S THE NEXT PART in the series releasing the different recordings we captured during the 2023 Sacred Music Symposium, I have been tasked with writing up my thoughts on Marenzio’s setting of Salve Regina. I have been very, very behind in getting this article out—but we just had three immense and beautiful feast days for Our Lady over the weekend, so now is as good a time as any! Before you read the rest of my musings, you should brush up on Maestro Ostrovsky’s article going over the compositional techniques used in the piece. Find that here. [Also included at that link are rehearsal videos for each individual voice, for anyone interested in such things.] The recording is by symposium participants—several of whom had never before (!) sung a cappella polyphony—conducted by the legendary Dr. Alfred Calabrese:
And now the recording:
* Mp3 Download • SALVE REGINA (à5)
—By Luca Marenzio (d. 1599AD) known in his time as: “Foremost Musician in Rome.”
Before You Read On • Did you listen? I hope you found it to be moving. But if you are reading on, you may not believe me on a certain point if you didn’t already listen to it before finding out what I am going to talk about. Go ahead and listen to it if you haven’t already. The article will wait for you while you do!
… article is patiently waiting for you…
My Lead Up • Alright, now that you have the recording fresh in your ears, I would like to focus on a feature of a cappella music: viz. the tendency to shift from the original pitch. In fact, you may have noticed, the pitch drifted down a half step in each of the three sections. I will save my main point for later, but let’s get the nitty-gritty facts out of the way:
According to my listening, the pitch starts a smidge below “concert” pitch, and then drifts solidly down to a half step flat by the entrance of the tenors in bar 7. It stays there consistently until the end of the first section (mostly—I heard a section that went a hair flatter, but the basses managed to push the pitch back up).
The second section (@3:00) [with a smaller group singing] starts with a new pitch, and then drifts a bit down after maybe 13 bars. By the entrance of the Bass “misericordes” we are a quarter tone flat. It then quickly gets down to a half step flat by the end of the section a dozen measures later.
The last section (@4:23) begins with a fresh pitch and then takes longer to drift down, first hitting a quarter tone flat 10 measures in, but then not quite settling on a half-step flat until about 17 measures later. Once a half step down, the choir remains there until the end.
Marenzio Floored • But, unless you have perfect pitch you may not have been bothered at all—maybe you do have perfect pitch, and it still didn’t bother you! Marenzio himself would most likely be floored by knowing that close to half a millennia later a group of dedicated Catholic musicians studied and worked on singing his masterpiece. The point I want to make is that going flat during a piece of choral music is not the end of the world. In fact, given the complexities of tuning and temperament, it is a wonder that pitch drift doesn’t happen more! Tuning has been a complicated issue—it only seems to be a historical oddity because we have almost universally adopted an equal temperament as the predominant way that tuning is done.
New “Wars” Series? • However, this won’t be an article on temperament. If it were, I would perhaps make many, many enemies. Maybe a future article. Or maybe I will spark a new series on “Chant Tuning Wars”?
I Could Cite… • I could also cite famous groups that have gone flat, sharp, and even both within a single piece. This has to do with many factors, one of which is certainly this idea of temperament and tuning. You see, what we hear from a piano (or pitch pipe) is not a perfect fifth. The tuning of the pitches on a piano are slightly “bent” to have each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale equally spaced apart, one from the next. (Hence, why it is called “equal temperament”.) So, if you sing certain intervals as an a cappella choir, tuning precisely a fifth, and then the next interval, or even if you approximate the pitch, there is a little drift to be expected. To illustrate this point, I did a little test with my choir: on YouTube a few years ago, I ran across a video claiming that there was a little musical puzzle that was “mathematically impossible” to stay on pitch. You can watch the video here:
My Choir’s Attempt • I think Adam Neely gives a pretty good outline of the problem … and what might happen with the pitch. I recorded my choir trying out the little “puzzle” for themselves to see if the pitch would drift at all:
* Mp3 Download • Benedetti’s Puzzle
—Benedetti (Italian mathematician) shared this with composer Cipriano de Rore.
Results Revealed • Notice anything? We didn’t go sharp!!! That illustrates another issue at play: pitch memory and muscle memory. Rather than saying my choir has bad pitch perception, I’d say the piece is too short and too simple for any pitch drift. Each singer remembers the pitch they were singing and went straight back to it. Maybe you can try this with your choir as a little warm up piece … and then see if they drift sharp. It would be interesting to get some more instances of choirs singing it. (Hint hint.)
Back To Marenzio • Let’s go back to Marenzio’s Salve Regina. Perhaps there’s a subtle mathematical or musical bent in the harmonies that facilitate a downward tilt? I don’t know—but the pitch memory of the group was strong—since each time the choir went down nearly to a half step each time the pitch was reset (there are three sections to the Salve Regina). Because of certain restraints and constrictions, we weren’t able to record the entire piece from beginning to end. Maestro Ostrovsky promised it wouldn’t be an issue, but he was mistaken. We can punish him later!
To lay out everything I’ve said so far:
- Sometimes pitch drift happens
- Sometimes it’s because the choir is bad (but not necessarily)
- Sometimes it’s because the choir is so good, that it drifts because of complicated ‘maths’
- Sometimes the choir doesn’t drift, because they remember the pitch
- Sometimes the choir does drift because they remember where they drifted to
My Main Point • So what’s my point? I don’t believe that any choir must measure success in singing a piece of music by how well they stayed on pitch. Certainly losing the pitch is catastrophic; but, as you hear in the recording of the Salve Regina, no one lost the pitch. Rather, each part responded and tuned to the other parts singing. This active, listening and engaged singing led us all to drift down and settle a half-step lower than we started.
Intriguing Question • Would we have gone down that far if we had started the pitch down a notch? I’ve sung in choirs where that is the case, and the choir is just drifting flat on a certain day. At times, I’ve also noticed choirs hold the pitch perfectly when we start the piece down (or up) to where we eventually go anyways.
Final Consideration • One last consideration: this recording was made Friday afternoon, after a week of intense study and work, including countless conferences, breakouts, Masses, Vespers, masterclasses, meals, and conversations. It’s also possible we were just tired from an amazing week and drifted flat. So … there’s that as well. Happy drifting!