Reich's Proverb In Dialogue with Medieval Masters

Bella Voce has for decades presented programs that contrast ancient music with the music of our own time, going back to the days of His Majestie’s Clerkes (our former name) and our artistic director emerita, Anne Heider. It is in our DNA. More recently, with the founding of the Bella Voce Camerata in 2014, we renewed and expanded upon that idea by pairing David Lang’s The Little Matchgirl Passion with the Membra Jesu nostri by Dietrich Buxtehude. Our programming now includes music for one-voice-per-part ensemble that hitherto was unavailable to us. One such work that would not have been performed by the larger choral ensemble that is Bella Voce but can be performed by the Camerata is Proverb by Steve Reich.

Proverb perfectly encapsulates the Camerata’s aesthetic and raison d’être: an acknowledged masterpiece by a living composer written for vocal and instrumental chamber ensemble that self-consciously looks to ancient music for inspiration and connection. Proverb is the linchpin for this program, which has been lovingly and meticulously curated by Kirsten Hedegaard, our music director for this project. It includes the music by Magister Perotinus that Reich studied, other works of Reich’s, a work by the living composer Richard Reed Parry, and works by Arvo Pärt, a composer that Bella Voce has championed for years.

We are delighted to welcome into the Camerata musicians who are experts in the field of new music. Please read about them in the program at the concert.


Perotin the Great

The Medieval era, at least where music history is concerned, lasted about 1000 years. 1000 years! That’s a long stretch of stability. Consider that for 450 years or so the sole music of the church was Gregorian chant (most likely named after Pope Gregory II, who was in power from 715 to 731, for ordering the cataloguing and standardization of notation for what has become one of the greatest bodies of music in the Western canon). Now imagine that monophonic chant being stretched and elongated and a newly composed voice written above it. Now you have two voices! It may seem comical to us to think how mind-bending this was but when it first occurred people were astonished by its sensuality. For such a thing to work a new way of measuring rhythm would need to be developed. Leonin (fl. ca. 1163-1190) the first master of what came to be called the Notre Dame School, developed this system, called mensural notation. Perotin (fl. ca. 1190-1225), Leonin’s successor and the composer represented on this program, added to the complexity by adding a 3rd and even 4th voice to the texture. All of a sudden one can hear, instead of just one voice or—magically—two voices happening simultaneously, now someone has accomplished the feat of composing for 3 and 4 voices. It really must have been a stunning development to those people at that time. Afterall, very little changed over vast expanses of time. Indeed, John of Salisbury, a teacher at the University of Paris during Leonin’s time wrote:

“When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices … whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.”(Hayburn, Robert F. (1979). Papal Legislation on Sacred Music 95 AD to 1977 AD. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. Accessed from Wikipedia on 2/13/2018.


Steve Reich, Proverb

Influenced heavily by Perotin’s music, Steve Reich composed Proverb in 1995 for Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices ensemble.  Paul Hillier was a founding member of the Hilliard Ensemble, has gone on to a brilliant conducting career, has recorded works with Bella Voce (under the name His Majestie’s Clerkes) for Harmonia Mundi, and, incidentally, is Kirsten Hedegaard’s teacher and mentor. Here Steve Reich describes the origin of Proverb and the way the piece unfolds:

“The idea for Proverb was originally suggested to me by the singer and conductor Paul Hillier who thought of a primarily vocal piece with six voices and two percussion. What resulted was a piece for three sopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones and two electric organs, with a short text from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Since Paul Hillier is well known as a conductor and singer of early music and since I share an interest in this period of Western music, I looked once again at the works of Perotin (Scholl of Notre Dame – 12th century) for guidance and inspiration.”

The three sopranos sing the original melody of the test in canons that gradually augment or get longer. The two tenors sing duets in shorter rhythmic values against held tones from the sopranos. The two electric organs double the singers throughout (except at the very beginning when they sing a cappella) and fill in the harmonics. The piece is in constantly changing meter groupings of twos and threes giving a rhythmically free quality to the voices. After about three minutes of voices and organ only, the vibraphones enter enunciating these interlocking shifting groups of two and three beats.

The original theme in the voices is then inverted and moves from B minor to E-flat minor. In this contrasting section the original descending melodic line becomes a rising one. The last part of the piece is one large augmentation canon for the sopranos returning to the original key of B minor wit the tenors singing their melismatic duets continuously as the canon slowly unfolds around them. This is concluded by a short coda which ends, as the piece began, with a single soprano. 

Though the sopranos sing syllabically with one note for each word, (and every word of the text is monosyllabic) the tenors sing long melismas on a single syllable. Perotin’s influence may be heard most clearly in these tenor duets against soprano, which clearly resemble three part Organum. That same influence plays a more indirect role in the soprano augmentation canons which are suggested by the augmentation of held tenor notes in Perotin’s Organum.

The short text, "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!" comes from a collection of Wittgenstein’s writing entitled Culture and Value. Much of Wittgenstein’s work is ‘proverbial’ in tone and in its brevity. This particular text was written in 1946. In the same paragraph from which it was taken Wittgenstein continues, "If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far".            Credit: Steve Reich. Used by permission.

We are honored that you are here with us on our journey together to “the society of angels.”

Andrew Lewis