Orlando Gibbons’ Three Royal Fantasies for Viols: Sit Fast

The music of the English composer, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), bridges the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. Based in Cambridge and then at the Chapel Royal for much of his life, Gibbons became organist at Westminster Abbey in 1623. He enjoyed the patronage of King James I and his successor, Prince Charles. In addition to writing liturgical music and keyboard pieces, Gibbons developed the late English madrigal, creating such famous works as The …

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Josquin’s Missa L’homme Armé, “Agnus Dei”: Brilliant Renaissance Polyphony

Eight Lines, Steve Reich’s 1979 minimalist masterpiece, sounds nothing like the Renaissance polyphony of Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521). As I pointed out last week, Eight Lines is the music of twentieth century American capitalism with its repetitious advertising and slick popular music. Other commentators have noted obvious links between Reich’s minimalism and the circular music of Asia, such as the Balinese gamelan. Yet, Steve Reich has been deeply influenced by the music of Pérotin and …

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Tallis’ “Lamentations of Jeremiah”: Holy Week in Renaissance England

The English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis wrote the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the 1560s for the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. At the time, musical settings from the Book of Jeremiah were common in England during the Christian Holy Week. The texts, which lament the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians, held significance for Roman Catholics amid the turmoil surrounding the rise of Protestantism. The Lamentations were written during the early years of …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”: Ghosts of the English Renaissance

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is filled with ghosts. Composed in 1910, this haunting single-movement work for string orchestra develops from a melody written nearly 400 years earlier by the English Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis. Tallis’ hymn melody, one of nine written in 1567 for the Archbishop of Canterbury, is tinged with a sense of quiet mystery and lament. With continuous harmonic and metric shifts, it feels mysterious …

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Three English Phantasies: Music of Vaughan Williams, Purcell, and Britten

The fantasia is a genre which spans more than four hundred years of English music. It flowered in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with the viol consort music of composers such as William Byrd, John Jenkins, and Henry Purcell. Emerging from the word fancy, these compositions are free in form and feature an intricate, polyphonic dialogue between instruments. A predecessor to sonata form, the fantasia grew out of madrigals and vocal motets. Twentieth …

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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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“Hurrian Hymns”: Music from 1400 BC

Happy New Year! Today, as we move into an uncertain 2021, let’s reflect on the things which haven’t changed fundamentally over thousands of years of human history. One item on the list must be music, which according to some researchers predated language. An enticing fragment of early musical notation, found on a 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet, suggests that written music has long been with us. The oldest surviving notated score to be preserved in …

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