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A banquet of voices

Music for multiple choirs
The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Collegium
Recording details: February 1993
University College School, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jillian White
Engineered by Campbell Hughes & Simon Weir
Release date: September 2020
Total duration: 71 minutes 39 seconds

Cover artwork: Choir of Angels by Pintoricchio (1454-1513)
Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello, Umbria

"Revisiting this 1993 Cambridge Singers recording, I realize I should never have withdrawn it from the Collegium catalogue—and all because of an obscure musicological question in my mind over a Gregorian chant, long since resolved. We assembled a stellar team of forty voices, offering a sumptuous programme of music for multiple choirs that truly is a banquet of voices. Now for the first time, modern digital sound restoration has allowed the music to be heard in its full sonic splendour." (John Rutter)

This recording is a celebration, and an exploration, of some of the great wealth of choral music written for multiple choirs. For centuries composers have loved to make use of the spatial effects obtainable from placing two or more choirs antiphonally, and some of the most sumptuous and thrilling sounds in choral literature have resulted. One of the first documented occasions on which multiple choirs were used was the wedding of Constanzo Sforza and Camilla of Aragon at Pesaro in 1475, and ever since then polychoral writing has been associated with special occasions, often the great ceremonies of church or state. Northern Italy, and notably the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, was the main home of polychoral music in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; but—the theme of this album—composers elsewhere were greatly influenced by the possibilities of spaced choirs revealed in the Venetian motets of Wert and the Gabrielis, and were quick to import the idea into their own work. Sometimes the stimulus was an occasion, actual or imagined (as with the Brahms Fest- und Gedenksprüche), sometimes it was a text, such as Duo seraphim with its visions of stereophonic angels; sometimes it may have been the technical challenge of writing for a large number of voices, Tallis’s Spem in alium for forty voices being a possible example.

Polychoral music takes many forms. Common to most of them is the idea of sounds coming from different points in space, but this does not necessarily mean a simple traffic-light alternation of left-right-together, though a piece such as Scheidt’s Surrexit pastor bonus can certainly use this formula to excellent effect. The Allegri Miserere uses its nine voices (five choral parts, four soloists) sparingly: all nine sing together only in the final verse. Caldara’s Crucifixus uses sixteen voices more for the richness of texture they afford than for antiphonal effect, and Mendelssohn’s Mitten wir im Leben sind does not divide its eight voices spatially at all, but instead exploits an antiphonal relationship between high voices and low.

There is no theoretical limit to the number of independent voice-parts that a composer can write for, though beyond a certain number the practical problems of co-ordination in performance and maintaining clarity of sound become unmanageable. The 53-voice Mass formerly ascribed to Benevoli, performed in Salzburg Cathedral in the seventeenth century, is believed to be the record-holder. More voices do not, of course, necessarily make for better music, yet in the hands of a master such as Thomas Tallis, forty voices are not an extravagance: he uses them to make extraordinary, wonderful, and at times almost overwhelming sounds that could not have been created in any other way.

Duo seraphim clamabant Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)
During his lifetime and for at least 200 years after his death, Francisco Guerrero was one of the most widely published and performed vocal composers of the Spanish Renaissance, second only to Victoria in reputation. From 1551 until his death he worked at Seville Cathedral, first as assistant director of music, then from 1574 as director. He travelled widely, and had his music published in several countries; it was much performed in the Spanish-American colonies. He wrote mainly vocal music, sacred and secular. Among his 150 or so published motets, Duo seraphim is one of the most resplendent, imaginatively exploiting the spatial and illustrative possibilities suggested by the text, with duets, a trio and the full choirs used at the appropriate points.

