Léonin, Pérotin, and the Birth of Polyphony at Notre Dame

Why did the devastating fire at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral capture such intense worldwide attention this week? One reason is because of the way Notre Dame connects us to the past by way of nearly a thousand years of history. The stones of this iconic structure, which Victor Hugo described in 1831 as “a vast symphony in stone,” have presided over great plagues, the turmoil of the French Revolution, Napoléon Bonaparte’s self-coronation, and the …

Read moreLéonin, Pérotin, and the Birth of Polyphony at Notre Dame

Michael Praetorius: Four Renaissance Dances, Magnificat

It is believed that the German Renaissance composer, Michael Praetorius, was born on this day in 1571. In a strange coincidence, he died on the same date fifty years later in 1621. Active as an organist and music theorist, Praetorius was amazingly versatile. He published the four-volume Syntagma musicum, an influential treatise on music history and theory which remains a principal source for knowledge of 17th century music. Among his Lutheran chorale settings is …

Read moreMichael Praetorius: Four Renaissance Dances, Magnificat

György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna”: The Ethereal Land of Micropolyphony

Lux Aeterna for sixteen-part mixed choir, written in 1966 by the Hungarian-Austrian avant-garde composer György Ligeti (1923-2006), is simultaneously haunting, mysterious, unsettling, and serenely beautiful. Unfolding gradually in shimmering layers of sound, it forces us to confront our perceptions of time and space. Its dimensions are cosmic. The term micropolyphony has been used to explain the clusters of sound which emerge and develop in Lux Aeterna and other music by Ligeti. It’s a word which might bring to …

Read moreGyörgy Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna”: The Ethereal Land of Micropolyphony

Benjamin Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin”: VOCES8

Benjamin Britten composed A Hymn to the Virgin at the age of 16 while a student at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, England. Yet there is nothing remotely youthful or immature about this brief work for unaccompanied double chorus. It unfolds with a sense of haunting mystery and quiet lament that seems timeless. The anonymous text, dating from around 1300, comes from the Oxford Book of English Verse. In an expansive, antiphonal dialogue, the main chorus sings in …

Read moreBenjamin Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin”: VOCES8

Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”: Wandering, Rebirth, Exultation

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” wrote Igor Stravinsky, provocatively, in his 1935 autobiography. Listen to Stravinsky’s monumental Symphony of Psalms, completed five years earlier in 1930, and you may disagree. There is nothing remotely sentimental in the cool, neoclassical architecture of this music. It would be hard to put into words what is being “expressed.” Yet what emerges is powerful, moving, and transcendent. Set in …

Read moreStravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”: Wandering, Rebirth, Exultation

Britten’s “War Requiem”: Libera me

In observance of Memorial Day, here is the final segment of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  One of the defining works of the twentieth century, the War Requiem combines the traditional Latin Mass for the dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen in the trenches of the First World War. It was premiered on May 30, 1962 on the occasion of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. The original fourteenth century structure (pictured above) …

Read moreBritten’s “War Requiem”: Libera me

New Release: Byrd Motets, Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540-1623) lived amid the Catholic-Protestant religious turmoil which spanned the reigns of monarchs Elizabeth I and James I. Byrd wrote music for Anglican church  services, yet for most of his life he remained a dissident Catholic. As organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, his salary was suspended, perhaps because the Puritans found his organ and choral music to be too elaborately polyphonic. His over 110 Motets, published in …

Read moreNew Release: Byrd Motets, Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Send this to a friend