Monday, June 4, 2018

Sight-reading Class for dummies

Want to learn how to read music? Refresh those sight-reading skills? I am offering a sight-reading class for beginners! All are welcome. FREE! Questions, email Markdavin Obenza at

Trinity Parish Church (In the Choir Room)
609 8th Ave
Seattle, WA 98104

7pm-7:45pm on the following Thursdays:

June 7
June 14
June 21

*You are not required to attend every class.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Byrd Ensemble Bass Auditions

The Byrd Ensemble is holding Bass auditions for their 2018-2019 season. Register here by May 15, 2018.

The Byrd Ensemble is a Seattle-based professional vocal ensemble that performs chamber choral music, particularly Renaissance polyphony. The group of 10-12 singers presents a subscription series (4 programs) at St. James Cathedral and rehearses twice before each program. The Byrd Ensemble performs twice a year in Portland, OR and engages in recording projects with Scribe Records.

Saturday, May 19th at 6:00pm-9:00pm

Trinity Parish Church
609 8th Ave
Seattle, WA 98104

Strong reader. Can learn and prepare a full program of music in two rehearsals. (Singers will get music in advance).
Clear and firm sound. Medium to large voices welcome.
Excellent Intonation.
Experience singing in small groups.
Excellent musicianship.

Singers are not required to sing every concert. 

We pay $100 per service (3-hour rehearsal or concert).
$50 an hour for recording sessions.

Rates may vary depending on project.

Interested Bass applicants will sign up for a 15-minute slot and sing a Bass part of their choice from the pieces below with members of the Byrd Ensemble, and sightread one piece. Auditions will be recorded for internal purposes and will not be publicly released.

Tallis - Loquebantur
Tallis - In jejunio et fletu (will sing 1 whole step up)

Sign up by May 15, 2018. Feel free to email Markdavin Obenza at if you have any questions.

Depending on the number of applicants, we cannot guarantee that every singer will receive an audition spot.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chant, a starting point

Chant is timeless. At bottom, it is a simple melody unrestricted by bar lines and time signatures; however, upon reflection on the last thousand years of music, we know it is much more than that. Not only was chant our musical starting point, it is the foundation of Eastern and Western music. Renaissance composers such as Tallis and Sheppard frequently used chant as the basis for polyphonic composition, while more contemporary composers Pärt and Tavener took inspiration from it. Others like Tavener and Whitacre also employ chant but with a modern harmonic flavor. Just as music has evolved from it, we can also hear chant itself transformed throughout the ages.




Saturday, March 17, 2018, at 8:00 p.m.
St. James Cathedral
804 9th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104

Buy passes here.

Thomas TALLIS: Loquebantur variis linguis
Eric WHITACRE: Sainte-Chapelle
TALLIS: Videte miraculum
HILDEGARD: O viridissima virga
Arvo PÄRT: Magnificat


John SHEPPARD: Reges Tharsis
PÄRT: I Am the True Vine
John TAVENER: Two Hymns to the Mother of God
HILDEGARD: O virga ac diadema
PÄRT: Seven Magnificat Antiphons


Thomas Tallis (1505—1585) had the hard task of composing under four successive Tudor monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I) during a period of political and religious instability. While the Protestant Reformation flourished under the first two Tudors (Henry VIII and Edward VI), Mary I, a devout Catholic determined to crush the Protestant faith, restored the Catholic Rite to the English church during her brief reign. The church’s return to Catholicism called for a shift in compositional style with the return of Latin and polyphonic textures. It is possible Tallis secretly welcomed the return of Catholicism. During Mary I’s short time, he produced a large number of works for the principal feast days of the liturgical year, including Loquebantur variis linguis and Videte miraculum, written for Pentecost and The Feast of the Purification respectively. Tallis's Loquebantur (The Apostles spoke in many tongues) features quick points of imitation in a dense seven-part texture, depicting "many tongues." Videte depicts the birth of Jesus. All of the Renaissance pieces on the program are choral responds based on chant in the tenor part, and they alternate between full-choir polyphonic and chant sections. A respond is a musical structure where
parts of the music are repeated, usually taking the form ABCdBCdC (d=chant).

