Seventeenth-Century Italian Motets with Trombones

By D. Linda Pearse

The exact specification of instruments gained momentum in the final decades of the sixteenth century in Italy and early decades of the seventeenth. Trombones, in particular, were increasingly specified and were often used interchangeably with voices. The early Italian motets in this edition contain parts explicitly designated for trombones and document this tendency toward naming particular instruments and composing idiomatic parts for them. Of the more than hundred works that were identified, the nineteen works in this edition were chosen for the variety of textures and compositional styles represented, as well as for their inherent beauty.

The creation of this edition spans seventeen years, marked by phases of research, publication, performance, and pedagogy. Research and creation activities included archival searches in multiple Italian libraries; sessions of sight-reading from print and facsimile copies with esteemed early music colleagues; discussion, rehearsal, and performance with students at the Jacobs School of Music Historic Performance Institute (Indiana University, Bloomington); performances with the professional early music ensemble ¡Sacabuche!; and finally this edition, published by A-R Editions in 2014.

A recording on the ATMA Classique label was released the following year. Along the way, I was aided by helpful librarians, colleagues, and collectors of music, in particular Howard Weiner and cornettist Bruce Dickey. It is my intention that the edition and companion recording serve scholars, performers, and music enthusiasts alike. The composers are for the most part unknown, and thus the edition brings unknown works to the hands of scholars and performers, just as the recording brings them to the ears of the listener.

The works demonstrate a variety of textures and instrumental and vocal combinations. “Corda Deo dabimus” by Ercole Porta and “Confitemini Domino” and “Diligam te Domine” by Carlo Fillago feature the trombones in a coro grave (low choir)—a manner of setting, described by Michael Praetorius and common in Italian polychoral music, that places trombones on the lower parts of one choir in a large-scale polychoral texture. The bass trombone part often exceeds the lowest tessitura possible for a bass voice, allowing for greater expansion of the work’s overall range. The mournful and sonorous sound of trombones contrasts expressively with the fluid vocal lines. Audio excerpts of these works (including all those mentioned below) can be found here.

The introduction of basso continuo accompanied a shift from compositions that favored equality of the parts to ones that favored treble–bass polarity. “Vulnerasti cor meum” and “Intonuit de caelo” (1614) by Francesco Usper embody the older style, without a basso continuo part. In “Vulnerasti cor meum,” a solo soprano is accompanied by five texted trombone parts that can also be sung. The works by Federico Cauda, Nicolò Corradini, and Fillago employ a true basso continuo and embrace many of the conventions of the newer concerted style that arose in the early decades of the seventeenth century. In these works, the instruments and voices have distinctly different functions: the voices are vehicles of soloistic expression, and the instruments perform sinfonie, interact with the voices, and add color to the texture.

The edition contains three settings based on the Litany of Loreto, providing context for the well-known “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria” from Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. Monteverdi’s sonata features a complex structure, frequent shifts of meter, and virtuosic writing in the instrumental parts, all accompanying eleven repetitions of the litany refrain “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis”; it has provided ample cause for discussion, particularly concerning the reason for its composition, its intended purpose, and its manner of performance. The settings by Archangelo Crotti and Amante Franzoni, which may be familiar to some trombonists, are of small scope and scale, but of particular interest is the setting by the relatively unknown composer Federico Cauda, “Beatus vir qui suffert / Sancte N.” (1626). These settings share some key characteristics with Monteverdi’s sonata: the chant enters after all the other parts, is sung by a soprano, and moves in much slower note values than the accompanying instrumental parts. Cauda, however, includes two additional vocal parts (soprano and bass), which sing a different text over the same instrumental texture. This expanded scoring, along with the considerable variation employed in the setting of the chant, makes Cauda’s work by far the most forward-looking of the three litany settings in this anthology.

Cauda’s “Beatus vir qui suffert” combines elements of both older and newer styles. Indebted to the older style, it employs a chant that serves both aesthetic and structural purposes. The instrumental writing is predominantly vocal in nature and is not virtuosic or idiomatic to the trombone. The texture of the vocal parts (other than the soprano) is entirely imitative. Looking forward, however, the motet incorporates a basso continuo part (albeit one that functions mostly as a seguente part). It includes obbligato parts for specific instruments that do not double or replace the voices, and is thus a fully concerted work with a true basso continuo, sinfonie, and a complex form.

“Laetare Syon” (ca. 1641) by Gasparo Casati provides a later and more extreme example of the diverging roles of instruments and voices. The florid tenor part has extended solos that alternate with instrumental sinfonie (including violins as well as trombones) or are punctuated by short instrumental bursts. The instruments and voice converge only at key moments, with little textural variety. The instrumental parts almost always move homophonically, and the voice is almost always alone. Set in a sectional form with frequent alternation between duple and triple meters, “Laetare Syon” is the longest work in the edition. The basso continuo part is fully figured and moves to a quarter-note pulse in all duple sections. In all these respects, this work is by far the most modern in the edition, more than hinting at the rising dominance of string music, sectional form, distinctive roles for instruments and voices, and the longer works of the later seventeenth century. Gone now is the expressive chromaticism of the early seventeenth century, as well as the coro grave. This music is light and easily digested.


D. Linda Pearse is recognized as a specialist in the exquisite musical repertoire of early seventeenth-century Italy. She is Associate Professor at Mount Allison University and Lecturer on Baroque Trombone at the Historic Performance Institute, Indiana University Bloomington. Following studies at McGill University and the Schola Cantorum (Basel), a career in Europe included regular performances with the Stuttgart Philharmoniker, the Stuttgart Opera House, the Basel Symphony, La Cetra, piano possibile, and the Stuttgart Musical Theater. Pearse is Artistic Director of the San Francisco Early Music Baroque Workshop, the Sackville Festival of Early Music, and the ensemble ¡Sacabuche!. Her extensive touring includes performances in Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau (China), Victoria, Nanaimo, Vancouver, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, New York, San Francisco, Bloomington (Indiana), Madison, Kansas City, and Houston. In addition to music-only programs, Pearse’s interdisciplinary projects engage new music, early music, texts, soundscapes, and images in conversations that explore cultural contacts and collisions in the early modern period. Her critical edition of Seventeenth-Century Italian Motets with Trombones was published by A-R Editions in April 2014. Pearse has recorded for broadcast with Harmonia and WFIU, recorded with Cappella Artemisia, and on the ATMA label with ¡Sacabuche!’s recent release 17th-Century Italian Motets.