Many of our readers, I imagine, are better versed in this subject than I am, and yet I’d like to think that this can still be helpful for a large crew of you! I’m going to give you a little musical history lesson now, so bear with me, and correct me where I go wrong, please.
Sacred music as we know it now started with Gregorian Chant, where you had a group of monks or nuns all singing the same notes in unison. Eventually, they got to the point where they wanted to have more than one note being sung at the same time, so they started doing this thing called organum, where they’d all sing the exact same melody, but 4 pitches away from each other (say the original melody starts on a C; the organum line would be up at an F). Then they’re like, hey! We could move 2 lines of music in different directions at the same time! Thus was counterpoint born, which would eventually develop into what we call harmony. They also realized that each syllable of a word didn’t have to just get one note; they could stretch syllables out over lots and lots of notes, sometimes so many that people would forget which word they were in the middle of (which made some people upset, for obvious reasons). This was called melismatic singing (versus syllabic), and my friend Hildegard of Bingen wrote some knockout pieces in the style. Seriously, her music floats and flies all up and all over the place. There’s simply nothing else I’ve ever heard quite like it.
Now we’re getting toward the late medieval and early renaissance period. This is when they go hog wild and say, why stop at 2 voices? Eventually a few crazies work their way up to 40 (FORTY!), or even more, voices singing different lines all at once. Technically, I’m sure that’s all very impressive, but I think it’s a little silly. Anyway, along comes the birth of Protestantism, and composers start doing downright outrageous things like writing polyphony (i.e., when you have more than one voice part, usually 3 or more) in the VERNACULAR. Utterly profane, of course. Bye bye, Latin. Farewell education.
Some of the greats of the polyphonic age: Praetorius (early, German), Palestrina (the king—not literally, but the guy who “saved” polyphony at the Council of Trent), William Byrd (British) and his teacher, Thomas Tallis (also British). On the playlist I’ve put together for you below, I’ve tried to include something from all of them, and from a few other notables who have written music I’ve particularly loved singing or listening to. And, I’ve tried to put it in chronological order so you can hear how it develops.
Some of my favorite pieces of all time were written for Lent, but then, two of my favorite chants are Easter pieces, so the list begins with a little mini-Triduum-esque bouquet. One of the first chant CDs I ever owned, Mysteria, was from the group Chanticleer (named for Chaucer’s rooster); it was a collection of the main chants of the Triduum, moving sequentially through the 3 holy days. I used to listen to it as I fell asleep in college, thinking that they were monks. Imagine my dismay when I went to see them years later in Boston and discovered them to be a particularly flamboyant men’s choral group from San Francisco. Ah well. . . At least they chant beautifully. Ingegneri’s Vinea Mea is another of my very most favorite Lenten pieces, perhaps because it has such an awesome alto line. I’d always thought I’d like to work it into my wedding music somehow, but the words are somewhat less than appropriate (“My chosen vine, whom I have planted and in whom I have delighted, how is it that you have turned against me, turned so bitter, crucified me and let Barabbas go free?” Something like that. . . ).
On Viadana’s Exultate Iusti (#10 on the list), imagine a poodle bouncing on a trampoline. That’s always the picture I have in my head when I sing it, and it works wonders for keeping the tone light and joyful. And, you know, bouncy. Track 11: it’s really cool what’s going on with the music here. “If ye love me”—that’s all we have to do. It’s simple, straightforward, no fancy business, so the voices all sing the words together in a straightforward no fancy business sort of way. But you know what is fancy and complicated and rich and layered and full? What happens if we can just love Him and do what he asks. He’ll talk to the Father for us, talk to the Holy Spirit for us, and just generally see that we’re comforted and taken care of all the way around. And that’s what the music is imitating when it breaks out into full polyphony after the initial chordal phrase. Cool beans. Even if it is in the profane vernacular.
