Monday, November 9, 2009

A Response to Brett Terry’s Reflection on Missa Assumpta est Maria by Palestrina

 In discussing some of the pieces with colleagues after a recent concert of George Crumb’s music, I discovered that each piece of music provided a different experience for each listener.  I became intrigued with this mysterious characteristic of music that exists in all times.  Though the listeners in a performance are collectively experiencing the same piece, each person is trained to hear music in a way that makes their listening experience unique. Among other factors, the average listener’s training is based upon the amount of musical exposure and the significance of music in their life.  For musicians in an academic setting, that training includes learning how to listen to music through classes but, more importantly, through their instrumental training.

In my experiences as a musician, I have found that each type of instrumentalist detects different subtleties when listening to a piece of music. When I read Brett’s journal, I was intrigued by the way he spoke about Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria, for it revealed what nuances he was able to detect as a vocalist. Since I am a percussionist who has not experienced much vocal music, it was interesting to hear his perspective on the piece and be able to compare it to what I experienced while listening.

 I was impressed with the Tallis Scholars’ sound, color, and intonation on their recording of Missa Assumpta est Maria, though I could not identify more traits that could support my personally defined greatness of this recording. After giving an introduction of the work and composer, Brett discussed the Tallis Scholars use of vibrato and how it aided the performance of Palestrina’s work. I did not notice this detail the first time, but when I listened again, his direction helped me experience the effect alteration between vibrato and straight tone has on highlighting moving lines and dissonances.

This technique's effectiveness led me to examine the performance practice of vocal music during the late sixteenth century, the period when Missa Assumpta est Maria was composed. Research shows that vocal vibrato during the sixteenth century was regarded as an ornamental technique that was not widely taught or accepted by musicians of the time. Though this attitude toward vibrato continued into the Baroque era, there was a brief period at the end of the sixteenth century where this technique was taught to be frequently used when singing in a continuous fashion rather than reserving it as an ornamental technique (Moens-Haenen). Though there were different opinions of how vibrato should be used during the time Missa Assumpta est Maria was composed, the Tallis Scholars' vibrato preserves the Renaissance principle of supporting the text and creating variety in the music.

In Brett’s response to the Missa Assumpta est Maria, he made an interesting observation about declaration of the text, stating that Palestrina declares the text in a different but effective way each time “agnus dei” returns. Since this section is less polyphonic and contains less imitation than the other sections of the mass, the Agnus Dei shows Palestrina’s dedication to creating variety in the music. Brett’s observation of the variation in the music-text relationship helped me understand the form and make musical sense of the Agnus Dei.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Brett’s response to Missa Assumpta est Maria because it was informative yet it included his own insight on the piece. The information he provided helped me hear and understand Palestrina’s powerful writing, while his insight gave me an idea of the types of nuance exist in vocal music. By reading Brett’s journal I not only learned about Palestrina but I experienced a vocalist’s perspective of the piece and absorbed some listening techniques that I can apply to my study of percussion.


G. Moens-Haenen. "Vibrato." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online,    c/29287 (accessed November 3, 2009).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Review of Motets et Chansons by the Hilliard Ensemble

Motets et Chansons, is devoted entirely to works by Josquin Des Prez, an iconic Renaissance composer who composed over eighteen complete polyphonic Masses, over fifty motets, and over seventy-five secular works. Josquin was made famous by works such as Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, for his ability to compose music that captured the emotional expressivity of words. During Josquin’s lifetime his compositions were known internationally and were considered musical perfections, even by Martin Luther, who hailed Josquin as “…master of notes” for his ability to effortlessly compose beautiful melodies colored by organic harmonies (Wegman 25, 33).

Though little is known about his early life, Josquin spent a significant portion of his life in Italy, running the cathedral choir in Milan and working at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. In his later years, Josquin was appointed provost at the church of Notre Dame where he presided over the prestigious music program and other divisions in the church (Macey 22). To top off the magnificent achievements in Josquin’s life, renowned printer Ottaviano Petrucci preserved many of Josquin’s works by printing three volumes of his compositions. This was a huge honor for Josquin since most composers received one volume from Petrucci at most. They also allowed musicians and scholars to perform and study Josquin's works from Renaissance times down to the present.

When compared to late Medieval and early Renaissance composers, Josquin’s style is unique since it preserves the Church’s tradition of textual clarity while emphasizing varied vocal texture and human emotion. The first piece on the album, Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, is a motet that encompasses these characteristics and others that make up Josquin’s style. Josquin begins Ave Maria, Gratia Plena using all four voices to declare the text by beginning with the soprano and using points of imitation to slowly move the text through the other voices. By using imitation, Josquin emphasizes the text through repetition and creates seamless polyphony, a compositional technique that creates fluid vocal movement from resulting harmonies. Because Josquin’s use of imitation is very effective, he does not over use this technique, but instead chooses to vary the vocal textures in the piece by using a mixture of polyphony and homophony, and at certain moments, opting to leave out a voice. It is clear through Josquin’s compositional techniques that his intentions are to use a variety of textures to above all, support the text. Though these are technical examples of Josquin’s style in Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, the listener experiences nothing of the sort. Josquin artfully blends his techniques so his music does not sound technical, but captures the listener through beautiful colors and varied textures.

