Passion and Resurrection Motets of the Renaissance

Pomerium at the Cloisters on Saturday, March 22.

When I began studying the organ, I fell in love with the fugue. In a fugue, one voice introduces a short melody, the subject, and then the other voices take it up in turn, weaving together, stretching and compressing and inverting and transposing the subject, each voice equal to the others, until they finally cadence together in a glorious climax. The underlying harmonic structure of the fugue is often quite simple, but the rich polyphonic texture is markedly different from the typical melody with harmonic accompaniment of pop songs and hymns and even much classical music. To me, the big Baroque fugues were a revelation.

I still get a charge out of the incomparable polyphony of the Baroque and Renaissance periods, which is why I was eager to hear Pomerium, a choral ensemble devoted to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century repertory. The concert was a seasonal one, featuring motets written for Passiontide and Easter, and as I expected, the intricate polyphony was exquisite. But the concert reminded me, too, that as magical as polyphony can be, the moment in which it ends, the moment when the voices converge into unison, is often just as special.

That moment of convergence can be so powerful that choristers are often told to lower their volume slightly when they reach unison. Otherwise, the chord could seem inappropriately accented, even if the volume technically remained constant. But Pomerium, of course, is far past such basics. The fourteen members of the ensemble sang with the pinpoint accuracy and clear bell tones that such music demands. Their blend was beautiful, and their sensitivity to the entrances and exits of each voice was impeccable. Polyphony shouldn’t be experienced as a wash of sound: each vocal line has its own thread in the fabric of the work, and as sung by Pomerium, each thread was gracefully distinct yet always perfectly interwoven.

I love the alluring, crisp elegance of Monteverdi’s madrigals and the joyous mixed meter of William Byrd’s “Haec dies,” but for Sean and me both, the unmistakable works of Carlo Gesualdo were the highlight of the concert. Upon mentioning Gesualdo, anyone who has studied music history is required to mention his notorious personal life—he brutally murdered his first wife and her lover in their bed—so please consider that prerequisite duly met so that I can move on: his music is extraordinary enough to make his lurid biography irrelevant.

Working in the sixteenth century, Gesualdo experimented with intricate chromatic lines and dramatic dissonances that wouldn’t be heard again for another three hundred years. To hear his motets is to experience a series of revelations: a voice enters, and the unapologetically dissonant crunch makes one wonder for a moment whether the singers hit a wrong note, but then other voices shift incrementally, and the harmony suddenly shimmers, and it makes sense, and it’s gorgeous. Some of Gesualdo’s best-known motets are, in fact, his settings of Lenten texts because his dramatic compositional style is so well suited for the agony and atonement of the season.

Of course, Pomerium couldn’t very well end the concert with Gesualdo’s harrowing “Tenebrae factae sunt” and “Judas, mercator pessimus” (neither of which are cheerful, as those titles might suggest). The ensemble moved on to Easter motets by Monteverdi, Lassus, and Byrd, which brought back happy memories of my days as an organist at a church that followed traditional liturgy. During Lent, the word alleluia is stripped from the service, not to return until Easter Sunday, at which time it is enthusiastically revived to celebrate the resurrection. I always loved the return of the alleluia. It’s a beautiful word, with the single alliterated consonant and the coo of its accented vowel; it’s as pure an expression of joy as I can imagine. And as I listened to Pomerium’s euphoric alleluias reverberate in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters, I couldn’t think of any other way I wanted to celebrate Easter.