Songs of the Oracle - Lassus' "Prophetiae Sibyllarum" and Byrd's "Gradualia"

These program notes were written by Elise Groves for a program of Lassus’ “Prophetiae Sibyllarum” paired with selections from Byrd’s “Gradualia” presented by Tramontana in November 2015.

Orlando di Lasso was born in 1530 in what is now Belgium.  Around 1542 he entered the service of Ferrante Gonzaga and spent time in Mantua, Sicily, and Milan.  He then worked for Constantino Castrioto in Naples and for Cosimo I de’ Medici in Rome before taking a post as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1553.  By 1555 he was in Antwerp, where his first collection of Madrigali, Vilanesche, Canzoni francesi, e motetti for four voices was published.  In 1556 he joined the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich.  When Albrecht V reverted to Catholicism in 1563, Lasso (a Catholic, though not a counter-reformationist) took over leadership of the chapel and remained in that position for the rest of his life.  

One of the most prolific and versatile composers of his time, Lasso wrote over 2,000 works in all of the vocal genres of the Renaissance.  Flemish, Italian, German, and French publishers made his music widely available throughout Europe and also gave us several variants of his name.  Lasso’s reputation and popularity far surpassed any of his contemporaries, owing to his incredible skill in composition as well as his enormous output and the success of his publishers.  In 1570, Emperor Maximilian II conferred nobility upon him.  He was knighted by Pope Gregory XIII, and was invited to visit Charles IX, the King of France, in 1571 and again in 1573.

The Prophetiae Sibyllarum were composed sometime between 1549 and 1556, and were included in a set of partbooks prepared for Albrecht V shortly after Lasso’s move to Munich.  While the subject of the texts is sacred in nature, these pieces were not intended for use in a religious liturgy, and fall more into the category of “madrigali spirituale” (spiritual madrigals) than sacred motets.  These pieces are best described as “musica reservata” – music with intensely expressive setting of text and use of chromaticism, usually written for performance by professionals to be enjoyed by connoisseurs.  Although today these pieces are more frequently analyzed than performed, Lasso clearly intended them for performance by presenting them in illuminated partbooks.   

Among Lasso’s works, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum stand out for their intense chromaticism.  Expressive chromaticism in madrigals was fairly common in the mid-1500s, but the Prophetiae Sibyllarum took it to new heights.  The voice leading, though unusual, generally remains within the standard rules and practices of the time.  Lasso’s use of chromaticism in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum is more reminiscent of Gesualdo than other Renaissance composers.  Like Gesualdo, he used chromaticism to highlight certain aspects of the text, in this case the mystical, unusual, strange, and sometimes ambiguous texts.

In 1545, humanist scholar Sixt Birk of Augsburg published eight books of Sibylline Oracles, newly rediscovered, containing 12 Christian-leaning prophecies dating from the 2nd-4th centuries.  A new edition in Latin from 1555 is most likely what Lasso would have used for his compositions.  The poetry itself is complicated, with incomplete thoughts, parenthetical insertions, and interrupted sentences, and Lasso’s masterful use of chromaticism and rhythm enhances the disjointed yet mystical character of these texts.

The sibyls were women, believed by the ancient Greeks to be prophetesses, who uttered divine revelations, usually concerning future events, while in a frenzied state.  Early Christians regarded the sibyls as pagan priestesses predicting the coming of Jesus, and adapted the Sibylline texts into the larger body of early Christian writings.  The authenticity of these Sibylline prophecies was so commonly accepted that in Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel the prophets of Israel and the pagan sibyls stand side by side.

The movements of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum mention twelve different sibyls:

  1. The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew, or Egyptian Sibyl.  In some sources, this sibyl is credited with the authorship of the Sibylline Oracles.

  2. The Libyan Sibyl was named Phemonoe and was associated with Zeus Ammon at the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert.

  3. The Delphic Sibyl may or may not have been related to the well-known Oracle at Delphi.  The sibyl was the sister (or daughter) of Apollo.

