Editor's Note: This part 2 of John Paulson's ideas approaches this important music from another angle.
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 latter of the two here and take up the former in a second article.
I’ll begin by taking a look at A New Commandment by Thomas Tallis. The opening text, “A new commandment give I unto you, saith the Lord” is sung homophonically in all four voices. Speaking the text with a natural inflection suggests that the strongest points of syllabic stress come on the word “new”, the second syllable of “commandment” and the word “you”. In order to get my singers thinking in that way I would ask them to speak the text in unison ignoring the notated rhythms. I would then work toward a rendering of Tallis’ notation that reflects the natural inflection of the text. How do we go about doing that?
I once heard an excellent conductor say that dynamic gradation should be thought of as hiking up and down a mountain rather than driving up and down a paved road. Hiking includes many smaller ups and downs within your overall direction. Executing a crescendo, or decrescendo, in this way, with micro ups and downs within the macro goal of getting louder, or softer, creates a much more interesting musical phrase. Paying detailed attention to the way syllabic stresses go hand-in-hand with the notation will help us toward this goal. We’ve already noted that there are three main stressed syllables in this opening phrase. In a general sense, the direction of the phrase should build toward “you.”
Within the phrase I try to think of each note/syllable as either building tension or relaxing. The downbeat begins on the word “A”. This is challenging because the tendency is for singers to accent the downbeat. It should instead begin with the sense that it’s building tension toward “new.” The first syllable of “commandment” has both a sense of relaxation after “new” and is building tension toward the second syllable. The third syllable is a definite sense of relaxation. Moving toward the top of the phrase there is a longer buildup of tension toward “you” through “give I unto.” “Saith the Lord” is all relaxation after “you.” I might even ask for a space between “you” and “saith” in order to give a sense of the comma and separate the quote from the attribution.
I mentioned above that “A” begins on the downbeat. Of course the idea of a downbeat is something that was created with the advent of modern notation. Renaissance notation would not have included regular barlines to indicate strong and weak beats. A detailed discussion of notation and mensuration symbols is beyond the scope of this article. But it does bring up another way in which the relationship between music and text informs my ideas about performance. Essentially, I try to get my singers to forget about barlines and instead think and perform in groups of 2 and 3. In the opening of the Tallis there are two groups of 3 and five groups of 2. The groups of three are not triplets. In the notation of the linked edition the quarter note would remain the same for groups of two and three. The two groups of 3 in this opening are on the second and third syllables of “commandment” as well as “give I”. Getting your choir to think and perform beyond the barlines isn’t too difficult for a short, homophonic passage such as this. It helps emphasize the natural cadence of the language and makes a powerful musical statement. Accomplishing this in longer, polyphonic sections can prove extremely challenging.
You probably all know Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. Briefly taking a look at the alto part, I would ask my group to group the first three half notes of measure 7 and the last three half notes of measure 8. Everything else in the first 9 measures would be grouped in twos. Without going into detail, I would do much the same thing with the other parts on this opening phrase. I’ve found that getting my choir to think beyond the barlines can bring new life to something familiar like this. A lilting group of three in one part against more driven groups of two in another produces a wonderful effect.