“O Magnum Mysterium” from three composers’ perspectives

The compelling text of “O Magnum Mysterium,” once a Nativity responsory from the Gregorian times[1] has been set to music many times, from the beginning of the Renaissance era to the present day. Three Renaissance composers in particular, Giovanni Gabrieli, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina composed their own versions of “O Magnum Mysterium” within twenty years of each other. As David Music states in his article, “O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings,” these three composers attempted to write motets to this text in order to “illustrat[e] the mystery of the Incarnation”[2] Though they were composed at such close intervals, close analysis of each text suggests that although they used the same text as inspiration for their motets, there is little evidence to suggest significant copying or plagiarism of one composer on another.

Palestrina’s motet, composed first, appearing as a two-part motet in his Liber Primus Motettorum in 1569[3], is a motet in Aeolian mode[4] and meant for a six-part choir. At this point in music history, complaints were being made about the comprehensibility of religious works. Issues such as clear diction, overuse of word painting and increasing melodic and harmonic complexity of liturgical works were brought up, especially in arguments against the Catholic Church during the times of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Palestrina, it appears, wrote his motet of “O Magnum Mysterium” in response to these criticisms of the church, creating a motet that both furthered the bounds of complexity in choral compositions by writing his motet for six parts, and yet heeded the complaints against Catholic liturgical music by making the music less complex than other liturgical works of the time (fewer melismas, many of the voices singing the same syllables at the same time, etc.)[5].

Palestrina’s motet, arguably the simplest of the three compositions, is a polyphonic work in which most of the voices sound the same syllables on the same beats[6]. There is very little dissonance in this piece, and all dissonances are either passing tones within a melisma, or are suspensions leading from one measure to the next measure and are carefully dealt with by use of anticipation and resolution. For example, in measures 5 and 6, Palestrina produces an A minor chord in the final beat of 5, and the cantus suspends the A of the chord over the bar line where the note is dissonant with the B of the G major chord of measure 6. However, the A resolves on the next beat by stepping down to a G, going down to a neighbor tone, to an F, and then finally resolving back to the consonant G[7]. This same technique is also used in measures 9 and 10, and 33 and 34, as well as in measures 43 and 44[8].

Spanish composer, Victoria, published his polyphonic motet in Venice 1572. This motet is a motet written for a traditional four-part choir. Like Palestrina’s composition, Victoria used the same Aeolian mode[9] as Palestrina and the motet is fairly simple melodically and rhythmically. However, unlike Palestrina, most of the voices echo each other rather than sing syllables at the same time, and there is extensive use of imitation between the voices. Victoria’s motet is arguably the most eerie sounding of the three motets and is harmonically complex, using many open fifths and octaves, long dissonances and minor chords with voices that sound far apart from each other. Victoria uses numerous open fifths, as in measures 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. and octaves, as in measures 4, 5, 6, 9, etc. He also writes minor chords whose voices sound more than an octave apart, for example the Db and Bb sung between the cantus and altus voices in measure 3. These voicings contribute to the mysterious tone of the motet[10]. There are many 6/5 chords, popular chords during the late Renaissance[11], as in measures 5, 6, 8, 12, etc. There is also an overwhelming amount of dissonance in Victoria’s motet. The minor 6 in measure 3 sounds especially dissonant and mysterious to the ear, perhaps because the Db in the cantus is approached and left via half step[12]. Additionally, Victoria uses a fourth in measure 11 between the F and Bb of a Bb minor chord and uses many other fourth intervals within chords, as in the C and the F of the F major chord in measure 16. There are also many dissonances in the several melismas of this piece. Most dissonances are approached and left by step, either by ascending or descending motion. However, dissonances outside the melismas are often sung for two or more measures. For example, measure 8 holds a G over an F for three and a half beats before finally resolving the dissonance[13].

Gabrieli’s motet, first appearing in 1587 in the Concerti di Andrea et di Gio: Gabrieli[14], is a call and response motet between two four-part choirs. Unlike Victoria’s motet, the dissonances and minor chords within this motet are barely given enough time to develop before they are resolved with major chords. For example, the mysterious opening, the G minor and D minor chords of the first two measures are quickly replaced with a G major chord in measure 3. Similarly, the F# diminished chord in measure 4 is sounded on a weak beat and is immediately taken over by a G major on the first beat of measure 5. Additionally, measure 27 has an open fifth between a G and a D, a potential G minor chord. However the second soprano disrupts the mysterious sounding open fifth by singing a melisma on a D major scale. One of the dissonances, a fourth between a G and a C found in measure 31 is not treated as a dissonance. Neither of the voices approach or leave the dissonance via ascending or descending step. The first bass leaps to the G, holds the G and then leaves the G via leap as well. The second tenor approaches the C by ascending step and leaves the dissonance by descending step[15].

