Music and Beyond: Polishing up some perfect polyphony

Cantata's Andrew McAnerney brought British tradition to evening of Benjamin Britten music.

The story of the Miserere composed by Gregorio Allegri in the 1630s for use only in the Sistine Chapel captures some of the power of polyphony.

At some point in time it was forbidden to transcribe Allegri’s music and it was allowed to be performed only at particular services in the Chapel. That changed when 14 year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the piece during a visit to Rome.

After the service, Mozart is said the have written the music down from memory and the music spread across Europe and through time until today Allegri’s Miserere is one of the most popular a cappella choral works.

It is an example of polyphony. Polyphony is music that has consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody. It is most associated with the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance although it is not confined to that time.

And it is the passion of Andrew McAnerney and the group he leads the Studio de Musique Ancienne (SMAM).

“There is something about it that is very pure and honest,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE in advance of a performance during the Music and Beyond Festival on July 11.

In the concert, SMAM will have “16 beautiful voices, which is unusual for us, we usually have 10 or 12. Each of the singers have a beautiful voice. And those 16 voices sing the same melody with different parts to great effect.”

While the beauty of the voices is what matters to the audience, McAnerney, who also leads Ottawa’s Cantata Singers and is music director at Christ Church Cathedral in town, also loves “what happens under the bonnet — how the music is constructed.”

The concert will feature music by Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, masters of the art of polyphony, McAnerney said.

The beauty and the intellectual nature of the music is what appeals to McAnerney. He is impressed by “the way they can take a fragment of melody or a motif and an idea and pass that to each of the singers in turn. Just the way it moulds together to create this fantastic sound.

“On a deeper level I find certain satisfaction in the process of creating this music. There is a depth to it.”

Polyphony appears in other eras, he said.

“Bach is a technical polyphonic; anything that has multiple lines is polyphonic but generally people would assume that the high point of polyphony is the late Renaissance.

Studio de musique ancienne in concert. Photo: Antoine Saito

“That’s why we are featuring quite a lot of that in the concert. We start with Josquin and some of his early polyphony. We are doing a stunning five part Ave Verum.”

Another highlight, he said is a Palestrina mass that features a double choir with eight voices in each.

The two choirs sing to each other. “It’s like the cherubim and seraphim calling across to each other.

“When we sang it through for the first time a few weeks ago we were all just amazed how beautifully crafted the mass is.”

The Allegri Miserere is a very different construction, mixing a solo voice with polyphony, he said.

“All the music we are doing in this concert is more extended polyphony. There are a few tiny bits of plain chant, but most of the time it’s polyphony. Because we have 16 voices it tends to be more complex. You can do more with it.”

The Renaissance and the late Middle Ages were times when the human voice was pre-eminent as an instrument of music.

“One of the reasons and advantages of the human voice is the fact that you have words,” McAnerney said. These pieces say important things in spiritual and important secular settings.

“A lot of the music we are going to perform was written for very, very good choirs in Rome and elsewhere.

“These were singers at the top of their profession. They were paid for by a pope or an emperor or a wealthy noble.” They were the superstars of their day.

And, he said, “when you are paying a lot of money for music you want it to be beautiful and impressive.” If you are a Pope you want to impress the cardinals. If you are a king you want to impress other royals with your wealth and your sophistication.

In the Renaissance, the Italians were regarded as the best. Everybody wanted to sing like them. Every royal court tried to imitate the music coming out of Florence, Venice and Rome.

One key to good polyphonic singing, in fact all singing in ensembles, McAnerney said is listening. You have to sing in time, and in tune with each other.

But, it is OK to show a personality when you are singing polyphony, he added. Renaissance singers would have been singing out. They would have had personalities. When it works 16 unamplified voices can fill a church or concert hall, with an immersive experience.

“When we are singing, many audience members have their eyes closed. They are being transported. It is a beautiful experience to have this music wash over you.”

Surprisingly when McAnerney was a boy chorister in his native England, he sang a lot of Palestrina and William Byrd “and the like, but it wasn’t my fave music as a chorister. It got hold of me as I grew older. It happened when he started to understand how the pieces were set and the effect of giving time and place for contemplation. For that it’s unmatched.”

The point of this program, he said, is to take some of the best known and most impressive pieces and put them together into a single presentation.

And, “one of the overriding ideas was that concert should be a celebration.” This would contrast a previous SMAM program in Ottawa which was a lamentation and much more sombre program. “This one is joyous.”

If you miss this concert again, you can hear it elsewhere this summer, including at Orford right after Music and Beyond. It will also open SMAM’s season in Montreal in the fall. SMAM’s season has expanded and it now offers 10 programs with six big concerts and four more intimate events.

Music and Beyond presents Perfect Polyphony
With Montreal’s Studio de Musique Ancienne, conducted by Andrew McAnerney
Where: Allsaints event space
When: July 11 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.