We know only a few things about English composer John Sheppard (1515—1558). He was employed at Magdalen College, Oxford 1543—1548 and the Chapel Royal 1552—1560. Unfortunately, much of Sheppard’s music has survived incomplete; however, because it was often the chant part that was missing (in the tenor) it has been possible to reconstruct his music. This is the case for Reges Tharsis, a responsory for the Feast of Epiphany scored for SSAATB, Sheppard’s favorite scoring for maximum harmonic punch.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), America's most popular choral composer, wrote Saint-Chapelle (2013) for the 40th Anniversary of the Tallis Scholars. Sainte-Chapelle tells a story of a girl’s experience standing inside Sainte-Chapelle, a Gothic royal chapel at the center of Paris. The piece illustrates her awe of the stained glass windows filling the chapel, creating a jewel-box space flooded with colors of yellow, burgundy, and green from all directions. Whitacre uses chant to tell the story. The piece begins with only men’s voices, which are joined by the women at “Sanctus,” functioning as a refrain.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098—1179), writer, composer, and philosopher, is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Hildegard left behind an enormous amount of illuminated manuscripts, scholarly writings, and songs written for her nuns to sing at their devotions. Hildegard is one of those rare identifiable composers in the history of Western music; most medieval composers were anonymous. Unlike the simple one-octave chants at the time, Hildegard’s melodies sound almost improvisatory: they are freer, ornate, and large- ranging. Her love for nature is reflected in the two Marian chants: O viridissima virga (O branch of freshest green) and O virga ac diadema (O branch and diadem).

Hildegard of Bingen

For the seventh year in a row, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) has been given the title of the “world’s most performed living composer,” according to “Estonian World.” After some time experimenting in neoclassical styles, Pärt decided to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism in his compositions, displeasing the Soviet establishment enough to ban his early works. Pärt, not pleased with his output, went into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th through 16th centuries. His biographer, Paul Hillier, says, “He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note.” Out of this period of musical soul-searching emerged a unique compositional style that informed his music beginning in the 1970s—tintinnabuli (bell-like). The tintinnabuli style is a simple compositional technique that restricts the number of possible harmonies. Imagine the harmonies generated by playing a major scale in the left hand and its equivalent arpeggio on the right.

Arvo Pärt

Calling back to the ancient styles of plainchant, Pärt uses drones. The solo soprano part in the Magnificat holds the pitch C, providing the tonal center for the piece. Pärt’s setting of the Magnificat, through varying note lengths, repetition, and no sense of meter, establishes a sense of timelessness. The half-step dissonances are sprinkled throughout alongside the rich harmony and pulls us into a state of contemplation and introspection. I am the true vine was composed in 1996 for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral in England. The work offers a twist on Pärt's tintinnabuli technique. Syllables of text are dispersed among the parts in such a way that each part is often completing another part’s sentence or word. Also, the distribution of the melody among the parts—bass to soprano, back down to Bass—resembles the vine depicted in the text. The Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1988; revised 1991), marks only the second time that Pärt set a German text. Perhaps the fact that it was commissioned for the Radio Chamber Choir in Berlin, a group whose broadcast performances reached audiences far and wide, suggested that the vernacular language would be the most appropriate choice. Each of these texts, in its normal liturgical context, functions as the antiphon to one iteration of the Magnificat, sung at Vespers on each of the seven evenings preceding Christmas Eve. In Pärt’s composition, these texts are set simply as a series of seven movements.

John Tavener

John Tavener (1944-2013) and Pärt are often described as mystic minimalists—a category (sometimes used pejoratively) to describe late twentieth-century composers who focus on religious themes. Like Pärt, Tavener developed his compositional voice after joining the Russian Orthodox Christian faith. His mother died in 1985, and he was unable to compose for a short time after. He eventually found the inspiration to write Two Hymns to the Mother of God (1985) in her memory. The melodies and harmonies recall both Western and Eastern Orthodox music. The first hymn comes from a text of St. Basil in praise of the Mother of God. Tavener sets it for double chorus in a strict canon, the second chorus repeating the material of the first, exactly three beats behind, creating a blurring effect. The second text is from the vigil service called the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Mother of God, an important observance in the Orthodox faith. The tenor part carries the main melody while the remaining voices sustain triads. Eventually all voices converge in a rich succession of consonant chords for the text: “O ye apostles, assembled here from the ends of the earth, bury my body in Gethsemane: and Thou O my Son and God, receive my Spirit.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Selected compositions for Vox16 concert and potential recording. Donate to make the CD happen!

Earlier this year we announced a call for new choral music to be included in our Locally Sourced concert on April 7, 2018 and possible recording project. The response was incredible, we received over 3 CDs worth of music! Many thanks to those that submitted, it was a pleasure reading through your submissions.

Here are the selected compositions:

John Gordon Hill - Evensong
John Gordon Hill - Lux Aeterna
Chris Fraley - Kyrie
Rick Asher - On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
Joy DeCoursey Porter - In Deo sola spec mea
Karen Thomas - Westron Wind
Peter Seibert - Gloria
Jeremy Kings - Lacrimosa
Caroline Mallonée - Light through Windows

We are pleased to feature a wonderful set of composers which offer a nice variety of style. Many of them are active composers and/or directors in the local choral scene. Support their work and Vox16 by contributing towards a CD recording of this music. Make sure to check out our perk levels! (Please let us know if you prefer your donation to be anonymous.)

