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Striggio's hit Mass is 'wall of sound' masterpiece from 1560s

It could be dismissed as just another example of sixties retro - except that we're talking about the 1560s and the runaway phenomenon of a rediscovered 450-year-old 'wall of sound' masterpiece.

In a normal year, you’d be as likely to find Renaissance music in the pop charts as you would a science manual on the bestseller list. However, 2011 seems to be no normal year. Its most surprising musical success so far has been a long-lost 400 year old mass, written by a composer almost nobody has heard of. The recent success of Allessandro Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts, recorded for the first time by the early-music specialists I ­Fagiolini, has had music industry experts rubbing their eyes in ­disbelief.

Reaching a higher placing than recent releases by the Black Eyed Peas and Take That, the new album scored a number 68 British chart position last month. Since then, the album has continued to make bumper sales – six weeks after its release it is still number one in Britain’s classical charts. Having struck a chord with the public, the album looks set to be a long, slow burner, well on course to become the biggest selling classical album so far this century.

Granted, a number 68 peak is not going to get Rihanna quaking in her boots just yet, but for a classical release it’s an astonishing achievement, proof that the album has broken out of the classical ghetto to reach a non-specialist audience. Click on the album’s listing on Amazon, and it tells you that customers who bought it also purchased albums by Adele and Lady Gaga, not Bach and Monteverdi. A runaway success like this hasn’t been seen since the early 1990s, when the late Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs outsold Madonna to become one of the most successful classical releases ever.

To put it mildly, the album’s popularity is something of a surprise. Renaissance music is more popular now than it was a few decades back, but your average music lover would still struggle to name a single composer from the period. So why has the long-forgotten Striggio suddenly had such an impact?

The answer isn’t hard to find. It is the Mass’s resonant beauty. Its choirs produce a noise so huge and sensuous that it makes Phil Spector’s fabled wall of sound seem puny. At the risk of stating the obvious, the piece contains 40 different parts – not 40 singers, but 40 completely different vocal lines, which in the final section swell to 60. Very few pieces have ever attempted such a huge proliferation of separate voices in one piece, and the result is a knee-weakening throb of rich but pure-sounding harmony.

I Fagiolini used 60 singers to record the mass and have boosted its aural onslaught even further by matching the vocal lines with accompaniment from neglected period instruments such as shawms and wooden-bodied cornetts. Separating the singers into five choirs, the mass acts as a form of conversation between the different blocs of musicians, creating a dense overlap of voices that sounds breathless and without boundaries. Sitting in the dark listening to the piece feels like wandering into a forest of sweet noise, a total immersion in music that is both uplifting and soothing at the same time.

The piece’s remarkable story also gives it an added curiosity appeal. Composed in the 16th century for the Medici dukes of Florence, Striggio’s Mass was used as a diplomatic calling card for the family across Europe. After Francesco de Medici married an Austrian Hapsburg princess in 1566, the court composer Striggio was sent north over the Alps to stage performances of his epic piece in Vienna, Munich and Paris. Intended to demonstrate the splendour and sophistication of the Medicis’ court. the tour was apparently a great success, and Striggio decided to take a detour to London. There he met English composers and saw the Mass performed – this time in a private house, so as not to offend his Protestant hosts.

The piece was clearly a hit – a contemporary commentator said it “made a heavenly harmony” – and it probably had an influence on Thomas Tallis, the British composer best known for his Spem in Alium. Also written in 40 parts, Spem in Alium is probably the world’s most popular piece of Renaissance polyphony, and it now seems likely Tallis created it directly in response to Striggio’s Mass.

After such promising beginnings, the piece then went underground for four centuries. The few people who knew about Striggio assumed that his Mass was lost, and it wasn’t until 2007 that a hand-written copy of the vast score was rediscovered, gathering dust in the stacks of a Paris library. A careless scribe had misspelled Striggio’s name and knocked a zero out of the title, leaving the mass described as in 4 parts (the standard number). Were it not for careful sleuthing and good luck, library moths might well have been the only creatures to enjoy this splendid score.

While the Mass’s curious back story and sumptuous sound may have helped its popularity, these alone don’t guarantee success. Beautiful music doesn’t always sell, and there have in fact already been some minor critical grumbles about the score. The Mass’s diffuse, humming sound does open it to accusations of being the high-cultural equivalent of muzak, gorgeous background music that doesn’t tax the ear or demand too much attention. While this is unfair, it is true that, compared with Spem in Alium, Striggio’s Mass seems a little less daring and complex. That wouldn’t deter anyone from buying the CD, however – I Fagiolini have included a stunning recording of Tallis’s masterwork on it, sounding fresher than ever.

A likely cause of Striggio’s sudden success might be simply that the piece arrived at just the right time. It certainly seems fitting that a work of such lush harmony should become so popular at a time where harmony on a global scale seems to be so singularly lacking. The British music critic Jessica Duchen has argued that Striggio’s Mass is doing so well because it chimes with the current state of general global upheaval. Just as Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs sold well during a period of economic depression when Europe was stricken with the war that tore Yugoslavia apart, Striggio’s Mass’s popularity is a sign of an audience desperately in need of tranquility and uplift. In a time when the present is difficult and the future uncertain, people don’t want to listen just to disposable, high-gloss pop: they want substance and transcendence, something beautiful that lifts them out of their daily worries and creates a sense of harmony that reality withholds.

Intricate though it might be, Striggio’s music has a blissful sense of peace to it that stops people in their tracks – when I first bought it, my flatmate wandered in, asking: “What’s that wonderful music?”

While not everyone agrees on the piece’s quality, the success of I Fagiolini has still got the classical music world buzzing. At a time when new classical recordings are increasingly rare, it shows that people out there are hungry for them. It also dangles in front of us the tantalising possibility that there might be yet more dust-covered masterpieces lying around, just waiting for someone to open them up and let them sing once more.

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