Shake Your Ears Loose with the Earthquake Mass
Preview by Ruth L. Carver
A piece nicknamed the “Earthquake Mass” would hardly seem capable of transporting a listener to a peaceful, transcendent place…yet that is just what Ars Nova Singers hope to do in their upcoming concerts. This rarely performed piece by Renaissance master Antoine Brumel will gently yet insistently tug the audience from their seats with unusual textures and masterful part writing, leaving behind the workaday world.
The mass is technically named “Missa Et ecce terrae motus” because it draws its cantus firmus, or pre-existing melodic sample, from the Easter text meaning “and behold, the earth shook.” When exactly it acquired its catchier nickname is unknown, but Brumel’s piece continues to stun and mystify listeners and music historians alike. Its most obvious feature is the incredibly rich vocal writing comprised of twelve independent parts. The vast majority of music from this era is typically for four or perhaps six or eight voices, but having twelve simultaneously interweaving voices gives this piece a density and formal ambivalence not often found in this period. There were other composers experimenting with such dense part writing, notably Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet “Spem in alium,” but it is rare for a full mass.
Like other composers of his day, Brumel (c. 1460-1520) traveled throughout his life, following a string of court and church appointments in modern day France, Switzerland, and Italy. We know relatively little about his biography but it is clear that in his day, he was considered a master who stretched the boundaries of compositional rules in strikingly original ways. The “Earthquake Mass” remains his most notable work, yet because of its complexity, is rarely performed live today. Like other masses, it would have originally been sung within the context of a church service. Artistic Director and conductor Tom Morgan shares that in the concert setting, one can get lost in a way, with the continual drawing out of the melody through the 12 voices as they slowly explore the text of the mass. Brumel takes the original melodic fragment and slowly spins it out subtly, so Morgan emphasizes the big, barline-defying gestures of the voice parts, moving the listener beyond the confines of any church or concert hall.
In the only surviving manuscript of this piece, the last few pages had disintegrated, so choirs now must choose a version completed by a modern editor. The last time Ars Nova performed the work, in 2000, they sang Morgan’s own edition. Now, musicologists and editors have caught up a bit, and they will perform one of these editions which very faithfully completes the piece in Brumel’s style. Morgan explains his reasoning for performing this work again now: “This is the kind of music…. that deserves wider exposure,” and simply that “it’s fun to perform.” Morgan also describes the work as “extraordinarily imaginative music”.
In this concert, the movements will be gently broken up with interludes from virtuoso viola da gambist Ann Marie Morgan. The wall of sound created by the 40-member choir will contrast beautifully with the delicate string sound Morgan elicits from the gamba. A few of the mass movements also feature a smaller ensemble (one voice per part) and the Sanctus movement decreases the writing to 8 voices; Tom Morgan explains this “varies the texture… [and will] draw the ear in and out.” The overall experience will be truly transporting, and not in the jarring way the name might suggest.
Audiences have two opportunities to witness this masterpiece, called “one of the true marvels of Renaissance choral writing” on Saturday February 23 (St. John’s Episcopal Church, Boulder, 7:30 pm) and Sunday February 24 (St. Paul’s Community of Faith, Denver, 4 pm matinee). More information and tickets can be found at: www.arsnovasingers.org