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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“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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