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Polyphony Is Not a Sin II

by Gary D. Penkala

polyphony A few years ago, I wrote an article prompted by a promotional bumper sticker from a Classical radio station that I thought was very clever. It read:


Here's a sequel.

The Church, in her wisdom of Tradition and in various official documents, has linked Gregorian chant with "sacred polyphony." The nobility and honored position of each within the liturgy of the Roman Rite is undisputed. Polyphony, as a music theory term, means a composition with two or more independent melodic lines that proceed horizontally to produce an effective implied or literal vertical harmony as well. The word itself means "many sounds." A round or canon is a simple example of polyphony. A six-voice, double fugue is a much more complex example, with extensive rules and music theory "rubrics."

The ubiquitous linking of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony is quite natural — polyphony developed historically from chant. Chant is a monophonic (meaning "one sound") texture: unison, unaccompanied – a single melody line. Music historians note the eventual addition of another part, which at first was simply the same melody sung five pitches higher; this was called parallel organum. It involved the same melody at two pitch levels, both moving identically, like two snakes on the sand. When it became apparent that interesting resting points, or "cadences," could be sprinkled throughout the piece by altering the second melody occasionally, the rudiments of harmony developed. The concept of the beauty of various pitches sounding together blossomed, and polyphony ("many sounds") was born. This was practiced, honed and improved through the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Were it not for the absolute glories of the music, one might even use the word "exploitive" when describing the multi-choral works of the Renaissance, like the motets of Gabrieli and Tallis that were written for as many as 40 different voice parts!

When the Church mentions sacred polyphony she most often means the religious works of the masters of the Renaissance like Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and others, although the term can certainly be broadened to include such "non-polyphonic" works as Mozart's Ave verum and "non-Renaissance" pieces like Duruflé's Ubi caritas.

CanticaNOVA Publications is commited to the promotion of both Gregorian chant [see our chant products] and sacred polyphony. We publish a number of motets in our Treasury of Sacred Music series that fall under the second category. Check out some of these for your choir!

  1. Be Unto Me, O Lord, a Tower of Strength by William Byrd (1540-1623)

    This classic Byrd motet, Be unto Me, O Lord, a Tower of Strength, beautifully edited here by early music expert William Tortolano, uses a text by Sir William Leighton, and is applicable on any general Sunday:

    Be unto me, O Lord, a tower of strength, against my mortal foe. O guard and keep me with Thy power, which way so ever I shall go. Then shall my heart and soul rejoice in God my Lord, with cheerful voice.

    In it, the composer uses subtle examples of text painting: the text, "a tow'r of strength," is set to sturdy, homophonic chords; "with cheerful voice," introduces happily running eighth notes. Vocal ranges are moderate.

  2. Cross of Joy by William Byrd (1540-1623)

    Using great music from William Byrd's Gradualia, the arranger Raymond Clark presents a "trio" of motets which can be used singly or together.

    Each individual item gives us the Alleluia and Gospel Verse for these three celebrations, with text from the Graduale Romanum:

    1. Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
    2. Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King
    3. Third Sunday of Eastertide

    The contrapuntal SATB Alleluia precedes and follows the verse text, which is set in both faux bourdon style and in polyphony. None of the music is overly difficult, nor are the ranges extreme. Because of this, and given the duplication of the first and third section, this would be an ideal piece to introduce your choir to the wonderful style of European liturgical music, particularly as might be sung at the Vatican.

    William Byrd, a Roman Catholic composer in Elizabethan England, produced a great amount of music for the Church.

  3. Factus est repente by Gregor Aichinger (1565-1628)

    Gregor Aichinger was a German organist and composer, about whom a colleague wrote:

    Aichinger in particular distinguishes himself by a warmth and tenderness of feeling bordering on mellowness, which is everywhere imbued with deep devotion.

    This motet uses the text for the Communion Antiphon for Pentecost Sunday. James Morrison, who edited the work, includes a chanted English translation which can be sung prior to the motet:

    Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting, alleluia: and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak of the wonderful works of God, alleluia, alleluia [Acts 2:2,4].

    This fine motet would make a fitting addition to your choir's Pentecost/Confirmation repertoire.

  4. O Kind Creator by Benjamin Rogers (1614–1698)

    This motet uses an English translation of the Lent Matins hymn, Audi benigne Conditor ("Hear, Kind Creator"), whose text was written by Saint Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Five verses of the Sarum plainsong chant version are given with a simple Amen and light organ accompaniment. Certainly the hymn can be sung this way, possibly alternating women and men, or children and adults, or even choir and congregation.

    However, Raymond Clark, the arranger, also supplies an SATB, homophonic version of Verses 2 and 4 by Benjamin Rogers, an organist who worked at churches and chapels in Ireland and England.

    The choral parts are easy, with extremely comfortable ranges, and the Sarum plainsong can be mastered readily. There are two alternate Amens for SATB, one simple and one more extended and ornate.

  5. O salutaris Hostia by César Franck (1822-1890)

    César Franck wrote a lovely 2-part setting of the Latin text, O salutaris Hostia, which is a stanza from the hymn by Saint Thomas Aquinas, Verbum supernum prodiens. Jon Naples has edited and arranged it (e.g. lowering the pitch a step) to make the motet more useful for most 2-part choirs.

