Much of the literature of the twentieth century may be regarded as constant attempts to build bridges back to the ‘first half’ – the aesthetic sensitivity of long ago that we have almost lost from sight through the last centuries. Much modern music also reaches zealously back to the distant past with its different aesthetic ideals, both as a toolbox and as a source of inspiration. This also applies to the performance ideals and vocal technique of the period. In music we can draw lines between the two halves when instrumental music takes over from the hegemony of vocal music – when the harmony of tonality, oriented towards progress and climaxes, replaces the meditative and emotional resonance of modal scales. The curiosity of modern composers has helped to re-open the doors to the characteristic musical landscape of bygone times.
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s works are a recurring theme through this concert. In his early style period he explored the idioms of his time, including the new experiments that seeped in through the iron curtain, much to the chagrin of the authorities. When he finally felt he had failed to find any artistic direction, he stopped composing and began studying composition techniques from the middle ages and renaissance. His religious quest resulted in his conversion to the Orthodox Church. When in 1976 he reappeared with a new contemplative and religious style, it was no less controversial. In 1980 his family received permission to emigrate to the West.
In Most Holy Mother of God (2003), the text is repeated seventeen times. The ritual repetition is an element of Orthodox liturgy which is well suited to the composition techniques of the ‘mystical minimalist’ Pärt. Es sang for langen Jahren has a text by Clemens Brentano (1778–1842). The composition is ‘Pärt-esque’, in that it sounds more like a musical incantation than a traditional lied. The crystal-clear, colourfully shimmering prayer for peace Da pacem Domine was commissioned by Jordi Savall as a tribute to the victims of the bomb attacks in Madrid in March 2004. Stabat Mater from 1985 is based on the Roman Catholic 13th-century hymn which describes the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the Cross. Pärt uses his characteristic ‘tintinnabulum’ – bell-ringing – technique in this piece, combining triadic harmonies with slow stepwise melody lines.
Out of the shadows of the past
Juxtaposed with Pärt’s timbral landscape we find a variety of works from the ‘first half’. Machaut (c. 1300–1377) fronted with his musical experiments the new expression of emotion of the ars nova. The mystic nun Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was one of her time’s greatest spiritual personalities. Her Columba Aspexit (A dove stared in) tells the tale of St Maximus. During a mass he sees a dove outside the window bars. The dove is studied in detail as a symbol of the Holy Spirit in ecstatic peregrination between heavenly heights and the depths of the human soul.
Benedicamus Domino (Let us praise the Lord) is an alternative liturgical ending for certain high days, particularly in Lent. This tune was frequently ornamented both in music and text, or was the basis of new polyphonic compositions.
Stond wel moder under roode, probably from the early 14th century, is a dialogue between Christ on the cross and his mother Mary. Musical meditations on the sorrow of Mary often appear in music at this time, as in the hymn Stabat Mater, as in Pärt’s version.
Echo from modern times
The text of Gavin Bryars’s Incipit Vita Nova (1989) comes from Dante’s La Vita Nuova. The composition celebrates the birth of a child to close friends of the composer. Bryars made his breakthrough as a composer with his slow, repetitive structures in works such as The Sinking of Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me. With the passing of time he became more fascinated by the clarity and purity of early vocal music, as a contrast to the extreme pathos of Romantic music, and he has since composed a large number of vocal works in this style.
Gustav Holst was in 1916 involved in a Whitsuntide festival in Thaxted Church, where the focus was on Renaissance music. Holst came across one of his pupils improvising a vocal part while playing the open strings of a violin. The pure and bare sound was the inspiration for Holst’s Four Mediaeval Songs.
Text: Morten Eide Pedersen
English version: Roger Martin