Tess Knighton

The Missa pro defunctis by Pedro de Escobar: Transitions and Transformations

Escobar’s Missa Pro Defunctis has long been heralded as the earliest setting of the Requiem mass by a Spanish composer, although it is impossible to establish an exact date and other pre-Morales settings also need to be taken into account in any study of the development of the genre in Spain in the early decades of the 16th century. Eleanor Russell, Grayson Wagstaff, Juan Ruiz Jiménez, and others have looked at how a polyphonic tradition distinctive from the Roman, as regards both choice of text and chant melody, developed in Spain. Aspects of this tradition have been considered as distinctly Sevillian or Andalusian, although further study is needed since similar trends are found in polyphonic Requiem masses preserved in northern Spain. The focus of this paper is less on which variants of which chant melodies were used, and more on the manner in which they were set polyphonically, with an analysis of the compositional processes and procedures adopted in the different sections of the mass. Some sections clearly have their roots firmly in the tradition of semi-improvised ‘contrapunto’, and there is evidence to suggest that the Mass for the Dead was customarily elaborated and solemnified in this way on major occasions at least. Other sections display a much greater awareness of composed counterpoint, with some use of imitative textures, and may well reflect familiarity with early Franco-Netherlandish settings such as those by Ockeghem and Brumel that very probably circulated in Spain by the time Escobar was chapelmaster at Seville Cathedral (1507-1514). Certainly, Escobar’s Mass for the Dead can be seen as transitional in that it paves the way for later polyphonic settings such as those by Basurto and Morales, but it should perhaps also be seen as a landmark in the gradual transformation of semi-improvised practise to written polyphony also apparent at this time in other musico-liturgical genres.