Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Messiah: How it went



When Gus Denhard (Executive Director of Early Music Seattle) and I talked about Byrd Ensemble and Seattle Baroque Orchestra working together again on a larger piece, I knew it had to be Messiah. It had been ages since a period version with a professional choir had been performed in Seattle and it seemed like a great time to test the local interest in it. It’s no cheap undertaking—this was going to cost nearly $40k, and that’s a steal (we were saving money by not hiring outside soloists).

VENUE
The timing of the Messiah performances were expected to coincide with the completion of the Town Hall renovation, so it also seemed like an opportunity to show off the new building. Unfortunately the renovations were not completed in time and we had to find another venue. Thankfully, St. Mark’s Cathedral was able to accommodate us fairly late in the game. Town Hall is a better acoustic for Baroque music, but changing the venue to St. Mark’s allowed us to draw attention to the history of Seattle’s period Messiah tradition which began at the cathedral. Our Friday show was at Bastyr University, a popular recording venue for movie soundtracks and games. The sound here is crystal clear and outside noise is minimal. The only drawback is that you have to make your way up to Kenmore in Friday rush hour traffic. We were hoping another presenting organization would present us on Sunday for a matinee show, but alas.

St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle. PC: Gordon Ullmann


REHEARSAL WORKFLOW
Rehearsals for collaborative projects like this often don’t start until the week of the concert. Players are hired for the entire week (not per service), which puts pressure on presenting organizations to cram in as many performances as possible in order to make the money back—you aren’t making money rehearsing! The choir is not paid for the whole week, but per service. Singers had three rehearsals before the first concert. Because the Messiah is a very familiar work among singers, we probably only needed two rehearsals. Soloists had an additional 2 rehearsals—they probably only needed one.

Bastyr University, Kenmore. PC: Julia Baker

CHOOSING SINGERS
This is one of my greatest pleasures. Staffing a program is incredibly important and has everything to do with its artistic success. I couldn’t simply draw from my standard Renaissance roster on this one. I needed to hire singers that can both project, but also cope with fast Baroque runs. We needed loud, but agile voices.

Because the soloists were chosen from the choir, this allowed me to assign arias to specific voice types. For example the aria “Rejoice, greatly,” needed someone who could lay waste to the brutal string of runs, “He shall feed his flock” required a slightly heavier sound, and “I know that my redeemer liveth” is best delivered with a clarity of sound that communicates sincerity. We were fortunate to have the variety of singers in the choir to meet the demands of each aria.

TEMPOS
We heard rumors that the director Alexander Weimann likes his Messiah fast - as though he has 10pm dinner reservations. They were right (though not sure about the dinner reservations...) The performance took about 2.5 hours, and that included intermission! As a singer, when you have to sing that fast you have to phrase differently. Trying to give each 16th note equal weight is suicide. Instead you have to save the weight for the notes on the main beats—they function like anchors.

On a macro level, a faster tempo not only gets you out in time for a drink before bedtime, but prevents the lulls, or loss of momentum that a Messiah can have. That moment where people start yawning...

TRADITION?
I don’t have the revenue figures yet, so it’s too soon to say whether this will be a tradition. An April, Easter season production over December felt right. We didn’t have to compete with the other myriad of Messiahs and sing alongs that happen around Christmas, or have trouble finding singers that are often over committed (and sick!) in December.

It does seem like there is genuine interest in this kind of Messiah—St. Mark’s Cathedral was nearly at capacity for our Saturday concert. The Friday show at Bastyr University not as much, though I bet a Sunday matinee performance would have done much better.

Many thanks to those that came, and to those that didn’t come but dealt with me spamming your feed with Messiah content! We hope to offer this again in the future.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Seattle's Periodic Period Messiah

St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle
Photo: Marissa Meyer
It is possible that the Messiah tradition at St. Mark’s Cathedral would have begun earlier had Peter Hallock, the music director from 1951 to 1991, not viewed Handel oratorios as “monstrously boring.” It took a hearing of Colin Davis’s 1966 recording of the work to change his mind. The recording, which Hallock says was the first time he had heard Handel performed in a way that made any sense, inspired the first performance of Messiah at St. Mark’s Cathedral in 1968 with members of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, using modern instruments. Seattle's first historically informed performances of the work using period instruments were held December 12-14, 1985. This ‘new’ approach to the performance was a hit—concerts sold out easily and music critics loved them, ushering in a new standard of historic performance practice of the masterpiece in Seattle. Upon Hallock’s departure from the cathedral in 1991, J. Melvin Butler and Doug Fullington took on the tradition. During the next decade, the novelty of Seattle’s first period Messiah wore off, normalizing revenues while production expenses grew—it costs a pretty penny flying in and accommodating the latest hot soloist! In 2002, Cathedral Associates canceled the Messiah tradition because costs had stretched beyond available resources.