MATCHING CHALLENGE: A donor will match donations dollar for dollar up to $1,500! Deadline December 31, 2017. UPDATE: CHALLENGE MET on Dec 31, 2017!


$10 - FAN
  • Free ticket to the Locally Sourced program
  • Free ticket to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Free ticket to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording
  • Two free tickets to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording, signed by the director
  • Two free tickets to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording, signed by the director and singers
  • An invitation to the concert after party and a drink on us!
$1000 - PRODUCER
  • Two free tickets to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording, signed by the director, singers, and composers!
  • An invitation to the concert after party with all of your drinks and food on us!

As of 1/1/2018


Rick Asher
Peter Seibert
Jeremy Kings
Joy DeCoursey Porter
Marianne Adler
Emily Denyer
Cara Payne
Aaron and Vera Giles
Deborah Stephenson
Peter Lifland
Wyatt-Stone Family
Chris Fraley
Colleen Adler
Rachel Adler
Dave Adler
Evelyn Guzman
TJ Callahan
Caroline Huebner
Claire English
Mike Metu
Adele Reese Kernan
Alexander Baldini
Dennis Strickland

Friday, November 24, 2017

A prelude to the Christmas season: Britten, Holst, and Howells

Saturday, November 25, 2017, at 8:00 p.m.
St. James Cathedral
804 9th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

Buy passes here.


Benjamin BRITTEN - A Ceremony of Carols
Gustav HOLST - Four Old English Carols
Herbert HOWELLS - Long, Long Ago
Harold DARKE - In the bleak midwinter
Kenneth LEIGHTON - Lully, lulla thou little tiny child
HOLST - Christmas Day

SINCE 2009, we have been one of the first area choirs to usher in the holiday season with our Christmas program Thanksgiving weekend. (Some say it’s too early and that we must be on the Macy’s calendar). After nine years it is starting to feel like a tradition, a prelude to the festive Christmas season ahead.

As I constructed this English Christmas program, I became aware of the importance of tradition at this time of year and the feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality that accompany it. On a personal level, many of the singers, including myself, have grown up singing these carols in our respective children’s choirs—I bet some of us have Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols memorized!

The composers no doubt felt similarly. Mid-20th century English composers paid homage to their Renaissance predecessors through their writing style and with great respect to the preservation of the carols. We see this in Howells’s penchant for polyphonic textures, Holst’s preference for uncomplicated carol settings, and Britten’s use of chant. And of nostalgia? I dare you to find something more nostalgic than Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter. We are honored you are here to share the start of your holidays with us, and we thank you for supporting our tradition.

The procession Veni, veni, Emmanuel comes from the “O Antiphons,” a set of Magnificat antiphons sung at Vespers over the last seven days of Advent. The O Antiphons date back to the 9th century and anticipate the birth of Jesus.

Harold Darke (1888—1976) became famous for his Monday lunchtime recitals held at St. Michael's Church, Cornhill where he gave more than 1,800 performances over his fifty-year service. Darke’s brilliance as an organist and expertise leading the St. Michael’s Singers prepared him well for his appointment in 1941 as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the absence of Boris Ord, who was called out to war. Darke is remembered for his much-loved In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti. The poem became a Christmas carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst. In 1909, Darke composed this setting, which was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008.

Kenneth Leighton (1929—1988), the most recent composer on the program, comes from the English tradition represented by Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Howells, and Walton. (If you are wondering why I have excluded Leighton’s much more popular contemporary John Rutter from an English Christmas program, it is not because there is a lack of good Rutter carols, but because Leighton’s music pairs much better with the other English masters on the program). Leighton composed his most popular carol Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child—a setting of the Coventry carol—in 1948 as a 19-year old Oxford student. The text describes the Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants of Bethlehem, in hopes to kill the child claimed by the Magi to be the “King of the Jews.” Leighton creates a dark mood through a repetitive instances of “Lully, lulla” that does not commit itself to a major or minor tonality—all of this underneath a haunting Soprano solo that soars above the choir.

English composer and organist Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is known for his large output of Anglican church music. He started composing early in life, studying under Charles Stanford at the age of eighteen. Howells’s colorful sound hearkens to the style of French impressionism—no wonder some call him an English Debussy. Howells composed Long, long ago poems by John Buxton, dedicated to the Lady Margaret Singers, Cambridge. Long, long ago, a carol-anthem, like most of Howells’s music, is not so much about distinctive musical themes. Instead, he uses a colorful musical atmosphere, a kind of scape as a vehicle for the words. Howells, a master of the musical art of deception, resolves tension in unexpected ways.

