“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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“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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John Dowland’s “Weep You No More, Sad Fountains,” Anne Sofie von Otter

A quiet melancholy shrouds many of the songs of the English Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer John Dowland (1563-1626). Denied employment in the court of Elizabeth I, perhaps because of his Catholicism, Dowland worked in France and later at the court of Christian IV of Denmark. Returning to England in 1606, Dowland secured a position in the court of James I. Weepe you no more, sad fountaines was published in Dowland’s 1603 Third Book …

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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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“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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A New Year’s Hymn: Music of Praetorius, Scheidt, and Bach

Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (“The old year now hath passed away”) is a New Year hymn dating back to 1568. The chorale melody has been attributed to Johannes Steurlein (1546-1613), the son of the first Lutheran pastor of the central German town of Schmalkalden. The text suggests a mix of quiet gratitude and apprehension: The old year now hath passed away; We thank Thee, O our God, today That Thou hast …

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Orlande de Lassus’ “Prophetiae Sibyllarum”: Ancient Mystic Voices

In mystical writings, the Ancient Greek Sibyls foresaw the coming of Christ. These oracles are included among the prophets Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Their poetic verses inspired the Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus to write Prophetiae Sibyllarum some time around 1555. The work is a collection of twelve brief motets which follow an opening prologue. This is music filled with chromaticism and harmonic adventure, anticipating the audacious madrigals of …

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