Sunday Playlist: John Taverner: Missa Corona Spinea

Taverner’s ‘Missa Corona Spinea’ (‘Crown of Thorns Mass’) is one of three festal masses that he is known to have composed – the other two are Gloria tibi Trinitas,and O Michael. Each of Taverner’s three festal Masses is constructed over a cantus firmus, that is they are constructed over a pre-existing melody used as the basis for their (polyphonic) composition. And each is scored for six-part choir including the high trebles so characteristic of late medieval and renaissance English music. Taken together they represent a crowning moment in Tudor period music and a high point in the development of the English festal Mass.

Note: This is the first posting in a series of three dealing with Taverner’s festal Masses.  The remaining two postings will be posted on Sunday February 26th 2012 and Sunday March 4th 2012.

Guercino (1591-1666) Christ Crowned with Thorns Date

Nobody quite knows for which occasion Taverner composed ‘Missa Corona Spinea’. Its title might lead the twenty first century observer to believe that it is connected with the Feast of the Crown of Thorns but such an assumption is difficult to sustain in the face of the facts that:

  1. It’s the longest of Taverner’s settings and is clearly intended for an elaborate ceremony involving a large choir.
  2. The choir would have to include boys of exceptional skill – particularly given the consistently florid writing for trebles.
  3. The Feast of the Crown of Thorns  was considered to be of only minor importance in the Sarum calendar.

It’s unlikely therefore that it was written for the Feast of the Crown of Thorns. There are other scholarly difficulties associated with this Mass –  one of them being that nobody knows the source of the cantus firmus used by Taverner to provide the Mass’ structure, another is that nobody knows for sure when it was composed. It doesn’t appear in the part-books compiled for use at Cardinal College in the late 1520s so it’s reasonable to suppose that it was probably composed sometime after that decade.

Structurally ‘Missa Corona Spinea’ is typically English in consisting of only four movements:

  • Movement 1: Gloria
  • Movement 2: Credo
  • Movement 3: Sanctus and Benedictus
  • Movement 4: Agnus Dei (I & II)

This structure came about because in the Sarum rite – the rite most widely used in England before Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the Kyrie was performed as ‘troped plainchant’ that is it was performed with extra words added these words being varied by the season. The movements are more or less the same length with the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei containing rather more melismatic writing than either the Gloria or the Credo. (Another typically English feature of ‘Missa Corona Spinea’s ‘  structure is the abbreviated Credo). 

This is a Mass I come back to time and time again. I admire how Taverner uses the cantus firmus (tenor) as the foundation for both the shifting full sections and the reduced-voice passages while the duets and trios are, to my mind, among his best work, they remind me of Josquin for some reason. I also admire and enjoy how he exploits the range between the top and bottom parts, for his time his use of this technique for example at ‘Et expecto’ during the Credo and at the start of the Agnus Dei I was spectacular, still is spectacular in fact. While his division of the trebles in the Benedictus takes my breath away.

You’ll find a playlist with the complete Mass and its separate movements together with the text and an English translation below the fold. The singers are The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers. Enjoy :-).


Click the player below to listen to the complete Mass:

[audio:|titles=Missa Corona Spinea (Complete)]

Click the players below to listen to the individual movements:

[audio:|titles=Movement 1- Gloria]
[audio:|titles=Movement 2- Credo]
[audio:|titles=Movement 3- Sanctus and Benedictus]
[audio:|titles=Movement 4- Agnus Dei I]
[audio:|titles=Movement 5- Agnus Dei II]


Movement 1: Gloria: Gloria in excelsis Deo

et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.

Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.

Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Domine Deus, rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens,

Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe,

Domine Deus, agnus Dei, Filius Patris,

qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis;

qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram;

qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.

Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.

Cum Sancto Spiritu, in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

Glory to God in the highest

and on earth peace to men of good will.

We praise you. We bless you.

We adore you. We glorify you.

We give you thanks for your great glory.

Lord God, king of heaven, God the Father almighty,

Lord, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ,

Lord God, lamb of God, Son of the Father,

you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;

you who take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;

you who sit at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.

For you only are holy. You only are Lord.

You only are most high, Jesus Christ.

With the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Movement 2: Credo Credo in unum Deum,

Patrem omnipotentem,

factorem caeli et terrae,

visibilium omnium, et invisibilium.

Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum,

Filium Dei unigenitum,

et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula,

Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,

Deum verum de Deo vero,

genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri,

per quem omnia facta sunt.

Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem

descendit de caelis.

Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine,

et homo factus est.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato,

passus et sepultus est.

Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum scripturas.

Et ascendit in caelum:

sedet ad dexteram Patris.

Et iterum venturus est cum gloria,

iudicare vivos et mortuos:

cuius regni non erit finis.

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum,

et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

I believe in one God,

Father almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all visible and invisible things.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only-begotten son of God,

born of the Father before all ages,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father,

by whom all things were made.

Who for us men, and for our salvation,

came down from heaven.

And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit through the virgin Mary,

and was made man.

He was also crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,

he died and was buried.

And on the third day he rose again according to the scriptures.

And ascended into heaven:

he sits at the right hand of the Father.

And he will come again with glory to judge

the living and the dead:

there will be no end to his kingdom.

And I await the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Movement 3: Sanctus and Benedictus Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

Hosanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts.

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

Movement 4: Agnus Dei I Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

miserere nobis.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world,

have mercy on us.

Movement 5: Agnus Dei II  Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world,

have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world,

grant us peace.

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