This is the first installment of a four-part series following some of the highlights of choral music through music history. You can listen to the podcast episode on Spotify, though without a premium subscription you will only hear 30 second previews of each piece. That’s why the transcript with youtube links is available here.
You can find playlists with all the works in this choral series on Spotify and on Youtube. Many of the pieces are excerpts from larger works, so there are also extended Spotify and Youtube playlists with the full works.
One of my favourite genres in classical music is choral music. I’m primarily an instrumentalist, and not at all a singer, though I have sung in choirs before, and I really enjoy singing in choirs. But the concerts that I most often get goosebumps from, and the recordings that I most often get goosebumps from, are choral recordings.
I don’t really know why that is – I don’t really like opera at all, I’m not particularly fond of art songs, and the history of choral music has never really been my specialty. But I really want to share some of my favourites with you, so I’m going to go ahead and do this topic for today’s episode anyway.
Unlike the last few episodes, where I jump around various eras and cover some musical concepts, this episode is going to be in chronological order. I’m sure I’ll do proper introductions to each era in the near future, but today I want to use the genre of choral music as a lens through which we can follow the development of Western classical music. So there’s going to be a bit more of me talking to lay the groundwork for some of the important things that shaped the history of Western classical music.
Let’s start by defining some terms: what do I mean by ‘choral music’? ‘Choral music’ here refers to music sung by a choir, which is a group of singers instead of just one soloist, like we had in a few of last week’s songs, and that can be with or without instrumental accompaniment. It’s different than opera though – in an opera you’ll also have singers in a group sometimes, sometimes as a duet or trio, which is with two or three people, or even a quartet with four people, and operas also have choruses. A chorus is the term for a larger group of often background characters in an opera who’ll pop in once in a while to sing a number. Sometimes they serve to give commentary on what’s going on in the main storyline – that’s actually a tradition that comes from ancient Greek tragedies. Early opera actually owed a lot to Greek plays, but that’s a subject for another episode.
So choral music is music performed by a group of singers, but doesn’t including operas or the choruses in operas. This is partially because choral music traditionally sang a lot of liturgical music, or church music. Still, there were also genres like madrigals (which we’ll talk about later) that were secular music, so not church music, but were also not opera, and those are often sung by choirs today, making them choral music.
This is an example of where precise definitions can get kind of messy because we kind of made up the genre and the term after it had already become a thing. It’s similar to that discussion we had about the definition of classical music back in episode one – first the music happened, and then afterwards people tried to categorize and name it, and when you do that you’re always going to find some exceptions to your definitions.
For example, according to Brittanica, to be choral music something has to have at least two voices to each part, and there has to be polyphony (which means that it’s not just the same melody being sung by all the singers). But just in the pieces we’ll talk about today we have exceptions to both of those rules. And when there’s music that was originally written
But we kind of know that something is classical when we hear it, and it’s the same thing with choral music. So by the end of these next few episodes I think you’ll feel pretty confident knowing what choral music is, even if you couldn’t give an exact definition of it.
What’s cool about choral music is that it’s one of the oldest genres of classical music that we have. After all, everyone, or, almost everyone, has a voice, and since other musical instruments like flutes and viols and drums take resources and time to make, the voice is the most accessible instrument. Throw in a few friends who also want to make music with their voices, and in no time you’ve got yourself a choir.
Now, one thing that was very crucial in shaping the development of Western music was the church. The pre-reformation Roman Catholic Church especially. When we think about medieval music in a classical music context, people who know a little bit about music will think almost right away of Gregorian chant. But just to set up the context, we’re going to move a little farther back than Gregorian chant.
The early Christian church was largely shaped by two cultural forces: one was the Judaic background, coming from the followers of Jesus from the small province of Judea, or modern-day Israel, in the Roman empire. These followers spread the teachings of Jesus, which were heavily grounded in the religion of the Jews, throughout the Roman empire. The Roman empire was in many ways more Greek than Roman – in fact, the Romans basically just took over the Greek empire from the Greeks. But most inhabitants of the Roman empire spoke Greek as the main language, and Greek mythology and philosophy were also part of this Greek cultural norm.
So really we need to go a few centuries back before Jesus to the Greek philosopher Plato. Don’t worry, we won’t go too deeply into this, but for our purposes there are two or three important things to keep in mind about what the Greeks and Plato had to say on music.