Miserere mei, Deus Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652)
Like Albinoni, it is Allegri’s fate to be chiefly remembered for a single, overwhelmingly popular composition that is not entirely his own. He was a composer and singer who lived in Rome, studying under Palestrina’s successor Nanino and becoming a member of the papal choir in 1629. He wrote his Miserere for performance in the Pontifical chapel during Holy Week, where it continued to be exclusively performed every year until 1870. The score, it is said, was guarded jealously, though the historian Burney obtained a copy and published it in 1771 along with other music used in the Vatican Holy Week ceremonies. Mozart reputedly wrote out the entire piece from memory after hearing it; and Mendelssohn, in Rome in 1831, wrote out some of the soloists’ passage including the high C in a letter describing the ceremonies. Mendelssohn correctly surmised that this repeated passage does not form part of Allegri’s composition but was added later, ‘the work of some clever maestro who had a few fine voices at his disposal, and in particular a very high soprano’. The soloists’ passage, as notated by him, was later grafted on to various reconstructions of the Miserere, which did not take its present form until 1951 when Sir Ivor Atkins published a patchwork edition that has become the basis of all later ones. Laying aside questions of authenticity, many will agree with Mendelssohn that Allegri’s much-altered composition with its high C ‘makes so deep an impression that when it begins, visible excitement pervades all present … whenever people say that the voices do not sound like the voices of men, but of angels from on high, and that these sounds can never be heard elsewhere, it is this particular embellimento to which they invariably allude’.

Crucifixus Antonio Caldara (1670-1736)
Born in Venice, Caldara held court musical appointments in Mantua, Rome, and from 1716, Vienna, where he served the Emperor Charles VI. Among his other duties he was required to write music for the court’s Lenten observances, and this exceptional Crucifixus could have been written for one of these. Caldara handles the sixteen voices with great skill and expressiveness; his superior at the Vienna court was the legendary contrapuntist Fux, and it is tempting to wonder whether Caldara wanted to display his own contrapuntal mastery for the approval of the older maestro. After Caldara’s death, the piece was evidently remembered and admired: it was published and performed in Berlin in the 1830s, when the revival of old music was just beginning, and in 1906 it was included in a volume of Caldara’s music from the Viennese court.

Surrexit pastor bonus Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
SSAT ATBB + continuo
Samuel Scheidt was one of the leading composers of the early German Baroque period, noted equally for his vocal and for his keyboard music. He was born in Halle (birthplace of Handel almost exactly a century later) and became a church organist there while still in his teens. He studied in Amsterdam with Sweelinck, but then returned to Halle, where he remained until his death, working as a court and church musician. Surrexit pastor bonus comes from Scheidt’s first published collection of work, the Cantiones Sacrae Octo Vocum of 1620. This impressive volume consists of double-choir motets, some in Latin, others in German, for different occasions in the church calendar. Musically, the influence of Gabrieli’s Venetian style is apparent; in Surrexit pastor bonus, two antiphonal choirs, one of high voices, one of low, exchange successive phrases of the text, with joyous Easter alleluias building to a powerful climax at the end.