Vaughan Williams described his colleague Gustav Holst (1874—1934) as “the greatest influence on my music.” Holst also had a strong influence on the music of William Walton and Benjamin Britten. Holst, a composer for the people, believed that it was the composer’s duty to provide music for practical purposes—festivals, ceremonies, hymns or Christmas carols. Four Old English Carols (1907) demonstrates Holst's concern for economy. He sets the four traditional carols modestly and without too much musical complication that would obscure the simplicity of each carol. Holst’s Christmas Day, a “Choral Fantasy on Old Carols,” was composed in 1910 for the amateur singers of Morley College, where Holst had been teaching since 1907. This choral “fantasy” features a number of well-known carols—God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell, and Good Christian Men Rejoice.

The centerpiece of the program is Benjamin Britten’s (1913—1976) A Ceremony of Carols (1942), a collection of short pieces based on carols written in the 15th and 16th centuries. Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols while on a transatlantic voyage from the United States to England. While stopped in Nova Scotia, Britten obtained a copy of “The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems,” a set of lyrical poems in Middle English, where he found the text for the work.

With its popularity among children’s choirs, it may be surprising to some that A Ceremony was originally conceived for a female choir. The Fleet Street Choir (women’s choir) gave the first performance of the initial seven movements in 1942. It was only after hearing several memorable performances of the work by a Welsh boys' choir that Britten stated his preference for boys’ voices. Originally, Britten composed seven movements out of the eleven as a set of unrelated songs. In 1943, he decided to unify the work through the addition of four movements: “Procession” and “Recession” that frame the cycle, based on the antiphon chant from the Christmas Eve Vespers; “That yongë child” for solo soprano and harp; and the new “Interlude” for solo harp.

With this cycle, Britten saw a chance to write music that would blossom in a church or cathedral. The canonic writing of “This little Babe” creates an exciting effect. Three voices sing the same melody but a beat apart, resulting in an echo effect reminiscent of a reverberant cathedral—no doubt the results will be more dramatic in the acoustics of St. James Cathedral. “In freezing winter night” also uses canonic writing, but more to create an atmosphere. At the center of A Ceremony lies the “Interlude” for solo harp which is also based on plainchant. The “Interlude” has a bell-like quality which is also heard in “Wolcum Yole!” and “Adam lay i-bounden.” Britten was not alone in his fascination with bells—both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, influenced by music from the Russian Orthodox Church, professed a lifelong fascination with bells.

-Markdavin Obenza

Friday, October 27, 2017

RITUAL: Music from sacred tradition

BYRD ENSEMBLE, directed by Markdavin Obenza

RITUAL: Music from Sacred Tradition

OCT 28, 2017 at 8:00 PM
St. James Cathedral
804 9th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

Buy Passes


BYRD: Magnificat (Great Service)
PÄRT: Tribute to Caesar (1997)
TAVENER: Funeral Ikos (1981)
STRAVINSKY: Отче наш (Our Father) (1945)
BYRD: Domine quis habitabit


PALESTRINA: Magnificat primi toni a8
BARBER: Agnus Dei (1967)
GIBBONS: Hosanna to the Son of David
TAVENER: The Lamb (1982)
BYRD: Ad Dominum cum tribularer

This program explores sacred music from the Eastern and Western Christian traditions featuring Anglican and Catholic motets by Renaissance greats—Byrd, Palestrina, and Gibbons—complemented by the Eastern style of Tavener, Stravinsky, and Pärt. All of the composers, with the exception of Palestrina, Barber, and Gibbons, endured an incredible spiritual struggle; Byrd's longing for the return of Catholicism in Protestant England, Pärt's musical soul searching through periods of contemplative silence, Tavener's conversion, and Stravinsky's return to the Russian Orthodox faith no doubt had a spiritual effect on their musical output. Despite the fact that the motets were written over the span of 500 years, each one of these masterpieces shares a profound sacred ethos that transcends time.

