It is essential to be clear exactly what is meant by ‘polychoral’. The following definition is suggested as being consistent with sixteenth-century theory and practice: a polychoral work or passage is one in which the ensemble is consistently split in to two or more groups, each retaining its own identity, which sing separately and together within a through-composed framework in which antiphony is a fundamental compositional resource; in tutti passages all voiceparts should normally remain independent, with the possible exception of the bass parts. Thus most Anglican cantoris-decani practice does not come within the definition, being more of a kind of antiphonal divisi technique. Polychoralism usually lies within the realm of technique or style rather than genre, though there are exceptions to this where the liturgical format of, for example, psalms or canticles is strictly adhered to. My approach to the phenomenon is primarily as a compositional technique; the question of performing locations and spatial separation will be treated mainly in terms of its refiection in the technique of individual pieces.
CARVER, Anthony F.. Cori Spezzati – Volume 1 – The development of sacred polychoral music to the time of Schütz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. xv.
Cori spezzati (it.)
Literally ‘broken choirs’, the term being used to describe the division of the forces used (voices and/or instruments) and the spatial separation of the resulting groups.
The idea of using two groups of singers antiphonally can be traced to Jewish and early Christian times, but the deliberate, artistic development of the concept dates from the later years of the 15th century, when choirs would sometimes be divided into two groups, one on each side of the church, to perform festive motets. This arrangement became popular after the publication of Willaert’s Salmi spezzati (1550). It used to be assumed that these were performed in the two organ lofts of St Mark’s, Venice, but it now seems likely that in fact the groups were placed on the floor of the church, near or even in the pulpits. Certainly elsewhere, cori spezzati were used in churches without galleries.
The St Mark’s galleries were, however, used for the performance of ceremonial motets in the later 16th century, such composers as the two Gabrielis exploiting the arrangement’s capacity to surprise. During this period, the groups were frequently unequal or unlike each other: a high choir (coro acuto) might be pitted against a low one (coro grave); a group of soloists (favoriti) contrasted with the ripieno (or cappella); and both against the instrumental ensemble. These groups would engage in what is best described as a musical dialogue, the phrase lengths being varied and the musical material passed from one group to another, so that interest is kept up by the continual change of the place from which the sound is coming. Echo effects were also common, and these led to the consideration of contrasting dynamics as a useful device, even when spatial effects were not intended.
As it became customary to use a continuo part, composers took the opportunity to set accompanied solo voices against the choir. Since such forces are so unequal, the music was divided in to separate sections for each medium, rather than having a real ‘dialogue’; this sectionalization was eventually to lead to the church cantata, the ‘Neapolitan’ Mass, and other forms of church music where solo voices and duets alternate with choruses.
The continuo also encouraged various gimmicks- such as the so-called musica lontana of Ignazio Donati, where soloists were placed at various parts of the church. Monteverdi uses similar effects in his Vespers of 1610. In Germany, such effects were taken up with enthusiasm, Michael Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum (1619) advocating the singing of chorales with each verse sung by different forces from different parts of the church.
The vogue for cori spezzati was at its height in Italy c. 1600, although Roman composers (notably Benevoli) went on writing polychoral music until at least the mid century. In Germany, it was taken up at the end of the 16th century and remained popular for many years. The Missa Salisburgensis (once ascribed to Benevoli, but now believed to have been written as late as the 1680s) divided 53 parts (sung and played) into eight choirs, obviously intended for the widely-spaced galleries of Salzburg Cathedral. The use of such large forces meant that the harmony had to be correspondingly simple, to avoid acoustical confusion in a resonant building, and indeed the sole interest in such a work lies in spatial and textural effects.
The cori spezzati arrangement was still used in the 18th century: Burney reported a Mass for four choirs and orchestras by Galuppi being given in Venice in 1770, while Bach’s St Matthew Passion and the double choruses of Handel’s Israel in Egypt imply spatial separation of some kind. In more recent times, the stereophonic reproduction of music has stimulated new interest in spatial effects, from Stockhausen among others.
CORI SPEZZATI. In: ARNOLD, Denis.The New Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 494-495.