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Ancient Style Pleases Modern Auditors


Back in town for BEMF, the London-based vocal ensemble Stile Antico brought Renaissance favorites to St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge on Friday. Established in 2001, the group made its North American debut at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2009, and has returned here yearly ever since. Singing without conductor, the 12 singers (six men and six women) perform as a chamber ensemble, relying on the well-tuned and well-rehearsed musicianship of each member to shape the multiple musical lines of a polyphonic complex into a coherent whole. Over the years, the 12 seem to have gained in ease and fluency, drawing audiences in with the energy and conviction of their music-making.

They focused on the works of three generations of singer-composers known as Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal: Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tomkins. Charged with providing sacred music for the English court, they complied without regard to their own particular religious sympathies. Although the circumstances of its origin are uncertain, the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis (Unto us a son is born) by Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) may date back to the reign of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor; we heard its magnificent Gloria. Employing a procedure that was already old-fashioned, Tallis set the chant melody of the Christmas Introit as a cantus firmus, laid out in the tenor according to a uniquely elaborate numerological scheme. He followed the most up-to-date Franco-Flemish practice, on the other hand, in weaving around the tenor an almost constant web of imitative polyphony between the remaining six voices. By dint of supple phrasing and sensitive dynamic shading, the Stile Antico singers clarified the dense contrapuntal fabric of this complex work. In Tallis’s four-voice setting of In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam (In peace itself I will sleep and rest) a responsory for Compline, gracefully arching phrases again showed his mastery of imitative technique.

Tallis’s pupil and collaborator William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) was a Catholic recusant who despite recurrent fines still managed to stay in the good graces of Queen Elizabeth. Byrd’s Vigilate nescitis enim quando (Watch ye therefore for you know not when) reads the text from Christ’s warning to his disciples (Mark, chapter 13) as a warning to the Catholic community. Friday’s program opened with a vivid rendering of this five-voice motet. All 12 singers were on stage, high and low voices intermixed. The ensemble highlighted the dramatic alternation of imitative and declamatory passages, leading to a wonderful melismatic flourish at the close. The rhetoric of penitential lamentation suffused another motet for the Catholic community, Tristitia et anxietas (Sadness and anxiety), published in Byrd’s Cantiones sacrae of 1589. The mournful tone was enhanced by the low tessitura in alto, tenor, and bass ranges. Carefully executed points of imitation, beginning with the half-step opening motive, made the most of the affective text, leading up to the powerful rising figure in paired imitation on the final “Miserere mei” (Have mercy on me). The settings of the Latin Propers in Byrd’s Gradualia of 1605 were clearly tended for the use of the recusant community. Ecce virgo concipiet, for Advent, foretells the birth of Christ in a restrained five-voice setting in which all 12 singers participated. Eight singers arranged themselves into two choirs for the performance of Super flumina Babylonis (By the streams of Babylon) by the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte (1521-1603). In a series of freely-worked points of imitation, successive phrases of the evocative text were heard in antiphonal exchange, until all eight joined in the crucial outcry of the exiled Jews: “Quomodo cantabimus canticum Domini in terra aliena?” (How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?). In what was most likely intended as a coded message of sympathy to a fellow Roman Catholic, Monte sent a copy of his motet to Byrd, who responded with his own eight-voice motet for double choir. Byrd began his motet (not included in Friday’s program) tellingly enough with the “Quomodo cantabimus” lament, continuing with another set of verses from the same psalm.

With the establishment of the Anglican church, settings of psalm texts from the English prayer book became common. The well-known “O clap your hands together” by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) is a setting of Psalm 47 for double choir that eight Stile Antico singers carried off with joyful aplomb and surprising volume. “Sleep, fleshly birth”, a six-voice lament composed in 1612 by Robert Ramsey (ca. 1590-1644) on the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, employed another emotional language altogether, that of the Italian madrigal as adopted by the English. Short declamatory phrases, spiced with occasional chromatic touches, conveyed an image of peaceful rest rather than anguished mourning.

Works by continental contemporaries rounded out Stile Antico’s roster of Renaissance favorites. The Spaniard Cristóbal de Morales (ca. 1500-1553) was a singer in the papal chapel when he composed the six-voice motet “Jubilate Deo” (Rejoice in the Lord), which celebrates the peace treaty engineered by Pope Paul III and concluded in 1538 between Charles V of Spain and Francis I of France. All three rulers come in for their share of praise in the five-voice web of imitative polyphony woven around the short chant incipit “Gaudeamus” (Let us rejoice) sounded throughout in the tenor as an ostinato. The second of the motet’s two sections opened with a solemnly declaimed “O felix aetas, O felix Paule” (O happy age, O happy Paul) and closed with a ringing “Vivat!” (Long live!) addressed to Paulus, Carolus, and Franciscus. Here the Stile Antico singers were at their most exuberant. Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), another Spaniard active in Rome, composed his famous motet “O vos omnes qui transitis” (O all ye that pass by) to a text from the Old Testament Lamentations, adopted into the liturgy for Holy Saturday as an expression of deepest sorrow for the death of Jesus. The four-voice setting was moving in its restraint, making the chordal outcry on the word “attendite” (attend) all the more effective.

Stile Antico (file photo)

A close contemporary of Victoria, Sebastian Vivanco (ca. 1551-1622) remained in his native Spain throughout his career, producing a large number of Masses and motets. Apparently unperturbed by its sensual imagery, late medieval Christians reinterpreted the Old Testament Song of Songs as an allegory in praise of the Virgin Mary. Vivanco’s setting of “Veni, dilecte mi” (Come, my beloved) for eight-voice double choir was joyfully straightforward, delivering the text with lively rhythms in largely syllabic style. By contrast, a  motet on another text from the Song of Songs, “Ego flos campi” (I am a flower of the field) by the Flemish composer Jacobus Clemens (non Papa) (ca. 1510-ca. 1555) combined skillfully interwoven seven-voice polyphony with warmly consonant harmonies.

Returning to the English Chapel Royal for the final offering, “O praise the Lord” by Thomas Tompkins (1572-1656) was a tour de force in which 12 separate voice parts vied with one another in exuberant imitative polyphony and dramatic antiphonal effects. Pressed for an encore, we were asked to guess the identity of a grand five-voice motet to a text that translated as “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say rejoice,” by a composer who had a strong influence on Monteverdi. My pick: “Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, gaudete,” by Giaches de Wert (1535-1596). But I will return the prize if I win!

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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