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Double or Nothing: Renaissance Music for double choir

Details of Performances:

New date added!

We have recently reached an agreement to bring this programme to St Nicholas' Church in Arundel. Come and see this concert there on Saturday, 17 February 2024.

We are being graciously hosted by Mike Carey of The Victoria Institute in Arundel and they have set up a separate online ticketing store. Click here to buy tickets to the Arundel performance on Saturday, 17 February.

Of the many fascinating innovations in choral composition that took place during the Renaissance, one of the most striking was the development of double choir texture. Here, polyphonic lines both swirl and interweave as they always do, but also at times act like blocks or pillars as well. In this concert, Brighton Consort presents music all written in this compelling way, all for eight separate voices.

More information

Concert programme

Gregorio Allegri - Christus resurgens

Tomas Luis de Victoria - Missa Alma redemptoris mater: Kyrie
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Missa Alma redemptoris mater: Gloria

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Stabat mater

Giovanni Gabrieli - O magnum mysterium
Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi - O notturno miracolo

Tomas Luis de Victoria - Missa Alma redemptoris mater: Credo

Claudio Monteverdi - Nisi Dominus (from 1610 Vespers)


Tomas Luis de Victoria - Missa Alma redemptoris mater: Sanctus

Jean Mouton - Nesciens mater
Alonso Lobo - Ave maria a 8

Nicolas Gombert - Lugebat David Absalon
Sebastián de Vivanco - Veni dilecte mi

William Byrd - ‘Nunc dimittis’ from The Great Service

Tomas Luis de Victoria - Missa Alma redemptoris mater: Agnus

Programme note

Download our PDF concert programme

Rather than choose as our theme for this programme a composer, time, place, or a major work, we have decided to explore a musical texture, an organising principle, a compositional device. This leaves quite a lot of room for variety and we believe this programme offers us an opportunity to explore the wide range of ways that composers from the Renaissance expressed this device: double choir texture.

On the surface, this is a straightforward principle to understand. Take a choir, divide it into two smaller choirs, and give each group something different to do. Because of the standard division of voices in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass this results most often in 8 separate lines of music, but we will see that composers were able to stretch and rethink this 8-voices-in-two-groups-of-4-each limitation in various ways.

However, to more fully understand the leap forward in musical thinking that double choir writing represents, it is necessary to look at the music that preceded the Renaissance. Mediaeval music (as indeed a substantial amount of Renaissance music as well) is rooted in Gregorian plainsong, in single lines or unaccompanied melodies. The first polyphonic music was conceived of entirely as the simultaneous sounding of two or more melodies, what musicians call ‘horizontal’ lines of music - as that is how they are orientated on a page of music. As the Renaissance moved into the Baroque, however, and with the ever-increasing influence of instrumental music on music written for choirs, composers began to experiment with thinking about music not as melodies but as blocks of sound, or sonic textures. They began to structure music not only using the structures of the texts they were setting, or by employing complicated and impressive mathematics to give their musical creations intelligible form, but also by engaging in a more abstract understanding of the sound of a piece itself. They began to mould and build patterns in sound alone.

The most straightforward way of showing this technique is evident in the first piece on our programme, Gregorio Allegri’s Christus resurgens. A piece written for Easter, it is an exciting and triumphant piece, and the layering of both choirs bouncing the words ‘Vivit Deo’ (God lives!) back and forth to one another is textbook double-choir composition. Allegri is most famous for his setting of Miserere mei Deus, but here he shows us that, in his position as a bridging composer between Renaissance and Baroque, he has mastered the exciting opportunities afforded to him by the use of this ‘stereo’ texture.

Winding its way through our programme is one of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s most beautiful double-choir mass settings, Missa Alma redemptoris mater. This piece also makes use of one of the most often-used compositional techniques in the Renaissance, that of ‘parody’ technique. Rather than referring to anything derogatory, parody technique in the Renaissance was using one piece as a model for another, as an inspiration. Composers would pay homage to one another by doing this and also revisit earlier works they themselves had written, as was the case here. A parody motet or mass adopts passages, textures, and compositional devices from another work - or, in modern parlance, the ‘look and feel’ of another piece of music. A good parody mass doesn’t quote directly from another work, but is close enough to immediately be recognisable. Victoria’s mastery is here displayed in using the musical material from a motet in praise of the elegance and mystery of the virgin Mary - i.e. one idea - to express the much wider range of emotions and moods contained in the text of the Mass Ordinary (divided into Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, and Agnus Dei movements). As Victoria is a complete genius, this is done seamlessly and effectively.

