The Auroville Cappella choir performs sacred Venetian and Roman music from the late Italian Renaissance
You don't normally see Aurovilians in church. But the Église Notre Dame des Anges in Pondicherry was jam-packed when the Auroville Renaissance Cappella gave its last concert of the season on March 28th. The occasion was La Settimana Santa, the Holy Week of Lent. Lent is the 40-day season of the Roman Catholic Church that begins on Ash Wednesday, climaxes during Holy Week with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before concluding the Saturday before Easter. It is observed in many churches as a time to commemorate and enact the Passion or suffering and death of Jesus through various observances and services of worship.
Throughout the centuries countless composers have written music for this week. Masses, psalm accompaniments and hymns abound. A special place is taken by the composers of the Italian Renaissance, the era from the mid-15th to the end of the 16th century. The great composers from that period, such as Adriaan Willaert, Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso, are flanked by a large number of composers of only slightly lesser status. Their collective output is countless. “But thousands of compositions are still lying in dark corners of libraries and archives all over Europe ,” says conductor Eugeen Liven d'Abelardo. “Perhaps only a tenth of it all has been published. But that one tenth shows the immense quality of these composers.” He observes, a bit chauvinistically, that many of them came from what is now Flemish Belgium. “It was a status symbol to have a Flemish composer employed at one's court. Willaert, for example, was born in my native town of Roeselare .”
Why an Auroville ensemble chose to perform this type of music is also for Eugeen a bit of a mystery. “Last year we gave a concert of Spanish renaissance music. The language and aesthetics of renaissance music are apparently very acceptable, especially to the young Aurovilians. I do not think that many are concerned about the symbolism of the Latin texts.” Talking about the Cappella's performance, Eugeen just stops short of waxing lyrical. “It is now three years ago since this group started. The input and concentration the members have demonstrated is exceptional. They have made a lot of progress, particularly if you take into account that none of them have received much voice training.” He points with pride at the performance of Gregorio Allegri's setting of Psalm 51 (Vulgate Psalm 50), the Miserere mei. This choral work, known for its haunting top C sung by sopranos Fanny and Anandamayi, was particularly well performed. “They can be proud, and so am I,” says Eugeen, who however hastens to add that this work was not his favourite. “It's a hit,” he says, “and very well-composed. But I prefer the music of Orlando di Lassus. His motet Improperium exspectavit cor meum [My heart expected reproach and misery; and I looked for one that might grieve with me, but there was none; I sought for one who might comfort me, and I found none. And they gave me gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink] is an immensely beautiful example of Lasso's writing on a modest scale.” The performance, sung against the backdrop of a crucified Christ, was well-received.
Asked about next season's programme, Eugeen replies that this time the music will be more worldly. “We will start with the love sonnets of Francis Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca), inspired by the Lady whom Petrarch named Laura. Many composers have put some of these sonnets to music, such as Orlando di Lasso, Monteverdi, Arcadelt, and others. The music is more complicated and difficult to perform than what we did for the occasion of the Holy Week. But it will be equally inspiring.” Asked if the Cappella will ever perform one of his own works, he smiles. “At present I am composing my ‘Psalmi trinacriani', the seven penitential psalms for double choir and percussion. Once this is finished I would like to do something on a text of Sri Aurobindo or The Mother. It would only be natural that the Cappella would take this up.”