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Modena-born composer Orazio Vecchi was one of the Italian Renaissance’s most gifted writers. Vecchi’s legacy rests largely on his secular compositions; he was a prolific creator of countless madrigals and canzonettas – light, entertaining music for small groups of singers. So popular were these canzonettas that composers across Europe set his tunes in their own languages. Vecchi was also renowned for his madrigal comedies: a series of solos, duets, poetry, and music woven together into a full evening’s entertainment.

His impressive output includes masses, a Magnificat, and three volumes of motets, as well as a volume of Lamentations. The text of O Maria super foeminas, which celebrates the nativity of the Virgin Mary, is a set of excerpted phrases from a sermon attributed to St. Austin of Canterbury (d. 605). As in many of his motets, Vecchi uses several compositional styles, often juxtaposing the “sacred” techniques of previous musical eras with secular contemporary ones of the late 16th century. Set for five voices, “O Maria super foeminas” begins with a single melodic motif, directly imitated by all other voices; what makes Vecchi’s style different, however, is that each voice takes on its own melodic shape after this initial imitation. This combination “imitative-freeform” counterpoint is followed by a reverential, more homophonic section on the text “O insignis gratia” (“O distinguished grace”). Vecchi uses fauxbourdon (a compositional style of over a century earlier) in the bottom three voices to paint the text “Quae dum fide dedit humiliter” (“Which yielded humble faith”).

O Maria super foeminas benedicta,
O foelix obedientia
O insignis gratia
Quae dum fide dedit humiliter
Coeli opificem in se corporavit.

O Mary, blessed above all women,
O happy obedience,
O distinguished grace
Which yielded humble faith,
And embodied in her Him who madest the heavens.