Another one of my favorites: John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos. Tavener just died a little over two years ago, and I got to sing this piece with another choir the week after his death. A wonderful way to be able to pay a much-deserved tribute to him. It’s really an incredible piece because it draws so many musical traditions together. The music of the Eastern church has a different sound to it, something he mimics on the verses. But the chorus sounds Western. Also, it alternates high and low voices for each verse, which is like the antiphonal singing of psalms during the Liturgy of the Hours (antiphonal meaning that the people chanting the psalms would break into two groups, oftentimes men in one group, women in another, and switch back and forth for each verse of the psalm being chanted). Then, you also have chanting on the verse and polyphony on the chorus, so he’s tying together different musical time periods. Finally, he’s got text that’s from the Greek Orthodox funeral service, but he’s translated it into English. A seamless, cathartic and educational melding of Eastern and Western liturgical traditions. Wow. Anyway, I love it.
All right. Your next job is to set aside an hour or so to listen to each song and find the translation for the lyrics so you can actually get a sense of what they’re all about. I’ve done some of the work for you, but good versions aren’t always available for free on line, so you’ll have to do some searching around yourself. Where possible, I’ve put the name of the group that does a version I really like and linked to a recording of it. Happy hunting!
- Crux Fidelis, Chanticleer (This recording, and the next two, are on this CD.)
- Victimae Paschali Laudes, Chanticleer
- O Filii et Filiae, Chanticleer
- O Quam Mirabilis Est, Hildegard von Bingen
- O Maria Virgo Pia, Voices of the Ascension (This recording, and any other from Voices of the Ascension that I recommend on this list, are on this album. Overall, it’s a collection I highly recommend and think of as Polyphony’s Greatest Hits. Although, this particular piece is technically more counterpoint than polyphony.)
- Puer Natus in Bethlehem, M. Praetorius (I have not yet found a recording of this I actually like. Let me know what you can come up with.)
- Miserere Mei, Gregorio Allegri, King’s College Choir (This isn’t the clearest recording in sound quality, but it comes with some nice introductory remarks.)
- Super Flumina Babylonis, Palestrina
- Domine, Non Sum Dignus, Tomas Luis de Victoria (If you’re new to polyphony and want to try learning how to sing it, Victoria is a good one to start on. His music makes a lot of sense; it’s very intuitive and reasonable. A fast, but still good recording of this motet is here.)
- Exulate Iusti, Lodovico Viadana, Voices of the Ascension
- If Ye Love Me, Thomas Tallis, Voices of the Ascension
- Spem in Alium, Thomas Tallis, The King’s Singers (This is the 40 voice motet I was talking about. Positively wild.)
- Ave Verum, William Byrd, The Tallis Scholars (Pretty much anything by the Tallis Scholars is a good bet. They do a nice 2-CD collection of Byrd masses and motets that’s definitely worth buying. Ave Verum is here.)
- Vinea Mea Electa, M.A. Ingegneri (Have yet to find a good recording. Help me out!)
- Chantez a Dieu, J.P. Sweelinck, Voices of the Ascension (A good enough recording, not by VotA, here.)
- Stabat Mater, Pergolesi (This is a baroque and sometimes decidedly operatic long work for two female voices with instrument accompaniment, each verse of the Stabat Mater set to different music. As I find that preference for individual voices and style and degree of embellishment differs quite a bit, I will let you hunt this one out on your own rather than suggesting a particular recording.)
- Lift Thine Eyes, Felix Mendelssohn (Part of a longer work, Elijah, this is one my favorite choral works of all time, written for three female voices, and, in my opinion, best performed by boy trebles. Fun fact: this is what I walked down the aisle to at my wedding! A good recording here; after 1:60, it goes into the next piece in Elijah.)
- Ave Maria, Franz Biebl, Chanticleer (Demonstrates the romantic tradition in sacred music, which reached its height during the same time as the romantic period in art and literature. It will make your heart ache, but be wary of over-listening.)
- Funeral Ikos, John Tavener, The Tallis Scholars (Details on this one up above. My favorite recording here.)
- O Nata Lux, Morten Lauridssen, The King’s Singers (Another contemporary sacred music composer. Yes, there are a few composers right now picking up the threads of tradition and composing beautiful works of art! Like The Tallis Scholars, you can pretty much trust anything from The King’s Singers. Here they are on this one.)