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Masterpieces for Double Choir

  “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” So writes T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, and so it is with tonight’s concert.

  The evening is book-ended by two thrilling double-choir Magnificats. But while Vivanco’s setting of this joyful annunciation text leaves the story unfinished, the Praetorius Magnificat with which we close incorporates two Christmas carols among its verses. The promise of the annunciation is fulfilled in the miracle of the Virgin Birth, just as the renaissance textures of Vivanco find themselves fulfilled and transformed in the proto-Baroque music of Praetorius. This cyclical journey takes us through the whole gamut of musical emotion, moving from the sumptuous, sensuous polyphony of Orlande de Lassus to the ascetic purity of Arvo Pärt.

  Though his reputation has latterly been obscured by contemporaries Guerrero and Ceballos, as well as Victoria himself, Vivanco (1551-1622) was among the leading Spanish composers of his day. His Magnificat Octavi Toni is written in the traditional alternatim style, alternating polyphonic verses with those of unison plainsong. Although scored for the composer’s preferred ensemble of eight voices, unusually these are treated as a single group rather than antiphonally. With the exception of a short verse section, “Et misericordia eius”, the full eight-voice texture is sustained throughout, and the effect is rich and impressively ceremonial, even if on closer inspection the imitative writing lacks the complexity of the composer’s polychoral works.

  Franco-Flemish composition of the sixteenth century reached its pinnacle in the music of Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532-1594). Yet while his contemporaries, Palestrina in Italy and Victoria in Spain, each honed a distinctly and uniquely national style, Lassus is notable for the breadth and variation within his vast body of work. One major influence on the composer was the polychoral writing emerging from Italy at this time — a style whose episodic, punchy textures stood in contrast to the sustained and intricate counterpoint of the Flemish school. The Missa Osculetur me is one of just three double-choir settings among almost 60 masses by the composer, and here Lassus can be seen wedding contrapuntal interest to the more declamatory double-choir texture that would later come to define Italian Baroque. The result is a mass of singular beauty, a persuasive argument against the traditional critical neglect of the composer’s masses.

  The musical source for the parody mass is Lassus’s own motet Osculetur me — a setting of a particularly fervent and erotic section of The Song of Solomon (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his lips: for our breasts are better than wine, fragrant with the sweetest perfumes…”) in which the heavenly bride aspires to closer union with Christ. The imploring urgency of the first phrase in the sopranos cuts against the harmonic restraint — a tension that persists exquisitely through the motet. Close imitation between parts gives the sense of a lover clinging to her beloved, shadowing his movements, and returns even more emphatically at “trahe me post te” (“draw me after you”). Starting separately, Lassus’s two choirs come together increasingly, thickening the texture in long melismas to express Christ’s name “poured out like oil”. The word-setting here is vivid, reaching its height at the languorous broadening of the texture and swooning melody at “memores uberum tuorum” (“remembering thy breasts”).

  The nature of the Osculetur me text may mean that Lassus’s mass was intended as a Marian feast. Its double-choir texture and expansive treatment of the text certainly gives in the stature for a grand occasion. What is most striking about this mass is the inexhaustible creativity with which Lassus treats the parody technique. Not content simply to quote or extrapolate on motifs from his motet, the composer engages the listener in an elaborate guessing game, sometimes presenting fragments complete (though out of order), as we hear in the Gloria and Credo, and at other times developing material into longer sections of variation, seen in the Kyrie. The Benedictus departs from the original altogether, offering entirely new material to the listener.

  Textual interest is sustained through the use of long phrases (with their contrapuntal possibilities) and the different characters offered by single and double choirs. Lassus shows his Flemish allegiances in the evocative simplicity of the music for four voices (the “Crucifixus”, for example), which throws into dramatic relief the sheer force and grandeur of the full sections.

  In contrast to Lassus’s generous writing, overflowing with motivic material and invention, the music of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is stark indeed — an exercise in aural simplicity. Derived, mongrel-like, from his studies of Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony and Russian Orthodox music, Pärt’s signature technique is a reverberant choral homophony he terms ‘tintinnabuli’. With any conventional sense of harmonic trajectory denied, it is by varying vocal textures (including absolute silence) that he achieves his meditative musical drama.

  Both tonight’s motets demonstrate distinctive variations on this tintinnabuli technique. I am the true vine — a setting of verses from St. John’s Gospel — is framed in sections that make more than a nod to the restrained English post-reformation writing of Tallis or Byrd. Punctuated by silences and absences, it is almost as though we are hearing a historical motet sung without the lost parts reconstructed. Yet among this clean simplicity sustained pedal points emerge, blurring the harmonies and creating Pärt’s signature glow and harmonic resonance to the vocal texture.

Tribute to Caesar is typical of Pärt’s choral writing, using the relationships and tensions between consonance and dissonance to paint an allusive, monochromatic musical canvass. This narrative account of Jesus’s encounter with the Pharisees sees Pärt’s anti-dramatic approach used to paradoxically striking dramatic ends. Denied more conventional developmental structures, Pärt instead uses voice pairings and ensembles to dramatise the story, deploying his forces with expressive care. As ever with the composer there is little spare musical flesh here. Nothing extraneous or bulging deforms the pure musical silhouette that Pärt so deftly sculpts.

  Aside perhaps from John Taverner, the music of Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) offers us the best enactment of the shifting edicts, preferences and priorities of worship in Tudor England. Votive antiphon Sancte Deus seems to date from early in the composer’s career. Not only do its textures reveal stylistic aberrations and awkwardnesses that would later disappear (including some striking false relations), but its Latin text coupled with a direct, text-driven style, suggest the period under Henry VIII leading into the reformation.

  The text is a composite created from fragments of different Christian texts. Tallis deploys these into four separate sections, each contributing to a penitential invocation of Jesus — unusual in a form more usually associated with Marian works. The effect is sombre yet impassioned, as melismatic phrases plead ever more insistently for deliverance. Wistful 3/2 uncertainty gives way to more homophonic unanimity as the work progresses.

  Despite their shared name, Hieronymus and the more famous Michael Praetorius are not, as far as we know, related. The elder Hieronymus (1560-1629) was part of a dynasty of musicians from Hamburg and together with his namesake is ranked among the most influential German composers of the early seventeenth century. One of the earliest German composers to employ the Venetian polychoral style in his music, this technique is showcased at its animated and expressive best in his nine Magnificat settings.

  Praetorius’ Magnificat quinti toni is unique in incorporating two carols — Jospeh lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo — into the traditional structure of the alternatim Magnificat. Interpolated within the polyphonic and monophonic verses we find two contrasting settings of these popular carols. Associated with the cradle ceremony of Christmas Vespers, Jospeh lieber (here set for two choirs of upper and lower voices) rocks the infant Jesus with the infinite tenderness of its simple phrases, while the single-choir In dulci jubilo rejoices with punchy rhythmic dances and syncopated energy.