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New York Polyphony: Gothic Polyphony

This program is in three parts. First, we explore some of the very earliest pieces of polyphony that can be found in England. We then focus on the music of the early Renaissance and the school around England’s first great composer, John Dunstable. Finally, we present music from the culmination of the golden age of the Renaissance in Spain by Francisco de Peñalosa, Francisco Guerrero, Pedro de Escobar, and a work from the New World by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla.

The ‘Worcester Fragments’ received their name based on the location where the manuscripts were discovered–Worcester Cathedral. Rescued from the Reformation as recycled book-bindings, these Medieval gems of a lost generation show the mastery of the English style, the Contenance angloise, that would influence the next three centuries of composition. The practice of recycling old paper and vellum (animal skins and membrane) into new publications or bindings allowed certain documents to be discovered later. This includes ancient music that would not have survived the Tudor reformational purgings of the monastic institutions under Henry VII and Thomas Cromwell.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the musicologist Denis Stevens prepared many fine and accessible editions of these fragments of music for modern performance. What this music shows is the advanced harmonic language of the early English composers. Much like the music of Dunstable and his companions who follow, the primary feature of this repertoire is the element of tertiary harmony (harmony that contains the interval of the third). This was quite progressive after early polyphony, which which utilized the intervals of fourths and fifths to create harmony. While harmony as a part of music theory wouldn’t be fully realized until the Baroque and Classical periods, the early theorists were primarily concerned with the rhythmic measure of music into small units. This structural approach to music was a perfect spouse for the development of Gothic art and architecture.

Exploring the marriage of sound and space has been the focus of New York Polyphony since its inception. Here, we present movements from the Ordinary of the Mass from these excerpts: the Gloria in excelsis, Sanctus, Benedicuts, and Agnus Dei. These are the fixed structural points of the liturgy which do not change. The polyphony of the Worcester Fragments is declaimed in chordal writing, for the most part, with occasional moments where individual voices might feature briefly. The Gloria in excelsis text is sung to plainchant and troped with a text referring to the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Troping, or the introduction of additional texts, meant that particular feasts of the church could be better punctuated, as would later be done by the use of a cantus firmus (as will be presented in the mass movements by Peñalosa.)

Flos regalis and Beata viscera are short texts to the Virgin Mary; the first perhaps set as an antiphon for a Magnificat, and the second a polyphonic setting of the Communion proper text, which we also present in its original plainsong chant. The whole sequence, while liturgical in order, does not provide complete music for a Marian devotional mass, but a flavor of the rich new harmonies and devotional texts found buried under the leather of books in need of re-binding.

Chapter Two of the biblical Song of Solomon is also known as the Song of Songs. It is quite simply the story of human sensual love. The fifteenth-century English and the sixteenth-century Spanish polyphony in this program sets these texts in an uninhibited and visceral manner, with a sublime sense of fearless sexual abandon. Curiously, the Christian Church managed to harpoon these floral and sensual images as devotions to the Virgin Mary. The floral images serve as an allegory for Mary, imagery used for nearly a millennium prior, setting her as a
woman above all women—as the “God bearer” of the Christ Child. Here the flower is all about virtue and purity rather than earthbound sexuality.   

Of the Spanish composers writing in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, Peñalosa stands out for his incorporation of non-native melodic material in his works and his elaborate use of imitative counterpoint. Although his career was limited mainly to Spain with a brief period in Rome, musicologists have often compared him more to Franco-Flemish composers than to his Iberian contemporaries. During an era in which composers’ manuscripts are preserved in sources throughout Europe, the transmission of Peñalosa’s oeuvre is surprisingly rare; his works are only to be found in Iberian and New World sources.

The similarity between Peñalosa’s style and that of Franco-Flemish composers is likely to trace its roots to a specific event. On May 22, 1502, Juana, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, was wed to Philip I of the House of Hapsburg. Peñalosa was present at the ceremonies and likely met several of Philip’s court composers, including Alexander Agricola and Pierre de la Rue.

Peñalosa’s writing bridges the gap between the sparse polyphony of the fifteenth-century and the more advanced High Renaissance composers of Spain: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Cristóbal de Morales, and Guerrero. Overall, the polyphony is lean in texture, albeit intensely charged in points of dissonance. This is achieved by the pairing of two voices in more ornate counterpoint juxtaposed with declamatory homophonic writing which paints texts of pleading or universal joy. The Missa ‘L’homme armé is a rite of passage for dozens of Renaissance composers; Josquin wrote two settings and Palestrina is even said to have based his Pope Marcellus Mass on this curious secular tune referring to the “armed man.” Peñalosa sets the melody in cantus firmus—long notes in the baritone voice. The tune is merely structural, however, and the feature is the Flemish-influenced voice pairings at the head motif of each movement of the mass.

We present the Gloria in excelsis Deo and Credo in unum Deum of the mass for their rich variety of textual colors. Around these mass movements are peppered other polyphonic works of Spanish and the New World. Padilla was a transplant to colonial Mexico (primarily associated with Puebla Cathedral) and his works, while Baroque in the Stabat mater, together with Escobar present a brief but poignant look at the poem of a grieving mother at the foot of the cross. Perhaps light-hearted in nature, Antes que comais a Dios is an examination of the soul before receiving Holy Communion—‘who are you and who is God?’

—Christopher Dylan Herbert and Geoffrey Williams