Handel’s Dixit Dominus

Exercise 3.0

This exercise asks us to listen to Handel’s Dixit Dominus and annotate the score to highlight specific ways in which the instruments are used. I listened to a performance by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

I found many instances of antiphony (alternating between different voices and/or instruments), as well as imitation of rhythmic patterns. The alternation is particularly effective when it involves one part sustaining a note while the other has a melodic line, and then swapped around. Sometimes it is strict alternation, and sometimes it is overlapping, giving a sense that the new part is interrupting (e.g. in bars 69-70).

At other points in the score the instruments are supporting the voices, for example in bar 52 where the violins play in unison with the sopranos. This is an important point in the music as it is the first change in the words being sung, and the change in texture gives this a greater impact.

The basso continuo begins with a continuous quaver bass line, giving the music a feeling of momentum. At other times it repeats the rhythmic pattern that is such a feature of the piece, and towards the end of the piece plays a sustained line which builds up the tension.

I have scanned the first few pages of my annotated score here.


Saxophone concert

Last night I went to a concert given by the Amstel Saxophone Quartet. They performed a varied programme: it began with an arrangement of the Chromatic Fantasia by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) – an acclaimed late Renaissance composer from the Netherlands. This was originally written for organ, and as the name suggests is chromatic in nature, based on a four note descending line. I thought an arrangement for saxophones was an unusual idea, but it worked really well – if I closed my eyes I could really imagine how it would have sounded on the organ, especially the deep pedal notes played by the bass saxophone. The group reproduced the sustained sound of the organ, only it was more expressive because they were able to crescendo and decrescendo through the notes independently. Later they played another arrangement of an organ piece, this time Mozart’s Fugue in G minor.  This is a beautiful fugue which employs many of the imitative counterpoint strategies I have been learning about – inversion, modulation to the relative major and stretto etc.

They also played an original piece written for the quartet by a contemporary composer from the Netherlands, Renske Vrolijk (1965-). This piece, entitled Lachrymae was written as an expression of grief during a period of mourning, and I found it very moving and atmospheric. It is quite chordal in nature, using some close harmony which ironically invoked a feeling of loneliness.

Other pieces by contemporary composers included Mishima by Philip Glass (1937-), and Summa by Arvo Pärt (1935-). They were both very hypnotic, and I could tell that the audience was quite captivated. Mishima sounded like every other Philip Glass piece I have listened to and I didn’t find the piece itself particularly inspiring, but the quartet did a remarkable performance of it, using what seemed like some impressive circular breathing to create a completely continuous sound and the feeling of a single organism.

One of the most interesting arrangements was a twenty-minute suite of music condensed from Wagner’s Ring Cycle! Again this seemed to me like a very unusual idea, but I was surprised at how orchestral the quartet managed to sound, creating a large variety of tone colours. Played softly they often sounded like horns, and other times I could imagine clarinets, and even occasionally (from the soprano saxophone) an oboe. They certainly conveyed the drama and excitement of the piece really effectively.


Listening to Palestrina

Missa Papae Marcelli (c. 1562)

Oxford Camerata | Jeremy Summerly | Naxos 1992

I thought this was a really beautiful piece of music. In the Kyrie, the voices enter one by one, creating a continuous flow of music which is very serene and peaceful. The Gloria is treated in a similar way; sometimes my ear is drawn to one particular voice which has a faster moving line than the others at that point in time, but generally the voices seem to have equal importance – there is no ‘main melody’ as in a lot of later music. I think this aspect of the music contributes to its peaceful character, as does the smooth, stepwise nature of the melodies. The end of the Credo is particularly beautiful; each voice sings a descending line in turn until the changing harmonies are resolved into the final major chord.

Song of Songs: 9-11 (1584)

The Sixteen | Palestrina: Vol 1 | The Sixteen Productions Ltd 2011

These songs form part of a cycle of 29 sacred motets called Canticum CanticorumThey are written in 5 parts (SATTB), and the polyphony is more evident than in the previous work – voices continually coming in and out of focus. As a result I feel they have a less serene and more passionate character.

Madrigals, Book 1

Concerto Italiano | Il primo libro de Madrigali a quattro voci | Tactus 2012

This set of madrigals is sung by solo voices, some with lute accompaniment. They are all short, and many of them have a very gentle character. Like the previous works they employ polyphony, the voices frequently imitating each other in turn. As in other Renaissance music, I very much like the fluid nature of the modal harmony (sounding almost simultaneously major and minor). There is a tendency in these madrigals to finish either on what we now call the dominant, or on a ‘Picardy third’.


Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613): Madrigals, Books 5 & 6

Delitæ Musicæ | Marco Longhini | Naxos 2013

This is a set of unaccompanied madrigals by the leading Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. I found them wonderfully expressive – full of sudden changes in dynamics, dissonant clashes, suspensions and resolutions, and really interesting chromatic harmonies that sound surprisingly modern. They use a variety of textures, sometimes homophonic and sometimes polyphonic with the voices entering in imitation of each other. They are quite serious and sombre in nature, evoking a sense of reflection. A common way of ending a phrase involves a suspended dominant chord, resolving into a perfect cadence (usually major).

Monteverdi (1567-1643): Madrigals, Book 8

Delitæ Musicæ | Marco Longhini | Naxos 2017

This album of Monteverdi’s music features vocals with instrumental accompaniment (strings and continuo). They convey a larger variety of moods than the Gesualdo collection I listened to, including some joyful and light hearted sections. They seem to be generally simpler from a harmonic perspective, though there are nevertheless some beautiful harmonies. Sometimes the accompaniment sounds a little too heavy, overpowering the voices slightly, though perhaps this is just the modern interpretation.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): The Silver Swanne

The Cambridge Singers (YouTube)

This song in five parts starts with all voices singing homophonically, and progresses into a form of imitation. It is a slow, simple song with generally straightforward harmony, though there are some unexpected chords such as the one shown below at the beginning of bar 17 (with the b natural in the soprano line). This coincides with the word ‘death’, providing effective word painting.

Extract from The Silver Swanne

Thomas Morley (c. 1557–1602): It was a Lover and his Lasse

Soprano and lute performance (YouTube)

This is a light hearted song about lovers in spring time, and features the words “Hey nonino”, which on the surface appear to be nonsense words but in fact were references to the lovers’ intimate relationship! It has a verse/chorus structure, with four verses in total. The song has an appealing syncopation to it, with words tied over the bar lines, and the lute accompaniment is sometimes imitating the voice part.

Hindemith Piano Sonatas

Sonata No. 1 for Piano (1936)

Glenn Gould | Hindemith: Complete Piano Sonatas | 1973 Sony Music Entertainment

Hindemith’s piano sonatas were mentioned in an article I read recently as part of my research on dissonance. As this is a composer I’m not very familiar with, I decided to listen to his first piano sonata.

This sonata feels quite abstract, in the sense that there is often no clear tonal centre, although there are recognisable major and minor chords throughout. There are some very chromatic sections which leave you wondering where the music is headed. It seems to develop quite organically, almost as though an initial idea is being improvised on, which then grows into another idea. I don’t like all of it but I think some parts are very effective: I particularly like a section towards the middle of the last movement, where an articulated chromatic melody in the right hand is played over a pedal note in the bass. There are frequent dissonances which make the chords based on major thirds and fifths really stand out when they occur – for example Hindemith chooses to end each movement on a consonant chord which provides a sense of resolution.

Arvo Pärt

My Heart’s in the Highlands

This is a setting of a poem by Robert Burns, written for voice (countertenor) and organ. It is a very slow moving piece of music in a minor key: the voice sings a kind of drone while the organ has a stepwise moving bass line and accompaniment with a simple, constant rhythm. There are some dissonances which are particularly harsh because of the pure, sustained sound of both the organ and voice. The music gradually rises in pitch and there’s a kind of desperate, depressing inexorability to it.


Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame (c. 1360)

Oxford Camerata | Jeremy Summerly | Naxos 1996

I have already listened to and made notes on this work as part of my study of Renaissance and Baroque masses, so this time I focused on following the score for the Kyrie and listening out for the isorhythms.

The talea (rhythmic pattern) can be seen in the tenor line, and consists of four note durations, played seven times in total. The first two are shown below:

Extract from the opening of the Kyrie

There is also a talea used in the countertenor line, but this is less strictly followed than the tenor line.

In later years, isorhythm began to be used in the upper voices as well. Composers also sometimes used differing lengths of the color (melody) and taleawhich meant that they would become out of sync with each other – a really interesting and surprisingly sophisticated idea.