England endured religious and political turbulence in the 15th and 16th centuries. Composers had the difficult task of adjusting to whatever musical style the church was enforcing at the time. None was better than Thomas Tallis, teacher of William Byrd (1540–1623), who composed competently under four successive monarchs. Luckily for Byrd, the situation in England had settled somewhat by his tenure. Byrd’s main challenge was composing for a Protestant church as a devout Catholic. The new Protestant service demanded that the music clearly communicate the meaning of the text. Composers often used chordal textures and set text in the vernacular to fulfill the new musical demands. The Catholic tradition favored slightly more complex music set to Latin texts and a polyphonic texture. Byrd’s music struck a unique balance between the two traditions, though many believe that his music reflects his desire for the return of Catholicism in veiled terms. Byrd’s Magnificat comes from his setting of the Great Service—the Anglican celebration of Matins, Evensong, and Communion. While the piece is “great” indeed, in the 16th century “great” did not mean excellent, but “large.” Stylistically, the Magnificat is a perfect example of a balance of the two traditions—a predominantly polyphonic texture with deliberate use of homophonic moments to bring out the message of the text in English.

We hear Byrd’s genius at the young age of 19 or 20 when he wrote the two magnificent psalm motets which conclude each half of the program, Domine quis habitabit and Ad Dominum cum tribularer. Domine, a setting of Psalm 14, only survives in a single source from the 1590s in score format instead of in partbooks, unusual at the time. The motet is scored for nine voices with three bass parts of equal ranges. The opening minor 6th interval is exotic, and the rest of the motet continues mostly in imitation, maintaining a dense, polyphonic, nine-part scoring throughout. Ad Dominum, a setting of Psalm 120, is scored for eight voice parts. Like Domine, Ad Dominum continues in straightforward polyphonic fashion but with an incredible gathering of momentum for a powerful ending on the text: “With those who hate peace I was a peacemaker: when I spoke to them, they battled me without cause.”

For six years in a row, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) has been given the title of the “world’s most-performed living composer.” What preceded his success was a long musical and spiritual struggle that began at an early age. After some time experimenting in neoclassical styles, Pärt decided to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism in his compositions—this displeased the Soviet establishment enough to ban his early works. Pärt, not pleased with his output, went into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. His biographer, Paul Hillier, says, “He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note.” Pärt spent years immersing himself in Renaissance vocal music and, more generally, Western music. Out of this period of musical soul-searching came what he calls his “tintinnabuli style” where one or more instrumental or vocal parts, basically melodic in construction, are placed against one or more additional parts projecting arpeggiations of a major or minor triad, the latter evoking “tintinnabulation” or the ringing of bells. Tribute to Caesar (1997), a setting of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, shows only subtle hints of the tintinnabuli technique.

John Tavener (1944–2013) was raised Protestant, but was interested in Catholicism. He eventually joined the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, where he developed his own unique composition voice as an Orthodox composer, employing a slow, almost minimalist unfolding of melodic material. Tavener’s Funeral Ikos is a setting of text from the Orthodox service for the burial of priests. Tavener’s interest in chant is obvious in the unmetered solemn verses, but the “Alleluia” refrain is distinctly his. The Lamb (1982), a short carol based on a poem by William Blake, was composed in one afternoon and sent to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge to be included in their annual Lessons and Carols service. The music is built on a simple melodic idea (opening G-B-A-F#-G) and its inversion (G-Eb-F-Ab-G), resulting in a remarkably spare, but bleak sound. Contrasting the melodic inversions are homophonic statements that sound comforting and melancholic in comparison—reminiscent of the “Alleluia” refrain in Funeral Ikos

Igor Stravinsky's (1882–1971) ballet music made him an international star. By the 1920s, his compositional style shifted from the “primitive style” of the ballet music to neo-Classicism, a style more tightly controlled and harmonically grounded. He once said “the more constraints I put on myself, the freer my compositions.” Shortly after World War I, Stravinsky underwent a religious re-conversion. As a boy, Stravinsky rejected the Russian Orthodox church, but in September 1925 Stravinsky reports to have experienced a miracle. While playing his own sonata one evening, he felt a miraculous healing of a painful abscess. On Easter the following year, Stravinsky rejoined the Orthodox faith, which fueled his choral compositions to the end of his life. One of the first pieces he wrote following his recommitment to the church was a four-voiced choral setting of the prayer Отче наш (Our Father), composed in 1926 to commemorate his return to the Orthodox Church. Stravinsky wrote the first version of this motet in Church Slavonic, the Russian Orthodox dialect that he considered the true "language of prayer." The piece is barely a minute and a half in performance and was intended for the Orthodox liturgy. Stravinsky maintains a strong sense of a tonal center throughout, while deliberately avoiding functional harmony, characteristic of the neo-Classical style. Strong beats of the text always fall on downbeats within the shifting metric patterns.

Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) was the most important composer of the Counter-Reformation. He was probably a choirboy at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and later served there as maestro di cappella for ten years from 1561. Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni for eight voices was copied into a large choirbook for the papal choir around the late 1580s and was not intended for public use. He composed the work for two choirs, which come together rarely for maximum impact; such as “omnes generationes” (all generations) and for the end of the work. Unlike Byrd’s setting of the Magnificat, Palestrina’s setting was not composed for Anglican Evensong, but rather for use in the Catholic office of Vespers.