One of the most famous works of double choir music from the Renaissance is Palestrina’s Stabat mater. No concert of double choir music would be complete without this magnificent, lengthy, ‘slow burn’ of a piece. Palestrina here is at his concise, elegant, and transcendent best, using the alternating format presented to him by the double choir texture to bring together long sweeps of musical time, building to perfectly judged climaxes, and always ultimately in service of the text.

Giovanni Gabrieli uses similar techniques of setting up dialogue followed by the joining together of the choirs, but takes things one step further toward the of his O magnum mysterium setting. Gabrieli is known, of course, for both his instrumental writing and his association with the basilica of San Marco in Venice, where he wrote music for multiple group of singers and instrumentalists who would stand in the various galleries of that splendid building and create ‘Renaissance surround sound’ for the awed listeners below. O magnum mysterium contains just a taste of this in its instrumentally-inspired rhythms at the end, leading to a grand ending worthy of the splendours of Venice!

O notturno miracolo by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi is in many ways unique in this programme. It is firstly a secular piece of music - a love song. Secondly, while most of the rest of the music in the programme delicately plays with the combination of melodies and chords (what musicians call ‘vertical’ sounds), Gastoldi here is primarily concerned with the intelligibility of the text in a double choir format, meaning almost all of this piece is written in a ‘homophonic’ way, meaning all of the syllables of text are sung at the same time, like modern hymn singing in church. The extent to which Gastoldi adheres to this principle is remarkable in this piece and it results in the unique experience for the listener of the text being delivered as one, but with musical richness - almost like a Greek chorus. Being a late Renaissance Italian madrigal, there are also some extraordinary pictorial representations of the text in this piece, none more so than when Gastoldi sets the text ‘Poi ferma il tuo viaggio’ (Then stay your journey) by slowing everything down!

Bringing the first half to a close is a truly remarkable piece by a truly remarkable composer. Claudio Monterverdi defined, expanded and innovated in every musical form available to him. His Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610 (the famous so-called ‘1610 Vespers’) can be thought of as a portfolio of different ways in which Monteverdi was engaging with his musical heritage, taking forms and conventions of the past and updating them, matching the best of what his predecessors could do and bringing something new as well. In Nisi Dominus, not only does Monteverdi employ the approach of alternating blocks of sound perfected by Palestrina and Victoria, but also incorporates the much older technique of placing a cantus firmus plainsong melody in very long notes right into the heart of the texture. Further, this piece expands on the 8-voice convention by opening out to a full 10 voices, two groups of 5!

The second half of the programme contains its two earliest pieces. The first, and oldest, is Jean Mouton’s Nesciens mater. This piece perhaps epitomises the mindset of the very first experiments with what would become double choir texture in that it isn’t actually conceived of as blocks of sound at all but instead is an ingenious canon. Canons are conceptually the logical extreme of simplicity in polyphony; to create harmony when writing a canon, a composer doesn’t even write two separate melodies! Only one line is written and it’s just sung at a different time, and sometimes at a different pitch, by another voice. Somehow it miraculously adds up and the result sounds harmonious! Canons are, of course, much more complicated to actually write, but the idea behind them is this one of utmost simplicity. Here Mouton takes this idea and expands it, making it mind-blowing. Instead of writing one melody and having it sung at a different time, Mouton writes a full four-voice motet, and then has another group of voices sing the same thing, transposed to a different key, and a few beats later. Nesciens mater is a total triumph of this sort of simplicity expressed in complexity and Mouton pulls it off here without any awkwardness or rough edges. A masterpiece.

Many decades later, Alonso Lobo, in another version of parody technique, would return to this same compositional conceit in his setting of the famous prayer Ave Maria for eight voices. Again, Lobo only composed four of them with the other four voices sung in canon with the first four. Lobo also updated the harmonies and was able to make the structure his own through the use of chromaticism and other, later expressive gestures more representative of the high Renaissance.

