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Cantantibus organis
Late sixteenth-century Rome was a vigorous and energetic place, stimulated in part by the way in which the Catholic Church had responded to the gauntlet thrown down by the religious reformers of Northern Europe. Two new priestly orders had arisen—the Jesuits and the Oratorians—both with fire in their bellies and a great zeal for evangelism. Lavish works of architecture, art, literature and music revealed a Church which was neither damaged by the Reformation nor in retreat, but striding forward with ever greater confidence. Both prelates and aristocrats were patrons of the arts and they were often in competition to employ the finest musicians and to put on ever larger events. One of the ways in which Roman musicians responded to these demands was to develop the art of polychoral music, with two, three or even four choirs performing together, either to produce a massive choral sound or to allow rhetorical ‘discussion’, with one choir answering another, sometimes taking the harmonies in another direction, or jumping in with new material, or being kept silent only to enter with greater force a little later.

This was a new direction for music, different to the style inherited and developed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594), one derived essentially from Flemish composers such as Josquin Des Prez. Imitation was at the centre of their work: a melody would be sung in one voice and then copied a few beats later by another part at a different but complementary pitch, followed by yet another voice and so forth. This style can be seen in a late form in the motet Cantantibus organis (1575) by Palestrina, where the opening intervals of a fourth or a fifth are imitated in each voice part and many themes emerge during the course of the piece, all of which are playfully repeated in a true musical democracy. The new polychoral style was often more concerned with homophony, when a single choir could declaim the text with all voice parts moving essentially at the same time and another choir could respond. Palestrina embraced this style wholeheartedly, producing in his later publications many pieces for two choirs and some for three.

from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2011

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