Ars Nova Singers offer “The Earthquake Mass,” but no actual earthquake

Twelve-voice Mass setting by Antoine Brumel

By Peter Alexander Feb. 21 at 4:50 p.m.

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Thomas Edward Morgan

Conductor Thomas Edward Morgan and Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers must really like Renaissance music that has many more than the usual four or five separate voice parts.

About this time last year, they performed a 36-voice canon by Johannes Ockeghem. The year before that, it was a 19-voice motet by Robert Carver. And in 2016, it was two separate pieces for 40 voices, the largest number ever called for in the Renaissance, by Thomas Tallis and Alessandro Striggio.

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The original manuscript of Brumel’s “Earthquake Mass” (1570)

This year’s offering is not quite on that scale, but it is unusual: a Mass by Antoine Brumel for 12 voices—the only Renaissance choral setting of the Mass for such large forces (performances Saturday in Boulder and Sunday in Denver). It is known as “The Earthquake Mass,” not because of the earth-shaking nature of the music, but because it is based on a tiny bit of sacred chant, originally sung to the words “Et ecce terra motus” (“And behold, the earth moved”).

It was customary in the Renaissance to build larger pieces on a short phrase of chant. This is not unlike jazz that is based on the bass line from a standard song, except that in the Renaissance the quoted phrase would be placed in an inner voice and might not be heard or recognized by the listener.

In this way, Brumel’s Mass was composed “just from that one little snippet of chant, which is the basis of the whole thing,” Morgan says. On the other hand, he adds, “there’s a section where he probably was thinking about the ground moving or something dramatic, because there’s a couple of vigorous and dramatic shaking moments in the piece.”

Such a large number of different voices creates a rich sound that Morgan and the choir relish. “For the ensemble it’s fun because there’s not many groups that can have 12 independent lines and really be confident that they’re going to all be there,” Morgan says.

“So it’s building on the capabilities of the group, but I just find that there’s nothing quite sonically like it again until the 20th century. I find (multi-part pieces) to be very interesting, because you’re listening for small changes in texture, and being able to hear it go from large sonic structures to much more intimate things, and to hear places where the voices come together and present something at the same time.”

At the same time there is a drawback to presenting music with so many parts intricately woven together. “It’s very dense, to the point where you just hear a lot of activity in the voices, and you hear little snippets of melody that go around the choir. Some (fragments of melody) are very clearly presented one after the other and some are layered in such a way that you can’t even perceive them any more because they’re right on top of each other.”

Morgan has structured the program so that the more dense music is not heard in a single, unbroken stretch. The five movements of the Mass will be performed in three sections at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the program, with other, more intimate pieces presented in between.

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Ann Marie Morgan

Ann Marie Morgan, a member of Ars Nova and an internationally known instrumental performer, will play a variety of music on the viola da gamba, and at one point the singers will present a four-voice motet by Josquin Des Prez, conducted by Brian Dukeshier, Ars Nova’s new assistant conductor.

“I decided to give the singers a little break, and when you have a world-class viola da gamba player in your midst, it’s nice to use her occasionally,” Morgan says. “She’s put together a couple of little sets of (pieces). The intention is to create a context that draws the ear of the listener out of these large, dense textures and into a very intimate space.”

The viola da gamba pieces would not have been heard in services of the Mass in Brumel’s time, but it is not inauthentic to interrupt the larger musical portions of the program. In the church of the time, the various movements of the Mass would be heard at different times during the service, with chant and other events between, so that the listeners would not sit straight through 30 minutes of dense choral music.

Renaissance music is often performed that way in concerts, but listening that way “can be a bit of a challenge,” Morgan says, “because it’s just so much of the same kind of texture. Even within the mass we’re varying the texture in that we have sections that are being done by one voice on a part. So we have two little 12-tet groups that are presenting certain parts.”

Josquin’s motet introduces another kind of variety into the program. “It’s a four-part piece in the midst of all of this,” Morgan says. “It’s for choral variety, but it’s also a little bit for tessitura (voice range) variety, because it’s a considerably higher-pitched piece than the Mass. So we hear the sopranos go up in their register a little bit.”

Morgan has no hesitation recommending the Brumel Mass to new listeners of Renaissance music. “It’s so sonically lush that I think people will enjoy it,” he says. “You don’t perceive the underlying chant, but you hear the changes of harmony, and when it moves from one large tonal area into another, it has this kind of surge like a wave that arrives and then it recedes.

“It’s very gracious to listen to. I find it meditative in a way, because it does transport you into a place where you’re not trying to figure it out.”

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Music of the Renaissance: “The Earthquake Mass”
Ars Nova Singers, Tom Morgan, artistic director
With Ann Marie Morgan, viola da gamba

Antoine Brumel: Missa Et ecce terra motus (“The Earthquake Mass”)
Josquin Des Prez: Ave Maria…virgo serena
Music and arrangements for viola da gamba by various composers

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, St. John’ Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder
Tickets

4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, St. Paul Community of Faith, 1600 Grant St., Denver
Tickets 

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