HE GENERAL CONSENSUS vis-à-vis the “greatest composers” of the High Renaissance would be: Palestrina, Lassus, Guerrero, and Victoria. I personally would add Morales to that list, although he lived slightly earlier. [Indeed, Father Morales died the year Marenzio was born.] Those four composers certainly deserve to be ranked above all others—although I confess to not being as familiar with Orlando de Lassus. Then again, few scholars know Lassus’ oeuvre thoroughly, since he composed more than 2,000 works! But when it comes to the greatest choral piece ever written, my vote would be for Luca Marenzio’s Salve Regina [à5], the centerpiece of the upcoming Sacred Music Symposium. The 2023 participants will sing this piece during once-in-a-lifetime sessions conducted by the renowned Dr. Alfred Calabrese, professionally filmed for posterity. With the help of Corrinne May and Claire Coulombe, we have attempted a “mock recording” to demonstrate how this piece sounds:
Note: Most readers won’t click on that 42237 link, which provides meticulously-created rehearsal videos for each individual voice. I cannot express to you how unhappy that state of affairs makes me.
Point #1 • Marenzio’s Salve Regina is based upon the ancient Gregorian Chant. If you’re unfamiliar with the Solemn Salve Regina (PDF), you won’t be able to understand what Marenzio is doing. As a result, you won’t be able to appreciate how wonderful his setting is. Therefore, I urge you at your earliest convenience to listen to this recording. Throughout this astounding composition, Marenzio takes themes from the plainsong. See if you agree that he forms a beautiful palindrome (“symmetry”) in the first movement:
Point #2 • As we discussed at the Symposium last year, all great Renaissance composers use “reverse exposition” to provide interest and contrast to the listener. In the first movement, the order of appearance is: Soprano, Alto, Quintus, Tenor, Bass. In the second movement, he “reverses” the order: Tenor, Bass, Alto, Soprano. In the third movement, Marenzio begins with full, gorgeous, thick chords—and that provides another type of contrast. The second movement might be considered “a study in stepwise motion”—and the results are breathtaking.
Point #3 • This piece really does “have it all.” There is luscious tone-painting (e.g. suspirámus). There are pedal tones (e.g. misericórdiae and nostra in the Bass). He gives some nice homophonic sections to balance his mind-blowing contrapuntal sections. Indeed, Marenzio proves himself a peerless master of harmonies, counterpoint, and dissonance vs. consonance. I don’t have words to describe how spectacular the melodies are—for each voice—when it comes to the “O Clemens” section.
Point #4 • Perhaps the most amazing thing about Marenzio’s incomparable setting is the way he juxtaposes multiple points of imitation simultaneously. In other words, he’s not content to focus on one point of imitation at a time; he blends them together, adding infinite interest. In addition to everything else, Marenzio makes frequent use of a technique that (later on) would become a favorite of Johann Sebastian Bach: viz. “augmentation,” when the cantus firmus is sung very slowly. For example, towards the end of the piece Marenzio resurrects the original motif in the Soprano, augmented:
Who Was Marenzio? • The Avvisi Di Roma referred to Luca Marenzio (d. 1599) on 12 August 1595 as “the foremost musician in Rome.” Palestrina compared Marenzio to Francesco Soriano (d. 1621), who served as choirmaster at the most illustrious basilicas in Rome. According to Steven Ledbetter, Marenzio’s high standing at the papal court is shown by the commission he received (21 December 1594) from Pope Clement VIII to revise to the ROMAN GRADUAL. (Palestrina and Zoilo had begun these revisions, in accordance with the needs of the Counter-Reformation, but they had not completed the task.) In the summer of 1595 Marenzio was ordered by the pope to take over as maestro di cappella of the Polish King Sigismund III’s court. By March 1596 Marenzio had arrived in Poland, and in October Marenzio directed a Mass he had written in the form of an echo (but the MS. is lost). In a letter to the King of Poland, Cardinal Aldobrandini (d. 1610) wrote that Marenzio was “second to none in Italy” as a composer. Marenzio was an expert lutenist, an outstanding singer, and a respected choirmaster. Nevertheless, he seemed to be most highly regarded as a composer—especially of secular works—and considered by some to be the greatest of all madrigalists.
* As I noted in the email ‘blast’ I sent regarding this, I am not saying Marenzio was the greatest composer in the world. Nor am I here speaking of Mass settings.