Big was beautiful hundreds of years ago. The richer you were, the more lavish your celebrations could afford to be and indeed had to be, and how better to impress the neighbours than with a piece of music composed for 60 voices on the occasion of a family wedding?
This was certainly the case with the all-powerful Medici family in mid-16th century Florence, when in 1565 their scion Prince Francesco (later Grand Duke Francesco I) made a dynastic marriage of enormous importance with the Archduchess Johanna of Austria, daughter of the recently-deceased Emperor Ferdinand I.
For this bit of a do the Medicis commissioned a 40-part Mass from the composer Alessandro Striggio, born in Mantua, but who became the principal composer in Florence from the 1560s onwards, providing music for theatrical entertainments and state occasions - and he was also political emissary to the English court.
The provenance of the Mass has half a millennium of dust surrounding it, but blowing all that away we can learn that it was itself derived from a 40-part motet by Striggio with the title Ecco si Beato Giorno (Hail to such a Blessed Day). And when we reach the concluding movement of the Mass, the Agnus Dei, suddenly the vocal forces expand by 50 per cent, and we have 60 voices resonating gloriously across the performing space.
Carelessly, as one might surmise with hindsight, the Mass disappeared (how do you lose 60 part-books as well as the conducting score?) and was only rediscovered as recently as 2005, and re-premiered in 2007.
Now the Warwick-based Armonico Consort is touring the piece around the region, programming it alongside other polychoral works including the CD chart-topping 40-part Spem in Alium by our own Thomas Tallis. As an undergraduate at University of Birmingham, I was involved in conducting rehearsals for that wonderful Tallis composition, and learned how these huge pieces were structured: basically they are for multiple choirs of four or five voices, their harmonies swinging like bells in giant slow-motion.
Christopher Monks, director of Armonico Consort, is hugely enthusiastic about the project.
“We first created our Supersize Polyphony programme back in 2007, trying to explore ways that would bring to life for 21st century audiences the extraordinary world of enormous polychoral works from the 16th century,” he tells me.
“We were overwhelmed by the audience reactions (and the size of the audiences – all performances sold out). When I heard that there was even more of this incredible music, we set about creating an accomplice to the original programme – the public are so fascinated by these works, and we have discovered it is a truly brilliant way of introducing young people to the astonishing world of 16th century music.”
Christopher goes on to describe the rehearsal process involving so many musicians, not only choristers, but also His Majestie’s Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble.
“It takes around 15 hours of rehearsal with the various musicians, and a huge amount of concentration, musical inspiration, an instinctive understanding of how polyphonic lines should flow, a massive sense of musical drama and good humour.
“One thing that is often impossible to feel in rehearsal, and can only really be understood by an audience is the hypnotic beauty one feels by being in the centre of this enormous circle of sound of harmony and subtle musical movement. The feelings audience describe to me is constantly how mesmerising an experience it is – there is no other way to describe it.”
The tour begins appropriately in Armonico Consort’s home base of St Mary’s Church in the heart of Warwick, but then moves to the unecclesiastical venue of Malvern Theatres, and Christopher is gleefully impatient to get there.
“Many of these works, including Spem in Alium, were never written for a performance in church, indeed Spem was written for a performance in the octagonal hall in Arundel Castle. This makes them highly adaptable in how we can approach their performances.
“Much to the musicians’ fear, I also do most of these concerts in the round, surrounding the audiences, I think it is the only, and most perfect way for the audience to understand and feel these amazing works. Additionally, Malvern is brilliant as the foyer is surrounded by galleries, and we will take all of the musicians out at the end of the performance and perform Spem as an encore in the galleries surrounding the audience, in the same way as it was originally conceived.”
And Christopher Monks obviously enjoys what he is doing.
“My role is both one of a child in a sweet shop, and one of the ultimate crowd controller,” he says smiling.
“Because of how we stage the performance, the science of sound (sound taking time to travel) becomes a very real issue. Unless the singers are watching carefully, calamity is not far away, as if they trust only their ears, it will only take one bar for them to get an entire beat out with the musicians on the other side of the auditorium.
“The only way to conduct it and be able to bring some of the very exposed entries in, in precisely the right space is to have the score confidently in my head, and turn into a human windmill.”
* Supersize Polyphony 2 is at St Mary’s Church, Warwick, on January 25, at 7.30pm, ring 0844 581 0750, and at Malvern Theatres on February 1, at 7.30pm, ring 01684 892277.