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Eric Whitacre: Sainte-Chapelle

Eric Whitacre wrote Sainte-Chapelle for the 40th Anniversary of The Tallis Scholars. The first performance was in St Paul's Cathedral, London, on 7 March 2013.


This Whitacre piece, inspired by a Parisian chapel, was written for The Tallis Scholars' 40th anniversary, and is stunningly effective. Available on iTunes just days after its premiere, this is modern technology at its finest.

BBC Music Magazine

 It was 40 years ago that Peter Phillips, then a young music scholar from St. John’s College, Oxford, founded a vocal ensemble that he named after the English composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585), to perform choral works from the Renaissance — at that time, virtually uncharted musical territory. Many concerts and recordings later, the Tallis Scholars have become an institution that is arguably the leading vocal ensemble of Renaissance polyphony, as well as both an example and an inspiration for younger vocal groups all over the world.

The Tallis Scholars are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a world concert tour that started earlier this month at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. As part of the U.S. leg of their tour, the 10-member ensemble gave two concerts for Cal Performances in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church last weekend. Any description of the magnificent concert I attended on Saturday will fall short. I lack sufficient superlatives to describe either the ensemble’s astonishing clarity of tone — bright, sometimes steely, but never sharp and with little or no vibrato — or the impeccable way in which the voices blend, perfectly tuned, and are equally suited to both the complexities and details of Renaissance polyphony, as well as the extended sonorities forming the dense layers in the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). It must be a great joy to be able to sing like that.

The Tallis Scholars occasionally venture outside the Renaissance, notably into 20th-century repertoire, though the last time they recorded a contemporary composer was in 1984. For this concert, Phillips — still the group’s director — chose to juxtapose settings of the same liturgical texts by composers that are vastly separated by time. Thus we heard a Magnificat for double choir by 16th-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, followed by Pärt’s own Magnificat. Music by English Renaissance composer John Taverner (ca. 1490–1545) was heard next to his 20th-century (almost) namesake John Tavener (b. 1944), and the famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) contrasted with one of the pieces that the Tallis Scholars commissioned for their anniversary: Sainte-Chapelle, by American composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970). With Phillips as a gentle-handed Master Builder, the Tallis Scholars (re)create some superb sonic structures, making Palestrina’s music sound like the inside of a Gothic cathedral. It’s weightless, expansive, and tall, and too overwhelmingly rich for listeners to absorb every detail — though every detail is clearly exposed to the ear. Palestrina’s setting of Psalm 112, Laudate Pueri (Praise the Lord, ye children), which concluded the concert, contains interweaving melodic lines that choose their own direction, but that gradually converge and culminate in an “Amen” with the appearance of a cathedral column: grounded and solid, yet at the same time slender and graceful.  

Contemporary composers like Pärt and Tavener create musical architecture that is monumental in a different way: more horizontal and, in Pärt’s case, monolithic. His music shows both its weight and the way it’s constructed very clearly, but there’s no abundance. Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis, which was followed by Palestrina’s motet of the same name, is all about the quality and the beauty of the sound. Vocal lines have little vertical motion, and the music’s eloquence lies in the shifting harmonies that create alternating moments of tension and relaxation.  

Whitacre’s new piece, by contrast, has a different architectural connection. It is inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the 13th-century “Holy Chapel,” commissioned by the French King Louis IX. Whitacre was particularly taken by the enormous, intricate, stained glass windows of the chapel, so he asked a longtime friend, historian Charles Anthony Silvestri (who writes Latin poetry), to create a narrative. The text describes how an innocent young girl enters the chapel and hears the angels depicted in stained glass gently singing the Sanctus. Sainte-Chapelle is a piece that takes full advantage of the Tallis Scholars’ range and vocal capabilities. It starts like Gregorian chant, with only men’s voices. The women join in at Sanctus, after which the composition changes direction with beautiful, sometimes sharp, chord progressions. After a few subtle twists and turns, it climaxes on a loud “Hosanna in Excelsis” but ends in a beautiful, near-silent “Gloria Tua.” The concert concluded with a fitting encore from Thomas Tallis himself, in the form of his Loquebantur Variis Linguis — a piece for the feast of Pentecost. 

Niels Swinkels

Sainte-Chapelle is a significant achievement by Eric Whitacre. The musical means employed appear, on the surface, to be simple yet in truth the music is sophisticated. It makes a very direct impact through a simplicity of means and utterance. I find two things very striking. One is the air of mystery that Whitacre’s music conveys. The second is that he seems to have effected a seamless marriage of old and new in this piece; the music is undoubtedly of the 21st century, especially in its harmonic language, but I would think that it could fit very well indeed into a programme of the Renaissance music that is the staple fare of The Tallis Scholars. Moreover, inclusion of the piece in such a programme would not be, by any means, a question of tokenism. This is a very beautiful and compelling composition which I had to play again immediately after hearing it for the first time.

The performance by The Tallis Scholars is superb. The singing is flawless, as is the balance between the parts. The clarity and control that one has come to expect as a matter of course when they sing Renaissance music is every bit as apparent here. I don’t know what the piece sounded like at its first performance in the vast acoustic of St. Paul’s Cathedral but on their ‘home’ territory in Merton College Chapel the ensemble gives the music a wonderful sense of intimacy and they have been recorded expertly by engineer Philip Hobbs.

John Quinn

 The British composer Gabriel Jackson understands a thing or two about the complex route to bliss. His Ave Dei patris filia, given its world premiere by Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars at their 40th-anniversary celebration last week, is a great burst of ecstatic praise to the Virgin, sopranos soaring into the heavens and tenors and basses commenting, embellishing and interjecting throughout. It's a mark of Jackson's facility that he fashions a totally new work grounded in the choral tradition of Taverner, Tallis and Fayrfax. A major achievement.

Eric Whitacre, today's hottest property in choral writing, was in the audience to hear the premiere of his own new work inspired by that wondrous 13th-century Parisian jewel box, Sainte-Chapelle. Angels in the stained glass sing the Sanctus, first in long, sinuous quasi plainchant and then gradually dividing into more and more parts, creating tone clusters that dazzle like shafts of sunlight through the windows. From modest beginnings the music unfurls to become ever more complex, rich and rewarding. Another hit from the charismatic Mr Whitacre. It was sung, like other Tallis, Byrd and Allegri items in the programme, with the grace, precision and authority that we have come to expect from an ensemble that has done so much to re-establish the music of the Renaissance. Phillips has the uncanny ability to select just the right voices to fashion a perfect, vibrato-less single instrument.

They closed, appropriately, with Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in Alium, but not before we heard its new 40-part companion piece, I have thee by the hand, O man, by Robin Walker. It's a brave composer who takes on such a challenge, and while the piece is overlong and occasionally muddy, its closing pages build a lasting monument in glorious, polyphonic sound. Bliss, indeed.

Stephen Pritchard

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