Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sixteenth-century psychedelia: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance

Franceso I de' Medici and Johanna, Archduchess of Austria

Friday night I had a consciousness-altering experience at concert of 450-year-old music. "The Polychoral Splendors of Renaissance Florence" featured 40, 50, and 60-part choral works, many recently unearthed by the musicologist and conductor Davitt Moroney.

Moroney's notes aptly describe Stefano Rossetto's 50-part "Consolamini, consolamini popule meus" ("Comfort ye, my people"), the first choral piece on the program, as "a massive wall of sound...with melodic fragments swirling around, intertwining and tumbling over each other, in brilliantly shimmering textures." We were sitting in the fifth row, and "wall of sound" was no figure of speech. The piece begins with a gigantic chord sung by 49 voices joined by continuo instrumentalists, and the impact was indeed awe-inspiring. And as the piece progressed, with voices dropping out and rejoining the texture, the sound was totally enveloping. As my partner said after the concert, "I left my body."

Fifty parts may not sound like a great deal; after all, large choirs can have hundreds of members. But those choirs are singing music that is typically composed in only four parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass); Rossetto's piece was written for four 12-part choirs (each a double six-part choir), plus an additional bass voice, plus a continuo bass line. The musical texture produced by so many independent voices was amazingly rich.

Friday night's performance of Rossetto's piece was the first since the 16th century, in part because the only surviving manuscript is missing 18 vocal parts. In order for the work to be performed, Moroney had to painstakingly reconstruct it—matching the words to untexted vocal parts, and recomposing the missing inner voices.

That undertaking, as vast and complex as it must have been, pales in comparison to the musical detective work involved in creating a performable version of the next choral work on the program (also a first modern performance). "Unum cole deum," by an anonymous composer of the 1530s or 1540s, existed only in an instrumental transcription published in an obscure tablature notation. The piece was intended as a canon, that is, for 10 instrumentalists to perform with staggered entries (like the round "Row, row, row your boat"). Moroney was struck by the unusually large number of instruments required; he then realized that the fragment of Latin text printed under the first measures indicated that it was a vocal piece. Since the music for each instrument was written in four parts (treble (soprano), alto, tenor and bass), the original vocal version must have required 40 singers to perform.

The text to be sung was a Latin version of the Ten Commandments (thus the symbolic significance of the tenfold canon), but only the first line was printed with the music. After transcribing the piece into modern notation, Moroney began a search for an early 16th-century Latin version of the Commandments that would fit the piece's rhythm and meter. Many versions existed, but none worked. Finally, on his 36th try, he found a perfect fit. As Moroney pointed out in his notes, the canonic treatment means that when the tenth choir of four voices enters, all the words of the Ten Commandments are being sung simultaneously. If the text was hopelessly muddied, the sound was glorious.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the work of Alessandro Striggio. Both the 40-part motet "Ecce beatem lucem" and the 40- and 60-part mass "Ecco si beato giorno" (which is based on the motet) were performed. The circumstances of the original composition and performance of these works are unclear, but Moroney makes a compelling case in his notes that both were performed at the 1565 wedding festivities of Francesco I de' Medici of Florence and Johanna (Giovanna), Archduchess of Austria. Textual references in the motet to the sun and moon, and to "honey and sweet nectar" (a reference to the Song of Songs?) seem to confirm a wedding association. Here is a recording of this radiant piece performed by the Huelgas Ensemble directed by Paul van Nevel; even listening on headphones does not give the sense that we experienced at the concert of being immersed in sound:


The mass is one of the most monumental works of vocal music ever written. (Its probable performance in London during a visit there by Striggio in 1567 may have inspired Thomas Tallis to compose the 40-part "Spem in alium" in response.) The final Agnus Dei is performed by five separate 12-voice choirs; below is a page from the score, reproduced in the program. Of course, Moroney had to solve a musicological puzzle in this case, too. The sole surviving copy of the mass was misidentified for 280 years; only in 2005 did Moroney confirm that that a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris that had been cataloged as a 4- (not 40-) part mass by "Strusco" was the missing Striggio mass. [1]

The chorus was composed of members of the Bay Area groups Magnificat, American Bach Soloists, Schola Cantorum San Francisco, and the Chalice Consort, supplemented by additional singers. They were supported by a substantial continuo group consisting of two bass violones, a viola da gamba-like lirone, a bass dulcian (early bassoon), two harpsichords and two organs. Eight members of His Majesty's Sackbutts & Cornetts doubled the middle choir, while Wim Becu played the gargantuan great bass sackbutt as part of the continuo. (The sackbutt is a kind of Renaissance trombone; the great bass sackbutt is so large that it is constructed with a long brass handle so that the slide can be extended far enough to reach the deepest notes). The instrumentalists also played pieces by Cavazzoni, Gabrieli and Massaino before each of the vocal works in the first half of the program.

Was this rich instrumental palette a recreation of the original performing forces for the mass? Possibly not, but it was ravishing to the ear. Moroney and his performers richly deserved the roaring ovation they received at the program's conclusion; this was a musical experience that we will never forget.

A page from the 60-part Agnus Dei of Striggio's Missa sopra "Ecco si beato giorno."
Copyright Davitt Moroney © 2007

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1. Moroney, D. 2007. Alessandro Striggio's mass in forty and sixty parts. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 60(1):1-70.

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