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Cristóbal de Morales is considered by many to be the greatest Spanish composer before Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548-1611, biography coming soon). In fact, if you only know two Spanish composers’ names, those are likely to be the two.

Morales’ music has a strong Franco-Flemish flavor to it (for composers of this ilk, check out those listed on my website). That’s because, until his abdication in 1555, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), King of Spain, kept a Flemish chapel. Apart from 10 years in Papal service where Morales would also have been exposed to the Flemish traditions, he spent his whole professional life in Andalusa, where the Franco-Flemish influence was strong (Andalusa is the region that covers nearly the whole bottom third of the Iberian Peninsula.)

Like the other court musicians, Morales followed the Netherlandish style. Of his 22 Masses, two are based on the French motet L’homme arme (anonymous) and others are modeled on motets by Franco-Flemish composers Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560), Jean Mouton (c1459-1522), Jean Richafort (c1480-c1547), Philippe Verdelot (c1480-c1530), and Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521). Only two of Morales’ Masses are based on Spanish villancicos. (More about those later.)

Morales is perhaps most Spanish in his use of mystical emotions at the heart of such motets as Emendemus in melius (one of my very favorite motets) and O crux, ave. He didn’t write much secular music; only a handful of pieces with Italian and Spanish text survive.

In 1526, Charles V’s wife, Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539), organized a chapel of Spanish and Portuguese musicians, and Morales was among the instrumentalists of this group. Philip II (1527-1598) supported the group when he became regent of Spain in 1543. These musicians were the real innovators of the time and included blind organist Antonio de Cabezon (c1500-1566), who was one of its original members; clavichordist Francisco de Soto (c1500-1563), who arrived shortly after Cabezon; and Luis de Narvaez (d. after 1555), who played the vihuela de mano (a Spanish lute) and was recruited by Philip II.

Morales’ works were among the first European compositions performed in the New World (which had only been “discovered” a decade before his birth), along with those of his student Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), Tomas Victoria (c1548-1611), and Palestrina (c1525-1594).

Other musicians liked Morales’ music and made him famous across Europe and in Mexico. His work stayed popular all the way to the 18th century, when he was praised as the papal chapel’s most important composer after Josquin and Palestrina by music biographer Andrea Adami da Bolsena (1663-1772), who was a castrato and master of the papal choir in 1700.

Morales was born in Seville, the largest city and capital of Andalusia, a region in southern Spain. He received his education in the classics and in music there, studying with some of the foremost composers of his time.

There is another Cristobal de Morales (dates unavailable), perhaps Morales’ father, who sang for the third Duke of Medina Sidonia (Juan Alfonso Perez de Guzman, 1464-1507) in 1504, when Morales would have been a young child. Morales had a sister who married in 1530, by which time, their father had died. I didn’t find any information about his mother.

It’s possible that Morales had siblings and uncles all around him. Alonso de Morales (dates unavailable) was treasurer of the Seville Cathedral in 1503; Francisco de Morales (d.1505), was canon of the Cathedral; and Diego de Morales (dates unavailable) was the Cathedral notary in 1525. Some of these gentlemen could be his father, uncles, or cousins and others might be siblings.

Earlier Spanish popes (Calixtus III of the 15th century and Alexander VI of the 16th) from the notorious Borja family employed Spanish singers in their chapel choirs, so it’s not surprising that Morales found his way to Rome. There were quite a few non-Italian musicians and composers there at the time. (There were few Italian composers during this period, as it happens.)


Composer Biography: Cristóbal de Morales (c1500-1553)

In 1522, Morales went to Rome three times to be the papal organist. In 1526, he was appointed maestro de capilla of both Avila and Plasencia Cathedrals and he stayed at both until 1531. In 1531, he resigned and went twice more to Rome in 1534. By 1535, he’d moved to Rome to be a singer in the papal chapel choir under the Italian Pope Paul III (1458-1549), who was particularly partial to Spanish singers. Morales stayed in Rome until 1545. It’s thought that he was a tenor.

Morales obtained leave to return to Spain in 1540, although it isn’t known why. He came right back to Rome, and in 1545, when he sought employment outside the papal choir but still in Italy, he had no luck. He tried the emperor (Charles V) and Cosimo I de Medici (1519-1574) without a nibble. So he returned to Spain, where he finagled a series of posts. He alienated employers. There was always something not-quite-right about the positions he held and he had difficulty keeping them. He’s said to have been egotistical and short-tempered and he made severe demands on the singers in his employ.

Finally, in 1545, he became maestro de capilla at Toledo and left the employ of the pope for good. He stayed until 1547 when he fell ill and renounced his position. The next year, he went to Marchena (near Seville), back in Andalusa, where he served the Dukes of Aros and Malaga until 1551.

In 1551, he became maestro de capilla at Malaga Cathedral. In 1553, he applied for the maestro de capilla position at the Toledo Cathedral, but he died in Marchena before an offer could be made.

Morales was the first Spanish composer who reached international renown. His works were widely distributed in Europe and the New World. Music writers and theorists in the following hundred years considered his to be among the most perfect music of the time.

Morales’ works are almost all liturgical, including over 22 Masses, 18 Magnificats, 11 hymns, at least five Lamentations (one of which survives in a single manuscript in Mexico), and over 100 motets. Two of his Masses are Requiems. All of his music is vocal, although instruments might have been used as accompaniment. He probably wrote Spanish secular songs and intabulations (a kind of notation specific to stringed instruments), but few remain.

