Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Heinrich Isaac's Missa Carminum

This past weekend at St. Paul's in Philadelphia we sang Heinrich Isaac's Missa Carminum. It's a bit of a strange piece but lovely nonetheless. For one thing, the voicing is tricky, at best. As far as I can determine, this should really be sung STTB. The high tenor part can be done with a countertenor, but even transposing as high up as A-flat would still make it an acrobatic part that crosses over many singers' breaks. It's probably better to have two tenors in general. We sang it in F# (we have a courageous and competent countertenor) but the next time we do it, I just might take it up another full step. I'm also tempted to make my own version with the note values halved. The one recording of this Mass on iTunes features a men's choir with a children's choir, which might be one of the better ways to mind the gap between the top two voices. As unusual as the voicing is, it gives the piece a fantastically rich sonority, warm and delicious and yet workaday.

Isaac was a contemporary of Josquin's, but this isn't entirely obvious from the music itself. He organizes the sections of his Mass in much the same way that many late Medieval and early Renaissance composers did, using full cadences a bit more often than a later Renaissance composer would use. At times, too, he gets long winded, but then at the last minute treats the last few words of a phrase in businesslike fashion. The third Agnus Dei is a good example of this.

All the same, the harmonic language is practically straight up F major, and the melodic figures are not as challenging as they'd be in a Mass by Josquin, Taverner, or Dufay. In fact, there is a great deal of homophonic writing. Moreover, the Mass isn't nearly as long as many others from the same time period. In short, it seems that Isaac was composing a bit ahead of his time. This Mass is a good choice if you're looking for accessible repertoire from a period that's a little earlier than most ears can handle. Maybe it's even one of those bridge pieces that opens up doors for people (if I may be permitted to mix metaphors).

This Mass looks scarier than it is, and I promise to let everyone know if I ever get around to making a more practical version. (If someone else wants to do it, by all means, I won't stop you!) If a choir has the right voices, that is the biggest hurdle. Beyond this, the Mass pretty much sings itself.