Claudio Merulo can be thought of as the missing link between Adrian Willaert, who started the concept of the ‘cori–spezzati’ in the early sixteenth century, and the later Gabrielis and indeed Monteverdi. They all worked at St. Mark’s in Venice. Merulo was an organist and was born near Parma in Northern Italy. He returned there at the end of his life for a few years in Mantua. The CD booklet essay by Marco Reperto has its dates in a twist but Merulo was in Venice from 1567 until 1586.
This work is an Organ Mass, a developing form at the time. Its antecedents go back a long way. The monasteries of the dark ages would sing the psalter each day and would do so ‘in alternatim’ each side taking a verse, what is now Decani and Cantoris. The idea then developed, as can be found in the Faenza Codex of the 13th Century, of alternating a vocal plainchant verse with an instrumental. This was almost certainly organ verse which plainsong as its base and above it an elaborately woven counterpoint. By Tudor times the English composers, say Blitheman and Redford, were continuing this practice. During that century it continued throughout Europe as can be heard here. Later composers such as François Couperin took up the format and it continued until it was banned as a form of Mass celebration in an encyclical of Pope Pius X in 1903.
The organ mass used here is the so-called ‘Cum jubilo” named after part of the trope in the Kyrie Eleison section. It is also called “Messe della Madonna”. It was used on feast days of Our Lady. You can find the appropriate chants in the Graduale Romanum, the Kyriale is numbered IX (page 789 in my standard edition). The texts in the booklet are given but not translated; even so it is clear from the given Latin how the pattern is formed. Take the Gloria. Gloria in Excelsis deo –intonation; Et in Terra pax hominibus ... solo organ; Laudamus Te – voices in plainchant; Benedicamus te - Organ solo; Adoramus te - voices and so on. The organ interludes may use the plainchant as a tenor around which a counterpoint is ornamented or it may use the chant or part of it as a fugal point and then move away and develop out from it. It was this practice which, as it became even more remote from its original melody, especially annoyed the church fathers. Interspersed with the Mass are various other plainchants suitable for such a feast. These include ‘Tollite portas’ (associated with Advent) and an ‘Ave Maria’ as well as Toccatas taken from Merulo’s printed collections. There’s also one dating from 1604; it supplies the opening, exciting Toccata Seconda del V tono
which builds in excitement through its seven minutes. Toccatas are free-wheeling, improvisatory pieces which might consist of chords in one hand whilst the other decorates the harmony with semiquavers and octave leaps. Alternatively they may have imitative, contrapuntal sections. They may be based on chants or quite free of them.
The organ specification (built in 1998) is given but its description - which is quite detailed - has not been translated from the Italian. Two recording venues are offered as listed above, one probably for the chant and one for the organ sections. I cannot discover from the Italian text which is which.
Roberto Loreggian is an exceptionally fine player. His biography has not been translated but his excellent website shows the various discs he has recorded. There he features as organist and as harpsichordist for Tactus, Brilliant Classics and Chandos.
The booklet has a black and white photo of the cassocked male singers called the ‘Schola Gregorian’. Their plainsong singing is immaculate in both diction and intonation. They are set back a little. The organ is quite forward and therefore louder.
This disc offers an interesting insight into a species of sacred music which is rarely if ever encountered in the flesh.