Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553)

Parce mihi, Domine

Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 –1553) was born in Seville. The portrait above is copied from what is thought to be a contemporary engraving; the woodcut is the title-page of his second book of masses, published in Rome in 1554 – it shows him presenting his music to Pope Paul III. After early posts in various Spanish churches, Morales was employed either in the Sistine Chapel or by the Vatican from 1535-45, and seems to have enjoyed the Pope’s favour. He was hard on the choirs who performed his music, a difficult person by all accounts, and this was the longest he stayed anywhere, returning to Spain after trying and failing to find other employment in Italy.

A contemporary, Juan Bermudo, a Franciscan monk, composer and musical theorist, wrote of him as the ‘light of music’ in Spain. His music travelled – his masses were known throughout Europe, and were also performed in Mexico and Peru – a 1544 book of masses was the first printed polyphonic music prepared for the New World – it is now in the cathedral treasury in Puebla, Mexico. The 18th century musical biographer Andrea da Bolsena described him as the most important of the papal composers between Josquin and Palestrina. Twenty-two of his masses survive, over 100 motets, 18 settings of the Magnificat, and 5 settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. He used themes from other composers in his masses, including Mille regretz, attributed to Josquin; and themes from his works were in turn taken up by Palestrina and Victoria.

The musical substance of Morales’ output varies from simple yet finely-crafted homophony (as demonstrated in Parce mihi Domine) to elegant polyphony, often in five or six parts. He was familiar with the work of the Franco-Flemish composers, and was in the mainstream of 16th century polyphony. His compositional style may have had a formative role in the development of Palestrina’s music, as the younger composer succeeded Morales at the Papal Chapel after his death. Morales applied for the post of maestro di capilla in the Toledo cathedral in September 1553, but died shortly after that, in Marchena, Spain.

Further reading:

Brown, H.M. (1976) Music in the Renaissance, Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.

Robert Stevenson/Alejandro PlanchartCristóbal Morales, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed October 14, 2017)