John Milsom

“Lux aeterna luceat eis”: Understanding Polyphonic Craft in Requiem Masses from Pierre de la Rue to Victoria

Rites for the dead are by nature solemn events, and most 16th-century composers respected this by writing settings of the Missa pro defunctis that are conspicuously plainer and simpler than their polyphonic settings of the standard mass ordinary. In fact, given this concern for sobriety, it might be asked why so many 16th-century composers wrote Requiems, bearing in mind that most of their settings have been made in roughly the same way, by quoting or lightly paraphrasing the plainchant melodies they replace. This talk ponders that question by surveying the 16th-century Requiem repertory at large, searching out innovation where it exists, and interrogating works that attempt greater combinative complexity than is normal. It also casts a critical eye (or rather, ear) over some recent Requiem recordings, and points to ways in which future performers and their audiences might stand to gain by understanding more about how these compositions were made.