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CD113   Sacred Music of Francisco Guerrero



Sacred Music of Francisco Guerrero

The Choir of The Church of the Advent, Boston
Edith Ho, Director of Music
Mark Dwyer, Assistant Conductor

  • Notes by Noël Bisson
  • Complete texts and translations
  • 67'39" total playing time

CD113    $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing


1. Motet Simile est regnum cœlorum
Cristobal Morales (c1500-1553)
10. Motet Ave Regina cœlorum
 Missa Simile est regnum cœlorum 11. Motet Regina cœli
2. Kyrie   Missa de la Batalla escoutez
3. Gloria 12. Kyrie
4. Credo 13. Gloria
5. Sanctus 14. Credo
6. Benedictus 15. Sanctus
7. Agnus Dei I 16. Benedictus
8. Agnus Dei II 17. Agnus Dei I
9. Motet Alma Redemptoris Mater 18. Agnus Dei II

Listen Listen:

Agnus II from Missa Simile est regnum cœlorum


The two Mass cycles on this superb disc make nice contrast. …Reading over what I have written I notice how often the term "ecstasy" and its synonyms appear. This is in large part to the wonderful performances by the Choir of The Church of the Advent in Boston. …Under the direction of their music director, Edith Ho, they have given us a treasure of a disc, beautifully recorded. The Tallis Scholars have nothing on this home team. More please.   --John Story, Fanfare, Sept./Oct.1999


Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) was one of the three pre-eminent composers of the golden age of Spanish polyphony. He is less well known today than Cristóbal de Morales (ca. 1500-1553) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), but in their lifetimes all three were equally famous for their church music. After his death, many composers paid tribute to Guerrero in their own compositions: Victoria, Alonso Lobo, Duarte Lobo, and others wrote Masses based on his motets (a practice known as "parody"). Moreover, the number of surviving copies of Guerrero's work that date from as late as 1700 demonstrates that his music was particularly popular in cathedrals in the New World long after he died. Upon hearing Guerrero's music today, one immediately understands the fame and reputation he earned during his life. The simple melodic lines and clear harmonic progressions make his music wonderfully singable and accessible to the listener. Still, his music is largely unknown today, and it has rarely been recorded.

Most of us immediately think of Victoria as the quintessential Spanish composer of the period, but Guerrero's music is in fact more innately Spanish than Victoria's. Like Victoria, Guerrero published music in Rome and was known internationally, but he was trained entirely in Spain and in the Spanish style of composition; Victoria, on the other hand, was taught in Rome, probably by Palestrina. Guerrero studied first with his own brother, Pedro, and then with the great Morales. Throughout his professional life Guerrero worked in Spain, and his talent and reputation eventually won him the coveted position of maestro di capilla at the Seville Cathedral. This was Spain's great century, when the Hapsburg kings, especially Philip II, were the most powerful monarchs of Europe and lay leaders of the Catholic world. Seville itself was at this time not only a thriving city, but also the gateway to the Americas and home of the Spanish silver fleet.

Despie his life-long association with Seville, Guerrero was well traveled by the time of his death. Along with several trips to Rome, he also visited the Holy Land. His trip there in 1588-89 ended badly when, on his way home, he was twice attacked by pirates. He later said, however, that this trip was his inspiration for Christmas canciones and villancicos that he wrote yearly for the services at Seville Cathedral. Guerrero planned to visit the Holy Land again in 1599, but is life was cut short when he succumbed to the plague that struck Seville late that year.

Guerrero was more adventurous in the types of compositions he wrote than Morales and Victoria, who adhered to the strictly liturgical works that were expected of church composers of this period. Not only did Guerrero write more motets than Morales and Victoria and nearly as many Masses (Morales wrote twenty-one Masses, Guerrero eighteen, Victoria twenty) but he also contributed to the quasi-sacred genre of the polyphonic religious song set in the vernacular. These canciones and villancicos were extremely popular and helped establish Guerrero's reputation as the master of a truly Spanish style.

Missa Simile est regnum cœlorum (published in 1582) was Guerrero's tribute to his teacher, Morales. A "parody" Mass, it is based on Morales's motet Simile est regnum cœlorum which precedes it on this disc. "Parody" is a compositional practice by which composers derived new musical material from a pre-existing polyphonic work. Rather than basing a piece on a cantus firmus (a single line of a polyphonic piece, or a plainchant melody), the composer borrowed from the whole polyphonic texture of an older piece in order to create a new one. This sixteenth-century compositional technique was a means of unifying the five movements of a Mass, which, in the context of the Catholic liturgy, were not heard in immediate succession (as on a recording) but were broken up by the standard prayers and plainchant performed in all celebrations of the Solemn High Mass. Not only was the technique of "parody" a means of generating new musical material from old, but it was also a way to show one's respect for another composer. As mentioned earlier, Guerrero's own fame is evident from the number of composers who chose to base Masses on his motets.

