Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus

Stag on a mountaintop; the painting The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, 1851

As the hart longs for
Fountains of water, so my
Soul longs for you, Lord.

The haiku above is a translation of the Latin words of Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, drawn from Psalm 42 of the Old Testament of the Bible.

I recently had the sublime pleasure of singing this motet.  One can hear the piece and know that it is beautiful.  But by singing this piece in the middle of a small mixed ensemble I learned something that I would never have known otherwise.

This piece breathes.  Though it was written so many hundreds of years ago, it is alive.  The lines rise and fall gently, as the chest rises and falls when one is at peace, at rest, or in meditation.  The lines rise and fall in pitch, describing a smooth arc.  The dynamics change, one voice rising in volume as it enters, then falling away as a new voice begins.  As the voices intertwine, there is a heartbeat, there is breath, and the piece becomes a living thing.  The motet ends with a hushed tone of hope, or assurance, or belief, all the voices uniting as one, as one living being.

And when you sing it, you realize that you, and your one voice, are now part of a stream of singers that have sung this very piece for hundreds of years.  Your voice rises now, as have so many voices before you, and when it falls away, a new singer will begin.  And the music will live on forever.

Here is Sicut cervus.

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Image attribution: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Monarch_of_the_Glen%2C_Edwin_Landseer%2C_1851.png

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Haiku Wednesday: Old Music, New World

Sheet music in old notation showing parts of the Quechua hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin
Thousands of miles from
Home, they sought the solace of
A familiar faith.

The same sun shone down,
And the church looked just the same,
But a world away.

And new believers,
At home here, sought connection,
Familiar comfort.

And on that Sunday,
The music sounded the same,
But the words were new.

And both would smile in
This new and ancient landscape,
Worlds joined in music.

I love the things I find during my random walks through music history.  I was doing research on Tomás Luis de Victoria (around 1548-1611; you’ll see a post on him soon) when I found out that he published a collection of his music for distribution throughout Europe and the New World.  The New World.  I hadn’t thought about it before.  Typically, newly built colonial cities in the Americas had a central town square, and on one side of this square there was always a church, if not a cathedral.  And these churches needed music.

Victoria’s music traveled to Bogota, Colombia; Lima and Cusco, Peru; Mexico City, Mexico; and other cities in the New World.  The Spanish composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla didn’t send his music; he came to Mexico, composed music in the city of Puebla, and was the music director of the city’s cathedral.  Composer Juan García de Zéspedes, born in Puebla, studied under Gutiérrez de Padilla and later succeeded him as the music director.

At the cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala, now Antigua Guatemala, the Portuguese composer Gaspar Fernandes compiled a collection of choral music written by him and by the Spanish composers Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Bermúdez.  Fernandes and Bermúdez were also active at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico.

I discovered that there is a wealth of information on sacred and secular music in the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s.  Some are listed in the references, but there are many more.

I had only begun to scratch the surface when this music stopped me in my tracks, music that I needed to share.  The first vocal polyphonic work published in the New World (in 1631) is from Peru, and it is in the Quechua language.  It is Hanacpachap cussicuinin, a hymn to the Virgin Mary.  And it is beautiful.  Here are the words of the first verse (presented today in Haiku form):

O, Joy of Heaven,
We praise you a thousand times,
Tree of thrice-blessed fruit.
Hope of humankind,
You help all those who are weak.
Attend to our prayer.

And now, here is a performance of Hanacpachap cussicuinin.

References

  1. Tomás Luis de Victoria, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%C3%A1s_Luis_de_Victoria.
  2. Sacred Music: God’s Composer.  Music by Tomás Luis de Victoria.  BBC DVD, 2012.  https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Music-Gods-Composer-Victoria/dp/B006ZBJJI2
  3. Cramer, Eugene, Tomás Luis de Victoria: A Guide to Research. Psychology Press, 1998, 53-72.
  4. http://www.lacompania.com.au/reviews/cds/
  5. Bowers, Teresa, “The Golden Age of Choral Music in the Cathedrals of Colonial Mexico,” The Choral Journal, Vol 40 No 9 (April 2000) pp 9-13 via jstor.org.
  6. Escalada, Oscar, “Hanaqpachaq: The First Polyphonic Work Published (and Composed?) in the New World” [trans., ed. David Castleberry], The Choral Journal, Vol 43 No 2 (September 2002) pp 9-16 via jstor.org.
  7. Also see works by musicologist Robert Stevenson.

