Renaissance vocal music does not seem to be an integral and faithful derivation of polymnia, but rather appears to have progressed logically out of the medieval trends. More evolutionary than revolutionary, the changes of this movement included:
1) a greater interpretation of the overall rhythmic structure inherited from the medievalists;
2) a harmonic reclassification due primarily to the emergence and acceptance of the ‘third’, which until now had been considered an element of ‘disorder’ (dissonance);
3) an increasing equality of parts in terms of value and melodic interest;
4) a greater sophistication in the construction of cadences;
5) a gradual substitution of strophic for imitative forms.
All these factors are of immediate concern in the performance of the vocal literature of the period, and from these arise the problems faced by modern performers.
The first of these problems is how to establish and maintain appropriate rhythm and metrical scansion. Modern transcriptions of Renaissance music, through the imposition of beat signs, metrical markings, and occasionally even metronomic indications, can unfortunately mislead contemporary singers, transporting them into a mechanical rigidity of tempo that is quite outdated for the period. In Renaissance vocal music, phrasing and rhythm are not organised metrically but rather words are freely emphasised, both modally and agogically. Thus it is often the text that modulates the length and rhythmic figuration of its music that serves as accompaniment. Moving away from such medieval musical forms of isorhythmic music, the tendency towards this new type of composition often means that the phrases of the text are used to introduce new points of imitation, so the texts in fact form the entire vocal line. From this, the general rule for performance can be deduced: the text determines the tempo. One should also be aware that in music designed for religious needs there is often a large rhythmic framework to consider. In the Mass, the most conscientious composers left time for the celebrants to perform ritualistic patterns of movement and gesture. When looking for authenticity in transcription, the challenge is to find this underlying rhythmic architecture and build on it a metrical regularity like the arches of a Renaissance porch. Other rhythmic signs, such as delays, were routinely written into the music in the form of longer values, and often even individual words had natural rhythmic accents.
A second problem faced by the modern performer is that of dynamics. The fact that composers did not develop recognisable and certain dynamic indications until the late Renaissance period has tempted many 20th century editors to impose their own vision. Most often these modern transcription indications are largely arbitrary because Renaissance composers, resourceful as they were, were able to achieve dynamic contrasts in more subtle ways than the explicit ones used today. The most common of these were the doubling of voices, the addition of instrumental parts, the contrast between high and low voices, the use of newly developed polychoral techniques and the alternation of homophonic and polyphonic passages, all of which produced sensitive and perceptible nuances regardless of the conscious effort of the performing singer. Boys’ voices, which exploited the variations in timbre made possible by the lack of vibrato, also led to dynamic nuances that were often quite foreign to us. It was also customary to argue that as the vocal line went up, a singer was inclined to increase his volume, and that as it went down, he tended to soften it. Many ‘apexes of colour’ thus became an intrinsic part of the music and even these did not require much assistance from the performer. The paradox is that the more a singer nowadays tries to preserve a uniform volume, the more likely he or she is to create a dynamic diversity representative of the period. Finally, by the very nature of their theological exegesis, some phrases and individual words in the Mass are already dynamically charged. For example, Jesu Christe is almost always given a distinct dynamic importance.
