Our upcoming Friday night Prelude performance at Tanglewood is a pretty spectacular collection of a cappella choral sacred music. The backbone of the program is Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem, a hauntingly beautiful setting of chant-like melodies that have been a joy to internalize and sing.
The Choral Scholar’s well-written (and rather exhaustive) analysis of the piece explores more of its historical context, including a lot on Pizzetti’s influences. Born in 1884, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s career was primarily as a conservatory teacher, rather than as a prolific composer, though he was responsible for several choral works. As a frequent music critic, he held disdain for 20th century compositional trends such as those introduced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, advocating frequently for a return to the Renaissance traditions of great Italian composers. In 1922 he was commissioned to write this Requiem during a period of personal transition: his wife had died unexpectedly, and his 16-year tenure at the Istituto Musicale in Florence had come to an end. “I was in such an emotional state,” he reflected later, “that I became overwhelmed by the tremendous immensity of the text,” as he contemplated his beliefs and sought comfort in choral expression.
Given his preferences, the style of the music is described as neo-Renaissance and neo-Medieval; it’s not hard to imagine monks in some forgotten time canonically chanting these plainsong melodies. But unlike most early music, it’s also dramatic and expressive: the dark, gloomy Dies Irae with its hollow theme; the sudden magical appearance of major keys in several places to represent heavenly light or salvation; the glorious expansiveness of the Sanctus; the pleading of the Libera Me. Coupled with a shifting landscape of counterpoints and imitations — and choral textures ranging from the simplicity of unaccompanied basses to the extravagance of a heavy 12-part three-chorus anthem — and we have our hands full as a chorus trying to capture the soul of this composer.
Each rehearsal we’ve had so far has followed a similar pattern. When we start out, perhaps with a read-through of one of the movements, I’d confess that the chorus sounds like we’re each strongly representing our own parts. And then slowly over time, we become less of a collection of individual voice parts and more of an ensemble. Our conductor James Burton has smiled as he points this out: “I can see you listening to each other.” And we’re getting faster at that; I’d say it took 30-60 minutes during our initial rehearsals last month, and about 15 minutes before we congealed into a unit yesterday. It’s a tangible difference in our sound and collective approach.
With the vertical harmonies this piece advocates, our ears must continually attune to the chords we’re creating together. The structure of the music requires constant mental awareness of balance, like a delicate pyramid of circus acrobats. Often one voice part is clearly the lead actor while the others provide the staging, though dynamically it may only be mezzoforte vs mezzopiano. Rhythmic intensity is the only way to avoid languishing through the rising and falling chants and losing tempo. And since we’re unaccompanied, it’s easy to lose pitch on some of these descending lines, so our scores are littered with tiny up-arrows over notes in the greatest danger of going flat.
All this makes it sound like a pain in the butt to sing, but nothing could be further from the truth. To create this magical sonority is a welcome challenge of not just our individual talents but also our ability to sustain a cohesive purpose in our choral communications to the audience. Throughout James Burton’s tuning of mechanics and technique has been an undercurrent of effort to align our intent behind each moment of the piece. Capturing glimpses of that in each rehearsal has been nothing short of exhilarating, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with a wider audience on Friday.