C. S. Lewis on Beauty

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing, for they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

—C. S. Lewis, from The Weight of Glory

I love this explanation, even after reading it several times. The more we get stuck in the notes and the how of music, the more likely it is for us to forget the power of music. Music’s power is not in its notes, but in what the music suggests about our nature, which we cannot really understand using language. Music gets us that much closer, but not because of it itself, but because of something much more ineffable than it.

Burrell’s 1908 Address

I thought it would be good to occasionally read a Sinfonia writing to be enjoyed on a car ride or any time when one feels like hearing the words of our founders. Above is such a recording of Percy Jewett Burrell’s best-known writing, from the 1908 Sinfonia Year Book. Continue reading Burrell’s 1908 Address

Monteverdi Unfiltered: How to read Monteverdi part books

If you have found yourself singing a Monteverdi piece in your choir, perhaps you might want to unveil the mystery behind its original formats and not put your whole trust in a modern editor.

In my experience, reading from the original is not only better for the environment (fewer pages) and historically fun (you do feel a lot more connected to the music when you sing from the original notation), but it is actually a bit easier and less hectic than reading from modern scores.

The good news is that many of Monteverdi’s pieces are available online at the International Music Score Library Project in their original formats. When you go to his composer page, look under the Collections tab for them.

These parts can look a bit foreign at first if you’re used to seeing round notes vertically aligned with all the others parts in a modern score. These parts typically have no bar lines, use strangely shaped notes and rests, are somewhat crudely printed, and use odd time signatures. In the immortal words of the early music musicologist Jan Herlinger, “Everything was strange and difficult to read before you learned how to read it!”

If you have never tried early notation before, Monteverdi’s music is a great place to start, since the music is usually quite clear and easy. So let’s start from the beginning of a part to learn this system. Continue reading Monteverdi Unfiltered: How to read Monteverdi part books

Monteverdi Bass Part Book

This season, BREVE is doing a concert of Monteverdi’s music, including both sacred and secular music. Since we are doing Monteverdi, the music is rather available online, particularly in the original part book formats. I was originally reading straight from the old part books, but getting tired of the crude printing, I opted to draw out all of the music in Illustrator.

The final product is something quite nice.

The entire hour of music for me is only eight pages, or four sheets of paper. I used the original large block initials for each part and had Illustrator auto-trace them into cleaner vector images. I also replicated as exactly as possible all of the spelling conventions and abbreviations, including ampersands, m/n tildes, and long s’s. All of them are copied exactly from part books except for Cantate Domino, which I could not find anywhere online, so I just converted it from a modern edition.

This is the first time I have typeset an entire concert folder into this system of notation. To me, it is not only much more elegant, but also more enjoyable. I feel a kind of intimacy with the music that I didn’t have when reading it from a score or from round notes. Having no bar lines also helps a lot with text stress, like in the “Confregit” section of the Dixit Dominus. Reading it with the added bar lines in a modern edition will tempt singers to sing “CON-fre-GIT re-GES” instead of “con-FRE-git RE-ges.” This book is satisfying to sing through.

Mozart’s Requiem in German Latin

The LSU Choirs were recently toying with the idea to perform the Mozart/Süßmayr Requiem in modern German Latin. By Modern, I mean the pronunciation as currently practiced by German choirs, which differs slightly from the Latin Mozart would have heard (for instance, Mozart would have heard [ˈʦɛli] rather than [ˈʦœli] and [ˈkʰiɾiɛ] instead of [ˈkʰyɾiɛ], as the moves to those vowels happened around 1850).

To aid in this effort, one of the choral conducting graduate students asked me if I would be willing to provide an IPA transcription of the words of the choir into German Latin. They are in this PDF and reproduced below. There is also here a recording of myself reading the text. I have not included the solo and quartet movements. Continue reading Mozart’s Requiem in German Latin

