This preview has been provided by Davidson United Methodist Church and Stile Antico.

Stile Antico will present “Treasures of the Renaissance: Masterpieces from the Golden Age of Choral Music” on Tuesday, April 16 at the Davidson United Methodist Church.  The church is located at 233 South Main Street in Davidson, North Carolina.  The concert begins at 7:00 p.m.  Tickets are $25 in advance through or $30 at the door.

A rich and enticingly varied journey through some of the most outstanding music of the Renaissance. The fifteen different composers represented here span a vast range of styles, from the intensity and fervour of the Flemish masters at the opening, by way of the distinctive and exquisite sound-world of Tudor and Jacobean England, to the polychoral fireworks of Vivanco and Praetorius. At the heart of our programme is John McCabe’s Woefully arrayed, a tour-de-force of choral textures based on a mediaeval text, written especially for the twelve voices of Stile Antico.

Other pieces on the program include:

Magnificat primi toni — Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495 – c. 1560)

Ego flos campi — Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510 – c. 1555)
Veni dilecte mi — Orlandus Lassus (c. 1530 – 1594)

Vigilate — William Byrd (c. 1540 – 1623)
In pace — Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585)
Woefully arrayed — John McCabe (b. 1939)


O praise the Lord — Thomas Tomkins (1572 – 1656)
The Lord’s Prayer — John Sheppard (c. 1515 – 1558)
O clap your hands — Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

Exultate Deo — Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 – 1594)
O magnum mysterium — Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548 – 1611)

Veni, dilecti mi — Sebastián de Vivanco (c. 1551 – 1622)
Hortus Conclusus — Rodrigo de Ceballos (c. 1525 – 1581)
Tota pulchra es — Hieronymus Praetorius (1560 – 1629)

Duration: approximately eighty minutes, not including interval.
Stile Antico’s programmes are always introduced by members of the ensemble, and wherever possible take advantage of the spatial possibilities afforded by their venue.


Program Notes

One of the most original musical voices of his generation, Nicolas Gombert was a Netherlander who, like so many musicians from the Low Countries, ended up working for the Spanish Royal Chapel. It is perhaps inevitable that the one thing that is most often remembered about him is the most unsavoury – that he was convicted of violating a young boy and sent to the galleys. Yet it was through his exceptional skills as a composer that he was able to earn a pardon from the Emperor and return to his service in the late 1540s; indeed, it is said that it was his cycle of Magnificat settings was the very work by which he regained the Emperor’s favour.

If this account is true, Gombert’s work can be placed within a few years of Clemens’ setting of Ego flos campi – an equally masterful work, though one of a wholly different character. While the unfolding of Gombert’s counterpoint lends his music a compelling sense of forward movement, in Clemens’ motet it is the static qualities of the harmony, never straying far from the warm, comforting tonic chord, combined with a rich and intricate yet remarkably unfussy seven-part texture, that lend it such an opulent beauty. For Clemens, this text had a very particular association: he seems to have written his setting for the Marian Brotherhood in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he worked briefly in 1550. The Brotherhood’s motto was ‘sicut lilium inter spinas’ – words from the very text he sets, which he highlights by setting them homophonically three times, in contrast to the surrounding seven-part counterpoint.

Orlande de Lassus received only his earliest training in his native Low Countries; by his early teens he had moved with his patron Ferrante Gonzaga to Mantua, then on to Milan, Naples and Rome. In 1556 he arrived in Munich and was to stay for the rest of his life. As is common with later Renaissance works, his setting of Veni dilecte mi displays a more developed tonality than the earlier works of Gombert and Clemens, and a more dynamic use of harmony to express the sense of the text, although stopping short of the advanced, almost experimental harmonic progressions seen in his late works. Here he particularly uses primitive sequential writing and experimentation with the cycle of fifths (techniques which were later to become a staple of the baroque musical language) in order to illustrate the meaning of the text with a sense of ‘journeying through the keys’ as the two lovers set out into the fields.

When it comes to a sheer sense of drama and emotive affect the distinctive music of William Byrd is hard to beat, and especially the motets from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589/91. These two collections of Latin motets were undoubtedly published with the recusant Catholic community in mind, and it is therefore hard not to hear the Advent motet performed here (from the 1589 book) as being written with a specific aim of galvanising and encouraging Byrd’s fellow persecuted Catholics. Vigilate is one of Byrd’s most dramatic motets, in which we hear musically depicted both the arresting crowing of the cock and the lethargic believer being lulled to sleep at the wrong moment, while the opening words of warning are set with apposite severity.

Byrd’s music owes much to that of his friend and teacher, Thomas Tallis, whose setting of the Compline text, In pace, follows Vigilate. The majority of Tallis’s works are impossible to date, but it would seem likely that his hymns and responsories for the Office were written for use in Catholic church services either toward the very end of Henry’s reign in the mid-1540s, or in Mary’s in the mid 1550s. His expansive setting of In pace is one such piece; he makes effective use of a narrow tessitura, making the piece ideal for performance by the lower voices, which bring out the rich harmonies of the work’s tightly interwoven imitative texture.

