Composer Spotlight Lent I: Cristobal de Morales

March 3, 2017 Comments Off on Composer Spotlight Lent I: Cristobal de Morales

The choral music scheduled at St. Luke’s for the First Sunday in Lent (March 5th) will be:

  • The Great Litany in Procession
  • Cristobal de Morales – Missa Si bona suscepimus (Kyrie)
  • Manuel Cardoso – Angelis suis
  • Cristobal de Morales – Parce mihi

We will be using this space in Lent to highlight a composer from the upcoming Sunday’s schedule of choral music. This week’s composer spotlight is Cristobal de Morales.

-Blog Editor

‘No Spanish composer of the sixteenth century was more lauded during his lifetime and for two hundred years after his death than Morales.’

So writes the leading modern expert on the subject – a remarkable claim when one considers the talent and number of Spanish composers in the High Renaissance, not least Victoria. For someone as culturally Spanish as Morales, writing music meant more than just borrowing from the prevailing Franco-Flemish or Italian styles. Morales, like Victoria, never lost that mystical intensity of expression which found its roots in Spanish Catholicism.

Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553) spent the beginning and end of his career in Spain, with a crucial ten years in the middle singing with the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome. He was appointed to the Papal Choir on 1 September 1535 by Pope Paul III, the same day that the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment. Since Morales did not return to Spain until 1545, and Michelangelo finished his great work in 1541, the composer would have had the privilege of watching The Last Judgment come into existence, more or less day by day. In fact there was little chance of his being influenced by Michelangelo’s almost- baroque Italian style: Morales was sufficiently proud of his origins, especially of Seville where he was born, to follow his own muse.

Although his Missa Si bona suscepimus was almost certainly written in Rome, and shows something of the consummate smoothness of the international polyphonic idiom Rome hosted during the papacy of Paul III (1534-1549), it is not an Italianate work.

A sign of the seriousness with which Morales approached the composition of his six-voice Missa Si bona suscepimus is the way it is introduced in the source – the Missarum Liber Primus, published in Rome in 1544 under his direct supervision. Before the first stave of music is a woodcut of the Prophet Job naked, with the motto spread around him ‘The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away’. This is a quotation from Job (1:21) which Verdelot included in his motet Si bona suscepimus, which Morales in turn very deliberately chose as his parody model. Verdelot’s text continues from Job in this despairing state of mind, including the remark (Job 2:10): ‘If we have received blessings from the hand of the Lord, why then should we not endure misfortune?’ Obviously something in these challenging words and in Verdelot’s sparse setting of them appealed strongly to Morales, who anyway considered Mass composition to be the most important aspect of all his work. With this material as his starting-point he produced his most substantial and arguably his most heart-felt composition.

Parce mihi is the first lesson in Morales’s setting of the Officium defunctorum, The Office for the Dead. The motet acquired some notoriety when it was included in the album Officium, released in 1994 by Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the early music vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble. The album sold more than 1.5 million copies.


You will see from the note that the Morales Parce mihi was on a recording that was an unexpected hit. There are three versions on the recording, one voices a cappella and two with a saxophone improvisation on top of the choral music.

Voices alone:

With saxophone (this is pretty cool…):

This is good introduction to his choral music:

This is the Sanctus from the mass for Sunday.

– David Shuler, Director of Music

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