    This lyrical composition of 100 measures, is mildly imitative but mostly homophonic. The modulations and harmonic colors are straight from 19th century Paris and Sainte-Clothilde Church!

    This motet can be sung by SA or TB voices; the ranges are reasonable and the organ accompaniment — particularly the pedal — is easy.

  6. Psallite / Sing, Rejoice by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)

    This is an example of a Renaissance motet called a macaronic carol, meaning the text occurs in two different languages. These were not uncommon, and usually included both Latin and a vernacular language. In this case, the composer used Latin for the rondo-like refrain:

    Psallite unigenito, Christo Dei filio, psallite Redemptori Domino, puerulo jacenti in præsepio.

    The short verses are in his native German.

    The arranger, Dr. Thomas Vozzella, has also translated the Latin and German to produce a singable English version of the text, as well.

    The music is light and detached, in typical Renaissance "madrigal" style. It could quite authentically be doubled on instruments (e.g. trumpets & trombones; recorders; woodwinds, strings).

  7. Quia vidisti me, Thoma by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)

    This motet is certainly appropriate on the Second Sunday of Easter, when the Resurrection appearance in John 20 is the Gospel reading. It is also useful throughout the season, on the Feast of Saint Thomas (July 3), or at any Mass centered on belief in God.

    This Hassler setting of Christ's words is a magnificent example of authentic fugal counterpoint — by-the-book, yet wonderfully expressive. It is found in the composer's collection Cantiones sacræ, published in Augsburg in 1591. He was a student of Andrea Gabrieli and was influenced by the Venetian polychoral style. His compositional style is simple, direct and clear.

    The editor, Dr. Mark Siebert, lowered the key a minor third from the original. The vocal ranges are moderate: Soprano (E to E), Alto (A to A), Tenor (E to F#), Bass (A to B) — just about an octave for each voice part!

    The text is translated as follows:

    Because you have seen me, Thomas, you believe. Blessed are they who have not seen, yet still believe.

  8. Sixteen Bicinios, Volume 1 (from the Psalms) by Angelo Bertalotti (1666-1747)

    This collection of two-part solfeggios is an homage to the composer and pedagogue, Angelo Bertalotti, who during most of his life, was connected with the School of the Order of Saint Joseph Calasanz (also known as the Piarist Fathers) in Bologna. A musician of sound contrapuntal training, he was responsible for the children's choir, and following a centuries-old tradition, wrote solfeggio exercises for his pupils.

    The present work, in three volumes, makes practical the execution of some of those solfeggios. For that, Latin texts are applied to the exercises, according to the characteristics of the respective melodies. For performance, there are several possibilities. The ideal would be, without doubt, to sing both voices a cappella, either SA or two-part mixed (ST). During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it was common to use instruments (e.g. the viola da gamba) for the second voice, perhaps transposing it an octave lower.

    Volume 2 (from the Mass) and Volume 3 (Marian and Advent antiphons) are also available.

    The arranger, Dom Gabriel Iróffy, is Rector Emeritus of the Santo Américo Elementary and High School and Founder of the Eszterhaza Music School, both in São Paulo, Brazil.

  9. This Is the Record of John by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

    The original verse anthem, telling the story of Saint John the Baptist, was written by Orlando Gibbons for countertenor alternating with full SAATB chorus. David Domet has arranged this for 2-part mixed choir (occasionally 3-pt), bass soloist, violin and organ, making it much more practical for the church choir. The arrangement is faithful to the music of the original, and retains the distinctive alternation between soloist and chorus that defines a verse anthem.

    The text dialogue comes from the Gospel of John [Jn 1:19-23]. The story is told by the soloist, with the chorus echoing some of the dialogue for emphasis.

    Ideal for the second or third Sunday of Advent, the anthem is also useful for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, particularly when it falls on a Sunday.

  10. Two Settings of Tantum ergo by René Vierne (1878-1918) & Wendelin Knauschner (1863-1934)

    Here are two easy SATB choral settings of the Aquinas text, Tantum ergo sacramentum. Both are products of early 20th century Europe, the first, by René Vierne, calls for organ accompaniment; the second, by Wendelin Knuaschner, is a cappella.

    René Vierne, whose serene style has been described as delicately lyrical, was the younger brother of the famous organist/composer Louis Vierne. He died in World War I, as did Louis' 17-year-old son, Jacques Vierne.

    Wendelin Knauschner was a well-known musician of the Bohemian School. He was known for his symphony Titanic which he composed after the shipwreck of the Titanic. One of the main German-language composers and musicians of his era, Knautschner also distinguished himself with a number of organ compositions.

    These settings are edited by Andreas Willscher, an organist, author and composer living in Hamburg, Germany. Among his passions is collecting the sacred music of lesser known composers.

So, then … Polyphony Is Not a Sin! On the contrary, it is recommended, sanctioned, approved … and a distinct pleasure. Practice it often!

Article written 31 May 2016

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