Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Special intersections of art and belief

I've been listening to more than a few CDs for review, but this new one from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen has knocked me for a loop. The title track, "The Deer's Cry", is written by Arvo Pärt. The text is an amazing poem (which Pärt sets in English), written by St. Patrick (372-466):
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me,
Christ with me.
Though I'm not a believer, I was raised in the Christian tradition and often feel myself stirred by special intersections of art and belief: the great Medieval cathedrals of Europe, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the Eisenheim Altarpiece of Grünewald. This intimate piece sounds so personal, almost like a confession. But behind it is the long, vital stream of faith and tradition going back to St. Patrick and the early church. And surrounding it is the darkness of Pärt's world in communist Estonia, and of all faith under the threat of intolerance. This is such beautiful, moving music, and it affected me deeply.

These themes of tradition and faith under fire are two of three that tie together the music of Pärt, who was born in 1935, with the two Tudor composers who share the disc, Thomas Tallis (1503-1585) and William Byrd (1539-1623). Like Pärt, Tallis and Byrd (both 'unreformed Roman Catholics') were at times unable to openly practice their religion. Also like Pärt the two earlier composers built on the music of their English and continental precursors. Indeed, there is literal building going on in the amazing Miserere nostri, where the pupil Byrd writes a four-part piece upon which his master Tallis, in a technical tour de force, adds three more voices. And it's all astonishingly beautiful:

That's the third theme Harry Christophers brings to this music: craftsmanship. Canons, crab-canons, inversions, and all sorts of ingenious musical tricks are in play.  Here's how the low-voice singers treat the portion of the Miserere nostri that Byrd wrote:
The first sings the line exactly as written. The second doubles all the durations of the notes (x2), and turns all the intervals upside down. The third singer quadruples the durations (x4) and resorts the intervals. The fourth octuples the durations (x8) and re-inverts the intervals. Thus four different versions of the same melody sound simultaneously, in various states of augmentation and inversion - a conceit that is utterly impossible to follow in sound.
For someone who can just barely get through Row, row, row your boat, this is heady stuff. I'm not sure if the singers were expected to do this all in real time, or if they went away and practiced their part for a very long time. As John Milsom says in his informative liner essay, these complex puzzles aren't necessarily designed to be heard in performance, but appreciated by the singers.

One of the coolest of these begins the album. In Diliges Dominum William Byrd has written a musical palindrome. It's an eight-part motet that sounds the same sung backwards as it does forwards. As Milsom suggests in his essay, I tested this out. I loaded the MP3 into Audacity, clicked on Effects, and Reverse, and it indeed sounded the same backwards. Well, not quite the same. There's an odd, other-wordly feel to this track when it's played backwards. Besides the fact that the words are backwards as well, the reverb in the church where it was recorded comes before a phrase rather than after, and there's immediate silence after instead. It comes out a bit like this:

In any case, I recommend this disc very highly. The Sixteen have made this repertoire the basis of this year's Choral Pilgrimage. They'll be taking this repertoire to 33 sites in Britain, including the great college chapels and cathedrals, beginning in April 2016. The disc is available for pre-order now at; its release date is April 1st.

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