Peter Hallock, 2009
[There have been several attempts to restart the tradition. The Tudor Choir and Seattle Baroque Orchestra joined forces and presented the work at St. Mark’s Cathedral in 2006, and 2007 and 2009 at Town Hall.]

Cathedral Associates’s decision to cancel the Messiah tradition was justifiable. The production cost about $70,000 annually ($100,000 in today’s dollars), mostly in musician fees—the orchestra and choir are all professional musicians, as are the soloists who were imported from all over the world. After the third year in a row losing about $17,000, they threw in the towel. The market had also become saturated with Messiahs—audiences could go to Benaroya or attend any number of sing-alongs to get their fix.

BIG MESSIAHS

Handel wrote Messiah originally for modest vocal and instrumental forces. In the years after his death, particularly during the Victorian era, there was a phase when Messiah was performed by larger and larger ensembles as if competing to see just how big a chorus and orchestra could be crammed onto one stage. Mozart even got in on the action with his own arrangement, which was not to everyone’s taste. One critic said that it “resembles elegant stucco work upon an old marble temple… easily… chipped off again by the weather.” The trend in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been toward performing Messiah with intimate, more modest instrumentation.

Ironically in Seattle—one of the early music centers in the Pacific Northwest—the intimate version is in scarce supply. Larger productions by well-established musical organizations like the Seattle Symphony dominate the scene, along with the ever-growing number of sing-alongs that accompany them. While we applaud their efforts for keeping Messiah in the classical mainstream, Handel originally conceived the work for much smaller instrumental and choral forces.

MESSIAH REBOOT

Our Messiah ‘Reboot,’ performed by 18 players on baroque period instruments and 16 singers, is more what Handel had in mind. One may worry about the smaller ensemble lacking the punch of a larger orchestra and choir. On the contrary, the dynamic range of the work is much easier to hear with fewer musicians, making for a more exciting, larger-than-life performance. The increased clarity allows the audience to hear the athleticism in each musical line that larger productions lack. The sound of baroque instruments is also unique. Compared to their modern counterparts, they tend to be quieter and brighter and are well-suited to the fast-moving demands of the ornate oratorio. By hiring a professional choir of only 16 singers instead of a tour de force symphonic chorus, you are able to hear the small details in the choral writing that make Messiah an intricate baroque masterpiece.

We believe we have found a financially sustainable way to present a unique, intimate Messiah once again in Seattle. Although Messiah is often performed in December, an April performance (the weekend after Easter) avoids the threat of snow, keeping revenue up. We are fortunate to employ the excellent local singers right here in the Pacific Northwest. By hiring locally, we save money on the flight and hotel costs we would need to pay for out-of-state soloists. The soloists (nine total) are selected from the choir, allowing us the artistic freedom to assign solos to precisely the right voice type.

We hope you will enjoy our reboot. We are looking forward to showing you why this Messiah tradition is worth reviving.

MESSIAH PERFORMANCES featuring the Byrd Ensemble and Seattle Baroque Orchestra

Friday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Bastyr University
14500 Juanita Dr NE
Kenmore, WA 98028
Buy Tickets
facebook event

Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.
St. Mark's Cathedral
1245 10th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98102
Buy Tickets
facebook event

Links:

DOCTORAL DISSERTATION BY JASON ALLEN ANDERSON, DMA, 2007
Hallelujah! Seattle Baroque and the Tudor Choir recreate musical history for the holidays.
Tudor’s “Messiah” makes a comeback
Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Tudor Choir revive period performances of 'Messiah'

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CD: Music for the Sforza Court





Pre-order by February 20, 2019


$15


The Duchy of Milan in the late 15th century was a lively place. Ruled by the Sforza family, a particularly artistic and competitive dynasty, the court expanded to include what turned out to be one of the most talented musical chapels in Europe at the time. Under Sforza patronage, singers and composers like Alexander Agricola, Johannes Martini, Loyset Compère, and Josquin des Prez were given freedom to experiment. Together, they composed numerous works and even developed a new style of the mass ordinary called motetti missalles in which  collections of motets which were substituted for regular mass parts - Kyrie, Gloria, etc. The music was often inspired by popular pieces of the day and the subject matter was devotional, honoring the Virgin Mary or some other object that pleased the family. One of these motetti missalles is the centerpiece to our recording, surrounded by other works that were produced in this prolific environment.

TRACKS

COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 1. Introit: Ave virgo gloria
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 2. Loco Gloria: Ave salus infirmorum
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 3. Loco Credo: Ave decus Virginale
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 4. Loco Offertorii: Ave sponsa verbi
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 5. Loco Sanctus: O Maria!
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 6. Ad Elevationem: Adoramus te, Christe
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 7. Loco Agnus: Salve, mater salvatoris
COMPERE Missa Galeazescha 8. Loco Deo Gratias: Virginis Mariae laudes
MARTINI Magnificat secundi toni
WEERBEKE Stabat Mater
JOSQUIN Stabat Mater
AGRICOLA Regina coeli laetare
AGRICOLA Nobis Sancti Spiritus
JOSQUIN Qui habitat

BYRD INTERNATIONAL SINGERS, directed by Markdavin Obenza

Soprano
Laura Abbott
Dawn Fosse Cook
Lauren Kastanas
Anastasia Shmytova
Karlie Traversa

Alto
Pamela Chang
Natalie Manning
Anne Roberts
Vera Slasnaya

Tenor
Jacob Buys
Richard Greene
Jim Howeth
Arvind Narayanan
Jason Tong

Bass
Doug Fullington
Connor Hartling
John Lee
Andrew Payne
Patrick Rice




Thursday, October 25, 2018

MUSICAL POLITICS: Motets of Influence





MUSICAL POLITICS

William Byrd (1540–1623) - Ne irascaris Domine
Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) - To Morning (2008)
Thomas Tallis (1505–1585) - Gaude gloriosa

Intermission

Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) - Miserere mei, Deus
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) - The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997)
Byrd - Tribue Domine

SACRED MUSIC OFTEN SERVED NOT ONLY A LITURGICAL PURPOSE, but also a political one. The program explores music written for political gain and how politics of the time affected the music.

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were among Queen Elizabeth I’s most highly favored musicians. In 1575 she granted Tallis and Byrd, the two best English composers at the time, sole rights to the printing of music. The monopoly rewarded them with extra income but also generally supported the English music business, as the grant banned the importation of music printed abroad. Tallis and Byrd took advantage of this monopoly to produce a major printed music anthology for liturgical use in 1575—Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, a collection of 34 Latin motets dedicated to the Queen herself. The collection contains 17 motets, each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the Queen’s reign.

Unfortunately, the Cantiones was a financial failure. In 1577 Byrd and Tallis were forced to petition Queen Elizabeth for financial help, pleading that the publication had “fallen oute to oure greate losse” and that Tallis was now “verie aged.” The Queen subsequently granted them a leasehold on various lands in East Anglia and the West Country for a period of 21 years, the length of the patent and essentially an artist’s typical royal subsidy.

In 1589 Byrd published another collection of Latin motets, Cantiones Sacrae I. This collection was dedicated to Edward Somerset, Earl of Worcester, and contains many of his greatest motets, including Ne irascaris, Domine. Although the music was mostly non-liturgical and intended as chamber music, many of these pieces may have been written for England’s oppressed Roman Catholic community, as evidenced by the references to Jerusalem lying desolate and the pleas to God to remember his people in the lyrics.

Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. He was not required to write in as many styles as Tallis, since the political and religious situation in England had settled somewhat by Byrd’s tenure. Byrd’s musical challenges were more personal. He spent his life composing for a Protestant church as a devout Catholic. The new Protestant service required a compositional style that prioritized communicating the meaning of the text to the congregation, which amounted to primarily chordal textures in the vernacular. The Catholic tradition still favored Latin texts and a more elaborate musical style. Byrd’s music was a compromise and sat right in the middle—simpler than contemporary Catholic music but more complex than the Protestant aesthetic. Many believe that his music reflects his desire for the return of Catholicism in veiled terms, particularly in Ne irascaris Domine. It may have been this inner conflict that allowed Byrd to produce some of the most beautiful compositions of Renaissance vocal music ever written.

Byrd’s greatest piece, Tribue Domine, concludes the program. Unlike most of the other pieces in the 1575 Cantiones, the text is from a medieval collection of Meditationes (Meditations on the Life of Christ) attributed to St. Augustine. In this twelve-minute masterpiece, Byrd pulls out his full arsenal, contrasting polyphonic and homophonic textures as well as polychoral writing.

Tallis, teacher of Byrd, is regarded as perhaps the most important composer of the Tudor period. Not only did Tallis compose under four successive monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I), but he was capable of writing brilliantly in whatever musical style England required at the time. Henry VIII wanted to divorce the Queen so he broke away from the Catholic church in 1534, paving the way for the formation of the Anglican church, which favored simpler forms of writing. The Anglican liturgy during Edward VI’s reign introduced sacred music in the vernacular. At Mary’s accession in 1553, the Roman Rite was restored and the compositional style reverted back to the more elaborate and florid aesthetic style prevalent earlier in the century.

