RENAISSANCE MUSIC is a beautiful remnant of a lost world. There may be no progress in the arts, but there is motion, and we have moved almost hopelessly far from the moment of rebirth. To communicate that distant vision to modern listeners is a difficult task, but the Glee Club under F. John Adams has made Renaissance music their specialty, and last Saturday they reawakened it for an audience in St. Paul's Church.
To the children of atonality and jazz. Renaissance music may seem uniformly placid and therefore boring. Dissonance creates the tension that propels music, but sounds that once demanded resolution seem common and consonant to us.
We live in a musical world where all the rules are gone. Composers are now absolutely free to choose from an endless array of pitches, timbres, and rhythms. Renaissance composers had a comparatively tiny palette, limited by the capabilities of the voice and a narrow conception of permissible sounds. But within this narrow framework, lies a compelling internal logic of tension and release, of continuity and contrast. A good performance, like that of Saturday night, can help us to shed our modern biases, and permit us to appreciate the music on its own terms.
THE GLEE CLUB chose a concert of Lamentations, showing a variety of Renaissance approaches to a particular problem. Like the Magnificat section from Luke, the Lamentations of Jeremiah were a favorite text because of their outstanding beauty and emotional depth. In fact, the Lamentation remains a standard church form for use around Good Friday. Jeremiah's sense of suffering captures the appropriate Christian feeling at that time of year: "Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow." In an age when religion and music were inextricably bound, many of the great masters created vocal settings that rival the text in beauty.
Phrases in this music are fluid and asymmetrical, Adams responded sensitively to these qualities in a performance that neatly avoided stultifying squareness. Despite a somewhat weak first tenor section which relied on one or two singers to carry their whole burden, the Glee Club displayed a beautiful and richly blended tone with a particularly fine deep bass sound. Intonation was near perfect throughout. Their fortes were full without becoming strident and their pianissimo sound created a marvellous effect--unwavering in its pitch and tone.
Unfortunately, the Lamentations were interspersed with organ works by the little-known modern French composer Jehan Alain. Despite the confident playing of Daniel Hathaway, the mainstay of the first tenors. Alain's eclectic and grating style created an unpleasant contrast to Renaissance ethercality. They emphasized that the unique Renaissance mixture of an exalted religious devotion and a classical sense of propriety has been irrevocably banished from modern music and the modern world.