Cristóbal de Morales : “Officium Defunctorum”- Jordi Savall

Cristóbal de Morales

Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553) was a Spanish composer of the Renaissance. He is generally considered to be the one most influential Spanish composer, who, together with Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero, is recognized as one of the three most important Spanish composers of the 16th century.

Almost all of his music is sacred, and all of it is vocal, though instruments may have been used in an accompanying role in performance. Morales had spent a decade as a tenor singer in the Sistine Chapel choir before returning to his native Spain in 1545. In the remaining eight years of his life he had been chapel master at Toledo Cathedral, attached to the court of the Duke of Arcos, and finally maestro at the cathedral of Málaga. He was the first Spanish composer to achieve true international fame, and was described in 1555 by the the Spanish theorist Juan Bermudo as the “light of Spain in music”.

Partly as a result of the celebrity derived during his Roman sojourn, Morales has in modern times been the most widely acknowledged and performed composer of the mid-sixteenth century. His style would appear to have been influential on the youthful Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; although Palestrina’s tenure as a singer in the Sistine Chapel began only after Morales’s death, the latter’s music was certainly in the repertoire of the Cappella Giulia (the choir of St Peter’s Basilica, which unlike the Sistine Chapel choir was largely staffed by native Italians and of which Palestrina was magister cantorum between 1551 and 1555). The dissemination of Morales’s music was extremely wide by the standards of his generation, his motets appearing in over thirty prints from 1535 to around 1570, as well as many manuscript collections.

Like most of his contemporaries, the motet is the dominant genre; twenty-three Masses are securely attributed to him, as compared with approximately 150 motets. Although Morales is relatively well represented in recordings, a few pieces have attracted the attention of performers at the expense of the majority of his output.

morales-savall portadaIn addition, he wrote a Missa pro defunctis (a Requiem mass). Its peculiarities of transmission, as well as its apparent incomplete editing, suggest that it may be his last work.  The recording by Jordi Savall leading his ensembles Catalan Capella Reial and Hespèrion XX is highly recommended: “the Requiem Mass is the more satisfying piece, although, conforming to an indigenous tradition of setting texts of this kind, it, too, is less concerned with contrapuntal skill and more with a sustained solemnity that has earned Spanish polyphony of this period the epithets ‘austere’ and ‘mystical’. In one sense it is a shame that Hesperion XX chose to represent Morales in this way: his qualities as a composer of non-funereal music are yet to be widely appreciated. Nevertheless, this disc is so special in the sound of male voices doubled by those mellow and largely unobtrusive instruments and, above all, the atmosphere of the recording (it has the feel of the early hours of the morning about it) that I would say it is one of the best they have ever made.”  (Tess Knighton, Gramophone, 10/1993)

Morales was the first Spanish composer of international renown. His works were widely distributed in Europe, and many copies made the journey to the New World. Many music writers and theorists in the hundred years after his death considered his music to be among the most perfect of the time.

2 thoughts on “Cristóbal de Morales : “Officium Defunctorum”- Jordi Savall

  1. After reading this article and listening the attached clip I haven’t been able to listen anything but Morales’ music for almost a week. Especially his Officium defunctorum, Missa pro defunctis and his literally paralyzing mass Mille regretz.
    After this music, even Bach sounds banal, “decorative”, “pop”; and symphonic orchestras in choral works, just superfluous noise!
    Ok, I’m exaggerating, but after late Renaissance polyphony one can’t help but wonder, like Picasso did after visiting the caves of Altamira, isn’t everything after that music just decadence?

    To me, Victoria was the most sincerely powerful composer of the Renaissance, even more than the “perfectissimus”, but a bit cold and “mechanic”, Palestrina. But I guess I need to listen and read more Morales, my opinion seems to be changing.

    Would be interesting too to know what happened to Spain in music after her “Golden Century”. They had some great composers like Albeniz and de Falla, but they never produced anything that deep and high. How was it that all that stunning school of composers vanished in thin air? They shoud have had a tradition as rich and excellent as Italy or Germany. What a weird country, they were paramount but became second-class even when they still were a rich empire…

    Savall’s interpretation is wonderful, and, sorry, ladies, this marvelous version demonstrates that Renaissance composers wrote these pieces for male voices. The cantus parts, even if being within a female tonal registers, have a consistence of timbre along with the rest of the ensemble that would simply get broken if a feminine timbre were added. Things were like that in those times, what can we do? One can’t change the past. Fortunately, today those discriminatory practices are gone, but even if we don’t like it, this music was not written considering that it would sound well in any other timbres but masculine.

    Great, great recording everyone should purchase. If you don’t like Renaissance music, you haven’t listened it enough. Do it again, but don’t listen the entire album, take a brief piece, i.e. Circumdederunt me or Parce mihi domine, let your mind explore its interiors, its intricacies; do it for 2 or 3 days, then forget about it; then, go back on it the next week, you’ll see the “magic”: your brain will have put all pieces in its right place and when you re-listen those pieces again, you will tell yourself «How can I have been all my life not being mesmerized with this music?» It’s a bit of a mental effort, but it’s totally worth it.

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