Pomerium delivers beauty and wisdom in sacred rarities
The inherent strength of the early music movement is that, along with all the wonderful pieces that audiences can enjoy, it is constructively didactic. Early music groups and musicians are not just playing or a singing a work for the umpteenth time, simply because it’s good and people want to listen to it, but because it opens up a window into what aesthetic and intellectual culture was like in eras far different than ours.
This is important in classical music. The ubiquity of audio recordings makes it easy to forget that they represent a relatively new technology, and that while for centuries we could read words and see images from the past, we could not hear it. That is the most acutely fundamental of the human senses—it’s the unknown sound in the dark we are primarily wired for—one of the reasons music has such a powerful effect. Music from the standard era so dominates concert programs and recordings, we can gather a good outline of what the 18th and 19th centuries sounded like. What the early music movement gives us is the sound of the ancient past, and that’s a breathtaking idea.
Sunday afternoon at Corpus Christi Church on the Upper West Side, the Music Before 1800 series presented a concert by the choral group Pomerium—directed by Alexander Blachly—and the viola da gamba trio, The Cat’s Paw, that was didactic, intelligent, and beautiful to hear (due to a series of unfortunate events this reviewer only caught the second half). The theme was “Music for Imperial Augsburg, 1518–1548,” and if that focus might seem overly narrow and academic, the wealth of material and ideas from the era means that, to the contrary, concentrating on a point in history produces expansive rewards.
The program, and the performing had an effect in sound like that of using a prism to turn a single ray of light into a kaleidoscope of colors. For the concert, the rays were the Gregorian plainchant Argentum et aurum (silver and gold, from Acts 3), and the two-part chant “Virgo prudentissima,” from the early 16th century collection of music, “Antiphonale Pataviense. With each, Pomerium sang the cantus and then polyphonic music from Henricus (Heinrich) Isaac and Josquin based on the chants.
The effect is to hear Renaissance polyphony in its true glory, rich and beautiful in and of itself, and also a reflection of the astonishing expansion of cultural and intellectual life after Europe clawed itself out of the Medieval era. Many of these works were originally meant for four or five voices, and by expanding them to a full choir, Pomerium enhanced their colors without sacrificing any details.
Renaissance vocal music was most often paid for, directly or indirectly, by the Catholic church—the concert music came from various Diets of the Holy Roman Empire—but the formal designs and structural means are also the immediate foundation of the non-liturgical, abstract tradition of Western classical music. It is the sound of modern thinking at conception.
Isaac, who was court composer to Emperor Maximilian I from 1496 until his death in 1517, was Flemish, like so many of his great contemporaries, and his works stand firmly on their own, especially in sequence with Josquin’s contrapuntal Virgo. Isaac’s mastery of isometric counterpoint, especially his varied rhythms, gives his music an exciting feeling of freedom, culminating in the deep satisfaction of a final, resonant cadence. His Virgo sounds like an improvisation on what Josquin wrote, and the Kyrie and Gloria movements of his Missa Argentum et aurum, which opened the concert, are full of acute tension and release.
Isaac’s pupil, Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl, filled Isaac’s position after the older composer’s death. The post vanished after Maximilian’s own death in 1519. A promised annual stipend was revoked by Emperor Charles V, and Senfl, perhaps out of professional antagonism, warmed to Martin Luther sufficiently that he was investigated by the Inquisition. Luther himself asked Senfl for a motet, and the composer delivered Non moriar sed vivam, which began the second half.
Senfl was as adept at counterpoint as his teacher, and shared the same sense of rhythmic freedom, although the motet is more four-square. It is lyrically expansive, and Pomerium added vigor to the final, dominant chord. Senfl’s Ave Maria, sung for Charles V in 1548, is a contrast in color, structure and form, arguing that Catholic music is brighter and livelier than Protestant music.
This idea was somewhat undercut by Nicholas Gombert’s Kyrie and Gloria from his Missa Sur tous regrets. Gombert was a skillful composer, but in comparison to Isaac and Senfl, less imaginative, more plainspoken. The concert finale, the ode to Charles, Carole magnus erat by Thomas Crequillon, was deceptively simple at first, as though the composer mistrusted the Emperor’s reaction, but as it went along, the music grew into a greater sense of confidence and independence, especially as sung under Blachly’s preparation.
The Cat’s Paw interspersed the choral music with more secular, essentially popular, songs arranged by Isaac, Josquin, Senfl, and, of course, anonymous. Some, like “La Morra,” have roots in Medieval times, and while they lose that era’s rhythmic vitality, they gain the pleasures of harmony.
Music Before 1800 continues with a concert by Blue Heron, 4 p.m. February 15. mb1800.org