Palestrina’s motet moves mostly by step, often even half steps, with only a few 3rd and octave leaps within the motet[16]. However, though both Victoria’s and Gabrieli’s motets move mostly by step and incorporate the use of Gregorian-like melismas, there are many leaps between notes in both Victoria’s and Gabrieli’s motets. Victoria’s piece has many third leaps, but it also uses several leaps of a fifth, especially in the beginning of the motet[17]. Gabrieli’s motet incorporates an extensive amount of leaps of thirds and fifths, much more than either of the other two motets[18].

Additionally, Palestrina frustrates cadences throughout his motet. He continuously has all voices resolve into a cadence except for one voice that continues past the cadence and moves the motet forward. Victoria frustrates cadences as well by having cadences last for one quarter beat before moving to another harmonic or by having one or more voices move through the cadence. However, Victoria tends to use dissonances and minor chords before the ends of phrases in order to emphasize the cadence more dramatically. For example, there are dissonances in measures 8, 19, 27, 40, 47, 52, 54, etc.[19] that slowly resolve into cadences. Gabrieli’s motet tends to end on authentic cadences, resolving from D major to G major. Typically, after one choir cadences, the next choir repeats the words and/or the motivic phrase of the other choir. However, because there is the alternate choir that sings after each cadence, the cadences seem to last longer, to not be frustrated by other voices continuing the motet[20].

Palestrina also uses rhythmic and melodic motives throughout his motet. For example, the rhythm in measures 4 and 5 is repeated later in measures 8 and 9 and the rhythmic pattern in measures 15 and 16 is repeated in measures 19 and 20, measures 21 and 22, 25 and 26, 27 and 28, and 49 and 50[21]. The few syncopations that occur in this motet tend to occur in these rhythmic motives. Victoria’s motet is highly syncopated, though his syncopations, when listened to, seem as if they are written to bring more mysteriousness to the separate voices as well as separate the rhythms and syllables between voices more easily[22]. Gabrieli also uses syncopations, though his syncopations tend to add to the lightness of his motet and are done to emphasize certain syllables within words. His syncopations tend to make his piece more chant-like in the fact that accented syllables fall on strong beats and are often held out whereas unaccented syllables often fall on short syncopations[23].

There are many melodic motives in Palestrina’s motet as well. For example, the ear is drawn to the similarities in the ascending steps or leaps to C in measures 4 in the cantus, 8 in the altus, 11 in the cantus, 17 in the cantus, etc. [24]   Comparatively, Victoria uses imitation throughout his motet, especially between the cantus and the altus and between the tenor and the bassus. For example, the opening phrase, “O magnum mysterium” is repeated almost exactly from the cantus to the altus and later to the tenor and bassus as well. The phrase “et admirabile” sung by the cantus in measure 15 is repeated by all four parts in the next measure. The melody and rhythm of “jacentem” is echoed in all the parts. Furthermore, the cantus tends to repeat the melodic and rhythmic motive of moving by step to a sustained high note and then moving down a quicker descending line as in measures 5, 6, 12, 26, 37, etc.[25] Gabrieli also uses imitation, but his imitations tend to occur between choirs rather than between individual voices[26]. Gabrieli also tends to repeat rhythmic and harmonic motives rather than exact melodic motives. For example, both choirs sing “O magnum mysterium” with most of the voices following the rhythmic pattern of whole note, whole note, dotted half note, quarter note, dotted half note, quarter note, half note. Harmonically, the first and second choirs tend to repeat the same harmonies on the same phrases. For example, the opening chord progression of choir I, G minoràD minoràG majoràC majoràF# diminishedàG major is closely mirrored by choir II’s opening chord progression: G minoràD minoràG majorà(G minor)à C minoràD major[27].

Palestrina’s motet is extremely tonal, with logical chord progressions from AmàDmàCMà(F6)àGmàAM in measures 7 through 10, which could be written as iàivàIIIà(VI6)àvàI, a progression leading to a very strong authentic cadence. Furthermore, the resolution from G minor to A major could be said to resolve from “fa” to “sol” in the cantus, from “te” to “do” in the altus, and the resolution of a suspension in the sextus from “fa” to “mi.” Victoria’s motet is also very tonal in the idea that it has strong cadences and leading tones to those cadences. Additionally, Victoria uses 6/3 chords as well, perhaps because of the popularity for that type of chord during that era[28]. However, there is also an overwhelming use of dissonance throughout the motet, and though many F minor, C minor and Bb major chords are used, i, iv, and V chords in modern theory, extensive use of relative major and minor chords and bII chords, vii chords and III chords are used quite often as well[29]. Gabrieli’s motet seems to be both the most and least modal of the three motets. He uses half cadences, as in measures 9 and 19 as well as full cadences, such as in measures 5, 14, 23, 30, 46, 50, etc. However, there are many minor chords and diminished chords within the motet that do not seem to resolve to a “I” chord as would IIb or vii diminished chords in modern theory. Gabrieli’s piece, though mostly centered on G, also seems to modulate as well into Bb major between measures 45 and 50[30].

