Writing by Peter Hilton

The right tempo for renaissance polyphony

How fast to sing sixteenth century church music 2022-04-05 #music

Interior of the Sistine Chapel

Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0

In choral renaissance polyphony, performers often disagree on tempo. After all, we don’t have any recordings from the sixteenth century, and contemporary sheet music didn’t include any explicit indications of tempo. Both techniques came much later.

Scholarship, practical considerations, and modern artistic license results in wide variation in modern performance. As an amateur early music choral singer, I’ve had plenty of experiences of not knowing how fast we should perform a piece, but also learned about some of the practical considerations.

Recordings of Alma redemptoris mater (score), composed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina illustrate the issue nicely. This seasonal Marian antiphon (one of four hymns for the virgin Mary), assigned to the period from Advent through Candlemas (December and January).

The professional ensemble

This first recording by The King’s Singers, a professional ensemble, has one singer for each of the four parts. They vary timing stylistically here like a modern string quartet, lengthening some notes and pauses, while staying precisely in sync. The performance lasts 2m42s.

The papal choir

This recording, from the Sistine chapel where Palestrina worked, features a choir. The pope’s personal choir, no less. (Palestrina sang in the choir until 1555, when a new pope banned married men from singing in the choir.)

This performance skips the dramatic pauses, which are harder for a choir to keep together, and gets on with the piece, which makes more sense for a church service than a concert. The faster tempo arguably suits the piece better, which now lasts exactly two minutes.

The professional choir

Video: Alma Redemptoris Mater, Julian Podger, Monteverdi Choir

The slowest recording in this collection features a larger choir, and includes female voices. The indulgently slow tempo avoids losing the faster notes in the larger acoustics (of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Salle, Norfolk, UK), and leaves time for dramatic dynamics. These choices deliver a more emotional performance, and justify the much slower tempo that stretches the performance to nearly four minutes. But I also consider this performance ‘wrong’, in how it distorts the music.

The Italian quartet

This quartet shows how fast a smaller ensemble can sing the same piece in a small room’s more intimate acoustic, without it sounding particularly rushed. They only take 1m42s. Now it sounds like a different piece.

The chant

Video: Alma redemptoris mater (Simple Tone) - Gregorian, Ensemble Biblische Lieder

Sixteenth century polyphony stylises the then-traditional performance of Gregorian chant. Chant essentially takes its tempo from how fast you speak the text, slowing at the end of each phrase. This performance lasts just 1m16s. We might not know what Palestrina intended, but we do know that he grew up with chant in churches, and composed his polyphony in this context.

The American choir

Personally, I like this performance’s tempo and phrasing more than the others. I also appreciate the difficulty of this style, especially with amateur singers used to both a slower tempo and stopping completely between phrases. This professional choir brings the piece to life.

So how fast should you sing sixteenth century church music? It depends.

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