Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy. It doesn’t matter whether we are Muslims, Jews or Christians, the one and almighty God is the one who will judge us and whose mercy we implore when we have trespassed the divine laws. And even if you do not believe in any god, you most likely acknowledge the existence of man-made laws and, when in court, you will hope for a lenient judge.
Kyrie eleison – thus starts the Missa Quatuor Vocum, a mass for four voices that Domenico Scarlatti has written in the early 18th century, most likely for a private church service in Madrid. The mass also goes by the name “Misa de Madrid”. The manuscript was found in a Spanish archive. Musicologist seem to agree that Scarlatti performed it in 1754 in Madrid, but he may well have drawn from sketches in Rome and taken it with him when he left for his self-imposed exile first in Portugal, later in Spain. It has been recorded by the singers of the ensemble Melodi Cantores, with two other pieces of sacred music, the Missa Brevis “La Stella” and the Stabat Mater.
A precise dating is difficult, since Scarlatti did not care to put a date on the manuscript. Most of the liturgical music he wrote was meant to be performed on the spot for a specific occasion for the master he served at that specific moment. It was not meant for posterity. Scarlatti would have laughed at the prediction that some 300 years after his service as a maestro di capella in Rome, anyone would care about his masses.
Four voices then: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The piece respects the sober style of the early 18th century. A humble, yet formally accomplished piece of sacred music. During his later career at the Portuguese and Spanish courts, Scarlatti would write daring keyboard sonatas, but while he was in Rome he needed to compose to survive and to establish himself as a composer. Extravaganzas were not in demand, solid compositional work was what his conservative patrons sought, be it for entertainment or liturgy.
This mass is beauty married to humbleness. Let’s be humble on this Easter Sunday, let’s be grateful for the beautiful music Scarlatti has left us and let’s not judge others. For he who is without sin…
© Charles Thibo