For most of us, making sense of Venice in the East: Music From Renaissance Crete, which Cappella Romana will present in Vancouver this Friday, will require some study. Fortunately, the Portland, Oregon–based vocal ensemble’s Mark Powell is on hand to deliver a brief but enlightening lecture.
First off, the singer explains, we should know that Venice in the East isn’t an attempt to replicate how this music would have been heard when new. Instead, it’s a show with a thesis: to compare and contrast two distinct and enduring liturgical styles. One is that of the Roman Catholic Church, while the other belongs to its Eastern Orthodox counterpart; the two met under less-than-happy circumstances on Crete and the Ionian Islands after rogue crusaders occupied Constantinople, then the centre of the Byzantine Empire, in 1204.
“These musical examples wouldn’t have ever been performed in a single place at the same time,” Powell notes. “In a concert format, we’re sampling from both the Latin and the Greek traditions, but those would have been performed in different places. Even in a town where you had a Latin church on one side of the square and a Greek church on the other side of the square, they’d be doing their own thing. But there are influences that have crossed over, one to the other.
“When Crete, in particular, was taken over after the Latin conquest of Constantinople, it fell under a pretty oppressive regime,” he continues. “They didn’t give a lot of space for the Greek population to express itself culturally. But as time went on, that was relaxed. It moved towards more toleration, and the Greeks were largely able to carry on with their language and their religious and cultural practices without too much interference by the Venetian governors. So the program explores, in the liturgical music, how there were mutual influences back and forth. One simple example is that in the Latin tradition the creed, from the Mass, is usually sung, either in a chant or with polyphony. In the Greek tradition, the creed is almost always just said—but on Crete there are musical settings of the creed, more than one, and so we’ll be presenting one of those examples in this program, showing that where the Latins got to sing their creed, the Cretans wanted to sing theirs, too.”
Despite this cultural exchange, Powell adds, Orthodox choristers retained their fondness for Byzantine scales and singing styles, which bring an exotic and musically challenging edge to Cappella Romana’s antiquarian program. Cretan singing from the Renaissance, he points out, “has a bit more buzz in the voice. There’s a lot more ‘nose’ involved, but it’s not nasality like you’re holding your nose and singing. It’s more of a style of projection, so that overtones can be created to carry the voice, much as a bel canto singer would employ, but in this case with microtonal inflections.”
The effect is beautiful, as is Cappella Romana’s dedication to discovering the notes of continuity and connection that run through seemingly diverse forms of music.
“That’s definitely what we’re about,” Powell says. “We want to show that while there are many differences in expression in the Christian tradition in the Mediterranean, as well as in the Slavic and European lands, there’s a lot that is held in common. We love to find those threads that show a bond with something that’s larger than just a particular national or ethnic tradition.”
Early Music Vancouver presents Cappella Romana at Christ Church Cathedral on Friday (May 10).