  4. The Cimmerian Sibyl may have been a double name for the Cumaean Sibyl.

  5. The Cumaean Sibyl was the most important Sibyl for the Romans.  In literature, this was the Sibyl consulted by Virgil’s Aeneas before he went on his journey to the underworld.  She wrote her prophecies on oak leaves and left them near the entrance to her cave to be scattered by the wind.

  6. The Samian Sibyl was named Phyto and lived on the island of Samos.

  7. The Hellespontine Sibyl was also known as the Trojan Sibyl.  The collection of prophecies at Gergis was attributed to her and preserved in the temple of Apollo, later passing to Erythrae, before possibly passing to Cumae and eventually being sold to the king of Rome.

  8. The Erythraean Sibyl was named Herophile and wrote her prophecies in acrostics.  This may have been another name for the Cumaean Sibyl.

  9. The Phrygian Sibyl may have been a double name for the Hellespontine and Erythraean Sibyls.

  10. The Tiburtine Sibyl was named Albunea and was located in the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur.  She was added to the group of Greek sibyls by the Romans.

  11. The European and Agrippan Sibyls were added to the original 10 sibyls by Filippo Barieri in 1481, which prompted a new level of interest in the Sibylline Prophecies.

William Byrd was born in London and was a student of Thomas Tallis in the Chapel Royal.  His first known professional employment was his appointment as Organist and Master of Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563.  In 1573 he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Byrd and Tallis were shortly thereafter granted a joint patent for the printing of music and staff paper.  For this, they used the services of French Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier, who had settled in England and previously produced an edition of a collection of Lasso’s chansons.  They subsequently published Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur in 1575.  The collection was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and included 17 motets from each composer – one for each year of her reign – for a total of 34 pieces.

Although the religious status of Byrd’s early years is unclear, by 1570 he was associating with known Catholics.  Both Byrd and his wife were cited for recusancy (refusing to attend Anglican services), and having fallen under heavy scrutiny for his Catholic activities, his membership in the Chapel Royal was suspended for a time. Some scholars believe that the motets composed during this time show a persistent emphasis on themes of persecution, captivity, and deliverance, and that Byrd reinterpreted liturgical texts to serve as laments and petitions on behalf of the oppressed Catholic community.

Throughout his life, Byrd was frequently reported to the court and subjected to heavy fines for his failure to attend his local Anglican church.  It is likely that his circle of friends and patrons among the nobility were instrumental in saving him from more severe penalties.  In 1592, his prosecution for Catholic activities was halted by direct order of Queen Elizabeth herself.  While the queen was a Protestant, she was a moderate one, and also a keyboard player and lover of music, especially that of Byrd.

By the early 1590s, Byrd had moved to Stondon Place, near his patron Sir John Petre.  A fellow secret Catholic, Sir John Petre held private celebrations of the mass in his home at Ingatestone Hall.  As with all forbidden practices, these celebrations and those who attended them were constantly under threat of discovery.  About this time, Byrd began an incredible journey to write a complete cycle of music for the Catholic liturgical calendar.  The first step in this project was the publication of the masses for three, four, and five voices between 1592 and 1595.  The second step, the Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, followed in two installments, one in 1605 and the other in 1607.  Between the two volumes, there are 109 motets in three, four, and five voices.  When Byrd encountered the same text in two different contexts, he generally made use of one setting for both occasions.  To make this possible, pieces are usually closely related in key and vocal scoring and can be adapted as needed.  In general, the motets of the Gradualia are shorter than Byrd’s other motets and feature more madrigalian word-painting.

The first book of the Gradualia covered the major feasts of the Virgin Mary, including the votive masses for the Virgin for the four seasons of the church year, All Saints Day, and the Feast of Corpus Christi.  It is from this first volume that the selections on our program are taken.  Rorate caeli, Tollite portas, Ave Maria, and Ecce Virgo concipiet were all composed for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent (as the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion, respectively).  Gaude Maria Virgo is the Tract from the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Septuagesima to Easter, Ave Maria – Virga Jesse is the Alleluia during Paschal Time for the Mass for the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, and the Nunc Dimittis is the Tract for the Feast of the Purification.