Explorations and Indulgences (i)

The trouble with the ‘Great Composer’ and ‘Major Work’ concepts is that a lot of very fine music goes unpublished, unperformed and unheard. While I would be the first to agree that the ‘popular’ pieces are popular for good reasons, some of the most enjoyable Ripieno rehearsals and concerts have happened when we’ve had a dig around the apparent fringes of the repertoire – our Bach Cantata Calendar is an obvious recent example. There we were dealing with an indisputably great composer but also with an area of his output that remains both little performed or fully understood, if relatively often recorded.

And it was ‘digging around the fringes’ as part of the planning for our forthcoming concert Venetian Echoes that yielded the ‘Missa Percussit Saul’ by Giovanni Croce (c1557-1609). Our initial thoughts for this concert were ‘fun to do something with early brass instruments’. This naturally pointed to Venice and the period 1590ish-1640ish where/when the development of music in which voices and instruments combined on an equal footing became an important project. Then there was the need for a substantial work to give the programme – or at least one half of it – a ‘spine’. I knew of Croce’s existence and reputation as being rather more than just ‘a precursor of Monteverdi’ and also that some of his masses were being prepared for publication by our friends at JOED music (a previous edition having become unavailable). This contact produced the music in a ‘typeset but not quite ready for publication’ form to which we were kindly given access, and completed the work ourselves to a degree that at least makes the score fully usable. To the best of our knowledge this is the first complete performance of this piece in modern times, following partial use by the BBC Singers (Kyrie and Gloria only) and the choir of St James’s, Spanish Place (all except the Credo).

With all the music of this period, having the score is just the start. We know from their writings that musicians of the time took a flexible view of which parts could be performed by voices alone, instruments alone or a combination of the two so we have explored several options. For Croce’s mass, which is scored for two four-part ensembles, the minimum number of performers would be four – one singer in each ensemble and the other parts played on two organs. (Croce’s original publication does allow for this.) Our ‘default’ is to divide the singers into two equal groups and colour one with the organ and the other with the brass though there are places in which instruments will replace some of the vocal parts. This will produce a rich and vibrant sound – reflective of St Mark’s Basilica, the venue for the very first performance – and the instruments add even more punch to the scintillating rhythms.

Croce didn’t wake up every morning thinking of himself as a ‘precursor’ to anyone. His contemporary fans included the Englishmen Thomas Morley and John Dowland. Now you will have an opportunity to hear what they so admired.

Read about the other music in Venetian Echoes in Explorations and Indulgences (ii), out soon.