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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Nineteen voices a snap for Ars Nova singers

Music of Renaissance England forms “Voices and Viols” program

By Peter Alexander

A choral piece for “only” 19 parts is almost too easy for the experienced voices of Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers.

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Ars Nova Singers

Last year they sang two pieces in 40 parts, which artistic director Thomas Edward Morgan admits was “a challenging thing to do — in the middle of winter and flu season!” Each of the 40 parts had to be sung by only a single singer, so any absences would have scuttled the performance. 

With those works successfully performed last year, the group is now adding a 19-voice motet from the Renaissance to their list of musical accomplishments. “The group discovered that having done [the 40-voice pieces] last year, this other piece is considerably more accessible,” Morgan says.

The piece is “O bone Jesu” (Oh, good Jesus), by the 16th-century Scottish composer Robert Carver, which Morgan has wanted to perform for a long time. It will be part of “Voices and Viols,” a joint concert between Ars Nova and STRING, a viola da gamba trio directed by Ann Marie Morgan. “Voices and Viols” will be performed Saturday evening, Feb. 25, in Boulder and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 26, in Denver.

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STRING

The viola da gamba is a fretted string instrument of the Renaissance period that is played with a bow. The name, meaning “viol for the leg,” refers to the fact that the instruments are held between the legs, like a modern cello. STRING was formed in 2016 by Anne Marie Morgan with fellow gambists Sarah Biber and Sandra Miller to perform music for gamba as it was originally heard.

Because the gamba was particularly popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, that was the music that was the natural fit for their joint program with Ars Nova. “Voices and Viols” will include verse anthems works by William Byrd, Thomas Morley and Orlando Gibbons, three of the most important Renaissance English composers. STRING will also play works for gambas alone on each half of the concert.

Morgan is excited about the opportunity to perform with the gambas. “Because they don’t use modern vibrato, the gamba doesn’t have as directly emotional a sound,” he says. “It’s a much more subtle thing.

“It makes for a unique showcase of this repertoire, and challenges both the singers and the audience to tune in to the details.”

Read more at Boulder Weekly.

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Voices and Viols
Ars Nova Singers, Thomas Edward Morgan, director
STRING, Ann Marie Morgan, director

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder
4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St., Denver

Tickets