The first thing is that for the Greeks, music was seen as both entertainment and as a science. In Plato’s ‘Republic’, a famous work he wrote on how the ideal society should be set up, he says that the educational curriculum of an ideal youth, in addition to physical training and philosophy, should consist of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These four things later developed into something called the ‘quadrivium’, which in the middle ages became an important part of the basis of a liberal arts education. Mind you, the study of music wasn’t just about how to read music and play an instrument. The Greeks were obsessed with the mathematical side of music. All sound is made up of soundwaves, and the nature of those soundwaves is affected by the physical parameters of what is producing those sound waves. For example, if you have two pipes that you blow into to make a sound, and the second pipe is twice as long as the first pipe, then the soundwave it produces will have waves that are exactly twice as long as the waves in from the shorter pipe, and although the Greeks didn’t know about those waves, they could hear that the note from the pipe would be exactly an octave lower than the sound from the short pipe. So the 2:1 ratio would produce exactly an octave.
It was actually Pythagorus, you know, the triangle guy, who was really into discovering the ratios of all the different intervals. And many centuries later these ratios will lead to some very interesting debates about how to tune instrument, which is a topic called temperament, but we’ll leave that for another day. For now, just remember that the Greeks were pretty nerdy about the math behind music.
Thing two to know about the Greeks and music is that they used something called modes. Modes are one of the most delightfully confusing things in music history, because there were a lot of misunderstandings about them. First you had the Greeks who came up with a system of modes, which were kind of like different scales. Today we use mostly two modes – the major and the minor – but historically there were many more, and the Greeks were the first to write about it. Only we don’t actually know how Greek music sounded, because nobody really knows how to interpret the few scraps of written Greek music that survived. So that led to some confusion in the middle ages when some people started interpreting the modes differently than the Greeks meant them, and then in the Renaissance some more people started coming up with their own systems of modes, and it all became a jolly mess that nobody really quite understands. For now just remember that modes are like different scales, and they were a thing that came from the ancient Greeks.
Thing three to know about the Greeks, or especially Plato and Aristotle, and music, is Plato’s views on ethics and music. You see, Plato and the Greeks believed that music could affect your character and your behaviour. They argued that physical education and music were super important in education: physical education to train the body, and musical education to train the mind. But not too much physical education, because that would make you uncivilized and violent, and not too much music, because that would make you weak and irritable. Plato even specified that only a few modes should be listened to, as they brought out the best parts of your character, and music that was too complicated or different or mixed instruments or styles or genres that according to him shouldn’t be mixed, was morally bad for you. As a side note, ideas like that have been used ever since to try to make moral statements about music like ragtime, jazz, rock, hip-hop, et cetera. From a modern perspective the arguments are extremely faulty and problematic, but that idea of some music as morally superior seems to persist in society’s subconscious to some extent. Which is also problematic. But now we’re straying from music history to musicology, so let’s get back to the topic.
So to summarize, three things from the Greeks: one, music is important in education because it’s mathy, two, modes are a thing, and three, different kinds and modes of music have inherent moral or immoral properties.
Fast forward a few centuries to the early Christian church, and many of the church fathers (a bunch of old men who were important in shaping church beliefs and policies) were influenced not only by their Christian religion, but also by their upbringing and education in a culture that drew heavily on Greek philosophy and culture. And they rather liked that idea of Plato’s that some kinds of music are more moral than others, and the idea that beautiful things exist as a reminder of divine beauty, and so they thought that music shouldn’t be simply for enjoyment but should be used only to inspire holy thoughts. Pay attention here because this part is important to the development of choral music: the church fathers condemned instrumental music, because music without moral and godly words did not have any spiritually uplifting qualities. That’s why for over a thousand years, the whole tradition of Christian music consisted of unaccompanied singing.
That’s not to say that instruments disappeared, but they were used only in secular contexts, by minstrels and troubadours. And what with how the church developed, secular contexts were often less educated than the religious ones – some religious institutions like monasteries developed so that they had the time and money to become important hubs of research, innovation, and education, and so that’s also where music notation started developing.
This is important for us, because music historians write history based on roughly four types of sources: physical sources, like old instruments and places where music used to be performed, pictures and images of musicians showing how they used to play or what kind of groups they played in, writings about music and musicians, and actual notated music itself.
