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Performances

Stile Antico [Photo: Marco Borggreve]
29 Apr 2019

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Stile Antico

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

This varied programme, captivatingly sung by the twelve-strong a cappella ensemble, Stile Antico, celebrated such women, exploring diverse issues and domains from monarchs to musicianship, from the court to the convent.

The short, troubled reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58) has long been overshadowed by that of her half-sister Elizabeth, her five years on the throne judged as unsuccessful, bloody and unfruitful. However, her achievement in assuming the throne and becoming England’s first female sovereign is increasingly being reassessed. Moreover, her strict imposition of Catholicism upon her nation may have resulted in the deaths of up to 300 of her Protestant subjects, but the reestablishment of the Catholic services which had been abolished by Edward VI meant that the musicians of the Chapel Royal had to revive and develop the musical liturgy.

The Latin Church music of Thomas Tallis and John Shepherd exemplifies the refreshing of this liturgical tradition. Tallis’s Pentecostal office responsory ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’ is brief but presents rich elaboration around the tenor cantus firmus, and the full complement of twelve voices relished its piquant harmonies, blending mellifluously. Performing without a conductor they seem to communicate by quasi-telepathic means so assured is the ensemble and collective expressivity. John Sheppard’s ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria’, a responsory for Candlemas, is both more obvious in its homage to the monarch, whose namesake it celebrates - “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, Virgin Mary!” - and even more majestic. Stile Antico pristinely delineated the counterpoint, used harmonic and cadential nuance to bring significant textual phrases to the fore - “inviolate permansisti” (you remained an undefiled virgin) and grew with sweet strength towards the concluding “Gloria”.

These were unsettled times for English musicians, though, and with the ascension of Elizabeth I it was ‘all-change’ once more. William Byrd’s ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’ reflects the monarch’s new injunction for textual clarity; here, the ensemble sound was consoling and warm - aptly so, for the Catholic Byrd prays for the well-being of the woman who offers him both patronage and protection from religious persecution. The polyphony was smooth and calm, culminating in a gloriously florid “Amen”. John Taverner had been master of the choir in Cardinal College Oxford (now Christchurch), where he had forty voices at his disposal and the buoyant ‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’, a votive antiphon to be sung after Compline, reflects the potential offered by the large forces. It was originally composed in honour of St William of York, but later adapted to serve as a prayer for both the monarch and her Church. The concluding request that they both be granted the reward of eternal life was fittingly positive in spirit and glowing in tone.

In 1601 Thomas Morley published a collection of madrigals in honour of Elizabeth, The Triumphs of Oriana, to which John Bennet contributed ‘All creatures now are merry minded’ which was sung with up-lifting lightness and joy. Richard Carlton was vicar of St Stephen's church, Norwich, and a minor canon at Norwich Cathedral; he too contributed to Morley’s publication, and ‘Calm was the air’ which the nine voices brought to a radiant conclusion of shining, rising scales, “Long live fair Oriana!”, grounded by a sonorous low bass.

On the continent, the Netherlands had come under Habsburg control through the marriage in 1477 of Maximilian I to Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. During the fifteenth century the Burgundian court had emerged as a centre of cultural splendour and musical patronage, and on her appointment as Regent of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria inherited the Grande chapelle on of the most impressive musical establishments in Europe, rivalling even the Papal chapel. Margaret’s cultural and musical patronage is reflected in the music manuscripts that survive from her regency.

Alexander Agricola (1446-1506) joined the Burgundian court in 1500. His music was described vy one 16th-century observer as ‘unusual, crazy and strange’, and some scholars have suggested that his it lies in-between vocal and instrumental idioms and has an almost baroque sensibility. Certainly, the motet ‘Dulces exuviae’, a setting of Dido’s lament from Virgil’s Aeneid sung here by eight voices, seemed to combine musical sentiments both sensual and sacred, moving restlessly towards a slightly tentative and inconclusive final cadence. The motet ‘Absalon, fili me’, attributed to Pierre de la Rue, is similarly unpredictable and experimental. It includes a reference to “frater mi Philippe”, suggesting that the text may have been written by Margaret herself in remembrance of her brother who died in 1506. Stile Antico wrung every drop of emotion from the extraordinary, almost painful, harmonic twists and turns as an arpeggio-motif descended despairingly.

Stile Antico celebrated not just female patrons but the producers of music too. Raffaella (also known as Vittoria, her name before she took religious orders) Aleotti (b.1575) was the second daughter of Giovanni Battista Aleotti, a prominent architect at the court of Duke Alonso II d’Esta. A child prodigy, in 1589 she entered the Convent of San Vito in Ferrara which was known for its musical training and performance, and during the following few years seems to have nurtured a growing religious vocation and considerable skill as a composer. During Holy Week in 1593, a Venetian Count visited the convent and was shown some madrigals, setting texts by Guarini, which Aleotti had composed; he published them, and later that year a collection of motets in five, seven, eight and ten voices also appeared, attributed to Aleotti. She subsequently took her vows, but continued to develop her musical skills becoming renowned as an organist and instrumentalist.

