NEW YORK—Although those who actually listen to composers like Gesualdo, Lassus, and De Machaut today belong to a relatively small club, the sacred music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is, in fact, the basis for all that would follow. More importantly, it’s beautiful music in its own right and well worth discovering.
As part of the Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, New Yorkers were given an excellent opportunity to do so when the Huelgas Ensemble from Belgium, one of the world’s top early music vocal ensembles, paid the city a visit.
Led by their founder, conductor, and musicologist Paul van Nevel, the ensemble performed two programs, one focused on the Renaissance and other on the Middle Ages. They provided an incredibly beautiful and fascinating exploration of some 400 years of musical history that most are probably unfamiliar with.
For centuries, Western music—or at least what has been preserved of it—was mainly vocal. Our Western written musical tradition can be traced back to the early medieval manuscripts of sacred music.
The form the music took is called plainchant, although the term “Gregorian chant” would probably pop up in most people’s heads when hearing it. It is single-voice chants sung in Latin, as part of church services.
Some time in the 12th century, people came up with the idea of singing in harmony, that is, with more than one voice at a time. This crucial moment is when the Huelgas Ensemble’s “Medieval Apocalypse” program starts.
Perotin, of the “Ars Antiqua” school of Notre Dame, is one of the earliest composers we can actually name, and his “Viderunt Omnes” is a fascinating listen. Over a constant droned note, other voices harmonize beautifully in skipping rhythms, but the syllables are so elongated that the words themselves become unintelligible.
For a contemporary listener, the medieval styles sound very unusual, even modern, since most of our classical concepts of both harmony and singing styles were actually invented during the Renaissance.
The Huelgas Ensemble performed examples of some striking vocal genres, such as the isorhythmic motet, where the vocal lines strictly follow a repeating rhythmic pattern, regardless of sentence structure, and two different poems are sung together, so that they bounce off one another, both musically and lyrically.
The Ensemble also performed pieces of the earliest preserved setting of a complete Catholic Mass, the strange and wonderful “Messe de Nostre Dame” by 14th century “Ars Nova” master Guillame de Machaut. The Mass came to be an incredibly important genre in the centuries to follow, with endless musical settings to its fixed Latin text.
During the 16th century, sacred vocal music reached its artistic peak in Europe, amidst the turbulence of the Reformation. The Catholic Church was still by far the biggest employer of composers, but around the courts of noblemen, secular vocal genres, like the madrigal, were developing in ever-increasing complexity.
The Counter Reformation, the Catholic Church’s answer to the Reformation, brought with it a new sober ideal in sacred music, championed by the hugely influential composer Palestrina, and the increasingly intricate and wild polyphonic singing was now frowned upon.
The Huelgas ensemble’s “Utopia” program, however, celebrated the most outlandishly complex music of this era, which is also incidentally some of the most thrilling music ever written.
It is hard to describe what 24 or 40 separate voices sound like. I could say it is like shimmering light through huge, multi-colored stained glass windows, like a chorus of early morning birdsong, or like being inside a giant organ made of people instead of pipes—that may put you in the ballpark.
Some of it I can only describe by resorting to modern terms like ambient music or surround sound. One can only imagine what it would have sounded like to the 16th century listeners.The heart of the program was Thomas Tallis’s landmark 40-part motet “Spem in Alium,” mind-boggling in its complexity and yet instantly accessible in its purity and beauty.
Another highlight was the 24-part canon fest by Renaissance superstar (and favorite composer of Martin Luther) Josquin Des Prez, “Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi,” which felt like sun-drenched waves endlessly rolling in on a golden shore.
For a guide to the Huelgas Ensemble and their extensive recordings, go to their website, www.huelgas.be