As you can imagine, the most helpful source to actually know how the music sounded is that last one – actual notated music. And to come up with an actual musical notation system takes time, education, and expensive resources like vellum or parchment and ink. And so while we know there were secular music traditions in the middle ages, the vast majority of written music that we have from the middle ages are religious. And because it was the religious music, which we also sometimes call sacred music, that was written down and preserved, it was the religious music that had the most influence on the musicians and composers who came after.
And especially in choral music, as we’ll see in this and next episode, that tradition of religious music being only vocal, and often choral, means that it kind of worked the other way around too, that a lot of the most beloved choral works over the history of classical music have more religious themes than a lot of the instrumental music.
Before that though, let’s go back to something I mentioned way back near the beginning of the episode: Gregorian chant.
Gregorian chant isn’t exactly a misnomer, but we would actually be more accurate in thinking of that churchy singing music of the middle ages as plain chant. In the middle ages, chant styles differed per region, and in the ninth century Gregorian chant was brought up with some clever mythology and marketing in an attempt to unify the church musically and standardize chant. And for the most part it worked, considering we use it as the standard to refer to medieval chant now.
Chants were mostly sung for liturgical purposes in churches and monasteries. Monasteries developed a practice of dedicated prayer seven times a day – this is often referred to as ‘the hours’ or ‘the office of the hours’, or ‘the Office’ – and the prayer was often done through singing – through chants. These prayers, which were sung by all the monks or nuns in the monastery or convent, were associated with certain times of day, and these often had specific Bible texts or psalms associated with it. There were also many religious holidays with associated texts and songs, and occasions and rituals like funerals, and of course the mass that also had special texts. Most of these texts were in Latin, and not all monks (or nuns for that matter) were fluent in Latin. And most of these special texts and psalms were done through chants, so there was a lot of chanting going on, especially in the monasteries.
Two such monasteries were the twelfth century monasteries at Rupertsberg and Eibingen, in modern day Germany. These monasteries were founded by an extraordinary woman named Hildegarde of Bingen. In the medieval church, women could not become priests or hold power in the upper levels of the church, but they could hold positions of leadership in convents, which were communities made up entirely of women who became nuns in order to devote their lives to God. Or to get them off their parents’ backs if their parents couldn’t afford to marry them off. But in the better off convents, women could actually have access to education – they could learn to read Latin and to sing, and had a chance at an intellectual life. Hildegarde took full advantage of these opportunities through her success as prioress and abbess of these two convents that she founded at Rupertsberg and Eibingen, as well as through her prolific writing on science, medicine, and theology, her correspondences with emperors, kings, and popes, and through her prophecies and her composition. Hildegarde claimed that her visions and her music were divinely inspired, meaning that she said they came to her communicated directly from God. There has been and will continue to be much speculation about these claims, of course, but I think it’s worth noting that claiming divine inspiration would have been a pretty smart way, and maybe the only way, to get herself heard outside of just her convent.
Much of the music that Hildegarde wrote was actually setting her own poetry and prose to music, but still for use in the Office or the mass. There is one exception – Hildegarde wrote the earliest medieval musical drama not related to the liturgy that we know of. This was a musical play of sorts called ‘Ordo Virtutum’, or ‘the Virtues’. It’s still on the religious theme of the virtues, it’s what we call a morality play. It’s still performed today, and you can find various performances of it on Youtube.
We’re not going to listen to that today though – we’re going to listen to a shorter chant called ‘O Virdissima Virga’.
Personally, I’ve been a big fan of Hildegarde since I was about twelve or thirteen years old. I remember being busy with homework or something in my room when this extraordinary music came on the radio. I happened to have one of those big old radios that came with a tape player, and whenever I heard pieces that I liked on the radio I would record them onto old tapes. My family lived pretty far from the nearest classical music station though, so the reception was a bit crackly. But when I heard this music, this chant that felt so open and bright and beautiful, I dashed over and hit record and contorted myself and the radio into whatever position would get me the best reception for the next five minutes. I listened to that tape recording over and over until I found the recording on CD in an old record and CD store somewhere in a random town in the Netherlands a few years later. I think it’s one of the first CDs I actually bought for myself. That particular album, called ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ and performed by Emma Kirkby and the group Gothic Voices, doesn’t seem to be on Spotify, but I’ve found another recording that gets that same feeling for me. What’s cool is that the album that this track is from is actually a sort of dialogue between Hildegarde’s music performed by the group Sinfonye, and the music of Stevie Wishart and Guy Sigsworth, who use some of Hildegarde’s texts and original music to create new pieces.
It’s kind of funny, because I’ve listened to Hildegarde of Bingen’s music so much that when you play a few different medieval chants for me, I can pretty easily pick out which one is Hildegarde. The revival of her reputation was definitely helped by musicologists in the 1980’s and 1990’s questioning why we focus so much on male composers, and bringing women composers like Hildegarde into the spotlight. But the fact that she has such an individual musical voice that’s become beloved by many speaks for the fact that she fully deserves to be in that spotlight alongside the mostly white, male composers of the classical canon.
But all that aside, let’s listen to some Hildegarde of Bingen: this is ‘Virdissima Virga’ performed by Sinfonye.
One of the things you probably noticed about that was that it was just the melody – no harmony, no rhythm section. There was some back and forth with just one person singing and multiple people singing, but since all of it was just the one line, we call this ‘monophony’, or ‘monophonic’. For a long time, most religious chant was monophonic. But they probably started using polyphony, which means more than just the one line, as a decoration well before they started writing it down.
The simplest way to get polyphony is to have a melody, like this [link to audio opens in new tab].
and just to put a drone under it. A drone is just one long note, or two long notes, that don’t change. That would sound like this.
This is a very common way to make things interesting – Indian classical music does this as well, and doesn’t get more polyphonic than that – they just get very complex in different ways.
But Europeans decided to get a bit more interesting. The treatises that talk about it use the term ‘organum’ to describe it. For example, one way to make music more interesting was through what’s called parallel organum. This is when you had that main line, and a second line that played along with it at an acceptable interval like a fifth.
I said ‘acceptable’ intervals because they went out of their way to avoid ‘unacceptable’, dissonant intervals, like the tritone.
In fact, this interval was thought to be so dissonant that it was sometimes called ‘diabolus in musica’, or ‘the devil in music’. It wasn’t exactly theologically banned, but the musical rules were explicitly made so that you wouldn’t use that interval. So you could say that it was banned by the music theory of the day.
Anyway, there were various musicians and composers throughout Europe who worked on developing more complicated polyphony, and some of the most famous ones were associated with a style that developed in Paris, at the University of Paris and the Notre Dame Cathedral. This is why it’s often called ‘Notre Dame polyphony’, or the Notre Dame school.
The Notre Dame cathedral’s construction started around 1160, and it is one of the most ornate examples of a gothic cathedral out there. Although what we now call Notre Dame polyphony started developing before the church was built, the composers fittingly developed ornate polyphony to match the ornate cathedral. Polyphony goes another step further than the examples that we just discussed. You know how with the parallel organum, there were two lines, but they were moving at the same rhythm, and the one line was mostly just supporting the primary line? Well, polyphony is what happens when you get multiple lines that have their own independent melodies, so you might not even be sure which one is supposed to be the main voice. Don’t worry, we’ll listen to some examples in a minute.
Two of the composer musicians who developed Notre Dame polyphony were Leoninus, or Leonin, and Perotinus, or Perotin.
Leonin was important in compiling a collection of polyphony called the Magnus liber Organi, or ‘great book of polyphony’. He probably composed parts but not all of it, and of course all of the developments drew on past developments. Let’s demonstrate.
So, there was already an old plainchant called ‘Viderunt Omnes’ (you don’t have to listen to the whole thing, but see if you can keep the first two words, so the first eight seconds or so, in mind):
Alright, now if you were Leonin or someone in the Notre Dame school of polyphony writing around the year 1160, you might listen to that and think – ‘cool. But what if we took that and reeeeaaaallly slowed it down?’ And I mean, really slow it down. Like, you know Treebeard the ent, that tree guardian in Lord of the Rings, who says ‘It takes a long time to say anything in old entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.’ Well, imagine the Notre Dame style of polyphony as a sort of musical version of old entish.
We’re going to listen to Leonin’s take on this, in what we call ‘organum duplum’ – so in the bottom voice, which admittedly will sound like a drone, we’ll have the original chant. But…. really slow. And over top is going to be another voice making all sorts of decorations. And you’ll notice that they seem to stay on one syllable for a minute, and then they’ll switch to another one for a while, and then another one. Well, those are the words. The excerpt we’ll listen to is just over two minutes long, and they’re going to get through the words ‘Viderunt Omnes’. That’s it. Ok, enjoy.
Ah, I do enjoy a good organum duplum.
But if you were writing about forty years later and you were Perotin, you would look back and say, ‘tsk, that Leonin sure was a young and hasty ent. I think what we should do is… slow it down even more, and add some extra voices.’