Tallis’s most epic composition, Gaude gloriosa, is one of the greatest motets ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At first listen, it sounds representative of the pre-Reformation style with its rather rambly and occasionally aimless nature. However, there is a sense of structure. Contrasting the relentless and demanding full sections are elegantly composed solo sections filled with imitation that is developed throughout—all indicative of the work of a mature composer in Counter-Reformation England. It is reasonable to think Tallis wrote it under Mary Tudor who might have enjoyed this fusion of old and new—a throwback to her youth with its deeply Catholic text, with a vision for the new Catholic church through the execution of the composition.

We learned in 1978 that Gaude gloriosa served another purpose. The monumental votive antiphon returned to the limelight when it was discovered during a renovation, hidden in a wall cavity at Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1978. Unlike the Gaude gloriosa we know, this version was set to English text attributed to Katherine Parr. Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen, published anonymously in 1544 a book, Psalms or Prayers which included 15 psalm-collages translated into English. It is the Ninth Psalm from this book that appears on the manuscript set to Tallis’s music. Katherine’s translation is followed by a prayer for the King, and another ‘for men to saie entryng into battaile.’ The text was written at a time when England was at war with Scotland and France and it could have been used as a performative rallying cry to garner support for that conflict.

“Se lord and behold, how many they be, which trouble me, how manie, which make rebellion against me. They saie among themselues of my soul: there is no helpe of god for it to trust upon. O lorde god, in the haue I put my hope and trust: saue me from them which doe perse- cute me, and deliuer me. Lest peraduenture at one time or an other take my life from me.”

Musicologist David Skinner suggests that Katherine Parr and Tallis knew one another and worked together as part of Henry’s public relations machine for the King’s political cause. More personally, it demonstrates Katherine’s passion for reform and Henry’s growing conservatism in the final years of his reign.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is 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 that they banned his early works. The Soviet Union’s restrictions on artistic expression, along with Pärt’s dissatisfaction with his own work, sent him into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th through the 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. The diocese at Karistad, Sweden, commissioned The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) for its 350th anniversary celebration. The text is from Matthew chapter 26, recounting an incident in which the disciples reprimand a woman for anointing Jesus's head with expensive ointment instead of selling the ointment and giving the proceeds to the poor.

Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) is one of Britain’s most popular contemporary composers, especially among cathedral and collegiate choirs. He evokes a variety of styles to create a distinctly modern sound, parts of his music referencing Josquin, Tavener, and even Stravinsky. Jackson, the son of a clergyman and former chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, grew up in the Anglican church; however, he doesn’t consider himself to be a conventional believer—this is somewhat unexpected, considering his liturgical music output. To Morning (2008) demonstrates Jackson’s sensitivity to text by capturing the rhythmic nature of poetry for a timeless, yet effective, expression. The short motet was included in the Choirbook for the Queen in 2011 in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee.

Gregorio Allegri was an Italian composer who sang in the Papal choir in 1629. His setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, Deus, is easily the most famous vocal work of the Renaissance, largely because of an edition from the early 20th century which includes a high C for the soprano in the odd-numbered verses sung by a quartet. Composed during the reign of Pope Urban VII, probably during the 1630s, the Pope forbade anyone from transcribing it by threat of excommunication. Legend says a 14-year-old Mozart visited Rome in 1770 and wrote out the piece perfectly from memory after one hearing at the Sistine Chapel, releasing the Vatican’s guarded secret into the world. Mozart was summoned to Rome and, to his surprise, praised for his musical genius. (Some theorize that Mozart’s father, Leopold, fabricated the legend to boost Mozart’s fame in Austria.)



Miserere has evolved since its inception. Originally the work was simply a succession of chords to which the psalm was chanted. Through the years of performance by the Papal choir, embellishments were added by the singers and the piece became a legendary work. In the spirit of this tradition, Joshua Haberman has developed further embellishments for this performance.










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 markdavin@trinityseattle.org

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

WHEN:
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





WHAT:
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.

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

WHERE:
Trinity Parish Church
609 8th Ave
Seattle, WA 98104

OUR IDEAL BASS:
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. 

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

Rates may vary depending on project.

AUDITION DETAILS:
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)

REGISTER:
Sign up by May 15, 2018. Feel free to email Markdavin Obenza at markdavin@byrdensemble.com 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.




***

THE BYRD ENSEMBLE sings

EVOLUTION OF CHANT: A Starting Point

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

Buy passes here.

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

intermission

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.”

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