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Renaissance Polyphony: A Singers' Study Day

Workshop directed by Peter Leech, Yatton, 8th July 2017

St Mary's, Yatton, a few miles south of Bristol, is a venue worth revisiting; it has good facilities, reasonable parking, and is easily accessible for many members. Peter Leech is a very popular tutor on SWEMF days, but it was still with some trepidation that a day of musical analysis was offered. Did the majority of members just want to sing some good music? Would there be too much discussion of obscure musicological points?

Whether it was the attraction of Peter's leadership, or a genuine desire to understand more about the fundamentals of Renaissance music, the day attracted more than 30 singers from a wide area of the South West. The standard of sight-reading at SWEMF events is excellent, so the group was easily able to cope with reading the musical examples that Peter had brought. This made it much easier to hear and appreciate the technical issues that he was illustrating.

We started the day with some four-part motets by Crécquillon (1500– 57). Although reprinted many times in the 16th century, they are often dismissed today as relatively uninteresting, but Peter disagrees. For a start, they demonstrate some fundamental issues of harmony. Thus the first, Ingemuit Susanna, appeared to be riddled with tritones, that uncomfortable interval between the perfect fourth and fifth which theorists like Zarlino (1558) were emphatic in banning. A style of music that emphasized imitation of phrases at different intervals would always lead to passing discordances, but in this motet the first and last sections limit the clashes. It is only in the second section, on the text incidere in manum hominum, 'to fall into the hand of man', that the clash between B flat, E flat and E natural cannot be resolved satisfactorily. The conclusion was that a tritone, in the right place, was acceptable to all but the theorists.

The next Crécqillon piece was Ecce nos reliquimus, which Peter had again supplied without any musica ficta. The important structural cadences would suggest sharpened leading notes, but after our experience with the previous piece, neither the natural leading notes nor even the final minor chord seemed impossible.

Peter pointed out one of the differences between English and continental music at the beginning of the 16th century: while England sustained some relatively large establishments of singers, on the continent there would often be just four men. These would be highly skilled, expected to compose as well as sing, and thus there was perhaps less need to notate the ficta decisions (which might have varied from place to place anyway).

Canons were next. Josquin's Ave Maria Virgo Serena could almost be a student’s textbook, as it includes a succession of canons at various intervals, along with the contrast of two wonderful homophonic passages. At this earlier period a preference for open fifth chords, so without the third in the final chords, removes some of the problems encountered by Crécquillon. This piece also included a section in triple time. The proportion of three against two, with bar equals bar (sesquialtera) or bar equals old half-bar (tripla) causes much confusion amongst scholars, even though Josquin himself is said to have scorned a singer who got it wrong! On this occasion we opted for a tripla relationship, emphasizing the dance-like character of the section.

Another Josquin piece, Dominus regnavit, contained the same devices as well as word painting (even though this is an anachronistic term, as Peter explained) on elevaverunt, longitudinem etc. Often wrongly attributed to Josquin, however, was an eight-part piece by Gombert, Tulerunt Dominum meum, which itself was a contrafactum (new words, old music) of his own Lugebat Absalon. The final unavoidable minor chord was originally set to fili mi Absalon, but here to Alleluia. We experimented with introducing sharpened leading notes elsewhere, but without conviction!

The Agnus from Victoria's mass on Vidi speciosam demonstrated the huge change that had taken place by the end of the century; but the canons were still there, and some unexpected semitones provoked discussion.

A final look at Crécquillon's O beata trinitas concluded the day. Tritones and musica ficta had kept us on our toes even if there couldn't be any simple rules of thumb that we could follow in future. Peter emphasized that the temperament used by singers (rarely 'equal'), the resonance of the building, the word setting, and the overall context of the piece were as important in its time as the apparent clashes produced. Some bars, which, when played on the piano sounded appalling and which broke all the rules of the theorists, could become beautifully expressive when sung.

This type of workshop is very welcome, and I hope it will be revisited soon. Thanks are due to Simon Pickard for the idea, and to Peter for being the perfect analyst.

- Jonathan Tribe




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Last modified: 04 September 2017