Given Aleotti’s young age when she wrote ‘Exaudi, Deus, orationem’, the motet’s harmonic daring and piquancy is striking, and Stile Antico brought forth the very human passion of this plea to the Lord through the varied vocal combinations and interplay. Aleotti was not the first female composer to see her music in print: in 1568 Maddalena Casulana (fl.1566-83), a skilled lutenist and singer, published a collection of madrigals whose dedication to Isabella de’Medici Orsini asserted its intent to ‘show to the world the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the masters of high intellectual gifts that these gifts cannot, it seems to then, be equally common among women’. ‘O notte, O ciel, O mar’, sung by four voices here, proves her point through its dynamic response to the text and startling harmonic contortions and Stile Antico also captured the flexibility and sensitivity to the text of ‘Vagh’ amorosi augelli’.

A contemporary of Aleotti, Sulpita Cesis (b.1577) also took holy orders, in the Augustinian convent of San Geminiano in 1593. She published a volume of Mottetti spiritual in 1619, from which we heard ‘Ascendo ad patrem’ - the eight voices, arranged into two choirs, bringing vivacity to the central ‘Alleluia’ and lightness to the closing image of truth and certainty - and the similarly joyful and lively ‘Cantemus Domino’. Reminding us the music of some of these women composers would first have been heard in convent chapels, five ladies from Stile Antico performed two works by Leonora d’Este, (1515-75), the daughter of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia who, upon her mother’s death was sent to the Clarissian convent of Corpus Domini. Both ‘Veni sponsa Christi’ and ‘Ego sum panis vitae’ were notable for their melodic fluidity, as the parts interweaved and crossed, and calm devotional air.

Lastly, Stile Antico performed a new work by Joanna Marsh, Dialogo and Quodlibet, which the composer describes as a ‘parody piece based on the conversations found in the Dialogo della Musica of Antonfrancesco Doni [1544] … a sizable volume containing a selection of contemporary pieces that Doni uses as a schema for analysing music and commenting on its performance’. As the six male singers huddled around a volume at the centre-front of the stage it was not hard to imagine the philosophical disputations of academies such as the Florentine Camerata de’ Bardi; or the series of musical polemics during the 16th century, such as that between Zarlino and Monteverdi following the publication of the latter’s fourth book of madrigals.

Conflict between old and new is not rare in the annals of music history, whether it is a result of changes in musical theory or new voices challenging those of established repute. Certainly, the six female singers at the rear of the platform, with their backs turned on us, were intent on debate and disruption. And, as we alternated between their delivery of fragments from Casulana’s dedication and the men’s dry discussion, the latter presented by Marsh in a rigid contrapuntal idiom which mocked the scholarly theorising, the ladies came to the forestage, declaring proudly: “Our wish is to entertain each other, not to hold school!” - a bold wish which outshone the men’s fading discourse, “A pox upon these clefs; this piece has different words you see; the discourse of a good musician, talk well of music.” Marsh’s composition raised many a chuckle from the Hall One audience and neatly combines insouciance of style with a serious intellectual challenge.

Everything about this concert had been meticulously prepared, from the spoken prefaces, to the re-arrangements of the singers’ semi-circle and resultant entrances-and-exits. But, while the latter were executed with the same flawless professionalism that characterised the singing itself, they did necessitate quite a lot of stage ‘traffic’. I wondered whether Stile Antico might have placed chairs at the rear and sides of the Hall One platform, from which they might rise to take their places as required, thereby facilitating smoother ‘transitions’?

However, the minor distraction in no way marred the glories of the music-making offered here. The male scholars may have ‘talked well of music’, but Stile Antico gave a rich, powerful voice to the women who patronised, produced and published such music and were very much part of the Renaissance.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico: Breaking the Habit

Raffaella Alleotti - ‘Exaudi Deus orationem mean’; Pierre de la Rue - ‘Absalon fili mi; Anon. - ‘Se joue souspire/Ecce iterum’; Alexander Agricola - ‘Dulces exuviae’; Maddalena Casulana - ‘O notte, o ciel, o mar’; Sulpitia Cesis - ‘Ascendo ad patrem’; Leonora d’Este - ‘Veni sponsa Christi’, ‘Ego sum’; Maddalena Casulana - ‘Vagh’ amorosi augelli’; Thomas Tallis - ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’; John Sheppard - ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; William Byrd - ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth’, John Taverner - ‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’, John Bennet - ‘All creatures now are merry minded’; Richard Carlton - ‘Calm was the air’; Sulpita Cesis - ‘Cantemus Domino’; Rafaella Aleotti - ‘ Angelus ad pastores ait; Joanna Marsh - ‘Dialogo Quodlibet’.

Kings Place, London; Saturday 27th April 2019.

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