Samuel Barber (1910–1981), the only American representative of the program, is best known for his Adagio for Strings from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. In 1967, Barber composed Agnus Dei, a choral arrangement of the Adagio. Many describe the eight-minute work as an example of  sentimental Romanticism, teasing out incredible servings of nostalgia. One can detect a faint essence of the Renaissance in the melismatic texture (many notes on one syllable), interweaving of contrapuntal lines, and through the ebb and flow nature of the piece.

English composer Orlando Gibbons’s (baptized 1585–1625) Hosanna to the Son of David is a jubilant setting of the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Christ is taking possession of his kingdom, with crowds of children waving palm branches, crying "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Hosanna, an anthem for six voices, may have originally been composed for a ceremony associated with the English monarchy. The exuberant music and the textual allusion to Christ the King would have justly honored a divine ruler.

- Markdavin Obenza


Described as “pure and radiant” (Gramophone), “immensely impressive” (Early Music Review), and “rich, full-voiced, and perfectly blended” (Early Music America), the Byrd Ensemble is garnering international acclaim for its performances and recordings of chamber vocal music, particularly Renaissance polyphony. The Byrd Ensemble, directed by Markdavin Obenza, is a Seattle-based professional ensemble made up of 10 to 12 singers from the Pacific Northwest. The group presents its annual concert series at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. The Byrd Ensemble is a nonprofit organization.

Since 2004, the ensemble has performed in the greater Seattle area and has toured across the United States, presenting concerts for the Gotham Early Music Scene in New York with Peter Phillips (director of the Tallis Scholars) and the Boston Early Music Fringe Series. In 2014, the Byrd Ensemble was one of sixteen groups—the only ensemble from the United States—chosen to sing at the London International A Cappella Choir Competition and worked with Peter Phillips, Mark Williams, and John Rutter, who described the ensemble as “a fine group that has achieved an enviable standard of tuning, blend, and ensemble.” The Byrd Ensemble presents an annual subscription series at St. James Cathedral in Seattle and regularly performs in Portland, Oregon.

The Byrd Ensemble became part of the Scribe Records label in 2011 and has since produced six records—four of which feature Renaissance polyphony— and have been reviewed by major early music publications: Early Music America, Gramophone and Early Music Review. Our Lady: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks (2011) featured reconstructions by musicologist Nick Sandon of music by lesser-known English Renaissance composers—Pasche, Merbecke, and Ludford—and included two world-premiere recordings. In the Company of William Byrd (2012), Music for the Tudors (2015), and Music of the Renaissance: Italy, England & France (2016) featured more mainstream Renaissance composers Tallis, Sheppard, Byrd, and White. In 2014, the Byrd Ensemble was included in the international edition of Gramophone Magazine for its recording of works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR MARKDAVIN OBENZA has dedicated his career to music. In addition to the Byrd Ensemble, Markdavin is also Director and founder of Seattle-based chamber choir Vox16 and Producer for Scribe Records, an independent record label. He is an active freelance singer who performs with the Byrd Ensemble and has performed with the Tudor Choir, Early Music Vancouver, and members of the Tallis Scholars. He is the Director of Choral Music at Trinity Parish Church in Seattle, WA.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Flemish Masters CD Notes and Translations


The Tallis Scholars Summer School course I attended in Oakham, England, in 2000 cemented my love for Renaissance music. The week-long immersion in Renaissance polyphony was an opportunity for singers from all around the world to sing together and learn about the ancient musical art form. Since then, I have spent my time performing and recording with various Seattle groups (The Tudor Choir, Byrd Ensemble, Compline Choir) and have witnessed, within the Seattle choral scene, a growing interest in the music. It was only after some encouragement by Anne Roberts that I decided to offer a course similar to the Tallis Scholars Summer School. I am convinced this is how we pass on the love for this craft—by inspiring others through these courses so they can carry it forward to the next generation.

I am happy to report that the inaugural course in the summer of 2017 at La Maison Verte in Roujan, France was a success. I hope it is the first of many. The course was mostly made up of singers from Seattle, with a few from the UK and one from Australia. The focus of the course was to prepare and record a CD of Flemish Renaissance music in a beautiful medieval church, L'Église Saint-Laurent. As one who regularly records choirs, I understand that some singers suffer from recording-PTSD due to past horrific recording experiences. This is unfortunate, as the recording session should be the place we make our best music, a product that can withstand many listens. If there is one purpose I have, it is to convince musicians that a positive recording environment yields the best results. This CD is evidence of that.