Though the title of the album suggests the recording contains exclusively motets and chansons, the Hilliard Ensemble chose to surprise the listener by including a Josquin frottola, El Grillo. The frottola was an Italian song style typically composed using four, treble-dominated voices set homophonically. The texts in frottola were also set syllabically and were distinguishable by a rhyme scheme of short and long syllables (short, short, long, short, long, short, long, long).

Contrasting the somber character of Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, the song, El Grillo is a playful tune about a cricket. In this song, Josquin depicts the characteristics of a cricket, using a high vocal range to imitate cricket chirps and rhythmic complexity to portray the springy nature of a cricket. Since El Grillo is largely homophonic, there are frequent cadence points that give the piece a forward motion that depicts the constant, yet intermittent character of a cricket (Sherr 428). After listening to the more serious works on Motets et Chansons, El Grillo almost seemed out of place. Though it was different than the other works on the album, El Grillo was a humorous change of pace that demonstrated Josquin’s versatile compositional abilities.

Listening to the Hilliard Ensemble’s album, Motets et Chansons, was an enlightening experience as I have not listened to much vocal music during my life as a musician. The talents of the Hilliard Ensemble performed Josquin’s music with a passion and energy that was evident during slowest and darkest of songs. The fluidity and vocal perfection in each song showed the listener the careful thought the Hilliard Ensemble put in placing each note and coloring each texture. Experiencing the virtuosity of Josquin Des Prez in combination with the amazing talents of the Hilliard Ensemble has positively changed my attitude towards vocal music, and has redefined my view of voice, labeling it as one of the most beautiful instruments.


Macey, Patrick, et al. "Josquin des Prez." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, ve/music/14497 (accessed October 22, 2009).

Sherr, Richard. “Three Settings of Italian Texts and Two Secular Motets.” In The Josquin Companion. Oxford University Press: New York, 2000.

Wegman, Rob C. “Who Was Josquin?” In The Josquin Companion. Oxford University Press: New York, 2000.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Response to Tiffany Bell's Reflection on Cantigas de Santa Maria by Alfonso X "El Sabio"

Since I was not familiar with the Cantigas de Santa Maria, reading Tiffany’s well-researched, insightful response to this work, inspired me to listen to these songs. After doing a little research on the Cantigas de Santa Maria, I found myself wondering how the troubadours, who lived in southern France, had such a great influence on a Spanish work. Tiffany provided a useful historical background, explaining that it was not uncommon for troubadours to be found in a Spanish court because there was a strong connection between French and Spanish royalty. Tiffany also pointed out the importance pictures have in the performance practice of medieval music by including a photo of musicians in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Portraits in these Medieval works can help musicians determine instrumentation for the piece and can help inform a listener of the instruments to which they are listening.

In many ways, the prologue says a lot about the entire album. As Tiffany stated, the light instrumentation and spoken text tells the listener that the music should support the words. Because it was believed that the word of God is holy and pure, music in the liturgical setting focused on communicating the text. This church practice has been used in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. One important characteristic that I wish Tiffany had dicussed was the usage of meter in these songs. Since these songs are about the Virgin Mary, I expected them to be in a triple meter as was most sacred music of the period. I was wrong. Although some of the songs are in triple meter, the prologue starts off in a duple meter, clearly showing troubadour and secular influence.

Another unique characteristic that intrigued me about the Cantigas de Santa Maria was the use of instrumentalists as soloists. Many of the pieces, including the songs, had an instrumental cadenza that began the piece. For example, the song “Que Por Al Non Devess,” begins with a lute playing a cadenza-like passage. The lute player eventually began playing in time and led the vocalist and other instrumentalists to begin the piece. I found the third track on the album to be especially interesting because it seemed to be completely improvisatory. This instrumental track begins with a vielle cadenza, followed by a flute cadenza colored with drum slaps, rolls, and pitch bends. A steady groove emerges between the musicians, leading into what I found most exciting – a drum solo. Unlike the drum cadenza at the beginning of “Quen Serve Santa Maria," this solo was played in time. I found this to be fascinating because I did not know that drums were used as solo instruments during this time period.

Like many other Medieval instruments, little notation or instruction exists for percussionists outside of Medieval artwork. Orchésographie, the first work toclearly state a percussionist’s role as a musician, was not released until 1588 by Thoinot Arbeau (Montagu 37). Since this work was released well after the Medieval times, scholars must then rely on Medieval artwork to help draw conclusions about instruments. In artwork collected from this period, drums are often seen accompanying other instruments or being played in military settings. Because there is little written down for percussionists during this period, it would lead me to believe that a percussionist’s role was highly improvisatory, and it would not be uncommon to encounter a drum solo similar to the solo experienced in the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

I enjoyed Tiffany’s response to the Cantigas de Santa Maria. I thought she provided information that would be useful to any listener, no matter their knowledge of music history. Though I think it would have been interesting for Tiffany to explore the use of meter, her journal enhanced my listening experience, and gave me a better understanding of troubadour influence on Spanish music.


