Saturday morning quote #33: Random remarks
Keeping up with our blog posts can be a challenge at times, sharing what we hope to be worthwhile tidbits of information and fitting the writing and posting of it into a busy schedule. Today, we find it a particular challenge after performing a sacred concert for Epiphany last evening and being separated from our library of reference materials by some several miles.
But we are committed to following through with our series and this morning we will improvise a bit by sharing some of the comments we heard last evening after our concert. While it may appear to some an unseemly and ungracious exercise – a public display of patting oneself on the back, as it were – we think of the comments as food for thought as we continue to refine our concert repertory.
We will refrain from naming names but these are authentic quotes from audience members. The first is from a very accomplished organist, composer and choral director who attended our program:
“It was an interesting treatment of Palestrina’s music; I’ve never heard it performed this way, I mean, it’s Palestrina…”
The piece under discussion is our arrangement of Palestrina’s Christmas motet, ‘A solis ortus cardine.’ The 5th century hymn text is an acrostichon, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. Palestrina set every other verse, so we alternated his polyphonic verse settings with chant from the Liber Usualis.
We actually enjoy pointing out that Palestrina was known to have used a lute in his compositional process, presumably to work out ideas. It makes great good sense that he – and other 16th century composers – would have taken advantage of the lute’s relative compactness, portability and its polyphonic capabilities to work out compositions.
We enjoy taking this a step further by performing some of Palestrina’s motets with solo voice and lute. While we have to choose carefully, ‘A solis ortus cardine’ works very well with its four separate sections ranging between 3 and 5 voice parts. As for the idea that Palestrina’s music is in some way purer if only performed with voices a cappella, we feel that is a misconception. Along with the surviving letter in Palestrina’s hand indicating that he was using a lute to finish composing an (overdue) mass, there is further evidence that he wrote a lightly figured bass for the organ to accompany a motet, an early example of basso continuo.
Our second quote is from an accomplished professional guitarist in attendance:
“You just played an entire program of contrapuntal music!”
I say, thank you for noticing. Of course a guitarist would understand the challenges of playing polyphonic music on a stringed instrument that constantly wants to slip out of one’s lap. But typical audiences don’t get that lutenists are performing miracles just keeping the instrument from falling to the floor and keeping it in tune, let alone playing transparent polyphony in two, three and four parts. In truth, it’s much better when people don’t notice how hard a lutenist is working and they just enjoy the effects of the music instead.
“Your voice and the lute sounded like a single voice.”
This is what we aim for. It can be a slightly disturbing idea, giving over the character and identity of one’s (solo) voice and making it integrate so completely with the sound of an instrument. But we are sure this is a better representation of the 16th century aesthetic than the ‘singer and accompanist’ approach, which is really a hallmark of later, more virtuoso music. We are delighted to hear unsolicited comments that suggest we are hitting the mark.
Next week, we will be back with the beginnings of an in-depth commentary on The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. Watch out.