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The "All Things Renaissance Polyphony and Chant" thread

As we are in the run up to Christmas I'll try and briefly cover a couple of themes. The first is Advent Carols and the second the new school of polyphony from the US.

When most of us think of carols we head straight to a bit of Silent Night and We 3 Kings. all well and good, but they are actually Christmas Carols which are sung from Xmas Eve to Epiphany. Advent however is a strictly penitential period. The 4 weeks preceding Christmas involve a change in the colour of vestments and frontals from green to Purple and during the mass Alelluia verses and the Gloria are not sung and the organ isn't played except for the 3rd week of advent or Guadete Sunday (which means "rejoice") when the strictures are relaxed and instead of dark purple a lighter rose colour is used (you'll see this also on the Advent wreath if you have ever ondered why one candle is lighter than the others). After the 17th Dec the tone changes again and the music becomes more joyous in tone.

When it comes to carols, Advent carols foretell the death of Jesus as opposed to celebrating his birth (because the is no point to the latter without the redemptive nature of the former). In the English tradition these usually come in the form of musical accompanyment to plays, from which we get the "play carols" often named after the places associated with their performance and oration or local folk melodies. Perhaps one of the most well known is the Coventry Carol.

First written in the 16th Century, it is part of a mystery play called the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors and depicts part of Matthew’s Gospel and the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod orders the murder of all male children under the age of two on hearing of the birth of the Messiah.

The lyrics themselves are first thought to have originated from around 1534, written down by playwright and poet Kenneth Croo and the melody is slightly older. The story is told from the perspective of the maidens of Jerusalem on hearing of the birth of Christ and their hope that he escape. As the oldest surviving manuscript (of the time) was lost in the 18th Century, some of the meaning of the translations has been lost to time and is cause of speculation, the meaning of “And ever morne and may For thi parting Neither say nor singe” is somewhat unclear for example, but that doesn’t detract from the aesthetic of the piece. The harmony is a prime example of the picardy third, or the use of a major chord of the tonic at the end of a musical sentence that is either modal or in a minor key, and this device was quite common in creating a “medieval” sound.

Another of the traditional carols that come from a play setting of the gospel story is the Shropshire Carol, recently re-arranged by Stephen Cleobury. The lyrics are again from the perspective of the women of Jerusalem foretelling the sorrow of Mary as Christ is Crucified and the carol consists of a dialogue between the soprano/treble narrator and the bass Christus leaving John as his beloved disciple to care for his mother as he dies on the cross.

Perhaps one of the most famous, as it is sung quite often in the Kings College Cambridge Carol service and arranged by David Wilcocks is I saw three ships, which tells the tale of ships sailing into the Dead Sea with pilgrims on their way to Bethlehem to find the relics of the magi in the 12th Century. This version is an ed by Preston which messes about with the tempo and includes a fair amount of augmented 5th and 7th ornimentation and chord inversion plus a bit of jiggery-buggery on the organ (in the typically shouty Anglican style redeemed by a few decent harmonies when the organist isn't flipping out like a spacker in the bath with a 3 bar electric fire thrown in):

I do though, love the Basque Carol with it's tale of the Annunciation, but also the complex shifts in time signature from 9/8 to 12/8 to create a marvelous dotted rhythm and the G# passing note in the bass line creating an Amaj7 chord which then inverts later on in the piece.

And finally, one of my favourite pieces, which I get to sing quite frequently as it suits my tessitura. This time by Bryn Terfel

@woopert Agreed ref ‘I Wonder as I Wander’. Absolutely in my most comfortable range at the moment, without having to concentrate too hard on reaching high tenor.
To reiterate my voice tutor at the Conservatoire: ‘You’re not a bass/baritone, you’re a feckin idle tenor.
And then to Christmas.

I mentioned earlier the Second Vatican Council and the sheer vandalism that did to Catholic Liturgy, and with it music. Churches built like flying saucers, Fr Huggalot and Sister Bago'donuts strumming their guitars to bad pastiches of 70's folk muzak. For a while the field of liturgical composition was a wasteland filled only by the likes of John Rutter's shouty pieces and the modern day John Taverner (not the 16th C) and his fop-haired obsession with copying Greek and Coptic Orthodox Troparion (If Princess Di hadn't rolled a 7 and his Song for Athene accompanied the coffin out of Westmsinter Abbey no bugger would have heard of him. Irony of irnoies, he once gave an interview to the BBC where he said he hated modern pop music because it all sounds the same - this coming from the man who has only written one tune in his life and regurgitated it ad infinitum in every composition he has written. I digress).

In recent years Amercian composers have really stepped up to the plate.

Leo Nestor has written an astonishing Rorate Caelie, the Graduale for the 4th Sunday of Advent. Passing the cantus firmus from voice to voice (you hear the chant being passed seamlessly up and down from Sop to Ten to Bass to Alto and back again - and don't underestimate how fiendishly difficult this is to sing) it ends with strains of Durufle throughout and Arvo Part in the "quia innovavit te dolor". Amazing.

Eric Whitacre has written the most eerie and spine tingling Lux Aurumque. The harmonies in this are incredibly tight and to sing this properly requires immense control. Channeling an inner Bruckner, he wrote it in the enharmonic key of C#Min. It's just phenominal

Finally I'll give you Morten Laurisden's O magnum mysterium.

In DMaj it closely follows the gregorian mode of the chant but with a number of short dissonances in the phrase "virgo" that really change the meaning of the piece from one of joy to nascent sorrow. I absolutely love it.

While not quite polyphony, fun nonetheless.

Everyone needs "A Hard Days Night" in Latin in their lives:

Yesterday was "Candlemas", or the Feast of the Purification. Since the C of E mangled the Office of the Hours and combined Vespers and Compline and shoved together the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis into a single office, the Nunc has kind of lost prominence as the major canticle of the office.

Sparing us the more "shouty" efforts of our "separated brethren", the Nunc is the Canticle of Simeon who declared "mine eyes have seen the Glory" as Mary entered the temple to be ritually cleaned after childbirth. In the gregorian tones, it is usually set to the 3rd (one of my favourites is George Malcolm's for ATB, but I can't find it on Youtube). I did find a couple of excellent examples.

Wood in Bb. The flowing cantus firmus in the bass line with occasional first inversion with the tenor line (really comes out at 1m 25) and dynamics are an absolute joy to sing.

Second is a composition by Paul Smith, the founder of Voces 8. To my ear it has strains of Arvo Part, Anton Bruckner, and Frank Martin with the sustained bass pedal notes and nods to "organum" . The dymanics are the total opposite of Wood who lets loose with FF whereas Smith restrains the dynamic to create a tension where you feel the music really wanting to pull away, but not being able to, the most it is able to do at 3m 05 with a brief MF to F swell before returning to the predominant dynamic before a sustained MF towards the end.

I just love this piece.


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