Have you ever heard a 40 voice choral piece? No, not 40 singers singing 4 or 8 parts; 40 singers, each performing a separate individual part. That's what we heard last night.
When my husband bought us tickets for Cal Performances' Polychoral Splendors of the Florentine Renaissance, I mostly noticed that it featured His Majestys Sagbutts and Coronets (that's pronounced "SACKbutts", by the way). I didn't realize until I heard the pre-concert lecture that we were attending the 21st century premieres of three choral works that haven't been performed since the sixteenth century. None of these works has less than 40 voices, and one of them has 60.
That's right. Sixty separate vocal lines, each sung by one singer. From the program notes: "... to experience the important spatial dimension of many choirs that are physically separated, a 16th-century version of 'surround sound' that is almost impossible to reproduce effectively on recordings." (Although they did record the concert; and if it's ever on sale, I'll buy it.) In Berkeley's First Congregational Church, we had the acoustics we needed.
The story behind this concert is absolutely fascinating, but it's also quite long, so I'll refer you to the concert program notes, which you can find online at Cal Performances. (Warning: it's 3.5MB.) In very brief, it's based on conductor Davitt Moroney's scholarly research into "gigantismo" - the suggestion that in the mid-16th century, there was more than the one known instance of choral works written for 40 or more voices. His research uncovered three of them, two from the court of Cosimo de Medici, in Florence, the third from Spain. This was all part of the amazing flowering of art that produced the great visual treasures of Florence - who but Cosimo de Medici could have afforded a sixty-voice choir? In fact, the pre-concert lecture noted that when Alessandro Striggio's mass, Missa sopra "Ecco sì beato giorno", was composed, there were only 5 places in Europe where it could be performed: Florence, Vienna, Hamburg, Rome, and Madrid. My composer can write more choral parts than your composer.
Listening to this music is like looking at a renaissance tapestry. It's incredibly detailed and dense. It isn't polyphony, there's no fugue. The separate parts blend together into a sonorous wall, with brief illuminations as a soprano or a tenor soars above the sound and then blends back in. I've never felt so much that I was in the presence of another age. The sound was overwhelming.
I particularly liked the 40-voice canon on the Ten Commandments - ten 4 voice choruses, each singing the same canon 10 times. When the 10th chorus comes in, all the choruses are singing all the words of all ten commandments at once (in Latin hexameter verse). You'd think it would be total chaos. In fact it's a brooding, introspective piece that is amazingly soothing. You can't understand the words but you're supposed to know what they are.
Oh, the Sagbutts. That's a proto-trombone, in case you didn't know. They had a whole family of them, I particularly enjoyed the Gabrieli Canzon primi toni which they performed. The really significant one was the grand bass sackbutt - I never could quite see the whole thing but it was so huge I wondered how long it was. Wikipedia says that the double-bass or "Octav-Posaun" sackbut was pitched in A in Michael Praetorius' day, but the modern version is in B flat. My husband, a former tubist, says that means the fully extended tube is 32 feet long, and the extended slide is probably 10 feet. It had a "pusher" attached, because the slide is too long for a man's arm to extend fully. Still according to Wikipedia, the only modern copy of the only surviving 17th century double-bass sackbut "is currently owned and played by Wim Becu," and that was the name of the performer last night.
Astounding music, all around. Do read the program notes.