Tied Eighth Notes in Choral Music

When singing in a choir, one eventually sees a piece where a sung note lasts an eighth note longer than the measure containing the beginning of the note. When I began to sing music from the English sacred tradition, I saw these notes frequently. I was told by multiple conductors that it was a British practice to simply treat the eighth note as the release itself, or more literally to cut off at the beginning of the eighth note, pretending it is not there at all. Thus I began to mark through all the tied eighth notes in any score from which I sang, as it was common enough a practice to cut early that it was a safe bet. I never really questioned this practice until last year, when I sang with Stephen Cleobury here at LSU during a week-long residency with our choir. There he was, a man representing the finest in British choral practice, asking us to carry those tied quavers over until the end of the note, exactly as printed, in Howells’s “Like as the hart desireth the water brooks.” This led me to actually investigating the practice and doubting the authenticity of the assertion that it is a common practice to cut off early when one sees a tied eighth note after a bar line. Continue reading Tied Eighth Notes in Choral Music

“Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?” by Browne

The following text appears in the Fayrfax manuscript (c. 1490) with roughly this spelling (I converted long s’s to short s’s, added punctuation, and lengthened the abbreviations, but kept the yoghs for fun):

Jhesu, mercy, how may this be,
That god hymselfe for sole mankynd
Wolde take on hym humanite?
My witt nor reson may hit well fynd:
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

Crist that was of Infynyt myȝt,
Egall to the fathir In deite,
In mortall, In passible, the wordlis lyȝt,
and wolde so take mortalite!
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

He that wrought this worlde of nought,
that made both paynys & Joy also,
and suffer wolde payne as sorowfull thought
with wepyng, waylyng, ye sownyng for woo.
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

A, Jhesu! whi suffyrd thou such entretyng,
as betyng, bobbyng, ye, spettyng on thy face?
drawne like a theff, & for payne swetyng
both water and blode, crucified, an hevy case?
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

Lo, man, for the, that ware onkynd,
gladly suffyrd I all this.
And why, good lord? express thy mynd!
the to purchace both Joy & bliss.
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

The English early modern composer John Browne (fl. ca. 1490) used this moving text in a four-part polyphonic setting, which BREVE is learning at the moment. The following is how I would pronounce it, according to Tim McGee’s Singing Early Music. Listen to the recording below and follow along with the text above or the IPA transcription below.

[ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be
ðætʰ ɡɔd hɪmsɛlf fɔɾ soːl mænkʌind
wʊd tʰæk ɔn him hjuˈmænɪtʰe
mʌi wɪtʰ nɔɾ ˈrezɔn mæ hɪtʰ wɛɫ fʌind
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

kɾʌist ðætʰ waz ʊv ˈɪnfɪnɪtʰ mʌitʰ
eɡaɫ tʰu ðɛ faðəɾ ɪn deɪtʰe
ɪn mɔɾtaɫ ɪn pæsɪbəɫ ðɛ wɔɾəldɪs lʌitʰ
ænd wʊd so tʰæk mɔɾˈtʰælɪtʰe
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

he ðætʰ ɾɔtʰ ðɪs wɔɾəld ʊv nɔtʰ
ðætʰ mæd bɔθ pænz ænd ʤʌi alsoː
ænd ˈsʊfəɾ wʊd pæn æz ˈsɔɾofʊl θɔtʰ
wɪð ˈwepɪŋ ˈwælɪŋ je ˈsʌunɪŋ fɔɾ woː
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

a ˈʤezju hwʌi ˈsʊfəɾd ðʌu sʊʧ ɛnˈtɾetʰɪŋ
æz ˈbetʰɪŋ ˈbɔbɪŋ je ˈspɛtɪŋ ɔn ðʌi fæs
dɾɔːn lʌik a θɛf ænd fɔɾ pæn ˈswetʰɪŋ
boːθ ˈwatʰəɾ ænd blʊd ˈkɾjusɪˌfʌiɛd æn ˈevi kæs
ˈʤezjuː ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

lo mæn fɔɾ ðe ðætʰ wæɾ ɔnˈkʌind
ˈɡlædli sʊfəɾd ʌi ɑɫ ðɪs
ænd hwʌi ɡʊd lɔɾd ɛksˈpɾɛs ðʌi mʌind
ðe tʰu ˈpʊɾʧas boːθ ʤʌi ænd blɪs
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be]

Cornelis Boscoop’s “O God wilt myn salveren”

The extraordinarily obscure Dutch composer Cornelis Boscoop wrote some lovely music that I haven’t heard sung or recorded. In a search for some nice old Dutch language choral music, I ran into this figure on IMSLP, which has surprisingly made available both a set of part books and a nineteenth-century score transcription of his fifty psalms (1562). I couldn’t find a recording of this anywhere, so I entered the first song into Finale to hear it. It is a setting of Psalm 68 (modernly Psalm 69 it seems), called in an older Dutch, “O God wilt myn salveren.” Here is the Finale playback file from that. Feel free to follow along in this score.

