by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Jan. 10, 2011.
Renaissance polyphony—the ravishingly complex tradition of choral writing that stretches from Guillaume Dufay, in the early fifteenth century, to Tomás de Victoria, at the end of the sixteenth—does for the ears what the Sistine Chapel does for the eyes, giving lyric shape to divine power. Yet until recent decades this music had a low public profile, its treasures locked in manuscripts that performers struggled to decipher. (When the Masses of the late-Renaissance Italian master Palestrina were revived in the nineteenth century, a misunderstanding of the notation meant that choruses sang the music at a tempo that was much too slow.) Only in the nineteen-seventies did ordinary listeners begin to grasp the full splendor of the polyphonic golden age; a turning point came in 1980, when the Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips, recorded Palestrina’s “Missa Papae Marcelli” with newfound refinement, and, a few years later, launched a career as a professional touring ensemble.Now hundreds of CDs document the Renaissance, with masterpieces emerging from oblivion on an almost weekly basis.
Much remains to be learned. Modern renditions of Renaissance music depend on a great deal of guesswork, not to mention profoundly arguable assumptions about how the deep past should sound. Polyphony grew out of Gregorian chant, and the singing of Benedictine monks seems to offer us a window onto ancient practice. Scholars have established, however, that the disembodied, otherworldly sound of chant was largely an invention of the Romantic period, and a rejection of its fleshy opulence. Whether it bears any resemblance to the chants of a thousand years ago is unknowable. Likewise, the austere allure of the Tallis Scholars is inseparable from the Anglican choral tradition, which owes much to Victorian values. Phillips, to his credit, is frank about his methods. “We have to carry on in making the sound good in our own terms,” he told the writer Bernard Sherman. Good it is; a series of boxed sets on the Scholars’ house label, Gimell, commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of their first recordings, sums up one of the loftiest achievements of the CD era.
The Tallis Scholars have had many imitators—too many. There is plenty of room for alternative approaches, particularly in light of the latest scholarly research. Contemporary singers are preoccupied with beauty of tone, precision of pitch, and strictness of tempo; Renaissance writings tend to emphasize variety of gesture and attention to the text. Andrew Kirkman, in his new book, “The Cultural Life of the Early Polyphonic
Mass,” quotes a 1539 treatise by the Nuremberg publisher Johannes Ott, in which Masses are said to “present the same sounds in ever different forms, like so many actors on stage in different guises.” Anne Smith, in her forthcoming study “The Performance of 16th-Century Music,” cites a late-Renaissance
authority who expects singers “to improvise diminutions, to indulge in playfulness, and, in a word, to ornament a musical body.” Such instructions seem far removed from the prevailing modern aesthetic, where words often melt into a handsome contrapuntal haze. Polyphony is sometimes in danger of becoming a higher species of Muzak.
Fortunately, fresh ideas about Renaissance performance are proliferating. Stile Antico, the young British ensemble, follows the Tallis Scholars mold but adds a startling richness of tone. Alamire, another British group, is notable for its sensuous style; a 2007 CD devoted to the Franco-Flemish master Josquin Desprez shows how sacred and secular themes intermingle. The Belgian ensemble Capilla Flamenca, which indulges in a bit of improvisatory freedom, is preparing a version of Alexander Agricola’s “Missa In mynen zyn” that will involve, of all things, an accordion. The most daring approach still belongs, after several decades, to Marcel Pérès’s Ensemble Organum, whose tremulous, darkly florid delivery of medieval and Renaissance music is based more on Byzantine chant than on the familiar Benedictine manner. On December 8th, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Pérès and his singers presented Guillaume de Machaut’s “Messe de Notre Dame.” Severe, relentless, devoid of ambient comfort, it was an eerie approximation of an unrecoverable past.
Among recent CDs in the polyphonic field, a recording by the Boston ensemble Blue Heron stands out, and not only because of the group’s pleasingly quirky name. The director of Blue Heron is Scott Metcalfe, who specialized in Baroque violin before immersing himself in the Renaissance. His aim is to bring expressive intensity, even a hint of Baroque flair, to the earlier repertory. “We need to get past this idealized,
pre-Raphaelite idea of the medieval and Renaissance periods,” Metcalfe told me, when I met him in advance of a performance that Blue Heron gave in the Music Before 1800 series, at Corpus Christi Church, on December 19th. “One way to do that is always to keep an eye on the text, and express the ideas of the text as clearly and dramatically as possible. We think of that as a Baroque attitude, but the seeds of it go much further back.” He mentioned Anne Smith’s work on sixteenth-century musical rhetoric as one source of inspiration.
The new Blue Heron disk, which is the group’s second release, appears on its own label. It gathers five-part religious pieces by English composers of the early Tudor period: Robert Jones, John Mason, and, most significant, Hugh Aston, whose Marian antiphons, works in praise of the Virgin Mary, form the core of the album. The program draws on a set of partbooks that reside in the library of Peterhouse, Cambridge University, and that long went unperformed because all the tenor parts—and some of the treble—are missing. The scholar Nick Sandon has meticulously filled in the gaps; every new phrase in his editions fits with the Tudor idiom, which favors soaring melodic lines and harmonic warmth. Only ten pieces by Aston survive, but they reveal a composer with a knack for generating brilliant climaxes from simple material. In “Ave Maria dive matris Anne,” a cooing motif suggestive of Jesus suckling his mother’s breast is developed into a gloriously emphatic “Ave Maria” figure that rings through the upper voices.
Of course, my sense of Aston’s voice owes much to Blue Heron’s imaginative realizations of his scores. Through an array of interpretive choices—fine gradations of dynamics; pungent diction; telling contrasts of ethereal and earthy timbres; tempos that are more lusty than languid; a way of propelling a phrase toward a goal—the music takes on narrative momentum, its moods dovetailing with the theme of the text. Listen to the brazen, almost raucous tone of the sopranos as they arrive, in “Ave Maria dive matris Anne,” at the self-reflexive phrase “psallentes et omnes hoc Ave Maria”—“and all singing this Hail Mary.” Or to the joyous thrust of the basses in the Amen coda of Aston’s “Gaude virgo mater Christi,” as they repeat a phrase in which one interval keeps widening, from a third to a fourth and, finally, to a fifth. As it happens, Stile Antico has also recorded the latter piece, in its justly lauded series of CDs for Harmonia Mundi. The performance is more polished, but it borders on the static—ethereal to a fault.
The seemingly serene music of Renaissance church ritual did not stem from yoga-like spells of meditation. Instead, as Andrew Kirkman observes, it communicated a desperate plea for mercy—in particular, “the desire to shorten the time in purgatory that, short of sainthood and immediate passage to paradise, would follow earthly life.” The last will of Guillaume Dufay contains detailed instructions for the posthumous presentation of the composer’s own Masses, the intent of which was not to maintain his fame but to save his soul. Few modern listeners will approach Dufay and other Renaissance composers in the same spirit. But it is good to feel a hint of turbulence, of mortal fear, in performances such as Blue Heron’s and Ensemble Organum’s; with that quiver of passion, the music inspires even greater awe. Cathedrals turn cold when they are empty of people.