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<<  -- 4 --  Wilfrid Mellers    SECOND SIGHT


Even so, the most rewarding numbers, musically speaking, are those that deal unambiguously and exuberantly with positive aspects of the Christian message. I've mentioned the Easter monodies glowingly sung by Catherine King. Numbers in which a second part is added to the first, each being separately composed, effect a similar shift in perspective: as in 'Cantu miro', in which the second of the 'light' tenors adds 'body' to a praise-song addressed to St Nicholas. The two three-part settings -- possibly the earliest three-part music to appear in England -- suggest that medieval composers relished the positive potential of harmonic part-writing as an 'illuminated' sonority comparable with a visually illuminated manuscript; the text of 'Verbum patris umanator O O!' is a disquisition on the theology of the Virgin Birth but the music is a lilting dance in symmetrical rhythm with the lines coruscating, within the prevailing fourths and fifths, in arbitrary dissonances that don't even seek after harmonic congruence. Since the intervals of fifth and fourth symbolized God in the Middle Ages one might say that the music sets out the process whereby God's Holy Word becomes humanly corporeal.

The other three-voiced piece, 'Qui pius est factus', is an insertion into the Agnus Dei of the Eucharist, and may owe its trinitarian third part to the Agnus's being the goal of the liturgy. In this case it imparts dignity, even grandeur, rather than rendering the music more humanly physical in appeal. The basic medieval technique was unaccompanied monody; when a second, and then a third, part shyly intruded, the intention was not to invent a new technique but to enhance monody's power-to-praise. Unbeknownst to those distant creators, however, the invention of polyphony spelt the death of the old monophonic technique and of the Old World it had made aurally incarnate. Christopher Page's performances of this music catch to perfection this instantaneous moment of truth. The singers chant as though the world were unchanged; but what we hear hints at radical re-formation in which the Re-naissance is already latent.

Copyright © 2 June 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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