Posted in Vocal Polyphony

Renaissance Motets

This is a list of renaissance motets that I’ve listened to. I’ve loved this genre ever since my early studies of polyphony several years ago, so I really enjoyed making this list.


Fig. 1. The Delphic Sibyl by Michelangelo

Orlando di Lassus:

Prophetiae Sibyllarum

I was quite surprised with this series of twelve motets, because until now, I only studied Palestrina’s style, and not musica reservata. Although the term is quite debated, in case of Lassus, it contains expressive setting of text and chromaticism. Indeed, Prophetiae Sibyllarum are an excellent example of this, being extremely chromatic, which we already see from the introduction, named Carmina Chromatico. The introduction and motets also modulate very often, which destabilizes the tonal centre, what Lowinsky calls “triadic atonality”. The series also anticipates Gesualdo and some progressions even reminded me of the 20th century music. The subject of the motets are twelve prophesies, each told by a different Sibyl (Fig. 1) – the ancient oracles, which is initially how I came upon this piece by Lassus in the first place.

Super flumina Babylonis

This motet has quite a similar concept to Mozart’s A Musical Joke. (If you want to take a look, I wrote about the latter here) It makes fun of poor singers, realized by the stuttering –SU-su-PER-per, sudden stopping and starting, which almost results in gibberish, like “B, I, bi, babi, na babi, mina babi, flumina babi, per flumina babi, super flumina babi”.  As Oettinger argues, this may have been inspired by the methods of teaching children how to read and write, which was practiced in Lasso’s time. (Bergquist, 2008: 28) Still, quite a striking thing that a sacred motet received such a treatment.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Canticum Canticorum

This is a cycle of 29 motets, based on excerpts from The Song of Songs of the Old Testament. They are the most madrigal-like of Palestrina’s motets – even close to sacred madrigals, and Palestrina himself was well aware of this different style, as seen in his preface for this work. At the time, the church composers lost their jobs for composing madrigals, and Palestrina, who also composed madrigals, may have wanted to repent. The verses are themselves are unique for their erotic connotation, but ultimately celebrate the divine love. The whole work can be divided into larger sections, grouped by modes. The first section includes ten motets in G Dorian (cantus mollis), the next contains eight in G Mixolydian (cantus durus), interestingly closing with A Hypoaolian. The third section is five motets in E Phrygian mode (cantus durus), while the last, also with five motets, is in F Ionian (cantus mollis). Beside the textual painting, like the upward motion describing “Surge”, which means rise, the lyrics of motets also link with one another.

Carlo Gesualdo

Cantiones Sacrae

Knowing Gesulado as a madrigalist with a daring style of tonal language, consisting of chromaticism and unprepared harmonic progression, many of which wasn’t explored until the 20th century, I was quite surprised to come across these two volumes of sacred motets. The first volume contains 19 five-voice motets, while the second consists of 20 six or seven-voice motets. Since the bassus and sextus of the second volume haven’t survived, it couldn’t be performed until musicologist James Wood reconstructed them between 2008 and 2011.

Wood detailed his approach in his paper ‘Gesualdo: Sacrae Cantiones II: An analysis towards reconstruction’ (2013), which also mentions briefly Gesualdo’s turbulent life. Reading more about it, I found out that after finding his first wife, Donna Maria, cheating on him with Don Fabrizio, Duke of Andria, he “slew with innumerable dagger thrusts the sleepers before they had time to waken,” murdering them. After remarrying and mistreating his second wife, he returned alone to his country castle, where until his death, Gesualdo’s behavior became more and more strange, often with manifestations of manic depression. Around this time, after many years of writing only madrigals, because of his feelings of guilt and remorse for the death of Donna Maria, he suddenly turned to sacred music. Gesualdo also commissioned the painting “Il perdono di Carlo Gesulado” (Fig. 2) by Giovanni Balducco, which recalls the Last Judgment and shows Gesualdo kneeling in prayer; and he also resorted to flagillation. (Levision, 2007)


Fig. 2. Il perdono di Carlo Gesualdo by Giovanni Balducco

As Wood (2013: 6) described, both books of motets contain music that is “at once tender and passionate, sublime and dark, with chromaticism and dissonance used to dramatic effect as Gesualdo explores extremes of emotion, guilt and pleas for forgivess. Words such as pain, weeping, sin, darkness, death, celestial light, intercession, forgiveness, and redemption occur frequently in the text… the obsessive frequency and emotional intesity with which these texts were set reached an extreme development in Gesuald’s music.” 

Without knowing all this, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to appreciate these motets in the same way, with ‘Hei mihi’ and ‘Laboravi in gemitu’ being among my favorite.

I should also mention, that before Wood, there was another attempt at a reconstruction of the second book – Stravinsky’s Tres Cantiones Sacrae. (1957-59), written to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Gesualdo’s birth. Stravinsky himself said: “Musicians may yet save Gesualdo from musicologists.” However, he rather recomposed the whole from his added parts, resulting in a fusion of the both composers. (Gwynne: 1991) More about this, I will write in another blog post, regarding the modern vocal polyphony.

Finally, Gesualdo was influenced by Mannerism – a new style, which emerged as a reaction to the high-Renaissance, observed in different artistic fields. As Alex Ross wrote for the New Yorker magazine: “In music, Mannerism expressed itself through spirited, even exaggerated, responses to the nuances of poetic texts: abrupt contrasts, outré harmonic progressions, and other disruptions of the smoothly churning surface of the high-Renaissance style.”

While this may be seen in Sacrae Cantiones, his madrigals reveal the true impact. More about that, read my next blog post, which will overall be dedicated to this genre.


(?) Bergquist, William H., Pawlak, Kenneth (2008) Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Wood, James (2013) ‘Gesualdo: Sacrae Cantiones II: An analysis towards reconstruction’

(?) Levision (2007)

(?) Gwynne (1991)


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