Problems with polyphony

It would be easy to make a case that the quality of the music composed in England in the early modern period was as high as that of its literature. Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Thomas Morley, John Dowland and Orlando Gibbons were very nearly contemporaries, and wrote music as good as that being produced anywhere. I love what they can achieve with such slender resources, no more than a handful of voices singing a madrigal, motet, mass or psalm, a lute interacting with a solo countertenor, or a small number of instruments. The simplicity of their music is beguiling and in a funny way brave; they take no refuge in special effects.

One of the best known pieces of the English renaissance, Tallis’ Spem in alium, offers a different kind of pleasure. Many people remember the first time they heard it, and the emotional charge coming from the intense harmonies woven by forty voices. But I often find that after an intial surge of delight as the wall of sound washes over me my attention wanders; it’s as if the effort of keeping up with music of such complexity is beyond me. (I had the same experience last year at a performance of music for Holy Week by Victoria; the singing was intensely emotional, but didn’t really hold one’s attention.) It is annoying to come to with a start and realise rather than following the music you’ve been woolgathering, an experience that occurs far more rarely with music for fewer voices (as in Byrd’s masses, not to mention Bach). Does anyone else have this problem?

While the purpose of this blog is not to let people know about myself, I should mention that this region has been suffering major flooding and associated bad weather. Inconvenience to me has been minimal, just a blackout of 93 hours, and it’s been a pleasure having a friend whose place has been affected to stay for a few nights. But there are 17 known fatalities and many houses and much property have been destroyed. The Premier has set up a Disaster Relief Appeal, and donating may be a good idea: www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate.