Piffaro, The Renaissance Band was founded in 1980. Its intention
was to recreate the sounds of both the professional wind bands
of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods as well as those
of more rustic peasant music. Directors Joan Kimbell and Robert
Wiemken conceived the idea of translating a Renaissance liturgical
work for chorus and wind into 21st
Having previously produced liturgical reconstructions in both
the Roman and Reformed traditions, it was decided to use a Vespers
service in the Reformed tradition. This meant that the service
would include Latin canticles, but also German hymns and would
be able to use a variety of chorales as the musical foudnation.
The Philadelphia-based composer Kile Smith was chosen as the
composer, partly because Smith himself grew up in the Lutheran
tradition and was familiar with its musical traditions.
The result is 65 minutes of contemporary music performed by The
Crossing (under conductor Donald Nally), a choir founded in 2005
to specialise in contemporary choral music, and Piffaro, mixing
modern and old traditions. Smith was able to take advantage of
the fact that, like most other period wind groups, the performers
in Piffaro are proficient on a variety of instruments, as were
their Renaissance counterparts. This means that Smith had a total
of eight different instruments available, spread across seven
players. Smith uses the choir in a similar manner, extracting
soloists from amongst the singers and mixing and matching the
eight parts (SSAATTBB) in various ways, usually variants on full
choir or lower voices.
The thirteen movements of the Vespers consist of a sequence of
Latin canticles and psalms, interspersed with Hymns in German
and purely instrumental Sonatas. But the influence of the Lutheran
chorale is strong and these form the structure of the instrumental
movements as well. The full list of movements is as follows:-
Veni Sancte Spiritus
Hymn: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Introit: Psalm 70
Sonata a 5: Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein
Sonata a 5: In dir ist Freude
Sonata a 7: O süsser Here, Jesu Christ
Hymn: Her Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn
Triple Canon: Nun danket all und bringet Ehr
Smith’s style is essentially tonal and he uses both plainchant
and Lutheran chorales in his settings. He makes full use of the
wide variety of instruments available to him and each movement
seems to be orchestrated in a slightly different manner. The
result is not a strict liturgical event, as Smith has pared or
elaborated the source texts according to his needs. With the
plainchant, sometimes Smith presents it plain and at other times
it simply threads its way through the piece. In the choral movements,
the instruments usually provide a commentary around the chorus.
Inevitably, writing for such instruments as recorders, Smith
often produces music that is consonant, though often striking
and modally inflected. That said, there are moments of edginess
and chromaticism. The results are thoughtful. Though based on
medieval and renaissance sources and ideas, the result is totally
modern, without ever being simplistic.
Though the various movements are written for different varieties
of forces, using two different languages and mixing plainchant
and Lutheran chorales, Smith creates a coherent and well-balanced
I have nothing but praise for the performers. The Crossing sing
the music as if they have been doing it all their life - there
is nothing contrived or awkward about their presentation. And
their twenty members make a beautifully blended sound, which
matches the wind players well. Piffaro play Smith’s music
as if it was the most natural thing in the world, which is a
testament to their technique and to Smith’s ability to
craft new music for old instruments.
This is one of those pieces that deserves to have a wider life,
but given the forces required is likely to be beyond the means
of many groups.
The CD booklet includes an article by the artistic directors
of Piffaro along with one by the composer. Full texts are provided,
including texts for those instrumental numbers based on Chorales.
Also, if you put the CD into your computer you get access to
PDFs of all the music on this disc, which makes it a stunning
resource for all those interested.
There’s some very fine singing and playing here. But the
main interest lies in its fascinating blend of ancient and modern.
Piffaro and Kile Smith have created a brilliant new work in the
spirit of the Lutheran Vespers service which remains accessible
without ever talking down.