More Monteverdi: A Prayer on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, without end.

It is a wonderfully cool morning in NYC. Perhaps that’s what triggered it in my mind — it was that nearly imperceptible hint of fall that did the trick. 9/11. It had been the same 20 years ago: 9/11/01 was just a peach of a day until IT happened.

I had gotten to the office early that day for a conference call on one of those digital music joint ventures the record companies were always trying to get off the ground in the pre-iTunes world. The call started at 8:30am Eastern. I saw the towers fall from my office window. My wife had been there just two days prior. The walk home up Lexington Avenue seemed to take an eternity. The last time I had been in a crowd like that had been in Paris the year before. The French had just won Euro 2000; the mood had been quite different then. Here and there I caught bits of conversation, but mostly things were unnaturally quiet. No cars. No buses. Just people walking. You could sense the fear, the anger, the grief. I heard a couple of guys talking about going “Jew hunting” that night. Didn’t happen, but I still remember that. Mostly, I felt numb. A half eaten donut would lay on my desk for a week.

I bought a ton of pasta and bottled water that night. We ate mostly in silence and left town two days later when the bridges opened. In many ways, I never looked back. We moved to London that November and wouldn’t return for three years. London was different. Its scars were older and had been accepted by the time we got there. It was a happy place. We finally threw out the rest of the pasta when we returned in 2005.

I was in Scotland on 9/11/02.  We were staying at a small farmhouse outside of Oban.  We spent the day on the Isle of Kerrera, where sheep outnumber men by at least 3,000:1.  It couldn’t be more different than where I had been the prior year.  Nothing had changed here in centuries.  It was as it ever was.  The fateful hour had passed unnoticed.  I had begun to heal.  That night, we had dinner at the inn. We ate the BBQ chicken without thinking, reliving the day’s adventures; it wasn’t until we had the chocolate cake for dessert that I realized that the innkeepers had made an all-American dinner for us. And then, in an instant, I realized why.  That meant the world to me; it still does.

Twenty years on, that feeling of good will has been lost, squandered by the hubris of successive Administrations that have unethically preyed on the fears of the American people, driving us apart from each other, and us from the world at large. We have become the sheep, jumping at every little last provocation, repeatedly failing to embrace compassion and forgiveness because the lure of hatred is the easier path. Twenty years on, the memory of 9/11 still haunts this city. But the great tragedy of 9/11 is not the gaping hole that it left for the better part of a generation in downtown NY or even the lives that were lost that day. The greater tragedy by far is its legacy. It is a legacy that transformed our nation from a beacon of liberty and justice to an international pariah. Twenty years on, NYC has recovered. It is our nation that has been fatally wounded.

Sacred music can lift the spirits and inspire humanity to goodness, even if you do not have faith in its message. The message of music is universal, allowing those of us who are gripped in the vise of a historic pandemic in the 21st century to be soothed by music written half a millennia ago. Today, I think we need some of that.

Freed of the strictures of Renaissance music, Orfeo is where the full flower of Monteverdi genius began to take hold. Leaving his position at the Court of Mantua for the greener pastures of Venice, Monteverdi entered a city that would be described as “opera mad” only a few decades later. Libertine Venice, soon to be home to half a dozen opera houses, was surely ready to embrace Monteverdi’s revolution in full. And that’s because Monteverdi’s music, matching the ambitions of new employers, was simply bigger and louder (not to mention better) than anyone else’s: At a time when everyone maxed out at 7, Monteverdi went to 11. Gone were the subtle polyphonic harmonies that had been carefully developed in the Renaissance. Hello, over-the-top Baroque. For a taste of just what exactly that Baroque aesthetic looks like, gaze upon the splendor of the Church of the Gesu in Rome:

Commonly referred to as the Vespers of 1610, I can’t think of a better way to introduce the glorious sound of the Baroque in its fullest. If there is such a thing as music that heals, this is unquestionably it.

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine:

Recording note: John Eliot Gardner is one of the towering geniuses of interpreting Baroque through early Romantic Period music. If you are ever in doubt as to which recording to get, get his: Monteverdi through Berlioz. Although the Vespers were composed during his time in Mantua, some have speculated, given their unusual length and complexity (which made them unusable for standard liturgy services), that Monteverdi submitted the score as an informal application to the Basilica of San Marco. Regardless of whether that legend is true, Monteverdi was in fact hired and this recording was made live in the very space in which Monteverdi’s new music was first heard. This performance was captured on a 2-disc set that has been among my Desert Island Discs for as long as I can remember.

