Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas — Dec 2012

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Program Notes

Polychoral Music
Many new trends in music have been inspired by trends in other fields of artistic endeavor. Well-known examples include the influence of Goethe’s poetry and Romantic notions of Volk on the German Lied, and the effect of impressionistic painting on Debussy. Architecture, too, has often influenced musical fashion. In the Middle Ages, the birth of polyphonic music was linked with the construction of Nôtre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and some of the most elaborate motets of the Renaissance were composed for dedication ceremonies of other new buildings. One of the most famous of these was Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, whose proportions mirror Brunelleschi’s revolutionary dome for the new Florence Cathedral dedicated in 1436. The polychoral music in today’s concert was inspired by the Byzantine architecture of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Its antiphonal style (with multiple choirs singing toward each other as opposing blocks of sound) is so distinctive and its birth so circumscribed that it has always been considered quintessentially Venetian.

The basilica of St. Mark’s (a ducal chapel until 1520, thereafter a basilica) has the shape of a Greek cross, with balconies running around three of the four arms of the interior. This unique feature, coupled with a long tradition of choral singing and instrumental music in the space, prompted composers to experiment with more than one choir in the church at a time, thus inventing a 16th-century form of surround-sound. This music featuring multiple “choirs” (of instruments, voices, or both) is known as polychoral or, by extension, Venetian. Venice was always independent from a Vatican that favored ostentation in much, but not in music. The Venetians loved the lavish in all, and made their sacred music especially grand, with an abundance of brass instruments, deemed “boisterous” and “impious” by the Vatican. In fact, a permanent group of instrumentalists to accompany the most important services in the basilica was hired in 1568, formalizing a long-standing practice. The ensemble originally included only cornetts, trombones, and bassoons, but was gradually expanded to include strings and trumpets.

When writing for multiple choirs, composers had the problem of finding a style of music that would make the words intelligible—a required aspect of liturgical and para-liturgical music following the Council of Trent. Their solution was to eliminate Renaissance-like polyphony, in which several independent parts created a web of musical lines, and to begin writing music that juxtaposed blocks of sound, none sounding the same as the next. The composer created these blocks of sound with separate groups of musicians, such as a four-part solo chorus, a four-part cornett chorus, a five-part capella (group of selected singers, or favoriti), etc. Whereas polyphonic music sung by multiple choirs produced a kind of musical “mush,” the new, more homophonic style allowed chords sung by one chorus to mix with those sung by the next group, creating majestic and stunning harmonies. This type of music has to be performed in a space that will allow such harmonies to shine. In a building with dry acoustics each separate chord might be heard perfectly, but the effect of blending harmonies would be lost. In St. Mark’s of Venice there is enough reverberation to allow each chord to resonate with the following one, resulting in a palette of shining and ever-changing tonal colors. In Calvary Presbyterian Church, the acoustic effect is similar to the intended one, albeit with less reverberation.

Andrea (c. 1532–1585) and Giovanni (c. 1554/7–1612) Gabrieli, uncle and nephew, were the main creators of this new polychoral style, publishing various collections of music reflecting the new practice. Their pieces shared some stylistic features, such as common use of a lilting triple-meter “alleluia” refrain. Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) picked up the style when he studied in Venice under Giovanni Gabrieli in 1609–13 and brought it back north with him when he entered the service of the elector Johann Georg I in Dresden. In 1628, when the turmoil of the Thirty Years War began to jeopardize musicians’ wages, Schütz decided to visit Italy again. The chapel master in Venice then was the celebrated Claudio Monteverdi, under whose guidance Schütz studied developments in dramatic music for two years. During both visits to Italy, Schütz thoroughly internalized the Venetian polychoral concertato style, to become the predominant style of his subsequent works. He, in turn, influenced Michael Praetorius (c. 1571–1621), who heard his music in Dresden. The Venetian polychoral style rapidly became popular in the Venetian lands (and around Dresden), particularly advanced by two Franco-Flemish composers, Orlando di Lasso and Adrian Willaert. It was from them, in fact, that the great baroque Slovenian composer Jacob Handl (a.k.a. Gallus, 1550–1591) learned the technique.

The sad thing about this style, so monumental, kaleidoscopic, and versatile, is its short lifespan and limited geographic spread. It flourished from the last quarter of the 16th century for just 50 years or so, and predominantly in Venice, excepting a brief appearance around the Catholic court of Dresden. The Thirty Years War put an end to that, and in 17th-century Venice dramatic music took center stage. There exists, of course, a tradition of music for multiple voices, but the homophonic blocks of sound with voices and instruments of all families (strings, winds, brass, etc.) remains unique.

What is a Carol?
Everyone will tell you that it is a Christmas piece, but few people actually know its long and complex history.

The earliest carols were not necessarily Christian, but had been written by people of the pre-Celtic and Celtic matrilineal societies. The many Holly and Ivy carols (representing a man and a woman, respectively) exemplify this provenance. The patrilineal Christian church viewed all of these poetic statements with suspicion and eventually abolished all the Holly and Ivy texts, except for those where there was a conflict between the Holly and the Ivy and the Holly won. Most of these texts are now lost.

During the Middle Ages, a carol was an English or Latin song with several stanzas, beginning with a refrain (burden) which was repeated again after each stanza. These carols could be on any subject, including secular topics; some of them could be considered folk songs. The oldest are often fragmentary and mostly monophonic, consisting simply of a melody. The majority of monophonic carols treat wholly religious or morally didactic subjects in accord with Christian precepts, many honoring the Blessed Virgin with special reference to the mystery of virgin birth. Some of these are macaronic: using both Latin and English, the Latin lines taken at random from liturgical hymns and antiphons but woven into the fabric of the text with evident care for meaning. The texts were popular and were written anonymously (like the popular religious dramas of the 15th century) by men of some education and word-craft but no great intellectual pretensions, for the enjoyment and edification of ordinary people. Another category of carols comprise about 120 polyphonic compositions from the 15th century, early Tudor carols by composers such as Robert Fayrfax, and courtly/popular carols by Henry VIII and his contemporaries.

The medieval carol—whether the courtly or popular dance-song, popular religious or processional song, or ecclesiastical polyphony—was associated with several social functions. Evidence exists that carols were used as processional hymns, and some may also have been used to replace the second Benedicamus at the Offices on the three days after Christmas, on the Circumcision and on Epiphany. Carols may also have been used as banquet music. The English carol takes its name and nature from the medieval French carole, a courtly or popular dance-song with various choreographic forms that was extremely popular from the mid-12th to mid-14th century. An interesting case of 15th century carol is the so called “Coventry Carol” (“Lully lullay thou little tiny Child”), so named because it is the lullaby from the Christmas pageant that the guild of Shearmen and Tailors put on every Christmas season on pageant carts in the streets of Coventry. Because of its content (the mothers sing a lullaby and hold their children while soldiers, sent by Herod to kill them, approach) it is a slow and mournful, yet very tender, musical setting.

After the Reformation, the carol was transformed and then declined as a form for new musical expression. The monks and friars who had contributed so much to the religious carol were gone, and though leading composers still occasionally produced them, they became more like motets (such as, for example, those composed by Byrd). The art carol of aristocratic or courtly circles did not revive after the Restoration, but the popular tradition continued, with carols circulating like ballads orally or in broadsheets with carol texts and decorative woodcuts. They were published annually for the Christmas trade, with their heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but continuing until the 20th century. Nowadays the word mostly refers to strophic songs (where the music repeats for each stanza of text), with or without refrain, that are associated with Christmas. The texts of many still harken back to old medieval carols.

—© 2012 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

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