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Renaissance polyphony as the eternal frontier of self-discovery

New York Polyphony’s concert on Feb. 16 gave listeners many excellent things to agree upon – even though reactions were probably as numerous as the ears that heard it.

This charming male foursome specializes in 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance polyphony, frequenting composers with strange names and music relatively rarely heard in recent centuries. This particular program at New York City’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin (presented by the Miller Theatre at Columbia University) was titled “Music Over the Alps” — a conceptual umbrella for pieces by Clemens non Papa, de Rore, Palestrina, and Lassus, plus one crowdpleaser, Clément Janequin’s descriptive (one might say gimmicky) La Guerre (“La bataille de Marignan”). ‘

New York Polyphony:
Geoffrey Williams, countertenor
Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor
Christopher Herbert, baritone
Craig Phillips, bass

The group’s preparation was superb, and the concert clocked in at just over an hour, sending the audience into the chaotic, Vegas-ish Saturday-night Times Square with some unusually direct, even penetrating emotional statements. Those statements came in music that, like Eastern Orthodox icons, was created under such specific precepts that quality control was all but guaranteed, though detecting a personal compositional style requires a seasoned ear.

Text dramatization, melodic clarity, and musical events as the world knew them in the centuries that followed, from the late 16th through to the current 21st, were pretty much absent from most of the program.  (La Guerre was the exception that brought this into focus.) That absence gives the music a Rorschach quality: without typical polarities like major and minor keys, the music acquires an abstraction, prompting reactions that can be hugely different for each listener — and on every encounter — dictated by where the performers connect in these webs of notes and what the listener’s psyche zeros in on.

The breakthrough of more personal expression that came with the invention of opera in the early 1600s (Monteverdi is the most famous example) had its downside: the listener was (and still is) told with great specificity what think and feel. (Just what we need in the 21st century, when so many parties are telling us so emphatically what to think about everything.) The sacred music before that, though (in particular, before the Counter-Reformation), doesn’t seek to convert: it’s a re-affirmation of what was already believed. Is that why the texts often seem just to be along for the polyphonic ride? The words of the liturgy were probably well-known to the listeners, though expressed in somewhat different ways by different composers through the ages. Especially in masses, the music tended to present glimpses of heaven, with a minimum of the concerns like fear of death or faltering faith heard in sacred works from Mozart to Beethoven to Verdi.

The irony is that any number of moments in New York Polyphony’s performance had highly specific expressive content poking out from the ethereal force fields. The opening piece, Tristitia obsedit me (“Sadness has besieged me”) by Clemens non Papa, employs a text written by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who was imprisoned in 1498 for (shall we say) excessive reformist zeal; while incarcerated, he wrote meditations on existing psalms that were loaded with pathos. In Clemens’s setting, “Quid igitur faciam?” (“What, therefore, shall I do?”) expresses the question mark musically with a wandering scale that felt eloquently lost (as opposed to some familiar trope that’s become ingrained in our ears from music written in the centuries that followed); “en quæso” (“Behold, I beseech [thee]”), which introduces Savonarola’s final plea for mercy, arrives in clear, direct chords unclouded by counterpoint.

So Clemens non Papa did make expressive choices, but they’re mostly overall executive decisions; the individual voices tend to go their separate ways. That’s a contrast with the more homophonic approach that the Protestant composer Claude le Jeune (1530-1600) took in a motet of the same title that also draws on Savanarola’s writings but makes different text choices, and with a state of mind that’s more about expressing transcendence of earthy misery. It builds impressively and, in its own way, is equally compelling.

But I prefer Clemens non Papa — at least today — partly because I heard it in the New York Polyphony’s well-examined performance, whose vocal coloring told you why that descending scale goes where it goes. The group hasn’t always displayed this level of cognitive understanding; here, when it did, does the performance betray the music’s abstraction?

No. The performance didn’t tell us what to feel because it operated at a level of abstract suggestion that requires an attentive ear — at least more so than the direct managing of a listener’s emotions that’s encountered in later eras of music. In effect, New York Polyphony adds to the specificity of information conveyed by the notes.

Performances of Renaissance music in past decades — and even now with certain British groups — frequently had a thoroughly detached beauty that seemed to put a soft-focus lens on the specifics of the music. That focus often became even softer by using too many singers. New York Polyphony acts like a choir but isn’t one: it’s four men, sounding like more than that thanks to the warm, resonant acoustic of St. Mary of the Virgin, the venue where the group was born. Their performances are analogous to freshly cleaned frescos.

(Six days earlier, in an English polyphony concert by Blue Heron in the Music Before 1800 series, the singing wasn’t so polished, but the idea of the music was well in hand. I’ll take that over polish.)

Others reasons I prefer Clemens non Papa are personal. Being jostled en route to the concert, plus fretting over impending dental surgery, made me more emotionally available, and more likely to connect to the kinds of qualities that particular piece offers. A friend, whose brains and ears I trust completely, was not quite so moved, not so available. He arrived in a more Zen-like state, thanks to high-quality headphones that helped him detach from the Times Square chaos. (Also, his teeth are in fine shape.) We both got what we needed, however different those needs were. So did the rest of the audience, judging from the rapturous response.

That’s one of the many beauties of this music: It can speak to us all without imposing emotional conformity. And it was probably meant to. In effect, the music defines an alternative common denominator — not something watered down, but watered up. It must have communicated that way once, and the more specific that performances get in our own time, the more it will do so in the future.

an ArtsJournal blog