Tallis’ shorter-lived contemporary John Sheppard was Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, before leaving to join Tallis as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1548. During the 1550s he was a key figure in the resurgence of old-style Latin polyphony during the country’s brief return to Catholicism under Mary I, producing some of the decade’s very finest music. Of his English-texted music (dating from the reign of Edward VI), rather less survives, and what does appears less impressively crafted than Tallis’ music of the same era. Without doubt the finest of his English pieces, however, is his setting of the Lord’s Prayer. We should be grateful for its survival: it is transmitted in just one source, of which only the tenor part survives. Fortunately, it appears in another manuscript as an untexted work for viols, and it may indeed have started life in this form.

Thomas Tomkins and Orlando Gibbons were the natural successors to Tallis and Byrd in the Chapel Royal. Tomkins’ anthem O praise the Lord is a sumptuous feast of twelve-part polyphony which displays passages of intricate counterpoint alongside antiphonal effects typical of the continental polychoral motets of the period, where the parts split into groups and sing phrases alternately, coming together at moments of particular intensity. The work appears in ‘Musica Deo Sacra’, a collection of Tomkins’ sacred work, published posthumously by his son Nathaniel in 1668. Of the two composers, however, Gibbons was the musician of greater stature, and his sudden early death robbed the English musical world of its most noted composer and organist (‘the finest finger of the age’, in the words of one contemporary). Although not ‘cutting edge’ when compared to the new baroque fashions that were quickly taking over Europe, he was a composer of flamboyant virtuosity. This is amply demonstrated in his renowned setting of Psalm 47, O clap your hands together, a brilliant work which was, astonishingly, written for a certain William Heyther to present in order to supplicate for his Oxford doctorate in 1622. Ironically, in spite of his apparent deficiency as a composer, Heyther was to become the university’s first Professor of Music.

While the Reformation compelled English composers to engage with their texts with a new clarity and directness, similar, though gentler, reforms were apace in Catholic Europe following the Council of Trent in the 1560s. Palestrina, based in Rome, was near to hand and quick to respond to the changing needs of the church (although the famous legend that the Missa Papae Marcelli was written in 1562 in order to demonstrate to the Council that there was no need for a ban on polyphony has now been discredited). His jubilant motet Exsultate Deo demonstrates just the sort of dynamic response to the text that would have been desired: its largely syllabic text setting lends textual clarity, while its scalic runs and fanfare-rhythms are wholly in keeping with the festive nature of the text and its exhortation to ‘blow the trumpet in the new moon’.

Comparable in some ways to Palestrina’s work, though with its own uniquely Spanish intensity is the motet Hortus conclusus by the lesser-known Andalusian composer Rodrigo Ceballos, who spent his whole career in southern Spain, although his music was widely disseminated throughout Spain and Latin America. Although scored for only four parts, the work maintains a riveting emotional intensity, often governed by masterful control of phrasing and tessitura, lending it a fervently devotional quality.

Representing the next generation of Spanish composers is Sebastián de Vivanco’s thrilling setting of another Song of Songs text, Veni, dilecte mi. This polychoral setting, with its antiphonal writing, heralds the advent of the early Baroque – indeed, one could almost envisage the piece performed with basso continuo, cornets and trombones. Vivanco brings out the rhetorical and sensual qualities of the text through his distinctive control of texture and harmony, as well as the use of striking contrasts between slow and fast passages, which thrillingly convey the heady excitement of the text.

Vivanco’s better-known contemporary Tomas Luis de Victoria, though born and raised in Avila, spent the early portion of his career in Rome, where he would have known Palestrina at the height of his career, and there are certainly clear parallels between the work of the two composers, although Victoria’s music arguably spanned a wider range of styles. The Christmas motet O magnum mysterium is amongst his most contemplative motets: in some passages the harmonic rhythm is slowed right down to create a spacious sense of rapt adoration, as if creating a musical representation of a painting of the crib scene.

Like the later works of Vivanco and Victoria, the music of Hieronymus Praetorius bridges the gap between the late Renaissance and early Baroque, most notably through his use of polychoral textures. His twelve-part setting of Tota pulchra es is no exception – a work of great grandeur in which the twelve voices are divided into three choirs of four which relate to each other antiphonally for the most part – sometimes with longer passages of four-part polyphony sung by each choir and sometimes with thrillingly fast-paced exchanges – coming together in magisterial full twelve-part polyphony at the end of each section.

At the heart of this evening’s programme, John McCabe’s setting of Woefully arrayed was commissioned for Stile Antico, to whom it is dedicated, by the Three Choirs Festival, at which it was premiered in 2009. The composer writes:

Woefully arrayed is a supreme choral setting by William Cornysh, Junior, who died in 1523, of a text usually regarded as of anonymous composition, though there have been some attributions to John Skelton. It is a thoughtful, powerful meditation on Christ on the Cross, and though Cornysh’s setting has remarkable intensity and contrapuntal artistry, I felt a strong wish to add my own response to this fine text. The different versions of it have different verses… I have chosen to restrict myself to the three used by Cornysh, using my own adaptation of the modernised words which yet incorporates some archaisms – a deliberate choice for reasons of rhythm and verbal sound.

Matthew O’Donovan