Choral Music by The Numbers

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

This week's show tracks the development of choral music, voice by voice. We start with a single line of music as heard in Gregorian Chant (Christus Factus est pro nobis). We then expand to two, then three, four, eight, all the way to the majesty and power of 40 lines of music sung together, as heard in Thomas Tallis's motet Spem In Alium. Stops along the way include Perotin, Palestrina, Bach and Richard Strauss.


On Next Week's Choral Mix: When Gramophone magazine recently ranked the world's 20 best choirs, and it found America lacking. Indeed, not a single U.S. group made the list. In advance of our Jan. 30 show, we invite you to listen to a pair of side-by-side musical comparisons and weigh in.

Comments [11]

Donna Doyle from New York City

Polyphony is probably as old as singing. E. g., at an Islamic religious service a while ago, while the Imam chanted and the rest of us sang in unison or at the octave with him, a young man across the room sang in perfect sync, but at the 4th below the Imam, seemingly without knowing what he was doing. Perhaps this is the origin of parallel organum. As Grady Tate once said, "When you make a mistake, turn it into a good idea."

Jan. 24 2011 12:05 PM
Liege Motta from Manhattan

Thank you, Kent, for another opportunity to hear Spem in Alium! Once sung, never forgotten, and forever appreciated. What a piece.

Jan. 24 2011 01:13 AM
Michael Meltzer

We'll never forget the Kent Tritle double-header at St. Mary the Virgin opening with the Tallis in Latin and closing with the Tallis again but in English, all in SurroundSound. An exalting experience!

Jan. 24 2011 12:04 AM
Michael Meltzer

The oldest known round that was written down is "Sumer is icumen in," according to Groves, dating by various sources from, 1240, 1280 or 1310. Groves adds that it is safe to assume that round-singing was already common practice when this was recorded on paper in England, and was probably in vogue in other countries as well.
That raises the possiblity that polyphony was introduced by troubadors or other public entertainers, or originated in the tavern, not the monastery.

Jan. 23 2011 11:19 PM
Steven Lanser

Once again, a great program, Kent! I find parallel organum (earliest proto-polyphonic music with 2 voices) particularly fascinating and enjoyed hearing your recorded sample of it.

Jan. 23 2011 02:48 PM
Michael Meltzer

Gev and David:
Polyphony is, before anything else, a mental ability. Ives heard it in a different way when he enjoyed the sound of two different marching bands, one coming and one going with entirely different music (which in Ives' brain made perfect sense).
As soon as there was a keyboard instrument with two manuals and a composer that could handle it, there would have to be polyphony. But, a Palestrina or a Lassus wouldn't even need that to get started, their brain was not like yours or mine!

Jan. 23 2011 10:19 AM
Richard from Roosevelt Island

Certainly polyphony could not have developed without the church's efforts to get things written down. Without the written tradition, you could not have developed polyphony, so there are parallels between the grand cathedral architecture design which was planned over generations of builders and highly architected music.

Jan. 23 2011 09:00 AM
David Kornacker from UWS of Manhattan

Great show! Had the pleasure of hearing Spem in Alium performed at St Paul's Chapel on Columbia College campus a few years back -- truly amazing.

Looking forward to next week's US - UK choral showdown.

Jan. 23 2011 08:35 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Put the earphones on for the Tallis. Not quite the same effect as being in the middle of all that sound, but ... am still gobsmacked. How on earth did he do it???

Jan. 23 2011 07:58 AM
Jamie from NJ

Just wanted to thank you for playing Spem in Alium. I love this piece and haven't heard it in a very long time. It's truly amazing!

Jan. 23 2011 07:53 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

I often wonder if it can be argued that polyphony could not have developed without church architecture ... I'm thinking in part about the mathematic significance of harmony, and the notion of the urge to fill a sanctified space with heaven-bound sound. I'm also wondering if it's not wise to contemplate this sort of thing before the morning coffee has had an effect ...

Jan. 23 2011 07:29 AM

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