Spem in alium Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)
eight choirs of SATBB
In 1567 the Italian composer and nobleman Alessandro Striggio visited the English court, where he was hospitably received by Queen Elizabeth. He brought with him a copy of his recently written 40-voice motet Ecce beatam lucem, which he had shown around other European courts that year. No one knows whether Striggio met Tallis on this visit, but it would not have been unnatural if the Queen had arranged for her musical guest to meet the most senior and revered of the English court composers, the man best able to appreciate Striggio’s extraordinary composition. Again, no one knows for certain whether Tallis’s Spem in alium was written in response to Ecce beatam lucem, but if it was not, there must have been some other exceptional reason for Tallis to write the work that was unlike anything else he had ever written before, both in scale, resources, and sheer sound, the work that stands as his greatest masterpiece. A possible occasion suggested for the first performance was Queen Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday in 1573. This allows for a politically apposite allegorical interpretation of the rarely set Latin text, which occurs in the Sarum rite as a respond to readings from the Book of Judith: Judith, the brave Israelite woman (= Queen Elizabeth) beguiles the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies, Holofernes (= Philip of Spain) and cuts off his head. This interpretation, put forward by the scholar Paul Doe, is not far-fetched: Renaissance artists were only too capable of flattering their patrons in this way. Another theory connects Tallis’s motet with Thomas Howard; the Catholic nobleman executed for treason in 1572: an anecdote recorded some years later tells of a performance of Spem in alium in Arundel House, London home of his father-in-law, the Earl of Arundel. According to this account, Howard commissioned Tallis to write the motet to see whether an English composer could match Striggio’s achievement; Tallis was judged to have so far surpassed the Italian that Howard took off the gold chain from around his neck and immediately put it round Tallis’s neck as a gift. He was right: Striggio’s motet is, frankly, a little pedestrian and monotonously chordal, as if the composer’s imagination was constrained by the very size of his forces. Tallis’s imagination in Spem in alium takes wing, transporting the listener into a sound-world as fantastical and undreamt-of now (even with our galaxy of electronic resources) as it was then. His technique combines three kinds of choral writing: the freely interweaving counterpoint that was his normal means of expression; antiphonal exchanges in block harmony (as when the phrase ‘Domine Deus’ is bounced around from choir to choir); and carefully judged moments of thrilling choral climax when all forty voices are heard together. As with all true polyphonic writing, each of the forty voices has its own distinct role, none subordinate to the others; and it should be noted that there are moments of expressive individuality and even intimacy in the writing. Listen especially to the mystically lovely polyphonic flowerings that follow immediately after the motet’s several great massed outbursts of sound.

Ave regina caelorum Peter Philips (1560/1-1628)
Peter Philips stands apart from the illustrious group of English composers active at the end of the sixteenth and start of the seventeenth centuries, by reason of exile. After childhood and youth in London as a choirboy at St Paul’s Cathedral, he fled to the continent to escape persecution as a Catholic, settling first in Antwerp and later in Brussels where he was chapel organist to the Archduke Albert. Ave regina caelorum comes from his Cantiones Sacrae octonis vocis, published in Antwerp in 1613. Liturgically it is proper to the end of the evening service of Compline, its serene radiance bringing the cycle of daily worship to an appropriate and restful close.

Fest- und Gedenksprüche Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In the summer of 1889, Brahms was made a freeman of his native city of Hamburg, an honour that must have partially made up for the disappointment he had always felt at being more than once passed over for any official appointment there many years earlier. It is likely that the Fest- und Gedenksprüche (roughly translatable as ‘Festival and Commemoration Sayings’) were almost complete at the time the news reached him (he had been working on them and the Op 110 motets with no specific performance in mind), but he opportunely decided to dedicate the three Op 109 pieces to Carl Petersen, the mayor of Hamburg and an old friend. On 14 September, Brahms conducted their first performance on the occasion of the conferment of his honour in Hamburg. He described the pieces thus in a letter to von Bülow: ‘They are three short hymn-like pieces for unaccompanied eight-part choir, expressly intended for national festival and commemoration days, such as the Leipzig and Sedan victory days and Emperor’s coronations (hopefully not the latter!) … The pieces are not very difficult, but I don’t mind if the voice parts are doubled by wind instruments.’ Notwithstanding the relative brevity of the pieces, they are filled with masterful and characteristically Brahmsian touches, none the less for being steeped in the tradition of earlier polychoral writing, especially that of Bach and his German predecessors. In performance the effect of the single word ‘aber’ [but] in No 2 is unforgettable, and the sleight-of-hand by which Brahms gets back from 4/4 to 3/4 time after the stormy ensuing fugal section is dazzling. No 3, mellow and sunny, deliberately recalls the world of Brahms’s Requiem, with a direct quotation from its first movement at the words ‘dass du nicht vergessest’ [so that thou shalt not forget]. The elderly composer reminisces, as it were, about his past, and then bids farewell with a lovely autumnal ‘amen’.

