“Bach and Before, Ives and After”–Life Magazine (1949) defines highbrow taste

The Amor Artis Chorus and Orchestra

Chiaroscuro: Songs of Savonarola

April 17, 2015 at 8:00 PM

Ryan James Brandau, conductor

Holly Druckman, assistant conductor

St. Michael’s Church, New York City

There’s always been a deep and abiding connection between the motets of the sixteenth century and the newer serial music of the twentieth. Perhaps both periods rested at the cusp of great change, when composers faced new problems amid the respective rise and fall of tonality. But on a more emotional level, both musics are unafraid to channel the infernal–an apocalyptic musical language that had once existed in the sixteenth century, then rested inert for centuries until it was rediscovered at the twilight of the romantic era.

Amor Artis, led by conductor Ryan James Brandau, linked the past and the present through a series of carefully chosen motets. The songs either recited from or echoed the ecclesiastical texts of Giromalo Savonarola, a fearsome heretic whose apocalyptic sermons called for a restoration of Christian morality in a city driven mad by hedonistic fascination with pagan Rome. Savonarola briefly wrested Florence from the Medicis before the art-burning friar himself was hanged and burned in the Piazza della Signoria. (The program simplifies Savonarola as just another wronged martyr of the corrupt Papacy, though Savonarola’s supposed ‘martyrdom’ is hardly the most meaningful event through which one can understand the friar’s contentious history.)

Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo around the time of the Friar's death. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Savonarola, painted by Fra Bartolomeo around the time of the Friar’s death in 1498. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation.

These following ‘songs of Savonarola’ were presented in a rather unorthodox manner. The Miserere Mei of Josquin dez Pres was split into three parts: two of the three Canti di Prigionia of Dallapiccola were also scattered about the program. The program, typed out, went as follows:

Josquin dez Pres: Miserere Mei Deus, prima pars 

Luigi Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia, Preghiera di Maria Stuarda

Orlando di Lasso: Infelix Ego

Clemens non Papa: Tristitia Obsedit Me

Josquin: Miserere Mei Deus, segunda pars


Carson Cooman: Premat Mundus

Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia, Congedo di Girolamo Savonarola

Josquin: Miserere Mei Deus, tertia pars

Elizabeth Lim: Songs for the People [world premiere]

Returning to a piece for a second and third time is difficult at best for a harried listener. The words of the Josquin song were repeated, but the composer had subtly mutated the musical content of these same refrains over the course of the motet. These jumps were even harder to follow with the Dallapiccola. The Italian composer’s sound-world, the emotions he evokes, are so very different from any of the other composers on the program. It was difficult to even recall the first movement’s principal themes by the time that the chorus began to sing the second.

That being said, the new program order did create a number of interesting connections that would not have existed otherwise. The new order meant that Amor Artis could pair two settings of Savonarola’s Premat Mundus in a row to highlight the two song’s contrasts. The text of the song appears below:

Premat mundus,

insurgant hostes,

nihil timeo.

Quonlam in Te Domine speravi

Quoniam Tu es spes mea

Quoniam Tu altissimum posuisti

refugium Tuum.

Let the world press down upon me,

 let the enemy rise up against me,

I fear nothing.

 Because in you, Lord, I have hoped,

 because you are my hope,

 because you have founded the highest place

as your place of refuge.

Amor Artis first performed the text with a setting by contemporary composer Carson Cooman. Here, the Premat Mundus is a battle cry, a triumphant exaltation of divine protection delivered by solo tenor Alex Guerrero.

But in Dallapiccola’s setting, the Premat Mundus becomes a desperate search for refuge in a world of terror and madness. The movement opens with an off-kilter Dies Irae as the choir chants “Nihil timeo” with what descends from hope into total despair. Neither is the rest of the Dallapiccola the exaltation that we heard in the Cooman; instead, it is an introspective meditation that swells and returns to the macabre Dies Irae of the opening before it rests again in the introspection of the “refugium” at the close.

As can be inferred from this musical ekphrasis above, the informed and involved interpretation of Dallapiccola was the hit of the night. Another outlier, in quality and in mood, was the world premiere of Elizabeth Lim’s Songs for the People, a bright song that set the poetry of an African American suffragette to appropriately playful harmonies.

Revivals and commissions alike came together in the other work to spin a masterful program that engaged the audience through the very end. Every aspect of the performance, from the percussion to the soloists, was delivered with poise and virtuosity. Amor Artis has proven that it can deliver meaningful interpretations of the sixteenth-century motets together with the music of our own time.


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