Freedom to Listen:
A (Super) Sonic Journey through Time
by Victoria Looseleaf
Five hundred years from now, who or what will be remembered? Bill Gates and Microsoft? The chart-busting rap and ringtone music of Time magazine cover dude Kanye West? What about the dead shark swimming in formaldehyde cooked up by Britain's bad boy artist, Damien Hurst? No one can say. But in 2005, we not only remember the father of English cathedral music -Thomas Tallis -we celebrate his lush, potent sounds in this quincentenary year. Born in 1505, Tallis, a court musician during Henry VIII's reign of terror, aka the English Reformation, rose above those tumultuous times by dint of talent, temerity and, well, good genes. Indeed, living to age. So, Tallis served four British monarchs in his extraordinary career (following Henry VIII were Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth). It was Elizabeth, in fact, who granted Tallis and his student William Byrd a monopoly for printing music and music paper in England, enabling the distinguished contrapuntist to become both financially and artistically secure (much like the late Ray Charles, who negotiated copyrights to his rhythm and blues oeuvre). And as Charles broke ground with his nouveau sounding gospel-tinged works, so, too, did Tallis rouse the Renaissance - especialLy with Spem in aLium ("I have never put my hope in any other"). A 40-part motet written for eight five-part choirs usually placed strategically around a hall, this was, no doubt, the first use of "surround-sound." (Move over, George Lucas!}
A cunning puzzle in which the composer's name is embedded in the motet's structure, this large-scale opus assured Tallis' legacy and continues to top most cathedrals' playlists today. Though circumstances surrounding the oft antiphonally-performed masterpiece are vague, several theories abound, including a challenge to Tallis to equal the 40-part motet tossed off by Alessandro Striggio (but how many remember him?). Then again, Tallis could have been smitten by the numeral 40, once deemed mystically significant in the Bible. Most likely, though, Tallis composed Spem for Queen Elizabeth's 40th birthday, in 1573. Listen for the musical separation between choirs before they merge, producing a kind of visual sound palette with the audience submerged in this sonic circle. No wonder Tallis' reach extends to the 20th century and beyond, having inspired such disparate music-makers as Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, as well as the eternally hip Kronos Quartet, who gave the work an aural twist on its 1990 recording Black Angels.
Other important names in the Renaissance and Baroque eras are the German-Austrian Cistercian monk, Jacob Handl and Venice's Giovanni Gabrieli. The former, though dead at age 41 in 1591, left behind Duo Seraphim and Haec est dies, while Gabrieli (1553-1612), one of the most influential composers of his time, gave the world Plaudite omnis terra. As for German composer/organist Johann Pachelbel, an influence on J.S. Bach who is best known for the pop culture mega hit Canon in D, a hummable tune that has cut a swath from movies to salad dressing commercials, he shines in the two-choir Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. Antonio Lotti (1667- 1740), while not birthing a new style like his predecessor Monteverdi, captivates with extended arching lines in Crucifixus, an eight-voice a cappella setting of text from the Credo.
Oozing dissonant tensions, this tableau of pain writ large can also soothe a fractured society. More stunning sounds can be had in two works of intellectual aesthete/cum Romantic, Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose An Die Sterne features a poignant text that keeps returning to the word 'sterne' (star), while Talismane, set to Goethe, celebrates God and spirit. In the latter, powerful voices build with an unstoppable force akin to an Eminem track, the two choruses in near-frenzy mode before coming to a surprisingly serene end: a ripe, resonant 'Amen.'
Johannes Brahms was connected to Schumann through music and an enduring friendship, and though the musical titan was not particularly known for his choral output, the masterful Requiem notwithstanding, that perception is laid to rest with Fest-und Gedenkspruche op. 109. Written at the end of his career for two unaccompanied choirs - with a nostalgic look back to the Renaissance and Bach - the 10-minute motet still teems with Brahmsian flourishes. Beginning with the second choir in a mighty unison, the first choir answers each of the rising phrases, now tricked out and extended. A second, waltz-like section yields to an unusually warm finale, its heavenward-rising harmonies (similar to the Schumann), concluding on a lyrically arpeggiated 'Amen.' Sung forte, it is a proclamation of unbridled joy, the antithesis of Brahms, a well-known misanthrope and eternal pessimist who died of liver cancer in 1897 at 63.
Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham once uttered, "Movement never lies." Neither does great music, as witnessed by Francis Poulenc's wondrous 1945 cantata for double mixed choir, Figure Humaine.
With its setting of a Paul Eluard text that warrants repeated listenings, this 20-minute jewel's last section became a kind of anthem for the Resistance movement. Born in Paris in 1899 to a wealthy pharmaceutical family, Poulenc became a member of France's Les Six, ultimately reacting against "Debussyesque" Impressionism by creating an astonishing array of work that ranged from fanciful piano piffles to the ballet Les Biches. It was his vocal output, though, including operas such as Dialogue of the Carmelites, within which his sublime talent to heighten the emotional mood of poetry through sound prompted fellow countryman Jean Cocteau to wonder "if text sung in this way is not the only possible means of declaiming a poem." And while the Frenchman may have dabbled in musical hedonism more common to the aging raucous rocker Mick Jagger (Poulenc's setting of an anonymous 17th-century text in 1922 lauded, of all things, drink), this aspect of his musical personality was eventually tempered with seriousness.
Dubbed by a contemporary as 'part monk, part hooligan,' Poulenc arrived at a measure of sonic heroism during the Nazi regime, discovering his own means of rebellion through the words of Eluard, whom he had known since 1917. Written in six weeks, Figure Humaine was first published in France clandestinely in 1943, first performed (in English) two years later in London, and not heard in France until 1947. An impassioned plea for the forces of humanity in its expression of the powers of destruction and life, the eight-part motet climaxes in "Liberté," the title of the Eluard poem upon which it is based. A simple word, 'freedom'; yet how profound are the emotions blazing within those seven letters. Poulenc himself spoke of the work's double message, remarking, "The truest part of me is to be found here, as it is in my religious music. The two things I hold most dear are my faith and my liberty." And thus are the cantata's sections arranged in such a fashion as to be a perfect meld of intimacy, prayer and power. The meditative quality of the third movement, "As soft as the silence" is followed by those for single chorus (no. 4, "Patience" and no. 6, "A Wolf"), both careening towards the penultimate movement, "A Spotless Fire." Erupting with fugal chromaticisms, this section then yields to a finale of staggering, starry luminosity, its intractable declaration "Liberté” a call that we, humans all, must embrace.