The music is actually quite lovely to have been so strongly forgotten. Boscoop was a predecessor to Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck at his church, the Oudekerk in Amsterdam.

The words are thus:

O God wilt myn salveren,
het water compt my aen,
het liden wil my deren,
heel laten te gronde gaen.

Seer diep bin ick gesoncken,
verdruckt van een tempeest,
ick riep, myn worden cloncken,
als ick was seer bevreest.

Pronouncing “Jesu”

The word “Jesu” frequently appears in sacred English texts as a poetic form of the name of Christ. It comes from the vocative declension of the name Iēsus in Latin, which was taken early into the Middle English language around 1150. While it is true that originally, the name began with a [j] or y sound, around the time it entered our language, it was already being pronounced with a [ʤ] sound, or at least a [ʒ]. In English, the name has two main pronunciations: [ˈʤiːzju] (GEE-zyoo) and [ˈʤiːzu] (GEE-zoo).

Sometime in the twentieth century,  singers and choir directors in the United States started to insist on a different pronunciation, [ˈjeɪzu] (as in “Yay! Zoo!”) and [ˈjɛsu] (as in “Yes, Sue!”), either opting for a z or s sound on the middle consonant and opting for a y sound at the start of the word. This came likely from a desire to conform to the 1903 motu proprio from the Roman Catholic Church to pronounce Latin as if it is Italian, assuming that “Jesu” was a distinctly Latin word, and pronouncing it accordingly.

What we are left with then is that most singers and choirs in the United States pronounce the word with a y sound, while most singers and choirs in the United Kingdom pronounce it with a gee sound. The UK retains many of her memories of what is sometimes called “Old-Style Latin,” where Latin words used in English sentences are pronounced like English words. Continue reading Pronouncing “Jesu”

Ginastera’s “O vos omnes”

Ginastera's Lamentations cover pageHow does one pronounce the text in Alberto Ginastera’s “O vos omnes,” from his Lamentaciones de Jeremias Propheta of 1947? Ginastera, the Argentine composer best known for his piano and orchestral works, wrote three choral settings from selected passages from Lamentations, the first one being “O vos omnes.”

I was handed this piece not long ago in a choir in which I sing for recreation. Choirs in this country naturally are trained to sing all Latin pieces in Anglo-Roman Latin, complete with its dark vowels and its accentuation. This becomes problematic for this piece not only for historical accuracy, but for musical logic. This first movement goes against natural Italian accentuation and appears to favor the stress-less Spanish language prosody. Spanish, like old Latin, Japanese, and French, does not have syllable stress quite like English, German, and Italian do, but create a sense of word stress by lengthening the vowel only. When set to music, syllable-stress languages like Spanish rely entirely on the notes themselves for any sense of word stress. In this piece, Ginastera occasionally subverts the Anglo-Roman stress (such as Idcirco in measure 68 or aquas: quia longe in mm. 75–76, which puts the text stress on quas and -ge).

Which Latin would work best for this piece? I would say Roman Latin (since the Roman Catholic Church was advocating for it strongly in that decade), but without the Italian word stresses and with brighter vowels and a few more Spanish-language phonetic tendencies.

  1. C should be unaspirated, unlike in English or German (or Anglo-Roman Latin).
  2. E should be brighter, almost to [e] as a general rule.
  3. O should be more back than Roman Latin [ɔ], closer to [o].
  4. T should be dental with no aspiration at all.
  5. V between vowels is quite acceptably [β], such as in “O vos.”
  6. No volume-based word stress should be used. Just pronounce each syllable equally.

Those with Spotify have the advantage of hearing an Argentine ensemble (Coro Alberto Ginastera del Conservatorio de Música de Morón) singing this piece, generally following those rules here listed. I must say it works quite well without the twang of Anglo-Roman Latin.