The sacred motet Nigra Sum of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina from his collection Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum (The fourth book of Motets from the Song of songs). Live HD video from the Voices of Music Great Artists Concert, October, 2012. Featuring Bruce Dickey, cornetto; Elisabeth Reed, baroque cello and Hanneke van Proosdij, organ. Temperament: quarter comma meantone at A=466 Hz.
Palestrina’s fourth book contains a number of works that draw on the style of the Italian Madrigal, but the slow, homophonic chords of Nigra Sum, leavened suspensions and the old-fashioned technique of parallel fourths in the upper voices, are reminiscent not of the madrigal but of the finest renaissance motets from the mid-sixteenth century.
Bruce Dickey on improvisation:
Improvisation was the means by which musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, learned their craft and displayed their skill. Mostly these were improvisations on existing material–motets, madrigals and chansons. Many such elaborations were written down as examples for students and colleagues, and they attest to an extraordinary level of technical skill and creativity. One cornettist, Luigi Zenobi, left us a daunting description of all the things a singer or instrumentalist needed to be able to do when improvising on an existing piece. The improvisation should display all kinds of movement, speeding up and slowing down, leaping and moving by step, creating dissonance where the composer did not write it, creating echo effects of various kinds, and following one style in sacred and another in secular music. He even suggests that one style should be used during the daytime and another at night! My version of Palestrina’s motet Nigra sum is inspired by Zenobi, but makes no claim to attain the improvisatory level he describes.
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