Renaissance Music VII: Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652)

Right on the heels of Thomas Tallis comes what may be my favorite work of Renaissance music.  In the 1630s, Gregorio Allegri produced what for more than a century was considered—widely considered—to be the most beautiful music ever composed.  As most of us will recall, chasing after obscure bootlegs even before the CD age, scarceness itself enhances the perceived specialness of the music (example: Led Zeppelin’s Hey Hey, What Can I Do, a much-revered song until everyone could get their hands on it).  Well, the OG bootleg was Allegri’s Miserere, composed for the Pope for services in the Sistine Chapel.  Successive popes all conspired to keep the score under lock and key for more than a century, making it more legend than anything else.  Want to hear it?  Go to Rome, get invited to service at the Sistine Chapel and hope you attend on the right day.  That was until the 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart secured a pass to a performance.  Famously transcribing the score entirely from memory, he used his transcription as his ticket to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor.  At least that’s the story as I remember it and after finding some of my other treasured stories of musical history to be little more than myth, I have no desire to discover whether or not this story has been debunked.  It’s a good story and should remain as such.  Likewise, I have no desire to ponder the details of its composition, trace its origins, note its effects, or do anything other than revel in its absolute magnificence.  It is still performed annually during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel.  Attending that performance might just be at the very, very top of my bucket list (knowing full well that this will never happen).  But until then, I have the Tallis Scholars and their justly famous recording from the 1980s.

Gregorio Allegri, Miserere:

Polyphony is comparatively rare in contemporary music, but always finds a special place in my heart when I hear it. I am a sucker for an achingly beautiful polyphonic melody. No band in the rock era does polyphony better than The Beach Boys. And it never got any better than the ending of the most gorgeous song in history: God Only Knows. There is no better parallel to the high Cs in the Miserere than this Brian Wilson classic.

The Beach Boys, God Only Knows:

Renaissance Music VI: Thomas Tallis (1505-1575)

For me, Thomas Tallis is the unparalleled genius of Renaissance music.  Tallis was my gateway early music drug, leading me to a rabbit hole of music that I will never bottom out.  Nearly within living memory of Tallis’ older contemporaries, music had existed in two parts, male and boy, singing octaves, fourths and fifths only.  Tallis exploded the idea of what was possible in music like no one before him.  The sheer texture of his music is unrivaled, even by Bach’s most complex fugues.  I lack the skill to explain how I hear Tallis, but perhaps my description of him as the most tactile of Renaissance composers will find common ground with your ears.  Here is the pinnacle of his achievement: Spem in Alium.  Scored for 40 individual voices, the work is divided into eight choirs of five voices each. The opening theme moves through each of these choirs individually, until all 40 voices come together in a climax at the 40th bar.  This has led many to suggest that Tallis composed this work to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 40th birthday in 1573.  I like to think that’s true. 

Again, we turn to the Tallis Scholars for one of my absolute favorite pieces of music of all time and another Desert Island Disc:

Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium:

Bonus:  In the 1980s, the avant-garde Kronos Quartet had Tallis’ masterpiece transcribed for string quartet.  Through the magic of overdubbing, four instruments become Tallis’ 40 voices.  Placing this track here, a decade before their Early Music album, Kronos shows us the musical conversation that stretches across the centuries and binds us all together in a world of sound.  Their transcription appears alongside works by Charles Ives, Dimitri Shostakovich, George Crumb and others.  While all of the compositions on this album are linked by the subject of war, Kronos also appears to argue that you cannot understand modern music without understanding Tallis first.  I agree.

Kronos (after Thomas Tallis), Spem in Alium:

Renaissance Music I: John Dunstable (1390-1453)

It was the English composer John Dunstable who introduced the third to music, creating the unique color palette that allowed Western music to flourish. In short, a “third” is simply the third note above the root note: If your root note is a C, the third interval is an E.  Thirds are referred to in music as imperfect because they can be both major and minor (depending on where you start).  And, of course, when you stack two thirds together, you get the 1-3-5 triad—the foundation of all Western music through to that pop tune that came out last week. 

Dunstable also found that there was an inherent logic that knitted together different triads, since each triad is composed of two notes of a different triad.  Moving from one closely related triad to another gives a logic to music that has informed our understanding of harmony to this day.  This video gives a great introduction to triads and chord theory:  Don’t worry about diminished and augmented chords, as they won’t become really relevant for a few hundred years.

Of Dunstable’s other major developments, his revolutionary decision to move the melody from the tenor line to the top treble line is the most significant. In this, he broke the continental preference for dissonance and the primacy of lower voices. Before Dunstable, music was, with very few exceptions, dull, sparse and predictable. Dunstable is responsible for bringing the color of the Renaissance to music and with his music that we start our musical journey in earnest.

John Dunstable, Quam Pulchra Es

Several hundred years later, a retired miner in the north of England composed a song based on a traditional Yorkshire ballad. Drawing his musical inspiration from the Middle English period (roughly from the 5th to 16th centuries), Ewan MacColl’s remarkable 1947 Canticle has been performed by many bands over the years, including most memorably by Simon and Garfunkel. From their legendary concert in Central Park, when these two brilliant musicians transported 1980s New York back to the English Renaissance, if just for a few minutes.

Simon and Garfunkel, Scarborough Fair:

Incidentally, I should note that my personal Rosetta Stone for Early Music was the Kronos Quartet’s remarkable album “Early Music” from the late 1990s. Kronos was, and remains, on the vanguard of contemporary music, but this album saw the group reach back across the centuries to find the inspiration for much of what they had been performing. The album effectively presents contemporary music along side music written several hundred years ago. The effect, for me, was remarkable and I recommend the album highly. It is one of my Desert Island Discs.