Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus,” The Cambridge Singers

As a hart longs for the flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. -Psalm 42:1 Palestrina’s motet, Sicut cervus, is a setting of this poetic text. Serene and sensuous, its four-voice Renaissance polyphony evokes the flowing water that promises to satisfy the thirsty deer. Its expansive, continuously aspiring lines suggest a deep sense of longing and lament. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) composed six books of motets, along …

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“Resonet in Laudibus”: Music of Lassus, Praetorius, and the Moosburg Gradual

Resonet in laudibus (“Let the voice of praise resound”) is a Christmas carol which dates back to the 14th century. Popular throughout Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the melody found its way into the choral motets of composers such as Orlande de Lassus and Jacobus Gallus. In 1550, Georg Wicel called it “one of the chief Christmas songs of joy.” Let’s explore the evolution of this exuberant melody through two Renaissance motets. In both …

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Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: A Cosmic Expanse of Space and Sonority

The late works of Beethoven are filled with mystery and revelation. They leave behind historical style and convention and assume a timelessness which speaks to posterity. This is the strange, spiritual landscape of the Ninth Symphony, the late string quartets, and the Missa solemnis, Op. 123. While the Ninth Symphony takes an outward journey, culminating with the Ode to Joy’s declaration of universal brotherhood, the Missa solemnis (“solemn mass”), completed around the same …

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Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”: “From Harmony, from Heavenly Harmony”

Sunday marks Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day on the Roman Catholic calendar. Saint Cecilia, one of the most famous martyrs of the early church, is the patron of music and musicians. Her spirit is celebrated in George Frederich Handel’s cantata, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which was first performed on November 22, 1739 at London’s Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The cantata’s text is a setting of a 1687 poem by John Dryden based on the …

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Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni, Voces8

Before the rich counterpoint of J.S. Bach, there was the seamless, contrapuntal polyphony of the Italian Renaissance composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594). The sacred music of Palestrina greatly influenced Bach and the composers who followed. Bach studied and hand-copied Palestrina’s first book of Masses and adapted parts of the Missa sine nomine. Felix Mendelssohn noted Palestrina’s influence when he wrote, “I always get upset when some praise only Beethoven, others only Palestrina and still others …

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Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”): Brahms’ “Little Requiem”

In the summer of 1868, while visiting his friend Albert Dietrich in the North German coastal town of Wilhelmshaven, Johannes Brahms was drawn to the poem, Hyperions Schicksalslied by Friedrich Hölderlin. Buried in the middle of a 1797 novel depicting the Greek mythical titan Hyperion, the poem’s two verses contrast the lives of eternally blissful Immortals enjoying “luminous, heavenly breezes” with the restless existence of human beings, who are subject to the cruel whims …

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“If Ye Love Me”: Thomas Tallis’ Timeless Motet

Politics and dogma leave their temporary mark on the shifting sands of history, while music remains eternal. The life of the great English composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) is a testament to this idea. While Tallis remained an “unreformed Roman Catholic” throughout his life, he adapted professionally to serve the monarch of the time. He wrote for the Latin Catholic Mass until Henry VIII’s break with Rome. After writing Anglican music, he …

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