Crossroads of Culture: Cristobál de Morales’ Missarum Liber Primus and Early Music Printing in Europe

Title page of <a title="Cristobál de Morales, Missarum liber primus (1546)" href="" target="_blank"><em>Missarum liber primus</em></a> by Cristobál de Morales, M 1490.M67 1546 Oversize, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. A <a title="Cristobál de Morales, Missarum liber primus (1546)" href="" target="_blank">digital copy</a> of this volume is also available via the <a href = "">Boston College Digital Collections</a>.

Title page of Missarum liber primus by Cristobál de Morales, M 1490.M67 1546 Oversize, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. A digital copy of this volume is also available via the Boston College Digital Collections.

A book of polyphony written by a Spanish composer who worked in Rome, printed by an Italian living in France, inscribed with the ownership markings of a Portuguese monastery, sits in an American university library. The Missarum liber primus (First Book of Masses), printed by Jacques Moderne (c.1500-1560) in 1546, contains eight settings of the Catholic mass in four-, five-, and six-voice polyphony. These settings were composed by Cristobál de Morales (c.1500-1553), who published them while working in the papal service. Still in its original binding, this volume is remarkable for its preservation, as well as for its contents.

Visually, the book is striking. Folio sized, it measures forty-three centimeters tall and is bound in fine morocco leather. Like most books in the sixteenth century, it would have been most likely sold as unbound sheets. The purchaser would have taken these pages to a binder and ordered a binding unique to the book, called a “bespoke” binding. A fine binding such as this would have been a large expenditure, indicating a wealthy purchaser who anticipated using and possibly displaying this large book of music. It was purchased with the intent that many people would use it, and it shows signs of that use.

Binding of the Missarum liber primus.

“Bespoke” (custom-ordered) binding of the Missarum liber primus. The blind tooling is complex – a patterned border runs around the board, connected by diagonal lines to a patterned rectangle in the middle of the board, with a medallion of leaves and flowers in the very center. The tooling is finely executed, and the same design is repeated on the front and the back of the volume, with additional decoration on the spine.

The front flyleaf bears inscriptions from the royal monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, Portugal, which owned the book beginning in the sixteenth century onward and possibly well into the eighteenth or nineteenth century. It is assembled in “choirbook” format, with each part displayed on each page (for example, one voice part in each quadrant of the open book), which allows a group of singers to stand around the book and each see their own part.

The book shows further signs of use – folio 3, for instance, displays a large patch, as does folio 4, which has been patched using a piece of another musical manuscript. The repairs indicate that the book was used extensively, and their concentration at the beginning indicates that the first setting, the Missa de beata virgine (Mass of the Blessed Virgin), was used more frequently than the others. Perhaps the canons of Santa Cruz favored that setting on the many celebrations of Mary in the Catholic liturgical calendar.

Santa Cruz was one of the oldest monasteries in Portugal, and it is not surprising to find a book of liturgical music with their ownership markings. Indeed, between 1520 and 1570, Coimbra experienced a transformation as the medieval university grew and stimulated the importation of goods from other parts of Europe, particularly books. This volume reflects connections between the Iberian Peninsula and a wider European network of trade and intellectual exchange. But how did the Missarum liber primus, which first appeared in Rome in 1544, come to be republished in Lyon, and finally end up in the monastery in Coimbra?

Missa de Beata Virgine

Kyrie from the Missa de Beata Virgine for four voices. All four parts are visible at once in this choirbook layout.  The initial “K” of each voice part is emphasized with a woodcut illustration. Note also the repairs to the left-hand folio, which indicate that this particular mass setting was frequently used among the canons of Santa Cruz.

Situated on the road from Paris to Italy, Lyon was a center of Renaissance printing, thought, and, trade. Printing was an incredibly important part of the city economy, and many printers, including Jacques Moderne, who published the Missarum liber primus, were immigrants. Moderne, whose original name was Jacopo Moderno, was from Istria, a peninsula in the Adriatic then under the control of the Republic of Venice.

Cristobál de Morales (c.1500-1553).

Cristobál de Morales (c.1500-1553). For Renaissance composers like Morales, composition and publication were one means for securing patronage. But for printers like Jacques Moderne, pirating and publication were the means to secure an income.

Moderne initially printed a variety of texts, but possibly because of increasing competition from other printers, Moderne began to specialize in music. Though Moderne pirated much of the non-musical literature he published, most of his printed music (as much as 78 percent) appears nowhere else before his editions. The Missarum liber primus is a significant exception to this rule. It was copied directly from an earlier Roman edition of 1544, down to the dedications, woodcuts, and decorative borders on the pages.

The Spanish-born composer, Cristobál de Morales, had been personally involved in publishing this first edition. Morales, like other musicians, depended on patronage and publication to make ends meet. But while Morales wrote for the papal choir between 1535 and 1545, the dedication of Missarum liber primus was to Cosimo de Medici, then-Duke of Florence. The connection between the two is blurry. While Cosimo certainly benefitted from this connection with the Pope through the papal singers, the benefit Morales received is unclear. In 1543, Morales signed a contract with Valerio Dorico, a printer in Rome, and two other publishers. Over the next year, he oversaw publication of the Missarum liber primus, which appeared on the market in 1544.

Dedication to Missarum liber primus.

Dedication to Cosimo de Medici, Duke of Florence (1389-1464). The reasons for this unexpected dedication remain obscure, but when Jacques Moderne published his pirated edition of the work, he reprinted the original dedication without change.

Moderne’s 1546 edition of Missarum liber primus was therefore neither the first edition nor a particularly original one. Moderne borrowed and re-used, saving money by not ordering new woodcuts in order to maximize his profits. Borrowing and even copying woodcuts from other printers was common practice, making it no trouble at all for Moderne to include very little original material in this book.

But the Missarum liber primus remains an important reminder of the complex world of music, publishing, and trade in the early sixteenth century ­– a reminder that cultural achievements cannot be separated from their social and economic contexts. Copying a recent edition of Morales’ Missarum liber primus was good business sense, not plagiarism. The book passed along the network of merchants connecting Lyons with the Iberian Peninsula, until it ended up at the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, Portugal, which was experiencing its own cultural renaissance. Far from being a dusty relic of the musical past, the 1546 Missarum liber primus demonstrates the complex intersections of music and print during the Renaissance.

If you would like to look at this volume, visit the John J. Burns Library Reading Room or view it online at   For more information, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or  For a different perspective on the Missarum liber primus, read this 2013 BC Libraries newsletter article about performing music using this volume.

  • Marie Pellissier, BC’15 & Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft

This blog post comes from the Early Printed Books:  History and Craft class, which was taught by BC History Professor Virginia Reinburg in Fall 2014. 

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4 Responses to Crossroads of Culture: Cristobál de Morales’ Missarum Liber Primus and Early Music Printing in Europe

  1. A beautiful print of beautiful music. Thanks for sharing!

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