more information about the recording as well as a flavour of the music. Enjoy!