Palestrina uses word painting to illustrate the lyrics of his motet. Palestrina repeats words such as “ut animalia viderent Dominum,” which are sung individually by each voice and which are also sung in syllabic unison by all the voices, their repetition suggesting the importance of these words[31]. Victoria’s version of “O Magnum” emphasizes this phrase by having the four voices, except for the bass and tenor at the beginning of the phrase, sing the syllables at the same time. He does the same sort of unison emphasis on the phrase “O beata virgo” as well, making the phrase clear to the listener[32]. Words such as “natum vidimus et choros Angelorum” in Palestrina’s piece, which are repeated three times in each voice part, and “natum,” “mysterium” and “vídemus,” words which are sung melismatically show emphasis on words and phrases as well as word painting on words that Palestrina deemed especially important within the text[33]. Victoria also employs melismas in words such as “praesepio,” “meruerunt,” and “Dominum,” different words than those that Palestrina chose to write melismatically. Words that are repeated over and over in Victoria’s text are words such as “et admirabile,” “jacentem in proesepio” as if Victoria is trying to drill the words in to the audience’s ear, as if to be sure the audience hears the word being sung[34]. Gabrieli emphasizes words as well, through particularly strong major chords and through repetition between voices. For example, the “mysterium” of “O magnum mysterium” ends in a G major chord after a couple open fifth intervals, a fourth interval and a D minor and F# diminished chord. “Et admirabile sacramentum,” sung once in the first choir and once in the second choir, is sung on predominantly major chords, suggesting a softness of the words. “Iacentem in praesepio” is repeated both between the choirs as well as between individual voices a total of six times. Interestingly, “Dominum Christum” is repeated three times, suggesting the Holy Trinity[35].

All three motets have similar meter. They all begin in duple meter, transition into triple meter at the end of the piece and then move back to duple meter for the conclusion of the “Alleluja” section. Most interestingly, the “Alleluja” section all three motets is composed with a “joyful” timbre[36]. In Palestrina’s motet, the “Alleluja” section is different from the slow, mysterious, intentional quality of the rest of the motet. Whereas the rest of his motet has minor harmonies, chromaticism, long note values, etc., the “Alleluja” section is fast, happy, and major. The voices no longer sing the syllables in unison, rather, like a choir of angels, or an exultant choir of worshipers, each voice sounds independent of the others. All the voices sound together only at the very end of the motet when they sing together in a strong plagal cadence[37]. Victoria’s “Alleluja” section is also vastly different from the rest of his motet. The “Alleluja” section is also much brighter, with more major chords and much less dissonance, is faster, and, like Palestrina’s has the idea that the singers of “alleluja” are too overjoyed to sing “alleluja” at the same time. Both Palestrina’s and Victoria’s motets are highly melismatic, and Victoria’s, like Palestrina’s, ends on a very strong plagal cadence[38]. Gabrieli’s “Alleluja” section is also written at a much faster pace than the rest of the motet. However, unlike Palestrina’s motet, Gabrieli’s voices tend to stay together in the “Alleluja” section, though the choirs set up a bright call and response between each other. Also, unlike Victoria’s motet, Gabrieli’s “Alleluja” section tangles at the very end with dissonances and minor chords and resolves only at the very end with a G minor chord. Furthermore, Gabrieli does not use melismas in this section. Instead, Gabrieli uses a variety of quarter, dotted quarter and eighth notes to make the “alleluja’s” more speech-like. The accented syllables “all” and “lu” have notes of longer duration than the unaccented syllables, “le” and “ja”[39].

After close analysis of these three polyphonic motets, one can reasonably assume that though these pieces were written within twenty years of each other, written in similar styles and written to incorporate the same text, these three motets are quite unique of each other. All three motets use cadences, syncopation, imitation and motives, melismas, word painting and general mood setting to convey the meaning of the text. They all have “Alleluja” sections that are much faster and brighter than the rest of the motet. However, each motet is also vastly different in the use (or lack thereof) of dissonance, rhythm, word painting, emphasis of cadences, voicing, harmonies, etc. Palestrina’s piece has clear declamation and incorporates use of melismas, dissonances and syncopations. Victoria’s piece, by far the most mysterious of the three pieces, uses many open fifths and octaves, uses lots of echoing and repetition between voices and has light syncopation and melismatic sections. Gabrieli’s piece is the most grand of the three pieces with very little use of dissonance, mostly major chords, extremely powerful cadences, the use of two imitative choirs, more declamation even than Palestrina[40] and an “Alleluja” section which echoes back and forth between two choirs and which is sung with clear focus on accented and unaccented syllables. The motets are clearly written in the same era, with the same ideas about modality, rhythm and declamation, however, they are each uniquely written.

