It never ceases to amaze how much interesting music has been gathering dust in archives for centuries and is only now reaching a mass audience. A prime example is the Newberry Consort’s joyous, often exhilarating new album Vespers – streaming at Spotify – a recording of early 17th century Mexican composer Juan de Lienas’ only known mass for treble choir. It has a very lively quality and a recurrent sense of triumph that prefigures Corelli. Christian liturgical music from that era seldom reaches the kind of peaks that the choir gather forces and then hit here. And with de Lienas’ demanding dynamics and range, this is not easy music to sing.
The composer’s use of uneven meters makes it all the more challenging: this is far more rhythmically sophisticated than the simple, swaying call-and-response of so much Renaissance choral music. It follows the order of a typical Catholic mass, in twelve parts. Meant to be sung in convents, an elegantly energetic ensemble with Frances Conover Fitch on organ, Katherine Shuldiner on viola da gamba and Rachel Begley on bajón handle the bass parts.
The choir begin with contrastingly upbeat and then solemn themes before launching into a series of long, intricately interwoven upward trajectories. Waltz time appears and then disappears just as unexpectedly. There’s a stunning proto-Mozartean crescendo of echo effects in the fourth movement. The eighth is a lilting organ prelude, utilizing mostly the flute stops: it wouldn’t be out of place in Sweelinck’s work.
The Magnificat is where everything comes together, with the mass’ most bracing harmonies and momentary introductions from solo organ. Interestingly, the choir wind it up with remarkable restraint: it’s as if de Lienas realized that this was a religious service, after all, and after all the fireworks he felt to conclude on a dignified note.
Beyond the composer’s small surviving output, we know next to nothing about him. Considering his command of the European choral traditions of his time, it would be astonishing if he hadn’t been born in Spain and trained somewhere on the continent. What he was doing in Mexico with the conquistadors is anybody’s guess. There has also been speculation that he was an Aztec determined to beat the invaders at their own game. He may have been a colorful and combative personality: the original manuscript for this piece is littered with invective scrawled in the margins. Whoever was responsible may have simply been jealous, given the originality and innovations of the music.