One of the choirs I sing with is Schola Assumptionis, which comes together to sing polyphonic music at masses and evensongs wherever we can get gigs. It’s mostly centred on St Anselm & St Caecelia’s, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but we’ve also sung at St. Mary’s, Stoke Newington and other C of E churches around London, so it’s nicely balanced in terms of the confessional divide. Singing at both RC and Anglican services means we can do a variety of music; at evensong it’s inevitably Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and so on and at vespers we take our pick from the vast repertoire of Continental polyphony.
Last Saturday we were at choral vespers at SS Anselm and Caecelia. For anyone not familiar with the vespers service (and as I am not a Catholic I count myself among that number), it’s structured as chant, hymn – not a hymn as in Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer but more chant interspersed with a choir setting – Latin psalms, reading and the Magnificat as a motet. Then yet more chant, a choir motet, benediction and the whole thing is over in three-quarters of an hour. Anyone familiar with evensong will see the structural similarity, but at vespers the whole thing is in Latin, and there’s a lot of incense.
Getting to grips with chant is hard. The notation is crazy. Look at the example I’ve uploaded; it’s nowhere near as easy to read as normal music. Modern chant notation is simplified, but they’re pretty hardcore down at SS Anselm & Caecelia and this older style is used.
It’s the polyphony I turn up for, though; we sang Tomas Luis da Victoria’s A Patre Unigenite, a Lassus Magnificat and ended up with a Hassler motet, Cantate Domino. If you’re a novice to this sort of music you’ll probably be told to go away and listen to Tallis’s Spem In Alium or anything by Palestrina, but I don’t have it within me to love the glacial spikiness of Tallis and I find Palestrina just too pretty-pretty. The best introduction to Renaissance polyphony is the glorious, terrifying Victoria Officium Defunctorum (or requiem) of 1605 and the Byrd mass for four voices, thought to be written in the early 1590s.
And there’s a back story to them both that illuminates the music – Byrd, as is well known, was a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England, which explains the plangent, yearning quality to his music. As a singer I particularly like Byrd because he gives the altos a lot of good lines – we totally take the lead on the mass in four parts. There’s nowhere to hide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yT0kLA6DHA
By contrast, I like to think you can really hear the fervour of the Inquisition in Victoria’s work; his Tenebrae Responsiores narrates the Passion and is sung in Holy Week. Turn the light down low, turn the volume up and listen to O Vos Omnes, and see if you don’t shiver. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85XUFpdgUac