And you would get something like what I’ll play you next, which is Perotin using organum quadruplum, so with four different voices, to take not just two, but three and a half minutes to say the words ‘viderunt omnes’. Don’t feel bad if you feel like you’ve heard enough after the first syllable or two and skip ahead. But the upside of this kind of thing is that if you follow along with the lyrics at least you’ll know when we’re getting close to the end!
Alright, now let’s listen to the rest of it! No I’m kidding, we won’t do that today. But I do like that opening – it’s kinda catchy.
Let’s jump ahead a few hundred years now and take a look at what was going on outside the church.
We now find ourselves in the Renaissance visiting a fellow named Josquin des Prez. Josquin was born either in what today is Belgium, or in France, sometime between 1450 and 1455, right around the time that the printing press was invented, and several decades before Columbus sailed to America. Josquin died in August 1521, so exactly 500 years ago this year. But before he died he wrote a lot of music including the song we’re going to listen to today. Well, he might have written it. But he might not have.
We actually don’t know that much about Josquin, except that he was a brilliant composer and very popular both in his day and after. He wrote a lot of masses, and motets (which another form of choral music that we’ll get into a bit more later), as well as secular songs, and those have been studied and played and held up as brilliant compositions ever since. And they are brilliant, they’re just not all written by Josquin. A lot of recent scholarship has been digging into misattributed works. Misattribution is what happens when we think a piece of music is written by one composer, but it was actually written by someone else. This is actually not that rare in classical music, and Josquin is not the only composer it happens with. Maybe it happens because publishers know that something will sell better if you put a famous name on it, or maybe even the composers themselves know it and need money more than they need their own name on a piece of music. Or perhaps it happened afterwards, when people would find pieces, and weren’t sure who composed them, and would say that because it sounded pretty similar to other pieces we know were by Josquin it was probably written by him.
The funny thing is that even though I think it’s good that they’re figuring out who the pieces were actually by, in this case I don’t actually mind that much that some of them were misattributed to Josquin, because Josquin lived so long ago and we know so little about him, I almost imagine his name standing for all of those other people too. No composer became brilliant all on their own – all of them had help from teachers and colleagues, so even though we’re not sure which Josquin pieces were written by him and which were written by others, they all came from the same sort of circle of composers that were composing in a similar way with similar influences. And without the name of Josquin, many of those pieces would probably not be so popular today.
One of the pieces that may or may not have been by Josquin that has long been popular is a French song, called a Chanson, titled ‘Mille Regretz’. This is our first example today that is what we call ‘secular music’ – it’s not based on religious themes or written for religious purposes. The words are an old French poem in which the poet has ‘a thousand regrets about leaving your beloved face, I’m so very sad, and my days are dwindling away.’
In this one you’ll notice it’s easier to pick out which line is the main melody, while the other voices mostly move at the same rhythm and support the main line. This kind of writing is called ‘homophonic’ – we have separate lines, but mostly moving at the same time and one is clearly the melody. Sometimes you’ll hear people talking about this in terms of texture – Hildegarde’s song had a monophonic texture, Leonin and Perotin used a polyphonic texture, and Josquin here mostly uses a homophonic texture. You better be taking notes, this’ll be on the final exam. No, I’m kidding, it’s actually not that important to remember, it’s just a way of describing what’s happening in different pieces of music. Right now it’s more important to me that you sit back and give this wonderful chanson a listen.
The Renaissance era has, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful choral music ever written. And especially when you imagine a lot of these works performed in churches and cathedrals, with the sound echoing all around, filling the whole space with these rich harmonies made up entirely of human voices.
I mean, the human voice is amazing when you stop to think about it. When I’m standing at the far end of a church from where you’re standing and you’re having a normal conversation with someone I might hear that you’re talking, but I probably won’t pick up exactly what you’re saying. But if you were to start singing, I would hear you loud and clearly. And choral music is amazing too – if you put forty people in a room and tell them to talk at the same time, it’s going to sound like a bit of a mess. Even if they try to talk in unison, there’s still going to be little differences here and there in the lengths of notes, the inflection of how you talk. But in a choral piece, the composer writes out those lengths and inflections, and the choir rehearses to sing them in perfect coordination. And unlike if they were all just saying the words in unison, which would probably just sound a bit weird and cultish to us, when they sing them using the notes and harmonies put together by a composer who knows what they’re doing, it can grip us and intensely move us.