Again, the text and its position in the melodic line will help us to understand the right dynamics more than any other consideration. The text has always exercised a certain degree of control over the musical phrasing. From the even flow of French, through the rhythmic insistence of Spanish and Italian, to the precise vigour of Latin and English, language also influences how the performer sings. This is particularly pertinent to the Renaissance, a period when bureaucratic notions of nationalism tended to promote so much linguistic variation. While in some fifteenth-century composers, such as Dufay, there is almost a disregard for the text, Josquin Des Prez interprets the humanist preoccupation for the poetry, after the turn of the century. A little later, the growing trend of texts-as-poems, in the Italian frottola and lauda for example, led to certain extremes of textual distortion and splitting. Even Palestrina was not above this tendency, for there are situations in which his musical thinking was not in terms of coherent phrases, but concentrated on the treatment of individual words, taken one by one. Since the intelligibility of the text was a major concern of the Reformation Church, best represented in the syllabic and homophonic writing of the English Rite’s ‘Missa Brevis’, the phrases laboriously in evidence in the Roman Mass had to be equally meaningful. ‘Et incarnatus est’, the emotional and doctrinal heart of the Creed, had to be handled with particular care in the performances. Similarly, the Amen, as its finale, was to be regarded as an affirmation of the statement of faith, not simply as the closing word of a section. The whole issue of singing the sacred texts in the Renaissance is based on the practice that the word should be extremely clear. Its particular relevance is the fact that in this music, the text not only dictates the overall structure of the work, but also its harmonies and rhythms – two subjects inextricable from the colour of the sound and the painting of the words. These texts, therefore, should be sung in a meaningful way, using the rhythmic accentuation of words as a guide for phrasing, and emphasising clear diction and pure vowel sounds. This need for controlled expressiveness becomes so central that even in examples of complex polyphony and in polytextual motets, singers must voluntarily subordinate their sensitivity to that of the poet.
Another problem is to obtain the ‘ideal sound’ of the Renaissance, which, by combining the criteria of tempi, dynamics and textual considerations, becomes even greater than the sum of these parts. When dealing with the individual singer, the goal must be to emit a uniform vocal line, as free as possible from vibrato to produce a subtle and clear sound. The approach should be subdued and impersonal, so that only what is actually within the music emerges in the performance, without any subtext of emotion imposed by the performer. Since the modern art of vocal colouring was then unknown, individual singing becomes pure legato. In choral singing, the most important thing to keep in mind is that horizontal flow takes precedence over vertical scansion. This insistent forward movement requires a ‘continuous sound’, derived from overlapping cadences and long phrases made possible by staggered breathing. The ideal sound is that derived from three or four voices for each of the parts, balanced by an even mixture both within and between the various lines. Once the greatest possible clarity of texture has been achieved, the conductor can interpret the sense of continuity, climaxes, careful observance of words and a conscious approach to cadences.
The second-to-last problem concerns, precisely, cadences, one of the most significant aspects in the music of any period. In the Renaissance, the function of the various cadences must be clearly understood by the singer and the conductor. The emphasis of a deceptive cadence, for instance, could lead to false expectations of a concluding phrase. On the other hand, if a genuine drive to cadence is underestimated, the conclusion will come with an unpleasant sense of incomplete closure. The most famous cadences encountered in the first period are the Landino cadence, most characteristic of the late 14th and early 15th century, and the Burgundian cadence which came into widespread use around the middle of the 15th century. In the first case, it is important that the sound of the voice as it passes from the sixth degree to the tonic is clearly heard.
The last problem has to do with what is going on in the singer’s mind, not in the throat. While leaving the problems of the relationship between mind and body to those who have bravely brought their academic knowledge to bear on that very difficult ground, it cannot be denied that what is or is not in a singer’s mind certainly affects the sound that comes from his or her strings.Today’s musicians bring to contemporary and twenty-first century music a complex set of attitudes, inclinations and evaluations both directly perceived and instinctively assimilated. So too was the relationship between Renaissance musicians and their works. If Palestrina and his methodically trained singers from the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s were suddenly faced with Fauré’s Requiem, their performance would reflect archaic techniques and hopelessly inappropriate points of view.In a direct reversal of this hypothesis, even a 21st century ensemble, unaware of the Renaissance environment and the attitude of Renaissance man towards the function and interpretation of this music, is certainly not up to the task of accurately performing it. Knowing the various functions of Renaissance music such as when to give expression, when the virtuosity of the composer should be displayed, how to differentiate the style of a piece by an Italian, English or Flemish composer, when the text becomes vital and when it is not, these and countless other questions can only be answered by a secure knowledge of the period. Add to this the use of music ficta, ornamentation and improvisation, and the difficulties that arise from female voices singing music intended for boys’ voices or falsettos. It is crucial in the performance of Renaissance vocal literature to realise that the sacrificial act was considered the essence of creation.