The main featured composer on the disc is Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594). Lassus is considered the chief representative of the late Flemish style and is one of the most celebrated composers of the late Renaissance. Legend states he was abducted three times for the beauty of his voice, though little evidence exists to confirm the claim. Lassus composed over 2,000 works, though his later compositions, particularly the polychoral motets such as Laudate Dominum and mass setting Missa super Bell' Amfitrit' altera, represent his best writing. It is unlikely Lassus learned the polychoral style in his native Flanders. While Flemish composers scored for eight voices, such as Crequillon’s Pater peccavi (not on disc), they favored uninterrupted counterpoint over double-choir music. Lassus likely developed the polychoral style during his time in Rome, as it was a standard technique employed by Venetian composers. The Venetians themselves seem to admire Lassus’s polychoral masses. Andrea Gabrieli, organist at St. Mark’s Basilica, visited Lassus in Munich in 1562 and many of Lassus’s works were published in Venice.

Franco-Flemish composers were skilled in canonic writing, but few were better than Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522), who was known for his ability to write music of mathematical complexity, especially canons. Mouton composed Nesciens mater, a setting of a Marian antiphon for the Octave of the Nativity scored for eight voices, in a strict quadruple canon. Only four voices are notated and the other four imitate them at the interval of a fifth two measures later. In addition to this incredible compositional construction, the written tenor voice sings a paraphrase of the plainchant melody associated with the antiphon text.

Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) is the superstar of the Flemish Renaissance cast and the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School. While Josquin’s music receives only four minutes on the disc, those minutes are well spent on Absalon fili mi, his best-known work. The four-part motet is a meditation on King David’s Lament for his son Absalon. Josquin was so famous and widely admired that many anonymous compositions were attributed to him by copyists, probably to increase their sales. Musicologist Joshua Rifkin proposes that Absalon could be one of these, suggesting contemporary composer Pierre de la Rue (c.1460-1518) as a possible composer.

Misattribution is also part of the story with Nicolas Gombert’s (c.1495-1560) own setting of David’s lament. Gombert’s motet Lugebat David Absalon was originally attributed to Josquin. Gombert’s version is scored for eight voices and is a contrafactum of two of his chansons (where the composer substitutes one text for another without making substantial changes to the music). The motet is filled with beautiful imitative descending lines (classic lament painting) and the pleading repetition of “O fili mi” (O my son!), making it one of the most moving Renaissance settings of David’s lament.

Super flumina Babylonis and Quomodo cantabimus came out of a remarkable musical exchange between Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) and English composer William Byrd (1540-1623). According to 18th-century musical antiquarian John Alcock, Monte’s Super flumina, a setting of Psalm 136:1, 3, 4, 2 (Vulgate), was sent in 1583 to Byrd, who continued the Psalm setting and composed Quomodo (Psalm 136: 4-7), beginning with the fourth verse set by Monte. The fourth verse of the Psalm, which both composers set -- “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” -- possibly reflects the desire of both to practice Catholicism in an age when it was not permitted. The two composers knew and respected each other. Monte traveled to England in 1554 as a member of the chapel of Prince Philip of Spain and may have met Byrd during his visit.

We know the least about Thomas Crecquillon (c.1505-1557). He was born in the Low Countries, became a priest and a member of the chapel of Emperor Charles V as either a singer or chapel master, and died in 1557, likely in a plague outbreak in Béthune. Crecquillon’s Ego flos campi, based on a text from the Song of Songs, was written for the Marian Brotherhood of Our Lady. Crecquillon features the Brotherhood’s motto, “Sicut lilium inter spinas” (As the lily among thorns), prominently in the seven-voice motet as homophonic statements within a predominantly polyphonic texture.

-Markdavin Obenza




Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes; laudate eum, omnes populi.
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus, et veritas Domini manet

O praise the Lord, all ye heathen: praise him, all ye nations.
For his merciful kindness is ever more and more towards us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise the Lord.


Nesciens mater virgo virum peperit sine dolore salvatorem saeculorum.
Ipsum regem angelorum sola virgo lactabat, ubere de caelo pleno.

Knowing no man, the Virgin mother bore, without pain, the Saviour of the world.
Him, the king of angels, only the Virgin suckled, breasts filled by heaven.



Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, Iesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.
Tu solus Altissimus, Iesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu, in gloria Dei Patris.

Glory to God in the highest,
and, peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
 have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
 receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
 Jesus Christ,
 with the Holy Spirit,
 in the glory of God the Father. Amen.


Credo in unum Deum.
Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem caeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Et in unum Dominum
Jesum Christum,
Filium Dei unigenitum,
Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,
Deum verum de Deo vero.
Genitum, non factum,
consubstantialem Patri:
per quem omnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos homines
et propter nostram salutem
descendit de caelis.

Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto
ex Maria Virgine:
Et homo factus est.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato:
passus, et sepultus est.

Et resurrexit tertia die,
secundum scripturas.
Et ascendit in caelum:
sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est
cum gloria judicare vivos et mortuos:
Cujus regni non erit finis.

Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum,
et vivificantem:
Qui ex Patre, Filioque procedit.
Qui cum Patre, et Filio simul adoratur,
et conglorificatur:
Qui locutus est per Prophetas.

Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma
in remissionem peccatorum.
Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Et vitam venturi saeculi.

I believe in one God, 
the Father almighty, 
Maker of heaven and earth, 
and of all things visible and invisible. 
And in one Lord, 
Jesus Christ, 
Only begotten Son of God, 
Begotten of his Father before all worlds. 
God of God, light of light, 
Very God of very God. 
Begotten, not made, 
being of one substance with the Father: 
by whom all things were made. 
Who for us men
and for our salvation 
came down from heaven. 

And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary: 
And was made man. 

And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate: 
suffered, and was buried. 

And the third day He rose again 
according to the scriptures. 
And ascended into heaven, 
and sitteth at the right hand of the Father 
And He shall come again 
with glory to judge the living and the dead: 
His kingdom shall have no end. 

And (I believe in) the Holy Ghost, Lord 
and giver of life: 
Who proceedeth from the Father and Son. 
Who with the Father and Son 
together is worshipped and glorified: 
Who spake by the Prophets. 

And in one holy catholic and apostolic church. 
I acknowledge one baptism 
for the remission of sins. 
And I look for the resurrection of the dead 
And the life of the world to come. 


Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Osanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit
in nomine Domini.
Osanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.


Absalon fili mi,
quis det ut moriar pro te, Absalon?
Non vivam ultra,
sed descendam in infernum plorans.

Absalon my son,
if only I had died instead of you, Absalon!
I shall live no more,
but go down to hell, weeping.


Lugebat David Absalon, pius pater filium,
tristis senex puerum:
Heu me, fili mi Absalon, quis mihi det ut moriar,
ut ego pro te moriar, O fili mi Absalon!
Rex autem David filium, cooperto flebat capite:
Quis mihi det ut moriar, O fili mi, O fili mi!

Porro rex operuit caput suum,
et clamabat voce magna:
Fili mi Absalon, O fili mi.

David mourned for Absalon, a pious father for his son,
a grieving old man for his boy:
Ah me! my son Absolon, would God I had died for you,
O my son Absalon!
Kind David wept for his son with covered head:
Would God I had died for you, O my son!

Then the King covered his head
and cried with a great voice:
O my son Absalon, O my son!


Super flumina Babylonis,
Illic sedimus et flevimus
Dum recordaremur tui, Sion.
Illic interrogaverunt nos,
Qui captivos abduxerunt nos,
Verba cantionum.
Quomodo cantabimus
Canticum Domini in terra aliena?
In salicibus in medio eius
Suspendimus organa nostra.

By the streams of Babylon,
there we sat and wept
when we remembered you, Zion.
There they questioned us,
those who had led us into captivity,
about the words of our songs.
How shall we sing
the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
On the willows in its midst
we hung up our harps.


Quomodo cantabimus canticum Domini in terra aliena? Si oblitus fuero tui, Jerusalem, oblivioni detur dextra mea. Adhaereat lingua mea faucibus meis, si non meminero tui; si non proposuero Jerusalem in principio laetitiae meae. Memor esto, Domine, filiorum Edom in die Jerusalem.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I should forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand fall idle. Let my tongue stick in my throat, if I do not remember you; if I do not keep Jerusalem as the greatest of my joys. Remember, Lord, what the sons of Edom did on that day in Jerusalem.

Ego flos campi et lilium convallium.
Sicut lilium inter spinas sic amica mea inter filias.
Sicut malus inter ligna silvarum, sic dilectus meus inter filios.
Sub umbra illius quem desideraveram sedi, et fructus ejus dulcis gutturi meo.
Introduxit me Rex in cellam vinariam ordinavit in me charitatem.
Fulcite me floribus, stipate me malis quia amore langueo.
fons hortorum puteus aquarum viventium quae fluunt impetu de Libano

I am the flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow, whom I desired: and his fruit was sweet to my palate.
He brought me into the cellar of wine, he set in order charity in me.
Stay me up with flowers, compass me about with apples: because I languish with love.
The fountain of gardens: the well of living waters, which run with a strong stream from Libanus.