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Image attribution: Juan Pérez Bocanegra. Ritual, formulario, e institución de curas para administrar a los naturales de este reyno, los santos sacramentos del baptismo, confirmacion, eucaristia, y viatico, penitencia, extremauncion, y matrimonio: con aduertencias muy necessarias. Lima: Geronymo de Contreras, 1631, p 708, via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/ritualformulario00pr.


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Haiku Wednesday: Small is Beautiful; Palestrina’s Missa Brevis

lavender plant with tiny flowerslavender plant

Look closely; you’ll find
Hidden beauty sometimes in
The smallest places.

It had been quite a day.  An ugly day.

It was the kind of day that, for me, only the exquisite beauty of Renaissance polyphony would wash away.  And who better than Palestrina?

So I settled into my favorite chair, started some music, and closed my eyes.  Beautiful.

Except…

I noticed that the movements were going by a lot quicker than I expected.   Palestrina was moving at quite a clip.  Before I knew it, the piece was over.  Wait, what?  Already?  Which Palestrina had I selected?

It turned out I had selected an album containing Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, from his Third Book of Masses of 1570.  It is a complete mass, no movements omitted, as can be the case in some masses.  But it seemed noticeably shorter than some of his other masses.  How much shorter?  I did the only thing I could think of to verify my impression.

Selected Palestrina Masses performed by The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
Title Kyrie Gloria Credo Sanctus Benedic-tus Agnus Dei I Agnus Dei II
Missa Benedic-tus es 5:59 7:10 10:59 10:22 6:45
Missa Nasce La Gioja Mia 3:06 4:33 7:25 4:52 4:25
Missa Assump-ta Est Maria 4:42 5:41 8:06 5:31 5:50
Missa Sicut Lilium Inter Spinas 3:42 6:12 9:01 5:19 5:02 n/a
Missa Papae Marcelli 4:02 5:37 8:56 6:40 6:40
Missa Brevis 2:52 3:07 5:24 4:34 5:33

You can see from the table that a) I’m a nerd; b) most of the movements of the Missa Brevis are half the length of those in the Missa Benedictus es, and for the most part are noticeably shorter than those of other masses.

While the work is short, Palestrina more than makes up for it in the beauty of his composition.  This could be the most peaceful 2:52 of your day: here is the Kyrie from the Missa Brevis.

You can watch a performance of the entire piece (23 minutes) here.

If you will be performing this work with a choir and need some help learning your part, you can visit the CyberBass page for the Missa Brevis, where you can hear and download your part for each movement.  Scores are available at the Choral Public Domain Library, or at the Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP).

May you find beauty in unexpected places.
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Image attributions: Photos of lavender plant and flower by C. Gallant, 2017.


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Sing for Your Supper:  Renaissance Notation Knives

Renaissance Notation Knife, about 1550

Renaissance Notation Knife, about 1550. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A slice of life from Renaissance Italy has been preserved in the form of knives with musical notation.  These rare knives, dating from about 1550, can be found in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in a few other locations.  For a detailed picture of a complete set, see this article from the WQXR blog.

Each knife contains the vocal line for one male voice (superius, contratenor, tenor, bassus).  One side of the blade displays a benediction, and the other, grace to be sung at the table.  You can hear (and download) recordings of the beautiful polyphonic music on the knives from this webpage of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

If you’re thinking, “they don’t make things like that anymore,”

Plastic Notation Knife

you’re almost right.  One artisan has created a beautiful modern reproduction that you can see at the link.

References

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-notation-knife/

http://www.wqxr.org/story/listen-these-knives-can-carry-tune/

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Image attribution:  Renaissance notation knife, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-notation-knife/

Modern clear plastic notation knife, C. Gallant, 2017.