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Plummy Polyphony


Founded at Oxford by Peter Phillips in 1973 and going strong ever since, the Tallis Scholars returned to St. Paul Church in Cambridge Friday for the Boston Early Music Festival. Although its cohort of five women and five men has changed over the years, Phillips has remained its leader and continues to explore and develop new repertoire for it. Friday night’s concert appeared to be sold out, as longtime devotees and more recent converts crowded into the unforgiving pews of the beautiful St. Paul’s. Friday’s program of primarily late Renaissance polyphony focused on key devotional texts that have endured through centuries of Catholic worship.

The melody of “Salve Regina,” a plea to the Virgin Mary for intercession that is still sung as an antiphon after Offices of the Catholic Church, was used as the basis of polyphonic compositions by both Medieval and Renaissance composers. Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (ca. 1590-1664) was born and educated in Spain, but subsequently became choirmaster at the splendid new cathedral of Puebla in Mexico. His “Salve Regina” calls for a double choir of eight parts. Each voice participated in imitative polyphony, but strong homophonic chords in emphatic declamation in antiphonal exchange between the two choirs marked the syntactical break at the beginning of the second section at “Eia ergo advocata nostra” (Therefore our advocate) and the repeated supplications in the final line: “O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria” (O merciful, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary). In Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, “Salve regina” is sung in harmony by the doomed nuns in a final invocation of the Virgin’s mercy as they slowly progress toward their execution by Revolutionary soldiers. A five-voice setting of the “Salve Regina” by William Cornysh was included in the famous Eton Choirbook, a lavishly decorated manuscript collection of choral music composed during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Cornysh’s setting exemplifies a pre-Reformation style of English sacred music featuring long, sinuous vocal lines in florid polyphony with little imitation between the voices. The Tallis Scholars’s amazing high trebles sang with pure and focused tone that rang through the rafters. Perhaps the best known of Medieval devotional chants, the “Ave Maria” borrows from the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in the Gospel according to Luke. Cornysh’s four-voice “Ave Maria,” on the other hand, sung one-on-a-part by four men from the ensemble, opens with the words “Ave Maria” but then proceeds with an entirely different prayer to the Virgin. Relatively simple in style, it announces each line in largely syllabic declamation before concluding in florid melisma. Midway in his opera, Poulenc’s Carmelite nuns sing the traditional text during a communal devotion. The arrangement for ten unaccompanied voices by Jeremy White captured the essence of Poulenc’s decidedly tonal yet chromatically-tinged chordal setting.

The famous setting of the penitential psalm “Miserere mei Deus” by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) was one of the Sistine Chapel choir’s most jealously guarded possessions. Its fame rested not on the simple five-voice falsobordone harmonization of the chant, but on the interpolated ornamented passages for an additional four-voice choir of soloists, the highest part reaching to a dizzying high C. During his first trip to Italy in 1770, the 14-year-old Mozart famously reproduced the entire setting with its interpolated passages after attending Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel. In this spectacular performance, one of the tenors pulpit sang solo verses from the high pulpit while the polyphonic verses, complete with ornaments, rang out from the chancel. An Italian adaptation of the psalm that was then retranslated into Latin was set for six voices by the Venetian composer Giovanni Croce (ca. 1557-1609) and published in 1599. Passages in varying contrapuntal combinations of two and three voices contrasted with emphatic chordal declamations marking off major sections of the text.

Tallis Scholars (file photo)

A Latin prose meditation on the sacrament of Communion, “O sacrum convivium” is included as an antiphon to the Magnificat in the office of Vespers on the feast of Corpus Christi. The five-voice setting by Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) was published with its Latin text in the Cantiones sacrae, but may originally have been set to an English translation. Under Phillips’s direction, the ensemble delivered flowing polyphony of expertly shaped lines. Olivier Messaien’s 1937 setting of the same text, mostly chordal in style, revels in pungent chromaticism. The Tallis singers captured its mystical fervor with precise tuning and sensitive dynamic control. Two settings of the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s song of praise, concluded the program. In his setting for the Anglican liturgy of the early 16th century, William Byrd (1540-1623) paid careful attention to correct declamation of the English text so that the words could be clearly understood. By contrast, the opulent setting for a Catholic high feast day by Tomàs Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) for two four-voice choirs reflected all the splendor of late Renaissance polychoral music. In varied contrapuntal textures within each choir as well as in mostly chordal antiphonal exchanges between the two choirs, the ten singers produced a well focussed and truly thrilling sound that was free of the forced tone we have sometimes heard from this group. In response to cheers and whoops, an equally joyful encore rewarded us: “Hosanna to the son of David” for six voices by the versatile English composer, Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623).

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

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