Text/Music Relationship: Imaginative Performance of Renaissance Music

by John Paulson


Though it can be a struggle at times, I’ve found that including Renaissance music as a regular part of my choir programming for each year has helped improve the musical skills of my singers; skills such as vocal independence, interpretive creativity and a deeper understanding of the interrelation between text and musical expression. In addition, the work put in always results in a rewarding musical and worship experience for the choir, the congregation, and the clergy.

I’d like to focus here on an aspect of performing sacred Renaissance music that I’ve found to be a key to creative, imaginative performances: the relationships between text and music. There are two basic elements to this relationship. One is the way in which the meaning of the text is reflected or magnified by the musical setting of that text. The other is the way in which the pronunciation of the text can inform a musical phrase. I’ll stick with the former of the two here and take up the latter in a second article.

My first example is the opening of A New Commandment by Thomas Tallis. The first four measures of the piece are set almost completely homophonically to the text “A new commandment give I unto you, saith the Lord.” A quick scan through the piece reveals that other than the last two measures, this is the only place where Tallis uses 4-part homophony. Here’s a fairly obvious relation between the proclamatory nature of the opening text and Tallis’ use of 4-part homophony. And he enhances this relationship through the absence of that type of setting throughout the rest of the piece. The important leap to make is translating these relationships into concrete musical expression.

To me this suggests a bold dynamic opening – mf or possibly even f. It also provides one indication that the tempo shouldn’t be too quick. Of course other musical elements throughout the piece will impact the decision about tempo as well. I personally wouldn’t want to hustle through that opening proclamation. What about the articulation of this opening statement? Keeping with the proclamation theme, I would want to hear this opening sung poco marcato. These would be the marks I put in my score (tactus = 60, mf, poco marcato). In rehearsal I would point out to my choir that the opening text is a proclamation of the Lord and that Tallis has represented this through a homophonic musical setting. I’d ask them to sing it as if they were the voice of the Lord making this proclamation, and of course conduct what I’d like to hear. Hopefully the end result, after some work, reflects the marks I put in my score, achieved in a way that helps get the creative and imaginative juices of my singers flowing.

Let’s look at one other example that’s a bit more subtle, namely the opening section of Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. Is there a more perfect musical representation of the meaning behind the first three words than what Victoria has set here? He captures magnum (“great” in the sense of “unfathomable”) through the rhythmic expansiveness of the first three notes combined with the open fifth. Mysterium takes the form of a half step. Victoria even inserts a rest before proceeding, allowing us a moment to regain our composure and continue following our first glimpse of this awe-inspiring sight. Each part sings the opening motive in imitation, though the tenor and bass entries are delayed. This allows the soprano and alto to join the bass on his first entrance creating a moment, lasting two measures, in which there is three-part homophony with only the tenor being “out of sync.” The fulfillment of the four-part texture when the bass enters along with the homophonic reinforcement of the text O magnum helps accentuate the magnitude of the situation.

In the meantime, Victoria continues to give the text et admirabile the same rhythmic and melodic setting in each voice. The rhythmic setting of this text mimics the way one might speak it. I’ll discuss this aspect of text/music relation in more detail in part two of this article. Sacramentum receives a varied and more ornate treatment in each voice. Perhaps this is a musical expression of a richly ornate sacrament as celebrated in a mass; a reminder that though the scene in the stable is humble it holds a place of esteem worthy of ceremony. Do we know if that’s what Victoria was thinking? No. It is, however, an interpretation that can inspire singers to think beyond notes and rhythms helping produce an engaging musical experience. At the end of this opening section, Victoria spotlights this part of the text by setting it in four-part homophony.

You probably know this piece. You’ve probably done it multiple times. Instead of detailing how my above interpretation would inform my musical decisions, I would encourage you to do your own assessment along these lines.

Posted on Aug 20, 2012 8:19:05 AM
Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire, Filed Under: review-prelude,

John Paulson

Written by John Paulson

John Paulson graduated with a BA in Music from Luther College in 1991 and earned his Master of Music in Choral Conducting from Boston University in 1998. He currently serves as Music Director/Choir Conductor at University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA, a position he has held since 2003. His additional conducting/teaching experience includes time as the Assistant Choir Conductor at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, Interim Head of Choral Activities at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Adjunct Faculty in Music at Lesley University and Visiting Music Instructor at Boston College. John currently lives in Boston where he and his wife Brenna Wells work hard to keep up with their two year old son Rowan.