From Stone to Steel
by Peter Rutenberg
Rhythm, line and structure. Whether in the 13th century of Pérotin at Notre Dame in Paris, the 16th century of Palestrina and his Roman cathedrals, or the 20th century of Arvo Pärt and Los Angeles’s gleaming Walt Disney Concert Hall, the interplay of these elements unite music and architecture along a continuum of art and function — from Stone to Steel.
The veil of time prevents an irrefutable identification of the gifted composer of Viderunt omnes, although it is reliably thought to be the Parisian known as Pérotin who straddled the year 1200 by a generation or two. We can say with relative certainty that he was a revolutionary, setting standards that form the backbone of western music today. Scholars — part-musicologist, part-detective — cite church edicts around the turn of the 13th century as the appropriate climate for the creation of musical works such as Viderunt omnes — a gradual for the Mass at Christmas. Pérotin is linked with Notre Dame and is known to have collaborated with the poet, Philip the Chancellor, also active there. The best source is the 13th century English theorist Anonymous IV (namesake of the popular vocal quartet) who ascribes seven titles including this one to the composer and writes in great admiration of his talent.
The music of the Roman Catholic Church was limited to single-line chant through the first millennium. Call and response — the alternation between a cantor or soloist and unison chorus — added texture. Organum (best translated as harmony) developed with the addition of one or more fast-moving melodies over liturgical chants in long notes. The so-called perfect intervals — fourths, fifths and octaves — were preferred. Eventually thirds broadened the palette, though dissonances (seconds and sevenths) were accepted from the start. Listen for the second note of Viderunt. With the increasing use of the six rhythmic modes (think poetic meters) around 1180, repeating patterns and rhythmic regularity evolved discantus (counterpoint) and paved the way for the discant style.
Pérotin led the revolution, composing substantial works for three and four voices in contrapuntal movement. In Viderunt, three counter-melodies dance in a series of short rhythmic patterns above the tenor. At times they move together, at others they stagger, yielding the phenomenon of hocket or hiccup — short bursts of overlapping activity and rests. After the midpoint, the tenor abandons long notes in favor of shorter ones in even, rhythmic patterns. This four-part texture is the forerunner of the modern chorus, while the repeating patterns of melody and rhythm establish for the first time the basic building blocks of thematic development based on motivic variation and part exchange. With this, coherent musical architecture sheds its scaffolding for the first time.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was prominent in Rome for most of his life, with posts at Saint John Lateran, the Cappella Giulia and Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as the Sistine Chapel. His pristine reputation is well-deserved, yet he suffers from a superficial and bland form of idolatry that ignores his clear and present tendencies toward innovation and experimentation. Prolific is hardly adequate to describe the totality of his works — there are over 100 settings of the Mass, 35 Magnificats, offices and hymns, motets of every size and shape, madrigals secular and spiritual, and a host of other pieces.
Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli or Pope Marcellus Mass — masterful in its understated beauty — achieved icon-status long ago and became a mainstay of the Master Chorale’s programming under Roger Wagner. Scored for six voices, the mass shows a skilled and deliberate hand that balances rigorous counterpoint with a mood of serenity throughout. Its sunny demeanor is modulated in a series of elegant, subdued climaxes, until the fairly unbridled passion of the Credo’s finale, the Osannas, and the characteristic intensification of the concluding Dona nobis pacem. Hallmarks of Palestrina’s style are well in evidence here: lines tend to step-wise movement with occasional wide leaps for dramatic effect; the compass of each voice part is within an octave; smaller groups of voices have antiphonal exchanges; phrases are eloquently arched and balanced. In the final Agnus Dei the voicing is expanded to seven parts redistributed by range (from SATTBB to SSAATBB), brightening the palette and heightening the drama during the mass’s final moments. Like a poet, he uses this everyday language in novel and intriguing ways to move our hearts and minds toward spiritual transcendence.
Much has been made of the Council of Trent as a factor in the creation of the Marcellus Mass. In short, Rome responded to the Protestant decampments with a Counter–Reformation that ‘modernized’ the Mass in several ways. Most importantly, understandability of the text was mandated. That meant composers had to stop writing long-winded melismas and start writing in a style we would identify as hymn-like. Indeed such clarity is plain to hear in the Gloria and Credo of this mass. Marcellus II’s papacy lasted only three weeks, but he is reputed to have admonished the choir during Holy Week of 1555 to observe the solemnity of the proceedings and above all to make the words intelligible. This mass is held up as the prime exemplar of how effective and beautiful such treatment can sound. The problem with such a declaration is that there is no proof it was written to satisfy the Pope’s demands: it wasn’t published until 1567, was probably written before 1555, and, like most of Palestrina’s masses, can’t be dated with any reliability. It is unique in bearing a dedicatory title, and it has even been suggested that the ubiquitous folk theme L’homme armé — already the subject of two other masses by this composer — can be heard prominently throughout. If any of these shoes fit, it is best they be worn with pride and deemed to inure to Palestrina’s thorough-going genius and wit.
Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) has come to enjoy worldwide recognition, having been stifled and discouraged in his youth by the Soviet Union’s rigid control. There are at least two watershed years in the composer’s life that must be acknowledged: 1968 and 1980. While the rest of the world was protesting the Vietnam war, Pärt was accomplishing his greatest musical feat to date — the composition of his Credo — which applied serial or twelve-tone techniques to Bach’s famous Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. If Serialism wasn’t high on the USSR’s list of approved musical styles, the work’s brash profession of Christianity was even more unwelcome. A dark and strained period followed, but by 1976, consistent creativity returned. In 1980, the composer and his family emigrated to Vienna and the blue-sky opportunities that awaited beyond.
What evolved in this second phase of life was a fundamental compositional technique Pärt called tintinnabuli after the sound of ringing bells. Here, nothing is left to chance; every gesture has a purpose. At its core are two voices — one singing notes in a stepwise pattern around a fixed pitch, the other outlining the notes of a triad or chord.
Pärt’s Te Deum is scored for three choirs, piano, strings, and pre-recorded tape: the first and second choirs divide women’s voices from men’s, respectively, while a full chorus of mixed voices forms the third. The principles of his tintinnabuli method are present at all times on this broad canvas of sound. Invariably, sopranos and tenors outline the triads, while altos and basses sing the stepwise patterns. Set generally in the key of D, minor, major, and hybrid colors flicker like a languorous, multi-chrome neon display, adding a macro-rhythm to an otherwise seamless structure — the return to minor being the only indication that one of the 17 sections has begun. Although no historical chants are used, Pärt establishes chant-like melodies as the basis for variation and part exchange among the smaller choirs who sing them forward, backward, inverted, in unison, duet and mirror image. These forces alternate with the full choir, usually in four, but as many as eight, parts. At dramatic points in the text, for example, Judex crederis and Fiat misericordia tua, the choirs join together, but otherwise operate antiphonally. The brief Sanctus theme from verse 3 — marked by wide, fluctuating intervals — is recalled in a series of fading echoes for the angelic, post-Amen coda.