Born at the very end of the 15th century, Nicolas Gombert is the second oldest composer on tonight’s programme. His Lugebat David Absalon is less of a traditional ‘double choir’ piece that conceives the two choirs as blocks of sound and more of a fluid experiment with how 8 equal voices can combine in different ways. Sometimes each voice is entirely on its own while at other times, Gombert does group them into recognisable, alternating blocks like we see in later pieces. As fascinating as this is, the real hallmark of this piece is the searing intensity with which Gombert expresses this incredibly emotive text. If ever there was an argument against early Renaissance music being dry and academic, this is surely it! Gombert expresses every possible emotion felt by a grieving father (King David mourning the death of his son Absalon) in this emotional roller coaster of a piece.

Moving toward the end of the programme we present two undoubtedly modern pieces of music, at least by Renaissance standards. Vivanco’s Veni dilecte mi, makes use of intricate rhythms in a way that prefigures Baroque treatment of text, almost in a dance-like way. This is a setting from the biblical Song of Songs, and Vivanco here doesn’t shy away from the text’s emotive, intimate, and sensual words. This is a piece where the sturdy feel of double choir solidity dissolves into sensuality and a flexible expression of passionate romantic love.

As a final nod to William Byrd, whose music we included in every one of our programmes last year, we include one of Byrd’s only double-choir works, the Nunc dimittis movement from his extraordinary Great Service. Last year, 2023, was a Byrd anniversary year and we just felt we couldn’t really let him go! The Great Service contains music suitable for a range of Church of England services, and the Nunc dimittis movement was written to be sung during Evensong. The Great Service was so named for its size rather than necessarily its quality(!), though it is a tour de force of Byrd’s contrapuntal skill and management of choral forces. Like Gombert, rather than employ a constant back-and-forth between his two five-part choirs, Byrd here plays with different combinations of voices and textures. The piece is elegant and refined while also being full, and impressive. 2023 is not yet that distant of a memory and we will miss singing so much of this unparalleled genius of the English Renaissance.

But speaking of unparalleled geniuses, it is of course fitting that we end with Victoria, whose mass has threaded its way through this programme, tying all of this different music together. Double choir music is a choral composer’s best opportunity to borrow from the instrumental composer’s tool kit by allowing for the abstract sculpting of sound itself, while still remaining true to the text, that thing that differentiates and heightens the choral musician’s art. Choirs, rather than instrumentalists or vocal soloists, are uniquely privileged here, therefore, having the opportunity to truly enjoy the best of both worlds!

Programme note by Greg Skidmore
January 2024

Texts and translations

Christus resurgens ex mortuis iam non moritur:
Mors illi ultra non dominabitur;
Quod enim mortuus est,
peccato mortuus est semel:
quod autem vivit, vivit Deo.
Mortuus est semel propter delicta nostra,
Et resurrexit propter iustificationem nostram.

Christ, rising from the dead, is no longer dead:
Death will no longer rule him;
For because he died,
He died for sin only once:
But because he lived, he lives in God.
He died once because of our sins,
And he rose again for our salvation.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Gloria in excelsis Deo,
et in terra pax hominibus bonᴂ voluntatis.
Laudamus te, benedicimus te,
adoramus te, glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.
Domine Deus, Rex cᴂlestis, Deus Pater omnipotens,
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis ;
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram patris,
miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus,
tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris,

Glory be to God on high,
and on earth peace, good will towards men.
We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee, we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy; thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost,
art most high in the glory of God the Father.

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrimosa
Dum pendebat Filius.
Cuius animam gementem
Contristatem et dolentem
Pertransivit gladius.

The grieving mother stood
Next to the cross, in tears
While her son hung there.
Through her heart, lamenting
Sorrowful and grieving
A sword plunged itself.

O quam tristis et afflicta
Fuit illa benedicta
Mater unigeniti!
Quae mᴂrebat et dolebat
Pia mater, dum videbat
Nati poenas inclyti.