And I feel like Renaissance composers knew that, and they also knew that a good choir performing in a church or cathedral was one of the most impressive things anyone would ever hear in those days. Remember, this is well before the days of amplified sound, before the days of the symphony orchestra, and even the organ was still a work in progress at this point.
There are a lot of Renaissance composers I’d love to talk about, like Palestrina, William Bird, and John Taverner, but I’m going to leave you to explore those on your own. Right now we turn to our last composer for today: Thomas Tallis.
Thomas Tallis was an English composer who actually worked at court as a composer and performer for four different monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Which is pretty impressive, because it meant he must have been careful to avoid ticking off any of those very different monarchs through his religion – Henry VIII was the one who started the Church of England, or the Anglican church, when the Roman Catholic church wouldn’t let him divorce his wife, while Mary I was the one who tried to turn back the British clock to Catholicism, and Elizabeth I eventually moved it back to a somewhat tolerant protestantism. Although Tallis apparently was a Roman Catholic his whole life, he changed his compositions to match what each monarch wanted.
He seemed pretty popular with queen Elizabeth – she gave him and his student William Byrd a 21 year monopoly on printing and publishing music. Which probably didn’t make them very popular with other English composers, and the fact that they were both Catholic also didn’t make their works all that popular.
Before all that though, he wrote a fascinating and beautiful piece called ‘Spem in Alium’, which is Latin for ‘hope in any other’, referring to a text about not putting your hope in any but God.
What’s fantastic about the piece is that it’s a motet written in 40 parts. You heard that – forty 4 – 0 separate parts – or more specifically, for eight choirs of five voices each.
Ah, but first – I mentioned earlier that we would get back to motets, and here we are: a motet is a polyphonic composition that’s mostly or entirely vocal, in multiple parts, with words. Sounds vague? Yeah, that’s about as specific as they get on defining motets. But it is usually on a sacred text, though not connected to any of those specific religious ceremonies, or liturgy, that we mentioned earlier in the part about the middle ages – you know, the mass, or the requiem for the dead, or the office.
Anyway, back to Tallis’s 40-part motet, which was composed in 1570, so during the reign of Elizabeth I.
It was probably written for a specific space: namely, Nonsuch Palace, which has an octagonal banquet hall with four balconies, so probably Tallis composed the piece with the intention of having four of eight choirs standing on the balconies and the others in the hall, creating a sort of Horse-shoe shaped 40-part surround sound performance. The music starts with one voice in one of the choirs, and then it moves around to the different choirs with the earlier choirs slowly fading out, going from choir one to choir eight. Then all forty voices sing together for a few bars, and then we get the same thing as before but in reverse – so first choir eight sings, and then it slowly gets passed around until it gets back to choir one. The piece goes on to do all sorts of different creative things, throwing sounds and themes back and forth across the space between the choir like a musical game of pass. It must have been an all-encompassing experience for that first audience.
I’ve never heard a performance like that of this piece, but one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had was with this piece in that National Gallery of Canada.
In the National Gallery you can find, in the middle of the gallery of Canadian art, the salvaged interior of the Rideau Street Chapel, which was donated to the gallery when the original chapel was demolished. I mean, I love that – a chapel that used to be for religious purposes that ends up as a centre piece in the middle of an art gallery. And when you’re inside it, you really feel like you’re inside a chapel – there’s light coming through the stained glass windows, and benches to sit on.
But when you sit down, you’ll also notice forty speakers set up in a circle around the chapel. These form the sound installation ‘Forty-Part Motet’ put together by Janet Cardiff. As you come in, you’ll hear some soft discussion, some coughing and quiet singing warm-up sounds coming from the speakers, and then after a few minutes it goes quiet, and one voice emerges from one speaker with Tallis’s ‘Spem in Alium’, followed by more voices, each with their individual speaker, until you’re surrounded by a wash of glorious sound. You’re free to sit and listen as the sound moves around, or you can move to different parts of the chapel to hear different parts of the choir.
I remember when I first experienced that installation, I didn’t know the piece yet, and I was just sitting there with tears streaming down my face. Now I still get shivers every time I hear it.
If you ever get the chance to hear the sound installation, either in the National Gallery in Ottawa or in one of the other places where you can find the installation, I highly recommend it. If you can’t, I’d recommend at least a good set of headphones to listen to this one if you have them. Though even without that, the piece is still absolutely beautiful.