A concert of Renaissance Christmas music might seem like an odd place for a world premiere, but a new composition by Nico Muhly found a way to harmonize with the polyphony of Palestrina, Byrd, and Praetorius.

The Tallis Scholars, a British a cappella choir that focuses largely on sacred vocal music from the Renaissance, started their U.S. tour last week at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on Forty-sixth Street in Manhattan with a traditional repertoire from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but they decided to top off the festivities with something fresh: a world premiere of Rough Notes, a work by the composer Nico Muhly (b. 1981).

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on Forty-sixth Street in New York. Photo: Virgelio Carpio.

An a cappella performance begins on a note of reflective silence: without instruments to set up and tune, the twelve musicians simply walked out, arranged themselves in a semicircle, took a breath, and began to sing. Up first was Hodie Christus natus est (“Today Christ is born”) by Giovanni Palestrina (1525–94), the reigning composer of sacred polyphony in the Italian sixteenth century who defined the genre that the Scholars now consider their wheelhouse. The text is a setting of the Antiphon to the “Magnificat,” traditionally sung at vespers on Christmas Day.

In the Missa Hodie Christus natus est, Palestrina proves why he was considered the king of composers.

Palestrina’s hometown and his dates are clues to the movements that affected his music. The Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation were in full swing, and musicians were debating the proper tone and text for sacred music: chant versus polyphony, a Mass-settings-only approach or the idea that secular songs could add variety and beauty from other traditions. What is notable here, as in much of Palestrina’s music, is that he follows the traditional liturgical text of the “Magnificat,” but he interpolates some “noe”s: an exclamation of uncertain origin meaning “noel.” As was the trend in the Counter-Reformation, the text is clear, the music is joyful yet restrained, and the composer is free to innovate.

In the Missa Hodie Christus natus est (“Mass for the day of Christ’s birth”), Palestrina proves why he was considered the king of composers of polyphony in his time. He uses the Hodie as a source text for this Christmas mass, with variations that add sacred significance: the “noe”s are elevated to “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”), and the invocation of “Jesu Christe” occurs on one of the splendid, pure cadences typical of “the Palestrina style” that the Tallis Scholars have helped to make famous again.

The director Peter Phillips, who founded the Tallis Scholars in 1973, started a trend for performing Renaissance music that has grown enormously in the passing decades, including this concert, which is part of Columbia University’s Early Music series from Miller Theatre.

The choir knows how to roll an R: the “Christe”s were sharp. And it was surprising how round the sound was with so few voices. It wasn’t a question of volume as much as a sense that the Scholars’ voices filled the massive church up to its vaunted ceiling. Phillips said he hit on the right dimensions for the group almost by accident, at the Scholars’ inaugural concert in 1973. The eleven-person choir was much smaller than the usual a cappella choir, with two singers to a part. But the effect, Phillips found, was “chamber music–like,” Phillips said. “It’s like a string quartet” in the way the vocal parts interact.

Palestrina was a tough act to follow for Muhly’s Rough Notes (2018), which the Tallis Scholars commissioned for one of their occasional forays into contemporary music—they have performed Muhly before, along with Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, and others.

Nico Muhly. Photo: Ana Cuba.

Muhly considers Rough Notes a secular piece, but it still fits the occasion: it has a winter theme, and a chilling one. The text is from the diaries of Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912), an explorer to the Antarctic who led the second expedition to reach the South Pole, but never returned. “Tonight we had a glorious auroral display,” the piece begins. The first word becomes a canon, flickering among vocal parts in an aural echo of an aurora australis: the sky’s “zenith was massed with arches, band, and curtains, always in rapid movement.” And so with the music: Muhly was a student and editor of Philip Glass, whose minimalist style is evident in the ringing sounds of Rough Notes, clear as bells echoing across the Antarctic plain.

This style is consonant with the bleakness of the second section, which opens on the Terra Nova expedition’s final days: “For four days we have been unable to leave the tent,” Scott writes stoically: “we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence. . . . ” The choir then returned to the “Tonight” refrain, now more poignant in light of the end. A “secular” text, perhaps, but the music tends upward. Muhly can’t help hinting at what is beyond and above the end of Scott’s “tonight,” and this connection across time and textual content, tethered Rough Notes to the rest of the program.

The program then jumped six centuries back in time, to the English composer John Nesbett’s late-fifteenth-century Magnificat, which alternates between full, proto-Palestrina polyphony and the more ancient chant of the verses. The tenor voice was an unexpected composerly choice for the song of Mary, but God, genetics, and years of musical experience have certainly “looked with favor,” as the translation says, on the tenor Simon Wall in giving him a voice pure enough to carry the text.

In the final three sections of Palestrina’s Missa—the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei—it was easy to hear why composers of Renaissance music enjoyed the challenge of the mass setting: the set texts allow for nearly endless innovation within the form. Palestrina infuses the Mass with a sense of Christmas joy by moving to triple rhythm for his “Hosanna”s, and he shows off his technical brilliance by employing counterpoint throughout the pieces to heighten the effect of the choir finally coming together on gorgeous—and musically and theologically significant—phrases: the Credo’s “Et unam sanctam catholicam” (“one holy, catholic” church) and “dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”), a phrase ever more poignant on Christmas.

The mixing of Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo with the “Magnificat”infused the serene Marian text with the swinging, dance-like feel of the German carol.

William Byrd’s Lullaby, a sixteenth-century English madrigal for five singers, features a prominent alto on the medius voice in what becomes essentially a duet: the music rocks back between the warm, oaky alto and the youthful sweetness of the soprano. Although this “consort song” was written for domestic performances, it is clear which “sweet little baby” he is addressing: by the end of the carol, whose “innocent blood to shed/ the cruel king hath sworn,” as Byrd narrates the flight into Egypt, which this soprano and alto performed with an appropriately bittersweet tone.

The performance ended with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V, which follows a delightful German Lutheran tradition: interweaving the Latin text of the “Magnificat” with German Christmas carols. The mixing of the jubilant Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo with the “Magnificat”infused the serene Marian text with the swinging, dance-like feel of the German song. And later in the piece, the lines blended more closely: what had been alternating Latin and German verses turned into a medley that shifted language almost line by line:“der Jungfraw Kind Maria/ Eya. Eya./ Virgo Deum genuit,/ Quem divina voluit clementia” (“ . . . the Virgin Mary’s child. Oh yes, yes, the Virgin has given birth to God/ Whom the Divine Mercy willed”). The soprano Amy Walsh and the tenor Simon Wall handed melodic lines off to one another as gently as shepherds peeking into the manger.

In “A Renaissance Christmas,” the Tallis Scholars, the shepherds of Renaissance polyphony, gathered together centuries of the musical tradition, from the first “Magnificat” to the last days of the Scott expedition, from Palestrina’s polyphony to Muhly’s minimalism. They made it seem as simple as breathing.

Introduce yourself to The New Criterion for the lowest price ever—and a receive an extra issue as thanks.