O how sad and beset
Was that blessed
Mother of the only-begotten!
She mourned and wept
That holy mother, as she saw
The punishment of her remarkable son.

Quis est homo qui non fleret
Matrem Christi si videret
In tanto supplicio?
Quis non posset contristari
Piam Matrem contemplari
Dolentem cum Filio?

What human could not weep
If he were to see Christ’s mother
In such distress?
Who could not share her grief
Or empathise with the blessed mother
Sharing her son’s pain?

Pro peccatis sui gentis
Vidit Jesum in tormentis
Et flagellis subditum:
Vidit suum dulce natum
Morientem desolatum
Dum emisit spiritum.

She saw Jesus in torment
for the sins of his people,
And undergoing scourging.
She saw her sweet son
Dying alone
As he gave up the ghost.

Eia Mater, fons amoris,
Me sentire vim doloris,
Fac ut tecum lugeam.
Fac ut ardeat cor meum
In amando Christum Deum,
Ut sibi complaceam.

Hail, Mother, fount of love,
Allow me to feel the force of your grief;
Grant that I can mourn with you.
Grant that my hear may burn
With love for Christ the Lord
And that I may be pleasing to him.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
Crucifixi fige plagas
Cordi meo valide.
Tui nati vulnerati
Tam dignati pro me pati,
Pœnas mecum divide.

Holy Mother, may you do this;
Fix the blows of your crucified son
Firmly in my heart.
Share with me the punishment
of your wounded son,
who thought it worth suffering this for me.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
Crucifixo condolere
Donec ego vixero.
Juxta crucem tecum stare
Et me tibi sociare
In planctu desidero.

Grant that I may weep piously with you
And share your grief for the crucified Christ
For as long as I shall live.
To stand with you next to the cross
And to be by your side
As you weep – that is my desire.

Virgo virginum prᴂclara,
Mihi iam non sis amara,
Fac me tecum plangere.
Fac ut portem Christi mortem
Passionis fac consortem
Et plagas recolere.

Most distinguished Virgin among virgins,
Do not any longer be harsh towards me,
Grant that I may lament with you.
Grant that I may bear Christ’s death,
Grant that I may share in his passion
And re-experience his suffering.

Fac me plagis vulnerari
Fac me cruce inebriari,
Et cruore Filii.
Flammis ne urar succensus
Per te, Virgo, sim defensus
In die iudicii.

May I be wounded by the blows he suffered,
May I be inspired by the cross
And the blood of the Son.
May I not be burned and consumed by the flames,
May I be defended through you, Virgin,
On the day of judgment.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire
Da per matrem me venire
Ad palmam victoriᴂ.
Quando corpus morietur
Fac ut animᴂ donetur
Paradisi gloria.

Christ, when my time comes to leave here
Grant through your mother that I may attain
The prize of victory.
When my body dies
Grant that my soul may be given
The glory of Paradise.

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum
Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
Jacentem in prᴂsepio.
Beata Virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament
That animals should see the new-born Lord
Lying in a manger.
Blessed Virgin, whose womb deserved
To carry the Lord Christ. Alleluia.

O notturno miracolo soave,
Ne già sognando il veggio:
Al lume della luna il sol vagheggio.
Luna cortese ond’ io
Godo quel ben che mi contend’ il giorno,
Mentre lampeggi intorno,
All’amata beltà dell’idol mio.
Portami tu col luminoso raggio,
Ch’il suo bel viso tocca
Un bacio sol dalla soave bocca;
Poi ferma il tuo viaggio,
Sì ch’il suo non m’invole
L’importuno tuo sole.
Ah, ah, potrò mai
Stender le braccia ove tu stendi i rai?

O sweetest nocturnal miracle,
I behold it now, ’tis not a dream:
By the light of the moon I court the sun;
Kindly moon, whereby I enjoy
That delight which the day contests with me,
While you shine roundabout,
For the cherished beauty of my beloved.
Transport me with your luminous ray,
Such that the fair visage be touched
By a single kiss from that sweet mouth;
Then stay your journey
So that your importunate sun
Not steal its own from me.
Ah, will my arms ever succeed
In reaching to where your rays extend?