 

 

Bibliography

Arnold, D. transcriber, J.E. Gardiner, editor. “Baroque Venice [sound recording].”

Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardner, conductor. p. 1972. London: Stereo treasury series. STS 15256 London.

Gabrieli, Giovanni, Edmond Appia. “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The

Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music.” Bach Guild, 1973.

Music, David W, “‘O Magnum Mysterium’: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings,”

The American Organist Vol. 40, no. 3 (Mar. 2006),

http://www.colorado.edu/portal/frames/js.html?url=http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/music/&server=%3Cxsl:value-of%20select=%22$hostName%22/%3E&port=%3Cxsl:value-of%20select=%22$portNumber%22/%3E.

Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da. “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s

edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.” New York: Dover, 1993.

Palisca, Claude V. “Norton recorded anthology of western music.” c. 2010. Naxos; New

York: W.W. Norton. 978-0-393-11309-9 Naxos.

Victoria, Thomás Luis de. “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with

keyboard (optional).” Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music, Inc., c. 1988.

Victoria, Tomás Luis de. “O magnum mysterium: motet: Missa o magnum mysterium;

Ascendens Christus in altum” Vocal music. Selections. 1985. London: Hyperion. CDA66190 Hyperion.

 

[1] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[2] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[3] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[4] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[5] J. Peter Burkholder, Norton Anthology of Western Music, (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company), 226-229.

[6] Claude V. Palisca. “Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina: O Magnum Mysterium.” Norton recorded anthology of western music. CD. New York: Naxos and W.W. Norton, 2006.

[7] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 57.

[8] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 58.

[9] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[10] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1.

[11] J. Peter Burkholder, Norton Anthology of Western Music, (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company), 160.

[12] Tomás Luis de Victoria, “O magnum mysterium: motet: Miss o magnum mysterium; Ascendens Christus in altum” Vocal Music Selections. CD. London: Hyperion, 1988.

[13] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1.

[14] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[15] Giovanni Gabrieli and Edmond Appia, “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music,” (Bach Guild), 1-7.

[16] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 57.

[17] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1-3.

[18] Giovanni Gabrieli and Edmond Appia, “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music,” (Bach Guild), 1-7.

[19] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1-3.

[20] D. Arnold and J.E. Gardiner, “Gabrieli: O Magnum Mysterium.” Baroque Venice [sound recording]. CD. London: Stereo treasury series, 1972.

[21] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 57-61.

[22] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1-3.

[23] D. Arnold and J.E. Gardiner, “Gabrieli: O Magnum Mysterium.” Baroque Venice [sound recording]. CD. London: Stereo treasury series, 1972.

[24] Claude V. Palisca. “Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina: O Magnum Mysterium.” Norton recorded anthology of western music. CD. New York: Naxos and W.W. Norton, 2006.

[25] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1-3.

[26] D. Arnold and J.E. Gardiner, “Gabrieli: O Magnum Mysterium.” Baroque Venice [sound recording]. CD. London: Stereo treasury series, 1972.

[27] Giovanni Gabrieli and Edmond Appia, “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music,” (Bach Guild), 1.

[28] J. Peter Burkholder, Norton Anthology of Western Music, (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company), 160.

[29] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 1-3.

[30] Giovanni Gabrieli and Edmond Appia, “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music,” (Bach Guild), 1-5.

[31] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 57-61.

[32] Tomás Luis de Victoria, “O magnum mysterium: motet: Miss o magnum mysterium; Ascendens Christus in altum” Vocal Music Selections (London: Hyperion), sound recording.

[33] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 58-59.

[34] Tomás Luis de Victoria “O magnum mysterium: for mixed voices, S.A.T.B., with keyboard (optional),” (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music), 2-3.

[35] Giovanni Gabrieli and Edmond Appia, “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music,” (Bach Guild), 2-5.

[36] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[37] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Masses and motets: based on Raffaele Casimiri’s edition/ Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,” (New York: Dover), 57-61.

[38] Tomás Luis de Victoria, “O magnum mysterium: motet: Miss o magnum mysterium; Ascendens Christus in altum” Vocal Music Selections. CD. London: Hyperion, 1988.

[39] Giovanni Gabrieli and Edmond Appia, “Historical anthology of music. Period III: The Renaissance (late). Category E: Music of Venice, sub-category 2: Sacred vocal and instrumental music,” (Bach Guild), 6-7.

[40] David W. Music, O Magnum Mysterium”: Three Mystical Renaissance Settings.” The American Organist, Vol. 40, No. 3.

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