Montagu, Jeremy. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Review of the Recording: Carmina Burana by Clemencic Consort

Carmina Burana

Though Carmina Burana is widely associated with Carl Orff's choral work, the title originally referred to a collection of over 200 thirteenth century Latin poems from the Benedictine abbey in Benediktbeuren that Johann Andreas Schmeller published in 1847. The compilation contains many Latin secular poems, but also includes Latin sacred lyrics, German poems, and liturgical plays (Payne). The Goliards, monks who deserted their cloister or scholars who abandoned their university, composed most of the works found in the Carmina Burana, and their songs speak of their disillusionment with wealth and corruption in the church. This attitude towards the church offers some explanation to the satire found in their songs, and their decision to leave a life in the church to live on the streets. Goliard songs and poems describe a variety of their experiences, telling tales of love, religion, drinking, and orgies (Sebesta 4-5).

Depicted below is "O Fortuna" - a piece of artwork taken from the Carmina Burana that sums up the basis for the Medieval mindset. The photo depicts a Wheel of Fortune revolving around Lady Fortune, the dictator of fate or fortune. During Medieval times, the majority of humans lived a life surrounded by filth, disease, death, and abject poverty. Compared to the Modern mindset, that the outcome life can be controlled, the Medieval midset was plagued by these horrible conditions, leaving all decisions up to Lady Fortune, a force outside human control.

Carmina Burana features the Celmencic Consort under the direction of René Clemencic. The Clemencic Consort specializes in the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, using period instruments to give the listener an impression of how the music was originally performed. This album is organized into the six sections of the Carmina Burana: “Carmina Gulatorum et Potatorum,” “Amoris Infelicis,” “Plaintes Mariales du Jeu de la Passion,” “Carmina Moralia et Divina,” “Carmina Lusorum,” and “Carmina Veris et Amoris.” Each section features distinct instruments and styles that correspond to the subjects of the songs (Clemencic).

The “Carmina Gulatorum et Potatorum” section features songs of food and drink. Songs from this section are primarily instrumental, featuring only a few selections with voice. The compound meter in these songs makes them dance-like. The instruments were very bright in timbre and included flute, plucked and bowed string instruments, and recorder. Percussion instruments used were drums, jingles, and tambourine. When the flute entered in a song, it would often play in a wild manner similar to the aulos, adding energy and a change in character to the piece. At some instances vocalists sounded as though had gorged themselves on food and drink, boistrously shouting rather than singing

The songs in “Carmina Veris et Amoris” had more singing and a lighter instrumentation than the previous section. Male and female vocalists often sung responsorially, taking turns singing throughout each piece. The character of these songs was quite dynamic, ranging from bright and energetic to dark and somber. A pedal tone was present in theses songs and was often played by an instrument similar to the bagpipe. Since the vocalists sang as though they were sharing their sorrows, a possible theme throughout this section could be courtly love.

The first song from section “Plaintes Mariales du Jeu de la Passion” sounded similar to a funeral march. A slow drum beat began the song, leading the other instruments to begin their melancholic melody. After the musicians had set the mood, the vocalists entered in traditional chant style, using a recitation tone to project the text. Throughout this section, the focus was mainly on the text. When vocalists would enter a piece, the instrumentalists decreased their presence or even drop out of the texture, allowing the the vocalists to declare the texts.

Many of the songs in “Carmina Moralia et Divina” resembled the jovial charachter of “Carmina Gulatorum et Potatorum.” Singing in melismatic style was a rare occurance, but was a distiguishing charasteristic of this section. During these songs, vocalisst would sing a long, embellished lines while accompanied by an instrument playing a pedal tone. This example is reminiscent of embellished chant where vocalists would sing the original melody and the soloists would sing the embellishments. The melismatic style exemplified in the vocals transferred to a piece for flute and organ, with the flute playing the embellishments and the organ playing the pedal tones. Contrasting the legatto nature of melismas, the use of crash cymbals appears in the songs of this section. These cymbals sounded much smaller and drier than the modern crash cymbals, bearing a close resemblance to Chinese opera cymbals.

The first thing I noticed when listening to this album was the use of period instrumentation because the timbres produced are similar, yet very different from modern instruments. The pitches were frequently out of tune to the Modern ear, but when combined with the different instrumental colors, provided an authentic listening experience. When I decided listen to this album I had only heard a few goliard songs, so I was not sure what to expect. I found that listening to the Carmina Burana  was an educational experience as I learned about new instruments, styles, and how music functioned in Medieval society. Though the repitition of simple harmonies and styles in Carmina Burana was not always as engaging as the modern harmonies and sheer force of Carl Orff’s rendition, I found Carmina Burana to be an interesting work to which to listen.


“Clemencic Consort”. (accessed on September 14, 2009).

Payne, Thomas B. “Carmina Burana.” Grove Music Online. (accessed on September 13, 2009).

Sebesta, Judith Lynn. Carl Orff: Carmina Burana, Cantiones Profanae. Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 1996.