Credo in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem cᴂli et terrᴂ, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum,
et ex Patre natum ante omnia sᴂcula,
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero.
Genitum, non factum, consubstatialem Patri
per quem omnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem
descendit de cᴂlis.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto
ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis:
sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est.
Et resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas.
Et ascendit in cᴂlum, sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria iudicare vivos et mortuos:
cuius regni non erit finis.
Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum et vivificantem
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit,
Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur
et congloriificatur, qui locutus est per Prophetas.
Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
et vitam venturi sᴂculi.

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, Only begotten Son of God,
Begotten of his Father before all worlds.
God of God, light of light, Very God of very God.
Begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father:
by whom all things were made.
Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven.
And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary: And was made man.
And was crucified also for us
under Pontius Pilate: suffered, and was buried.
And the third day He rose again according to the scriptures.
And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father
And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead:
His kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, Lord and giver of life:
Who proceedeth from the Father and Son.
Who with the Father and Son
together is worshipped and glorified: Who spake by the Prophets.
And in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
And I look for the resurrection of the dead
And the life of the world to come.

Nisi Dominus ᴂdificaverit domum,
in vanum laboraverunt qui ᴂdificant eam.
Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem,
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:
surgite postquam sederitis,
qui manducatis panem doloris;
cum dederit dilectis suis somnum.
Ecce hᴂreditas Domini,
filii, mercem fructus ventris.
Sicut sagittᴂ in manu potentis
Ita filii excussorum.
Beatus vir qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:
Non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto,
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper
Et in sᴂcula sᴂculorum, Amen.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
Those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
Its watchman stands on guard in vain.
It is useless for you to rise before dawn:
Rise after you have sat at table,
You who eat the bread of sorrow;
after he has granted sleep to his loved ones.
Behold the inheritance of the Lord –
children, the reward and fruit of the womb.
Like arrows in the hand of the powerful,
so are the children of the uprooted.
Blessed is the man who has fulfilled his heart’s desire from them:
He will not be overwhelmed when he speaks to his enemies at the gate.
Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now and always
And for time everlasting. Amen.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus sabaoth.
Pleni sunt cᴂli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth.
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Nesciens mater virgo virum
peperit sine dolore salvatorem saeculorum,
ipsum regem angelorum.
Sola virgo lactabat
ubere de caelo plena.

The virgin mother, not knowing a man,
Gave birth without pain to the saviour of the world,
the king of angels himself.
The Virgin alone suckled her son
with a breast filled from heaven.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, mater Dei,
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,
You are blessed among women
And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners
Now and in the hour of our death.

Lugebat David Absalon,
pius pater filium,
tristis senex puerum.
‘Heu me, fili mi Absalon,
Quis mihi det ut moriar,
Ut ego pro te moriar,
O fili mi Absalon!‘
Rex autem David filium
cooperto flebat capite:
‘Quis mihi det ut moriar, O fili mi !’

David was mourning Absalon,
The dutiful father mourning his son,
A sad old man mourning his child.
‘Woe is me, my son Absalon
Who will grant that I may die,
That I may die for you,
O my son Absalon.’
But indeed King David
With covered head, wept for his son.
‘Who will grant my wish to die, o my son?’

Porro rex operuit caput suum
Et clamabat voce magna:
‘Fili mi Absalon, O fili mi.’

Furthermore, the king covered his head
And began to cry in a loud voice:
‘My son Absalon, O my son.’

Veni, dilecte mi, egrediamur in agro,
commoremur in villis.
Mane surgamus ad vineas,
videamus si floruit vinea,
si flores fructus parturiunt,
si floruerunt mala punica.
Ibi dabo tibi ubera mea.
Mandragorᴂ dederunt odorem suum;
in portis nostris
omnia poma, nova et vetera,
dilecte mi, servavi tibi.

Come, my love, let us go out into the fields,
Let us linger in the farmland.
In the morning, let us go up to the vineyard,
Let us see whether the vine has bloomed,
If the flowers have given birth to fruit,
If the pomegranates have ripened.
There I will give you my breasts.
The mandrakes have released their scent.
Within our gates
All our orchard fruits, both new and old,
I have kept for you, my love.

Nunc dimittis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen they salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
give us peace.