by Katherine Calkin
"Splendor'' and "grandeur'' are words generally reserved for the scenic beauties of nature. States of mind such as awe and wonder are provoked by the Grand Canyon or the forests of giant Sequoias. From contemporary accounts we know that a sense of the magnificent was also the treat of visitors and residents in Venice in the early 1600's. At this time, a happy marriage of music and architecture inspired a succession of prominent musicians to write motets and masses for multiple groups of voices and instruments.
The glory of polychoral music lies in the way it separates and at the same moment spans internal space, simultaneously spreading out and enclosing the listener. Paradoxically, we feel at once surrounded and freed. St. Mark's Cathedral, with its lofty balconies positioned at opposite sides of the sanctuary, inspired composers such as the Gabrielis to produce music of breathtaking power.
Of course, the practice of dividing choirs originated long before 1600. Evidence exists that the Jews used antiphonal singing to chant psalms as far back as biblical times. Later, the early Christians adopted the technique of antiphonal choral singing along with the chant for use in the Roman Mass. This chanting consisted of only a simple unharmonized melodic line sung by two alternating groups of voices.
The earliest works for two four-voice choirs date from the late Fifteenth Century, when Josquin and his contemporaries produced a small number of polychoral motets for weddings and other important occasions. Even though at this time, the possibilities of multi-choir music barely had begun to be discovered, composers evidently recognized the "specialness" of this genre and its suitability for festive and significant events.
During the Sixteenth Century, the techniques of polychoral composition were developed and refined by major figures such as Palestrina, Victoria, Jacob Handl and Andrea Gabrieli. The term "cori spezzati" (broken choirs) came into use for music requiring two or more choirs to sing alone, in alternations, and jointly.
Andrea Gabrieli's most important teacher was the Netherlander, Roland de Lassus (Orlando di lasso), one of the first composers to use cori spezzati in secular music. Of his many dialogues in the vernacular, this Italian echo song, Ola! o che buon eco! makes the best union of text and music as we hear the small choir echo a larger group of singers like a call across the mountaintops.
The composer most closely identified with the antiphonal style of sacred choral writing is Giovanni Gabrieli, who explored the full range of possibilities for combining various groups of voices and instruments. His deservedly popular setting of In ecclesiis includes a dazzling variety of textures and effects featuring solo voices, alternating choirs and parts of choirs, and instrumental sections and organ. All of these sections are held together by a recurring alleluia refrain for the combined forces. Fascinating (and atypical for this early period) are the unexpected changes in mood as introspective solo melodic lines give way suddenly to powerful choral outcries. Overall, an aura of melancholic dignity pervades this work, which on first hearing seems so joyously brassy.
On his deathbed, Andrea Gabrieli gave the ring he wore not to Monteverdi, but to his German pupil, Heinrich Schütz. Though Schütz did not concentrate exclusively on antiphonal music, he did write a significant number of pieces for two or more choirs including the early (1619) Psalms of David, which resulted directly from his studies with Gabrieli.
Psalm 100 is typical of the youthful exuberance of this collection. Though its dotted rhythms betray hints of the baroque, this setting is actually more conservative than some of Gabrieli's later works, because it relies heavily on choral echoes in strict alternation within balanced phrases.
By the time of Johann Christoph Bach, cori spezzati had become only one of many devices for achieving contrast in textures, dynamics, and moods. lch lasse dich nicht belongs to a hybrid genre, the chorale motet, which evolved during the mid to late Baroque. For the first half of the piece, two choirs alternate and combine in much the same style as Gabrieli and Schütz, except that the melodic material is based on a pre-existing Lutheran chorale. At the conclusion of this section, the voices unite to form a single choir, weaving a polyphonic web around the chorale melody, which is sung in long notes by the soprano voice.
Those composers who made use of cori spezzati after the Eighteenth Century were imbued with the styles of previous eras. Double choirs appear occassionally in the nee-Baroque sacred music of Mendelssohn. His best-known antiphonal pieces are the double quartet "for He Shall Give His Angels" from Elijah and Heilig. In Heilig, Mendelssohn skillfully maintains the identities of the two choirs and a sense of spatial separation within the flowing romantic idiom of unequal phrases.
Bruckner's sacred music looks back even further to the spirit of the Renaissance. Many of his Latin motets partake of the awestruck reverence which haunts much of Sixteenth Century church music. Bruckner's few excursions into antiphonal writing seem more closely related to the extroverted Gabrieli motets reinforced by the power of brass. In his use of trombones and male voices for Inveni David, Bruckner chooses two groups with the same range, by greatly contrasting timbres.
Many composers even from our own time draw on the achievements of the past. Outstanding among these was the Swiss composer, Frank Martin. Along with Poulenc and Falla, he wrote for the harpsichord before that instrument regained popularity. He also ventured into the realm of the oratorio with Levin herbe. His double choir mass setting has been mysteriously neglected. It certainly bears comparison with the masses of Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, and other composers of our century.
Multiple choirs continue to be used in contemporary music, mostly to enhance sorority (as in Walton's Belshazzar's Feast) rather than to achieve spatial effects. English composer-organist, Martin Shaw wrote Sing We Merrily in 1932 as a "fanfare for festival use."
James Fritschel is an American composer and choral historian who has published 'many liturgical settings for the Lutheran service. Everyone Sang incorporates some elements of chance (aleatory) composition as the individual singers are allowed to choose some of their own rhythms for the shorter musical phrases. Everyone Sang is a piece commissioned by The Paul Hill Chorale in 1979.