Mitten wir im Leben sind Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
In 1830 Mendelssohn began an extended visit to Rome, part of the same grand tour that took him, famously, to the Hebrides. On 23 November he wrote in a letter to his sisters: ‘The chorale Mitten wir im Leben sind is completed, and is probably one of the best pieces of church music I have written’: His youthful pride in the composition was justifiable: it is a worthy homage to the spirit of his revered Bach (whose St Matthew Passion he had revived in Leipzig the year before). Tenors and basses intone two verses of Luther’s sombre chorale, punctuated by impassioned outcries from the full choir, first in block chords then in more contrapuntal style; the third verse is sung by the full choir, eventually subsiding into a hushed ‘Kyrie eleison’.

Heilig, heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
This short but sonorous and effective piece was contributed by Mendelssohn to Musica Sacra, a publisher’s collection of liturgical music; its date is unknown. The eight voice parts enable the composer to open the piece with a chain of voice entries descending by thirds through two octaves, probably the first piece of music to do this simple but remarkable thing.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Among the most treasured volumes in Bach’s personal library was his Calov Bible—that is, a Bible with commentary by the Lutheran theologian J A Calov. Alongside Exodus 15: 20-21, where, after the Red Sea crossing, Miriam tells the women of Israel ‘Sing ye to the Lord’, Calov writes: ‘But Miriam and the other women of Israel did not sing a new song but repeated like an echo what Moses and the Israelite men had sung first … and these two choruses must have produced a powerful song and a mighty sound and echo’. Bach added a marginal note: ‘NB Erstes Vorspiel auf 2 Chören zur Ehre Gottes zu musiciren’ [NB first introductory movement for 2 choirs to make music to the glory of God]. Here, seemingly, lay the seeds of his idea for Singet dem Herrn as a double-choir motet. The occasion and date of its composition are unknown; guesses have ranged from the birthday of August I of Saxony in 1727 to the signing of the Dresden peace treaty in 1745. It is indeed likely that it was written for some kind of special occasion; in Bach’s churches motets had been superseded by cantatas as the principal music of the weekly worship service, and Bach wrote only six of them, as against 200 or so surviving cantatas. Singet dem Herrn is without doubt the grandest.

The motet, as it had evolved in seventeenth-century Germany, was a multi-sectional but continuous sacred choral composition (without any independent role for instruments) that sometimes made use of chorale melodies. Texts were usually biblical or drawn from Lutheran hymns. Essentially Singet dem Herrn is cast in this mould; it divides into four sections. The first section, lively and joyful, is structurally like one of Bach’s preludes andfugues: the prelude, with its sharp antiphonal exchanges, represents Calov’s ‘sound and echo’; the fugue, beginning at the half-way point to the words ‘die Kinder Zion sei’n fröhlich’, is heard first in Choir 1 but gradually takes over both choirs, to bring the section to an impressive close. The second section is of heart-easing serenity and beauty. Choir 2 sings the chorale 'Nun lob mein Seel’' line by line, interspersed with a kind of devotional commentary from Choir 1 (Bach calls it ‘aria’) to an unidentified text that may be Bach’s own; the two choirs never sing together. Section 3 brings a return to joyfulness and antiphonal exchanges, leading into the fourth and final section, where the two choirs join forces for a triumphant four-voiced fugue.

Such a toweringly magnificent composition as Singet dem Herrn hardly needs any endorsement from anyone else; yet it has never been forgotten that Mozart heard a performance in St Thomas’s when he visited Leipzig in 1789. So impressed was he that he exclaimed ‘Here at last is something we can learn from’, and immediately asked to see a score. None was available, but he was given the eight separate voice parts which he spread out around him to study on the spot. Perhaps he, as one supreme professional, just wanted to admire the craftsmanship of another. But he must also have marvelled at the joy—intense, dancing joy—and calm faith radiated by the music of the irritable old church musician who knew that one day his earthly annoyances would be over and he would dance with the angels.

John Rutter © 1994

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