He himself regarded his own Masses highly, supervising their publication personally and writing more of them than any other Spaniard of the period or any other polyphonist of his generation. The Masses illustrate his superb contrapuntal technique. His works are more refined than Josquin des Prez’s (c1440-1521) and look ahead to Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c1525-1594), who based a Mass on Morales’ motet O sacrum convivium.

Morales is the only Spanish composer who didn’t write predominantly parody Masses (basing them on a motet) although his other work included parodies. He had his own discerning parody technique, wherein he enriched and transformed his own motet models.

His 22 Masses include both cantus firmus (with the chant melody sung slowly in the tenor line) and parody styles. Six are based on Gregorian chant and eight are parodies, including one for six voices based on the famous chanson Mille regrets, which is attributed to Josquin. This melody is arranged so that it’s clearly audible in every movement, usually in the highest voice, and giving the work considerable stylistic and motivic unity.

He also wrote two Masses, one for four voices and one for five, on the famousL’homme arme tune, which was frequently set by composers in the late 15th and 16th century. The four-voice Mass uses the tune as a cantus firmus, keeping the melody in the tenor line, and the five-voice Mass treats it more freely, moving it from one voice to another.

He also wrote a Missa pro defunctis, which is a requiem Mass. It may have been his last work, as it seems to be unfinished. It’s written through to the end, but the editing aspect is incomplete.

Masses from this period are often based on motets and Gregorian melodies. Morales offers eight exceptions based them on Spanish songs. In one, he has the Spanish words sung to the main melody and liturgical (Latin) text in the other voices. Some of his other Masses incorporate extraneous texts in the way followed by Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474) and other composers from the same period and after. He also follows the old style of leaving the cantus firmus intact and lets it permeate all of the voices.


Morales treats Gregorian melodies with an almost severe regard for the preservation of their essential contours. He embellishes sparingly, providing the melodies with rather grave settings that reveal his personality. He often omits the melismatic passages from the chant, which emphasizes his sober style. He nearly always ends his themes on the same note as the Gregorian version, which wasn’t the fashion of the period but had music theory historical context. Rather than writing a polyphonic line of melody, he occasionally gave the bass line a progression in fourths and fifths, which sounds like a chordal bass line to modern ears.

His two Masses for the dead and Officium defunctorum are the most extreme examples of Morales’ sober style. He had a thorough command of early 16th century continental techniques and his style is better compared to Franco-Flemish composers Josquin, Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560), and Jacob Clemens non Papa (c1510-1556) than to his Spanish contemporaries. He favored cross-rhythms, conflicting rhythms, melodic (but not harmonic) sequence and repetition, harmonic cross-relations, systematic use of consecutives and occasionally daring use of harmony.

The Magnificats may be his master works and are the most frequently performed of his compositions today. They’re permeated throughout by Gregorian cantus firmus.

His motets are intense and personal, often using a cantus firmus with a separate text that glosses or alludes to the principal one. He often used a Gregorian chant associated with the text as a melodic point of departure (such as in Puer natus est) or as an ostinato figure (a phrase frequently repeated in the same voice) such as the five-voice Tu es petrus, but he seldom borrowed entire melodies.

The texture of the motets is characterized by free imitation and with exceptional use of homophonic sections (where one voice predominates) to stress important words or portions of text. He uses alternation of chant verses with polyphonic verses, like those found in a collection of his Magnificats published in 1545 in Venice. You can also find this alternation in his Salve Regina motet, developed by means of imitation in pairs.

An early motet for six voices, Jubilate Deo, was written for the peace conference arranged by Pope Paul III (1468-1549) and held in 1538 between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain (1500-1558) and King Francis I of France (1494-1547). In it, the high voice sings “gaudeamus” over and over to the notes of the Gregorian introit Gaudeamus omnes. He lets one part comment on the text of the other parts in another ceremonial motet, composed to celebrate the elevation of Ippolito d’Este (1479-1520) to the cardinalate in 1539.

He uses this same device with striking dramatic effect in Emendemus in melius, which combines the four-part setting of a responsory for Ash Wednesday with six statements of a modified chant to the words used by the priest while sprinkling ashes on the penitents. “Remember man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.” This is one of my favorite motets, not only my favorite of Morales’.

His style has a lot in common with other middle Renaissance works from the Iberian Peninsula, such as a preference for harmony in the form of fourths or fifths in the lower voices, and free use of harmonic cross-relations. These techniques were also popular during the same period in England with composers like Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

Distinctive Morales characteristics include rhythmic freedom, such as occasional three-against-four polyrhythms and cross-rhythms, where a voice sings in a rhythm that adheres to the text but ignores the meter prevailing in other voices. Late in life, he wrote in a sober, more heavily homophonic style (where one voice predominates, like in modern SATB music where most of the voices provide supporting harmonies to the main melody), but he was always a careful craftsman who considered the expression and understandability of the text to be his highest artistic goal.

Another thing Morales does that’s interesting is to use silence to create a dramatic moment. This is especially obvious in his Parce milo Domine (part of his Office for the Dead in four voices).

There are too many excellent recordings to enumerate here, and I recommend that you do a little looking for some of them, at least.


“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W> Norton & Co., New York., 2010.

“The Pelican History of Music, Part 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton & David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.




Copyright Melanie Spiller 2014. Do not copy without permission.
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