Thursday, February 5, 2015

Music of the Spanish Renaissance

One of the most exciting new programs of the Early Music Festival will take place February 11. Beautiful Old St. Mary’s in Over-the-Rhine will host an a cappella performance of an entire Mass setting as composed by one of the most important composers of Renaissance Spain. 

Matthew Swanson is the man behind this venture. He is assistant choir master at Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park, and sings with the May Festival Chorus and the Vocal Arts Ensemble. While studying at Notre Dame with Alexander Blachly, noted founder of the pioneering early music vocal ensemble Pomerium, Swanson discovered plainchant and Renaissance polyphony. After earning his master’s at CCM in conducting, he spent a year at Cambridge soaking up every drop he could of English choral traditions. He led the choir of the University’s Catholic Chapel and earned another master’s in choral studies from Kings College, before returning to Cincinnati.

It was in the glee club at Notre Dame under the direction of Daniel Stowe that Swanson first made the acquaintance of Cristóbal de Morales, and he’s never forgotten him.  Morales isn’t quite a household name these days.  But during his lifetime, c1500-1553, he was very well known indeed. He was the most important composer in Spain of his day or before, and the Church considered him the vital link between Josquin, 1450-1521, and Palestrina, 1525-1594.  His contemporaries carried his music to all corners of the Spanish empire:  It was certainly sung in Angola and Mexico in the 16th century, and perhaps even in the northern missions of Texas and New Mexico as well.

The Mass Swanson has chosen for us this year, the Missa Ave Maria, is quite unusual in that it was written without any high parts.  In 16th century Spain boys were usually on hand to sing the soprano and alto lines. In this case, however, the score calls for men only: tenor, tenor, tenor, and bass. Morales takes one of the most famous musical themes of his era and launches a dozen conversations with it, shifting it among the voices, using it as an organum foundation in the basses and as an ornament in the high voices, and in the most inspired and fiendishly difficult moment, handing it to the two central voices, having them sing it as a canon, and then giving the outermost voices different text to sing around it. Even his contemporaries were at a loss when it came to his music, proud of his obvious genius, but frequently puzzled by exactly what he was doing.

And then there’s Tomás Luis de Victoria, c 1548-1611, whose music we will also hear.  Just a generation behind Morales, the music of the two men is in fact quite different. To hear them back to back, as we will in this program, is to hear two sides of a divide. Where Morales is modal, using the harmonies that sound to us more medieval, Victoria is more tonal, or in other words, more modern to our ears.  Morales’ brisker, more practical treatment of his subject gives way to a more leisurely, exploratory approach in Victoria. Some see Morales as less emotional, whereas Victoria is often mistaken for the smooth and consonant Palestrina. Victoria may seem like a “soothing balm” after Morales, although Morales rewards careful listening with his ever-changing harmonies and avid adherence to his text.  

An exciting group of singers has come together to perform this work. They call themselves Vicars Choral, and they consist of advanced students at CCM, a CCM professor and specialist in chant, a composer, a member of the May Festival Chorus, the director of music at Old St Mary’s, and a medical researcher from Indianapolis who was likewise bitten by the early music bug while at Notre Dame and never quite shook it off. One never knows when assembling a vocal ensemble how it will work:  eight excellent singers may not quite fit with each other. “There’s a groove you need to get into,” admits Swanson, “especially with people who haven’t done it before – it can be tricky. The music is very exacting. ” 

Old St. Mary's

If we list the participants in this program, we will include the eight choristers; Swanson; Morales and Victoria; and last but not least, Old St. Mary’s church itself.  Swanson cannot say enough about how perfect he finds the marriage between venue and music.
·     -- First of all there is the singing of an Ave Maria Mass in a church dedicated to Mary.
·   --  Then there is the church’s ties to the to the order of St. Philip Neri, a cleric who was a contemporary of both Morales and Victoria and who is credited with the development of the oratorio and the central role of music in worship. 
·    -- Add in Old St. Mary’s great age (for a North American church) and celebration of tradition. Did you know you can hear Mass sung there every week in English, Latin, and German?  That Old St. Mary’s is the only church in the nation with a weekly sung German Mass?  The thousand-year-old musical traditions of the Church are alive and well and being celebrated here every week  – to sing a piece composed a mere 500 years ago seems perfectly in keeping with the mission of the church.
·    -- And then there is the physical space.  The acoustics will be perfect for the music, and the atmosphere of the sanctuary feels “appropriately grand,” in Swanson’s words, for an undertaking such as this.  

To be clear:  This program is in fact a musical performance.  No Mass will be celebrated, no sermons given nor communion taken.  All are welcome.  It will be almost certainly your only chance to hear a full polyphonic Mass written only for men’s voices, certainly this year in Cincinnati. When you consider the vital role this musical form had on the history of music – and indeed on the history of the Western world – you will not want to miss this opportunity to hear it as it was originally intended, and is so rarely presented today. 

Wednesday, February 11, 7:30pm. Free will offering.  Details

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