It is my opinion that we choral directors neglect to program enough Renaissance music for our choirs. Perhaps we are afraid to tackle the beast of teaching imitative polyphony, or maybe we are intimidated by the presumed correct performance practices of such music, as evidenced in near-flawless recordings that are available today. Whatever the reason, I feel we must put it aside to ensure our singers and audiences are exposed to Renaissance music and the vast musical learning it can provide.
In this week’s post, I will feature three very approachable Renaissance pieces with which you might choose to start off the year. The first is a short canon by Orlando di Lasso, “Musica est Dei donum optimi”, which I have chosen this year for some of my younger choirs. We will begin by singing it in unison, learning about Latin vowels, syncopation, and using the full range of our voices. Then, we will move into singing it in a round, teaching independence of line, line-shaping, and bringing out entrances and syncopations. Perhaps I will choose to use it as an opener or even processional for our always-difficult-to-program fall concert, for which I only have a little over a month to prepare. An SATB edition of “Musica est Dei donum optimi” is available here on CPDL, but you should feel free to use the canon melody itself and make it work for your choirs and programming needs. There are also several excellent examples on YouTube of many different kinds of choirs singing this piece.
The next piece is also sung in canon, though the nature of the line is much more complex than that of the di Lasso. Programming Guillaume Dufay’s “Gloria ad modum tubae” is a way to get a nearly 600-year old piece of music into the voices of your singers. Rather than a few bars that get repeated over and over, this melody line is, in much more modern terms, through-composed, but it constantly outlines the same major triad. There is quite a bit of text to learn as well, but the Latin is good practice in vowel unification for your younger singers. When I programmed this piece, I broke it up into chunks and taught it completely in unison using solfege syllables. Then, little by little, I added text and began rehearsing it in canon. I spliced chunks together as often as I could and eventually built the entire piece into their voices. It paid off, as the students looked back on the piece as one of their favorites. There are several editions of this piece out there, but I will share this easy-to-read one that is available on CPDL.
For an SATB choir, you may choose to begin the year with something like “Call to Remembrance” by Richard Farrant. This English anthem is an excellent way to introduce Renaissance styles to your singers, as it alternates between polyphonic bits of imitation and four-part homorhythm, with some duets in thirds and short fragments of independent rhythms in between. Its minor tonality adds a constructive challenge for your singers, especially if you use solfege, as there are several accidentals in the piece (usually at cadences) and instances all of all three types of minor scales on display. Though the piece is in English, the vowels are mostly clean and easy to tune, with very few diphthongs that need addressing. Your singers will love learning and performing “Call to Remembrance”. It can be found here.
Obviously, there are thousands of other great Renaissance pieces out there, many of which are very accessible to your choirs. What are some that have worked for you? Please share in the comments, and, as always, feel free to e-mail me ideas for pieces you would like to see featured in “Music Within Reach” at .
Brandon Moss is a choir director, teacher, and composer/arranger living and working in Central Ohio. He teaches at Central Crossing High School, directs the Chalice Choir at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and serves in leadership roles with the Ohio Choral Directors Association and the Ohio Music Education Association. He is currently working on the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting at The Ohio State University.