Established and directed by the soprano Rosaline Pi (畢永琴), Excelse Cantantes (ExC) is a newly formed Hong Kong vocal ensemble of eight singers. Although ExC members are trained solo singers, we sing as a group. “Excelse Cantantes” literally translates into “Sublime Singing”: beautifully warm and technically accurate voices, musically sensitive singing into each other’s singing, reaching sublimity in the total sound.
“Polyphony Showcase” is our début concert. This takes place on January 13th, 2019 in the China Congregational Church (Causeway Bay) at 8:00pm. Although admission is free, pre-registration is preferred. Please send your ticket request to [email protected] (FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED)
In this Concert, we shall be singing 16 of the Renaissance polyphony vocal works across two centuries from Dufay (1397-1474) to Byrd (1540-1623).
1. Dufay (1397-1474): Ave regina caelorum
2. Ockeghem (1410-1487): Alma Redemptoris
3. Josquin (1450-1521): Ave Maria…virgo serena
4. Josquin: Tu solus qui facis mirabilia
5. Josquin: Illibata Dei Virgo nutria
6. Tallis (1505-1585): If ye love me
7. Talls: Sancte Deus
8. Tallis: Salvator Mundi
9. Palestrina (1525-1594): Alma Redemptoris
10. Palestrina: Ego sum panis vivus
11. Palestrina: Sicut Cervus
12. Palestrina: Super flumina Babylonis
13. Lassus (1532-1594): Jubilate Deo
14. Lassus: Timor et tremor
15. Byrd (1540-1623): Ave verum corpus
16. Byrd: O Lux, beata Trinitas
Below are the links to
(2) ExC’s recent rehearsals of Ockeghem’s Alma Redemptoris and;
(3) Tallis’ Salvator Mundi.
Music began with monophony (one voice singing or playing). The earliest recorded singing was chanting (around the 9th century). Two or three part writing began in the 12th century. Polyphony (writing music for simultaneous multiple and different voice parts) flourished during the Renaissance period (roughly from 1400 to 1600) where composers wrote music for 4 to 8 or more voice parts.
During the religious dominance period, the Church took the leading role in music development: all major development in music writing and new genres had its first footing in the Church. In the case of polyphony singing, these singings among the monks were actually part of their ecclesiastical life.
Besides having a good voice, singing Renaissance Polyphony is highly musically demanding on the modern singers: the singer has to (1) have great musicianship (have great sense of tonality and rhythm); (2) be highly musical (in interpreting his own musical line via articulations and phrasing); (3) be greatly musically sensitive in terms of singing interactively against the other voice parts. All Renaissance Polyphony is sung a cappella. Only in the context of simultaneous singing of different, equally independent voice parts where the music is already fully contained within the voices hence making any accompaniment redundant is the use of the term a cappella genuine and proper. (Unlike what has been promoted in the popular music circle, a cappella singing is NOT about some voice parts playing the role of harmonization or instrumental accompaniment.)
When done correctly, Renaissance Polyphony singing (multiple voice parts, each sung musically with musical accuracy, singing simultaneously and interactively against the other voice parts) brings the singers and audiences to a state of sublimity. This is because Renaissance Polyphony, fundamentally, brings out nothing more and nothing less than the two (and only two) constituting elements of music itself – pitch and pulsation.
The two (and only two) constituting elements of music – pitch and pulsation
Pitch simply refers to the frequency of a note: for example, for the note A (a sixth above middle C), it is a note that has a frequency of 440 Hz (cycles per second). Pulsation is simply the beating over regulated intervals of time. A pulsation of 60 means there is regular beating over time in intervals of 1/60 minute. The concept of pulsation is more commonly known by the term “tempo”. A metronome set at tempo 60 will beat 60 times per minute.
From the two constituting elements of pitch and pulsation, the entire system called music can be built: a melody consists of a sequence of changing pitches over a preset pulsation; rhythms or rhythmic patterns are there to further show how the changes of pitch are to occur over the pulsation; harmony is simply a set of rules based on science itself of how notes of different pitches can sound together to give a resultant sound that is pleasing to the ears (harmony) or otherwise (dissonance) and; tonality refers to a pre-defined set, again based on science itself, of notes of different pitch. The set repeats itself from the lower pitches to the higher. For example, a major scale is one such pre-defined set of seven notes. Modulation refers to the place in the music when tonality in the music changes. For example, when the tonality of C major changes to that of G major in the music, we say the music modulates to its fifth. There are technicality rules of how modulations work. Contrapuntal writing in music refers to the writing of the musical line that modulates freely across the different voice parts.
From monophony (one voice singing) to polyphony (multiple voices singing simultaneously)
When there is only one voice singing, to make this music, life is relatively simple: I only have to care about writing a (hopefully nice) melody over a regulated pulsation. To make this more interesting, I add in rhythms to the notes.
When I am writing for two (or three) simultaneous voice parts, I first need to consider two things: whether I want to treat the parts as harmony to each other or I want the voice parts to echo each other interactively. For the former, I shall write in the homophonic style. For the latter, the canon style of music writing is common.
When I am writing for four simultaneous voice parts, homophony would not be an interesting style of writing because, for most of the time, one of the four notes is repeated in the harmony (a typical major or minor harmonious chord consists of three different notes). Hence, imitative or, better still, contrapuntal writing is a much better choice.
However, the contrapuntal style of writing, in terms of this being a form of musical writing heavily in use of the technique of modulation, was simply not there during the Renaissance period. So, for the Renaissance composers, writing for the multiple voice parts was done mainly in the form of interactive writing among the voice parts. And in the high Renaissance period when the composing masters wrote for four to eight or more parts, contrapuntal writing, even if the contrapuntal rules were there, would not have worked. This is because in the contrapuntal style of writing, at any one point in the music, there is a leading voice part among the parts. But in Renaissance Polyphony, ALL voice parts are EQUAL and independent. How did the Renaissance composers write these equal and independent voice parts interactively? This was indeed a very great technical challenge.
Singing Renaissance Polyphony
Today, when the ExC singers perform singing Renaissance Polyphony, we can only do justice to the interactive writing (among the equal and independent parts) techniques of the Renaissance composers by singing the music interactively among voice parts. But the singer CANNOT do this by just singing from his/her score. Without the direct help in pitch (via the use of harmony), with each voice part as an independent musical line on its own, and yet the four or five voice parts are indeed parts of the same piece moving interactively against each other, the singers have no other choice but to: while he/she has to sing his/own line musically as an independent line, he/she must listen to and interact with the other parts real-time and not to go off on his/her own track. The whole singing experience is a group experience. Having a good and accurate voice is only the beginning for the Renaissance Polyphony singer.
Written by Rosaline Pi
January 1st, 2019