Friday, March 28, 2003
Renaissance singing resonates at St. Irene Church
The Cambridge Society for Early Music (CSEM) presented its final concert of the season last Thursday evening in St. Irene Church, featuring the full and pure voices, without vibrato, of the Capella Alamire. While CSEM concerts are usually held in the intimate surroundings of Union Hall, for this concert the acoustics and setting of St. Irene's were perfect for the group's voices and instruments.
Conductor and musical scholar Peter Urquhart founded this Cambridge, Massachusetts, organization of nine singers and three instrumentalists in 1984. The concert centered on a mass, titled Comment Peult Avoir Joye (How Can Anyone Be Gay), by a little-known composer, Pierrequin de Therache (c.1470-1528), from Nancy, in the French province of Lorraine.
Music of that period employs imitation, one voice after the other, as well as the interweaving of different melodic lines of soprano, contra, tenor and bass. The tension between the vocal lines gives the music its contrasts, rather than the use of louds and softs. The music of this concert was absolutely beautiful.
In the programming, between the large sections of the mass, there were voice and instrumental pieces by Therache and other composers. We heard masterful playing on lute and contrabass viol, played by Douglass Freundlich, tenor viol played by the conductor, and bass viol played by Emily Urquhart. She is also the group's bookbinder and scribe.
Therache's mass uses a simple French secular song as its main theme. Other composers used that very same song for their compositions, both instrumental and vocal. We heard two based on Comment Peult Avoir Joye, one by Heinrich Isaac and the other by Josquin des Pres.
The Capella sang most of the music from two very large red leather bound books containing manuscript facsimiles. These books were held in a special stand mounted on the church altar. At the end of each musical section, two singers would step forward to turn the pages, which were more than two feet high. Upon later inspection of the books we found the soprano, contra, tenor and bass parts were not aligned in a parallel fashion on the staff, as they would be in today's musical convention, but rather each part was written individually on half of a page. The notes were large squares and diamonds with the stems pointing up from the notes.
A reason Therache remained obscure is, as Urquhart explained to the audience, that the composer did not have a good publisher/agent! Just one of his motets was printed in Italy in 1518, his only music found outside his immediate locality. This mass, according to Urquhart, "appears anonymously and largely illegibly in a manuscript in Cambrai, northern France." Therache's recognition as the composer is secured by a reliable secondary source. Urquhart had to transcribe the music directly from the faded paper manuscript, on which the ink had bled through from one side to the other.
Throughout the concert the conductor spoke and shared with the audience his passion for and knowledge of the music and the composer, as well as the challenges he has incurred in researching and rescuing such comparatively obscure pieces.
Following the concert there was a lively reception, with excellent desserts supplied by hostesses from St. Irene, as well as the hostesses who regularly provide at CSEM concerts. This was an excellent opportunity to meet the artists and to learn more about the music and the particular niche in musical evolution in which the audience had been so pleasantly immersed.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito