Willaert was the leading musician in Italy between the death of Josquin in 1521 and the full maturity of Lassus and Palestrina in the 1560s. Among the most versatile composers of the century, he worked in almost every sacred and secular genre and played a seminal role in the development of the motet, the polychoral psalm setting, the Italian madrigal, the canzona villanesca and the instrumental ricercare. He was highly revered during his own lifetime for his seriousness of purpose, his erudition, his exceptional contrapuntal skill and his sensitive treatment of the Italian language, qualities that engender awe and respect among musicians today.
Compared with contemporary composers like Jachet of Mantua, Morales or Clemens non Papa, Willaert left relatively few polyphonic mass settings. Five have been found in manuscript sources, including what is believed to be his earliest mass (c1512–17), the six-voice Missa ‘Mente tota’ on a section of Josquin’s motet cycle Vultum tuum. Five masses were issued in Willaert’s first collection of music, Liber quinque missarum, which was printed in 1536 by the Venetian publisher Francesco Marcolini da Forlí and dedicated to the young Florentine Duke Alessandro de’ Medici. All these masses, which may have been composed as much as a decade earlier, are built on motets by composers (Mouton, Richafort, Gascongne) associated with the French royal court of Louis XII, where Willaert had studied as a young man. As in other masses of this period, distinctive motifs and rhythmic figures, melodic phrases and even entire contrapuntal complexes from the models are quoted, modified or otherwise transformed in order to create an extended and unified polyphonic composition.
Three further masses are thought to be roughly contemporaneous with the 1536 print: a second parody of Mouton’s Queramus cum pastoribus; a five-voice Missa [mi ut mi sol] on an as yet unidentified cantus firmus or soggetto cavato; and the Missa ‘Benedicta es’, which is modelled on three different motets by Josquin, Mouton and Prioris. Only one mass survives from the end of Willaert’s life: the Missa ‘Mittit ad virginem’, based on a six-voice motet from his own Musica nova (1559). The mass is preserved in a Ferrarese manuscript compiled for Duke Alfonso II d’Este, who assumed his title in the same year. It is now believed, on the basis of inventories of lost manuscripts formerly in the libraries of Mary of Hungary and S Marco in Venice (see Kidger), that Willaert may have written other masses towards the end of his career.
5. Hymns and psalms.
To date, 34 polyphonic hymn settings by Willaert have been identified. Most (24) were published in his Hymnorum musica of 1542; five more appeared in I sacri e santi salmi (1555), which was the first collection of complete polyphonic office settings published by a single composer; and an additional five have recently been located in manuscripts from north Italy.
The settings in Hymnorum musica are largely in liturgical order. Thought to have been composed as a set for publication, this was among the earliest hymn cycles to accommodate a full liturgical year. Earlier precedents include cycles by Du Fay (15th century), Carpentras (c1532–5), Festa (1539) and Corteccia (1542). Willaert set the hymns either in alternatim style (with the chant sung monophonically in odd numbered verses but set polyphonically in the even numbered ones), or in through-composed polyphony that is slightly less florid than motet style and features contrasting duos and trios. Most of his hymns are canonic, continuing a compositional tradition that dates from the 1520s, and in nearly every case he used a liturgically appropriate chant melody as a cantus firmus or paraphrased it imitatively. Most of his melodies are not found in the central Roman liturgy of this era, nor do they appear in the polyphonic hymns of other Italian composers; rather the chants seem most appropriate for the liturgy of S Marco.
The five hymns in I sacri e santi salmi (a collection also containing other kinds of music for Vespers and Compline) resemble the earlier settings in style. Here, however, only the first two verses of each hymn are set (remaining verses could be sung to the same music) and the polyphonic idiom is simpler in style with much homorhythm, no canonic writing, and the chant stated as a cantus firmus in the tenor or superius voice.
Recently, five unpublished hymn settings have been found in manuscripts from Treviso, Piacenza and Bologna. Giovanni Spataro, maestro di cappella of S Petronio, Bologna, owned and performed many of Willaert’s hymns and wrote in 1533 to Pietro Aaron requesting that he ask Willaert to set a new hymn text in honour of St Petronius. It has been conjectured that one of the hymns newly attributed to Willaert in an extant Bolognese manuscript may be the very composition Spataro requested.
With the publication in 1550 of I salmi … a uno et a duoi chori Willaert almost single-handedly established the polychoral Vespers psalm as a major sacred genre in the second half of the 16th century. Although it is now recognized that this genre was already in use by other composers in the Veneto (especially Fra Ruffino in Padua and his student Francesco Santacroce in Treviso), there is little doubt that the claim of Zarlino, Nicola Vicentino and Girolamo Parabosco is essentially true: it was Willaert’s eight salmi spezzati that put this versatile new genre on the map. (Recently, two more polychoral psalms in a manuscript from Treviso have been attributed to Willaert; see Carver, 1988.)
The eight polychoral settings in I salmi, each of which is proper to a feast at which the remarkable Pala d’oro at S Marco would be opened, are scored for two separate choirs, the first of which delimits the overall range of the work while the second fills in the middle of the texture. The psalm text is distributed equally among the two choirs, which present alternate verses or half-verses. Compared to the more exuberant settings of earlier as well as later composers, Willaert’s settings are reserved and austere in style, adopting the expressive character, mode, melodic material and cadential articulations of the plainsong psalm tones. The two choruses sing together only rarely, primarily near the cadences that mark the verse endings or in the final doxology, where Willaert often recalled musical ideas from earlier sections and exploited the sort of choral tuttis and concertato effects that would come to typify the more dramatic psalm settings of later Venetian composers such as the Gabrielis and Giovanni Bassano.
I salmi also contains several antiphonal psalms whose successive verses are presented alternately by two separate choirs that never sing together. Six of these settings were jointly composed by Willaert (who set the even-numbered verses) and Jacquet of Mantua (who set the odd-numbered verses; Jacquet set two further psalms together with Dominique Phinot and three by himself, while one setting is anonymous). Following long-standing traditions governing alternatim liturgical polyphony, each setting opens with a monophonic intonation and continues in declamatory homorhythm to its conclusion. The psalms vary greatly in length, feature contrasting internal verses scored for three voices, and usually end with a canonic doxology sung by the full choir.