OST OF MY RECENT WORK as a church musician has been an adaptation to reduced circumstances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent regulations on singing and public worship. As I have written elsewhere, the treasure of the Church’s chant is the perfect remedy for this situation. But I also take a great interest in other musical styles developed in the church in various times and places as a response to limitations on performing forces. As an example, consider the reason Lodovico Viadana, the innovative seventeenth-century Franciscan composer, gives for his publication of sacred monodies:
It seems that singers who sometimes wish to sing with the organ, either with three voices, or with two, or with one alone, were forced by the lack of suitable compositions, to choose one, two, or three parts from motets for five, six, seven, and even eight. Because they ought to be united with the other parts, needed for the piece to have imitations, cadences, counterpoints, and other features, these performances are full of long and repeated rests, lacking cadences and melody, and with little coherence, leaving aside the frequent interruptions of the words.
Viadana’s solution to this problem is a subject for another post, but it is worth reflecting on this situation he describes. Apparently, in the sixteenth century, when faced with the prospect of a choir of three or fewer singers, the natural solution was to sing polyphony for more parts, possibly with the organ filling in for the missing singers.
Sixteenth-century polyphony was not generally published in score. In order to perform polyphonic music, then, an organist or instrumentalist would have to reduce several parts, printed separately, for the keyboard. There is ample evidence that this was a common practice. Juan Bermudo, another Franciscan, described three methods for doing this in 1555:
All we have said so far is to this end: to play mensural music at the keyboard. You cannot call yourself a performer if you do not know how to play the music of yourself or others. I present three ways of playing, and all others can be reduced to these three. The first is to have the book of mensural music in front of you. If he is a good singer and knows composition, by studying what has already been said in this book and understanding the keyboard, the aspiring performer can play works with only the book before him. This way of playing is very laborious, because it involves keeping track of all the voices, but it is very profitable. You can make with it a great wealth of music.
Bermudo describes a simpler method for the less skillful. One can make either a score (by adding barlines) or a tablature. This opens up a huge repertoire (Bermudo’s “great wealth of music”) for smaller choirs, even down to one voice, since it seems quite natural, when confronted with reduced choral forces, to arrange music for the group at hand. This need not be limited to the organ either, since there is plenty of evidence for other instruments arranging vocal music in this way. For instance, there is a large repertoire of sacred music arranged for lute and voice by Edward Paston, who was a recusant Catholic living in Elizabethan England. It is possible that his arrangements were used for illegal celebrations of Mass in private homes. Paston is another subject for a future post.
This led me to try arranging Victoria’s Missa quarti toni for voice and lute.
* PDF Download • Victoria Benedictus
—From Missa quarti toni, transcribed by Charles Weaver.
In this arrangement a singer performs the soprano part, while the lute plays the lower parts. Here is a video of the Benedictus from a recent performance.
Here’s a direct link to that YouTube video.
This version certainly loses the richness that a choral performance supplies. But I believe it retains the dignity of the sacred and the genius of Victoria’s counterpoint. And in our current season of limitations on size of performing groups, it shows one way that we can keep polyphony alive.