Music was invented for choirs. When the first glimmerings of the modern musical staff were being codified by Guido d’Arezzo sometime around the year 1000, it was choral music he was trying to preserve. And in the following centuries, it was choral music that fascinated the most important composers. From the unison of plainchant, to the chords of organum, to the increasingly sophisticated polyphony of motets and madrigals, choral music was the undisputed glory of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It didn’t stop there, of course. Even as the importance of instrumental music was on the rise, late Baroque composers like Bach and Handel still used the choir to express some of their most exquisite ideas. Hallelujah!
On Feb 23, choirs from around the city will come together and explore the riches of early choral music. We will hear music from many countries and across the centuries, spanning over 400 years of changing styles. The concert will take place in St Peter in Chains Cathedral, a great stone vault that will allow the music to sound as it did when it was new.
Participating in the concert are the following choirs: The Cathedral Choir of St Peter in Chains. The Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble and Concert Choir, the two lead choirs from Xavier University. Collegium Cincinnati, a professional choir led by Christopher Eanes. And Encore, the auditioned upper choir of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy.
The oldest piece on the program is “Gaudete,” an anonymous song published in Piae Cantiones, a Swedish collection of medieval music. Another early piece is “Ave Maria – Virgo Serena” by Josquin des Prez, one of the most famous pieces written in the 1400s.
|the Orpheus Britannicus|
One hundred years later, Palestrina arose as the great Italian composer of his time, and we will hear from him as well. Fifty years after that, Hans Leo Hassler left his native Germany to study in Italy, and his melding of German and Italian sensibilities bridged the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music in Germany. And at the end of the 17th century, Henry Purcell became the greatest English composer for many generations. He composed his Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary in 1695. And so we come to Bach. His cantata 196, “Der Herr denket an uns" was composed around 1708, and is rarely heard today.
In addition to all this amazing music by the individual choirs, they will all join forces in two great works that are rarely performed, as they require great numbers of singers. Michael Praetorius composed his “Jubilate Deo” for six parts in three choirs in the first years of the 17th century. And in a class by itself is “Spem in Alium”, or “Hope in No Other.” The story goes that a travelling Italian composer at Elizabeth I’s court led a performance of his piece for 30 voices, and the Duke of Norfolk wondered if an English composer could do better. Up stepped the great Thomas Tallis, who composed his own work for 40 voices. That’s 40 interweaving lines of polyphony, the principal voice moving around within the group, combinations emerging and then disappearing, the fullness of the music waxing and waning. It is an extraordinary work from the 1570s, and most people will never hear it performed live. Of course in Cincinnati we’re not most people.
Sunday, Feb 23, 3:00pm. St Peter in Chains Cathedral, 325 West 8th Street. Free to the public, but a freewill offering will be accepted.