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Renaissance Performance Practice

Greetings! This semester my choir will be singing Viadana's O Sacrum Convivium at an upcoming Mass in October. I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions on good websites that provide info about Renaissance Performance Practice. Is phrasing determined by the words and bringing emphasis to stressed syllables? Are crescendos permissible? How about in a 3/2 or 3/4 (depending on your edition) bar ... if a choir sings through the longer note, doesn't that create the sensation of a downbeat for each measure, which from what I read, is not supposed to happen? I am just looking for some help so we can sing this work as it was meant to be sung!
Thank you for your help!
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on September 16, 2013 2:24pm
Dear James,
I rarely toot my own horn on this site, but you might check out the following on-line biblographic publication from Chorus America's Research Memorandum Series (RMA #200) by James John and myself -- Renaissance and Baroque Performance Practice: Invaluable Resources for the Choral Conductor -- cut and paste if the link does not work.
While some of the materials may be a bit more specific than you might be looking for, this is a fairly comprehensive bibliography of superb resources for choral conductors for Renaissance and Baroque Performance Practice. We did our best to make sure the annotations were geared specifically to let conductors know how each source might be useful for either general or very specific issues of performance practice.
Dan Abraham
Conductor & Artistic Director, The Bach Sinfonia
Director of Choral Activities, American University
Washington, DC
on September 17, 2013 2:06pm
Dear Dan,
I would love to avail myself of this resource but, when I followed the link to the correct page, I get "Apologies, but you don't have permission to view this page."  Does a membership in ACDA allow one access to this part of the Chorus America website?
Alan Shapiro
New York City
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 18, 2013 8:38am
Hi Alan,
I went to the link and got the same message until I logged in with my membership. At that point, the full document came up as a pdf file. I highly recommend membership in Chorus America. I attended their annual convention for the first time this year and learned so much there.
Cricket Handler
Canzona Women's Ensemble
on September 20, 2013 3:12pm
If you send me an email (dabraham(a), I will be happy to send you a copy of the publication. 
Dan Abraham
on September 21, 2013 8:33am
Hi James,
I've directed a Renaissance choir for a number of years--here's my advice:  
1) YES, do little crescendos/diminuendos depending on how you want to shape the phrase.
2) To figure out how you want to shape the phrase, focus on word accents, and the structure of the sentence.
3) There were no barlines back then, but that doesn't mean that a composer couldn't write a piece with regular accents if he wanted to.  So if your musician's ear tell you to sing a passage with accents that coincide with the modern barlines, so be it!
4) I don't write in much in the way of dynamics, but I will occasionally tell the group "louder for this section" or "softer for this section."
5) It can be helpful to have an adjective to describe the mood you want to create, and tell it to your choir.  "Mysterious" "celebratory"... you get the idea.  It gives them something to hang onto when they are singing abstract music that may be hard for them to get a handle on.
Here's an example of how my choir does Alma redemptoris mater by Lheritier.  If you want to hear how we deal with text, you'll have to listen past the first 30 seconds, because the whole first page is "Ah" (the first syllable of "Alma").
Good luck!
Jay Lane
on September 21, 2013 4:32pm
Hi James!
Great questions!
Here is what I have discovered about singing Renaissance music.
"Ensemble" is the most important element.  If singers are invited to look into the structure of Renaissance choral writing, they will be equipped to sing it beautifully.  Explore with them how points of imitation and the handing off of melodic movement spawn the musical conversation between them.  Implore them to silently listen to a particular phrase in their mind to decide for themselves how long notes are treated and where the expressive parts of the phrase are.  Most of them will discover they have an internal sense of the natural eb and flow of the line without being told.
Relating to ensemble, the internalization of tempo is vital.  There is a huge difference between being "on" a tempo and "in" a tempo, and you want them to be "in".  The tempo they should naturally realize is the macrobeat, or as you said, the long note.  The edition I found of "O Sacrum Convivium" is in 4/2 time, so the natural macrobeat is the whole note.  It's important that they hear tempo in their mind first, and that they are able to coordinate it in their body second.  A great way to do this is to have them stand, close their eyes, hear a common tune in their mind (Mary had a little lamb) and allow their bodies to sway back and forth to the natural tempo they feel.  Then have them open their eyes and sway together to a comfortable tempo for "O Sacrum Convivium".  In scientific studies during Renaissance choral performance, ensemble members' heart rates sync when they're living "in" the tempo together.  One result of living in a tempo together is stunningly precise rhythms, and it has a significant impact on natural phrasing as well.
Without getting too technical, I always discuss with my students about 'where' a long note naturally wants to swell most in general.  We always agree that longs notes start with gradual movement forward, and the natural swell starts around 2/3rds duration through.  Interesting that this is yet another phenomenon that mirrors the golden ratio.
Relating to tempo and ensemble, breathing in rhythm is also vital.  When living "in" a tempo, this usually occurs naturally and does not need much explanation or practice.
There is beauty in textual emphasis of most any sung melodic line, but take care in how this is presented.  Of all the choral writing styles out there, Renaissance polyphony is the most specifically structured, having the most particular musical parameters, even moreso than the music of Bach.  In a study of theoretical consistency in counterpoint, harmony and voice leading, it was proven that the music of Palestrina is more theoretically consistent than that of Bach.  This does not exempt the style from "word painting" and "lyric singing", but it presents us with a responsibility to carefully consider the importance we place on the music vs. the text.  I think an understanding of the meaning of the text and particular words is important, and can be incorporated into phrasing, but I would avoid words like "emphasis" and "accent", as they don't generally agree with the writing style.  A word I more commonly use is "express".
And finally, form.  The text does help with this.  If the students understand what the poem means, and that each phrase in the text is a sub-phrase to one giant phrase - that being the "arc" of the poem - they will perform it as such.  For some it helps to connect the text to something personal within.  Makes it more real.  :)
Hope that helps.  May the force be with you.
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