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 …

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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 …

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Exploring the Prolation Canon

There is an interesting passage about four and a half minutes into the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 which may have caught your ear if you dropped by for Wednesday’s post: Did you hear that wandering, chromatic line which begins in the violins? Two additional lower string voices enter in succession with the same line at consecutively slower rates of speed. For a moment, before the episode is cut off by the …

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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 …

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A Brief Musical Tour of Catalonia

Catalonia was thrust into the headlines last week amid a tumultuous attempted referendum regarding independence from Spain. For centuries, the sliver of land on the Mediterranean, once under Moorish control and now home to 7.5 million people, has alternated between independent republic, French protectorate, and Spanish region. Anchored by its capital, Barcelona, Catalonia has developed its own distinct language and culture. All of this got me thinking about the music of Catalonia …

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Exploring the Sarabande Over 400 Years

No one seems to be sure, exactly, about the roots of the sarabande as a dance form. It may have originated in Mexico or some other part of Latin America. It was popular in the Spanish colonies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The zarabanda was first mentioned in a 1593 poem, Vida y tiempo de Maricastaña, written in Panama by Fernando de Guzmán Mejía. As a dance, it was so spicy that it was considered …

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New Release: The Emerson’s “Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell”

The Emerson String Quartet’s newest album spans three hundred years of English music. Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell balances twentieth century composer Benjamin Britten’s Second and Third String Quartets with Chaconnes and Fantasias by baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). This year marks the Emerson Quartet’s 40th anniversary. This latest recording is the first to included British cellist Paul Watkins, who joined the group in 2013. The Emerson Quartet approaches Purcell’s Fantasias (probably all …

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