About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Klingender Dom" Choir Concert

On Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to attend a truly extraordinary choral concert at the St. Paulus Dom (Cathedral) here in Münster. The concert, called "Klingender Dom" (roughly "Cathedral Full of Sound") involved the Domchor (Cathedral Choir) of Münster, performing together with the Mädchen- and Knabenkanotreien am Dom (Girls' and Boys' Cathedral Choir) and the Kammerchor Rheine (the Chamber Choir from the town of Rheine), accompanied by the Musica fiata from Cologne.

What made this concert truly spectacular, however, was the logistical set-up of the choirs. The Münster Domchor sang from risers set up in front of the high altar, while the Kammerchor Rheine stood on the steps that lead to the Westchor of the Cathedral, that is, at the opposite end of the Cathedral from the Domchor. Finally, risers were set up in the central bay of the northern side aisle, where either the children's choirs or a smaller choir composed of assorted members of the various choirs sang; a platform for the conductor was placed in the very center of the nave so that all three choirs could see him at once.

Thus, Saturday evening was truly a three-dimensional musical experience, as the sounds of the choirs came literally from every direction (for maximum effect, they decided to forgo the use of the electronic sound system, allowing rather the natural acoustics of the building to take over--something I wish they would do more often). Furthermore, their selection of music from the late Renaissance and early Baroque was tailored to exemplify what is known as the "Venetian polychoral" style; from the inside cover of the program:

This term designates a musical practice that arose in the middle of the 15th century during the late Italian Renaissance. At that time, Venice was a leading center of innovation in the area of music. The polychoral style was chiefly developed for liturgical works that would envelop the space in which they were performed. This effect was achieved by splitting up the music between two or more part-ensembles (so-called "choirs") that stood at various around the performance space; sometimes, the choirs would take turns "answering" each other (a style called "antiphony"), and other times they would join together in the "Tutti" passages and so fill the entire space with music. Fra Ruffino d'Assisi, the Cathedral Kapellmeister in Padua, was one of the first to develop this practice, writing ca. 1510-20 settings of the Psalms for eight voices "a coro spezzato ", i.e. for a separated choir or two choirs of four voices each. While the practice of switching at each verse between one choir and another had roots in the Middle Ages,Fra Ruffino added the innovation of switching between individual words and phrases within each verse, thus inventing the Coro spezzato technique. The technique was further refined by Adam Willaert in his "Salmi spezzati" for eight voices in the 1550's.

Since Giovanni Gabrieli (Kapellmeister from 1586 to 1612 at the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice), this Venetian style expanded quickly throughout the rest of Europe. Heinrich Schütz was a student of Gabrieli from 1609 to 1612 and became one of the most important "Venetian" representatives in the German-speaking world. Other important composers of this style were GregorAichinger (Augsburg), Samuel Scheidt (Halle/Salle), and Jakobus Gallus , who was born in modern-day Slovenia and worked in Prague. In parallel to this, the polychoral style was developed in Spain by Tomas Luis de Victoria; in contrast to Gabrieli and Schütz (whose polychoral compositions were often homophonically arranged), de Victoria remained faithful to the old classical vocal polyphony of Palestrina.
This polychoral effect of filling the space with music on all sides, as well as bouncing the sound back and forth in antiphony between the choirs, was demonstrated immediately by the first string of works by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). As you can see from the following video of the performance of his "Nun Lob, mein Seel, den Herren", it keeps the ear moving just as much as my camera did:

Unfortunately, the omnidirectional microphone in my camera does a very poor job of recording the stereophonic quality of the competing choirs (while the central choir, composed of basses and tenors from the Domchor and altos and sopranos from the boys' and girls' choirs, sang their sections alone, the two other choirs would echo each other during their parts). After the tour-de-force performance of such works, they scaled it back a bit, bringing the focus entirely onto the Domchor as they performed Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's (1525-1594) "Lauda Sion Salvatorem":

Other works performed in the first half of the concert included Jakobus Gallus' (1550-1591) "Ascendo ad patrem meum", Giovanni Gabrielli's Canzon VIII a 8 (Sonate e Canzoni) (an instrumental work), the Kyrie and Gloria from Hans Leo Hassler's (1564-1612) "Missa secunda", and Gregor Aichinger's (1564-1628) "Laudate Dominum". This was the last piece in which the children's choirs had a part, and one could notice that they were ready to go home by the end of it.

The second part of the program opened with two pieces by the English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), "Hear my prayer, O Lord" and "Lord, how long wilt Thou be angry", performed by the Kammerchor Rheine; this was followed by a soothing instrumental interlude of three pieces by Samuel Scheidt. Next came another fantastic performance of the polychoral style in Scheidt's Magnificat, which was sung by the two large choirs at either end of the cathedral, interspersed with two soloist tenors, one in that central bay of the northern side aisle and the other across from him in the central bay of the southern aisle. The final two pieces of the night also involved choirs and instruments dispersed throughout the cathedral: Gallus' "Halleluja, cantate Domino" and Gabrieli's "Plaudite".

Indeed, it was an evening of music that truly praised God (as, I believe, it was intended to), and demonstrated the profound musical genius of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Finally, I should note that (for me at least) it came as a welcome respite from the modern, atonal drivel that the organist at the cathedral seems to favor for the Sunday masses. Hopefully, he noted how much more pleasing Saturday's program was to the ear, indeed, how much more spiritually moving, than are his adventures into modern oddity.

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