Guerrero's Missa Simile est regnum cœlorum is only loosely based on Morales's motet, but the opening of the motet is quoted at the start of all the Mass movements. In the Agnus Dei I, the first seven notes of the opening of the motet appear in long, held notes in the tenor voice, somewhat like a cantus firmus. These seven notes are then repeated backwards, and then the whole sequence begins again. At this place in the piece, in the margin of one manuscript, Guerrero wrote the words of Jesus: "Vado et venio ad vos" ( "I go away and come again unto you" [John 14:28]). It is difficult to discern this clever musical trick in performance, but it remains as a subtle demonstration of Guerrero's compositional ingenuity. The Agnus Dei II is for six-voice choir and provides a glorious climax to the Mass.

Guerrero was known as el cantor de Maria in his lifetime because so many of his pieces are settings of texts in honor of the Virgin Mary. His settings of three Marian antiphons, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina cœlorum, and Regina cœli typify his lyrical style and also show a quiet introspection that beautifully reflects the meaning of the texts. All three are based on plainchants from which the texts of the motets are derived, but in each piece the chant is used slightly differently.

Alma Redemptoris Mater is the most lyrical and inward-looking of the groups and is a masterpiece in its construction. The text is a petition to the Virgin to have mercy on sinners, and Guerrero's setting captures the persoanl nature of the individual sinner's prayer. The plainchant is heard predominately in the soprano voice in long notes, although it occasionally migrates to other voices as well. The piece builds to a dramatic climax with the words, "Gabrielis ab ore sumens illud Ave," (..."[who heard] that "Ave" from the mouth of Gabriel..."), recalling the moment when Gabriel gave Mary the news of the miracle of Christ's conception within her womb.

In Ave Regina cœlorum the plainchant is heard in steady, long notes almost exclusively in the soprano voice until the end of the piece where it moves to the tenor. The other voices weave around the chant with faster-moving lines, occasionally imitating brief portions of it. The text, like Alma Redemptoris Mater, is also a petition to the Virgin to protect sinners. The climatic moment of the piece occcurs around the words, "Vale, vale, valde decora," ("Hail, hail, and farewell gracious one...") where the soprano line reaches its highest point (on "decora") and the movement in all four voices stops for the space of a quarter note. This break and subsequent simultaneous entry of three voices over a held note in the tenor is texturally different from the very polyphonic writing of the rest of the piece and thus highlights this portion of the text.

Regina cœli, an antiphon to be sung during Eastertide, is a tour de force for eight voice parts. Its fuller sound and its exuberance make it stand out from the other two Marian settings on this disc. Rather than assigning the plainchant to one voice, here Guerrero distributes the chant in long notes among all the voices at various points in the pece. Although the complexity of the eight-part counterpoint at times obscures the chant, the piece never strays far from it since there is always one voice carrying it. The chant thus becomes more of a part of the contrapuntal texture in this way than in some of the other motets.

Finally, the Missa de la Batalla escoutez is scored for five voices, expanding to eight in the second Agnus Dei. This Mass, probably written earlier than the Missa Simile est regnum cœlorum, is also a "parody" Mass, but is markedly different from it in style. Whereas the previous Mass is placid, even subdued, this work is, at times, boisterous and fiery. It is based on a popular chanson of the period, La Guerreor La Bataille de Marignana, written by the French composer Clément Janequin. Some of the secular, martial character of the song comes through in portions of the Credo (at the text "et iterum venturus est" and "Et unam sanctam catholicam"). The notes that accompany the opening lines of Janequin's chanson, "Escoutez, tous gentils," are heard most clearly as an ostinato (a repeating pattern) in long notes in the second soprano part of the Agnus Dei I.

The music on this disc is part of the regular repertory of The Choir of The Church of the Advent. Music has been an integral part of the liturgy at The Church of the Advent since the Church's foundation in the mid-nineteenth century. The Choir is best known for its performance of polyphony, and this church is one of very few in the world where a polyphonic Mass can be heard on a regular basis. The Choir sings a complete Mass setting (except the Credo) every Sunday and on many feast days, as well as anthems and motets. Under the direction of Edith Ho, the choir has performed at the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists, in the Boston Early Music Festival concert series, and has made a number of recordings, including one for the BBC.

-© Noël Bisson, June 1998

The Choir of The Church of the Advent

Edith Ho, Director (Tracks 1-11)
Mark Dwyer, Assistant Conductor (Tracks 12-18)
Cantor: Charles Kamm

Soprano I
Kandace Anastasia
Noël Bisson
Susan Bisson
Alice Dampman

Soprano II
Shannon Canavin
Denise Konicek
Shannon Larkin
Cheryl Ryder

Jonathan Biran
Allen Combs
Alice Dampman
Frederick Jodry

James DeSelms
Charles Kamm
Ryan Turner
David Won

Glenn Billingsley
Stepehn Hermes
Daniel Meyer
Charles Turner
Recorded direct to digitalmaster on June 8, 9, and 10, 1998 at The Church of the Advent, Boston
Recording engineer: Edward Kelly, Mobile Master, Greenbelt, Maryland
Production, editing & premastering: Robert Schuneman, ARSIS Audio, Boston

The Advent Choir on ARSIS recordings: