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8.556701 - AGNUS DEI - Classical Music for Reflection and Meditation
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Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei, the acclamation addressed to Christ, the Lamb of God, forms part of the Ordinary of the Mass. That is to say, it is part of the Mass that does not change, except for the slight modifications used in the Requiem Mass. As a relatively unchanging, repeated element in the liturgy, it has been a necessary part of musical settings, whether as plainchant or in the varying styles of later generations. The words of the Agnus Dei in the Latin Mass form a threefold acclamation:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccala mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccala mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccala mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.

This is placed in the liturgy between the Fraction, the priest's breaking of bread, and the Communion, a sacred moment in the service. It seems, however, to be a later addition to the Mass, dating from the seventh century and designed to accompany what at one time was a much longer part of the rite. The relative clause, qui tollis peccata mundi, has the features expected of a trope, an addition to the liturgy that might be replaced, on other occasions, by different attributions, as in the Kyrie eleison. Any irregularity of this kind was largely removed in the Western liturgy by the standardizing reforms of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

The present collection begins with music taken from the later sixteenth century, a period that found polyphonic practice at its height. Here the greatest composers were Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria, closely matched by the Englishman William Byrd, a recusant who lacked the opportunities offered by Catholic countries for public liturgical composition. Palestrina, his name taken from his probable place of birth, worked largely in Rome, at first at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then, after a time spent in Palestrina itself, at the Cappella Giulia under Pope Julius III, followed by promotion to the Cappella Sistina. The tightening of regulations on the celibacy of singers at the Sistine Chapel under Pope Paul IV led to employment at St John Lateran, He subsequently returned to Santa Maria Maggiore and finally to the Cappella Giulia from 1571 until his death in 1594. His Missa Papae Marcelli, for Pope Marcellus II who reigned briefly in 1555, has been popularly held to have saved polyphonic church music by demonstrating the necessary textual clarity in a polyphonic context. There had been earlier discussion of the matter, which later received the fuller attention of the Council of Trent.

Orlande de Lassus, otherwise known as Orlando di Lasso, was born in Hainault in 1532 and as a boy seems to have been employed as a chorister by a member of the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantua. In Rome he preceded Palestrina as director of music at St John Lateran, leaving soon to return home and then to enter the service of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich, remaining there until his death in 1594. He left a varied range of music, including an extensive repertory of church music and of madrigals and chansons. His eight-voice Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera, its title derived from the secular source of its basic material, was published posthumously in 1610.

The Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, born in Avila in 1548, spent much of his career in Italy and may even have been a pupil of Palestrina in Rome. He was employed as director of music at the German College and after his own ordination joined the Oratorian Congregation. In the 1580s he returned to Spain as chaplain to the King's sister who, as a widow, had retired to a convent in Madrid. It was in that city that he died in 1611. His four-voice Missa O quam gloriosum takes its title from Victoria's own motet on the same text. This is followed by the work of another Spanish composer, Alonso Lobo, a musician much respected by Victoria. Lobo served as director of music at Toledo Cathedral and then in a similar position in Seville, where he had been a choirboy. His motet Versa est in luctum is included here.

The Catholic tradition in England is represented by William Byrd and, to some extent, by Thomas Tallis, who served as a musician through the turbulent religious changes of the sixteenth century. Byrd's music for the Catholic liturgy was necessarily restricted in scope, in view of the persecutions of the period. His three Mass settings, for three, four and five voices respectively, were published in the 1590s and demonstrate his mastery of polyphonic style. The Masses and his many other Latin sacred compositions provided a valuable and, in the end, practical compendium for those forced to worship in secret. The Pavan included here is an effective example of Byrd's secular work, found in his consort and keyboard music. A near contemporary of Shakespeare, Byrd died in 1623.

Thomas Tallis enjoyed, with Byrd, a royal licence under Queen Elizabeth to publish music. His own career had taken him from positions at Dover Priory and Waltharn Abbey to service of the monarch as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal through the various reigns of the century. His Mass for Four Voices was written in the reign of Henry VIII and demonstrates the contemporary tendency towards textual clarity.

The Italian composer Orazio Benevolo flourished in the following century largely in Rome, where his paternal ancestry associated him at first with the French church of S. Luigi dei Francesi. He enjoyed international fame, served the Emperor in Vienna and finally the Cappella Giulia of St Peter's in Rome, where he died in 1672. A transitional figure, he is particularly known for his elaborate liturgical compositions for two or more choirs, as in the present excerpt from a Mass in honour of Queen Christina of Sweden's counsellor, Cardinal Azzolini.

Johann Sebastian Bach made a distinctive contribution to the Lutheran music of his time, particularly in his cycles of cantatas. His Christmas Oratorio was written in Leipzig, where he had assumed the position of Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas in 1723. The oratorio provided music in six cantatas for six days of the Christmas season of 1734-35. The pastoral Sinfonia continues earlier tradition, setting the scene for the shepherds at Bethlehem when Christ was born. The Lutheran liturgy continued to make some use of the texts of the Latin Mass. Bach's great Mass in B minor is a composite work, the whole finally assembled shortly before his death in 1750, a monument to the composer's faith rather than music for practical liturgical use. The Agnus Dei draws on a cantata of 1735.

In Salzburg Mozart was, like his father, a member of the musical establishment of the ruling Archbishop His Requiem, however, was written and left incomplete at his death in 1791, ten years after he had achieved precarious independence in Vienna. The whole work was completed by his pupil Süssmayr, perhaps according to the composer's intentions. It was at the Lacrymosa, part of the great hymn of the day of judgement, the Dies irae, that Mozart broke down in tears, as his friends gathered at his bedside to sing through the completed parts of the work. The little motet Ave verum corpus, a hymn to the Blessed Sacrament, also dates from the end of Mozart's life, written in June 1791 for a church in Baden, where his wife Constanze was taking the waters.

With Gabriel Fauré we move on a century, shifting from Vienna to France. The moving Pavane, evokjng an earlier world, was completed in 1887, six years after a further arrangemem of his setting of the Mass, known as Messe basse, a work in which, originally, he had collaborated with Andre Messager. His moving Requiem, a very personal work, was completed in its first version in 1888, but, like the other works included here, was to undergo later revision and re-arrangement

The organist and composer Maurice Duruflé was born in 1902. His Requiem remains the most frequently performed of his works, based, as it is, on Gregorian melodies, but treated in a recognisably French harmonic style. It remains a work to rival Fauré's own evocative setting, choosing similar texts from the funeral service.

Keith Anderson


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