5 Against 4

The Seven Sacred Motets were completed in 1991 and are a cycle concerned with, as Finnissy puts it, “telling the life of the Virgin”. The texts, all in Latin, combine excerpts from the biblical gospels of Luke and John with passages by the Venerable Bede, the no-less venerable Hildegard of Bingen and two of the well-known Marian antiphons. Anyone only familiar with Finnissy’s instrumental work will likely find the entire compositional demeanour of the Motets to be something of a shock. Their tone is unequivocally influenced—permeated, in fact—by the soundworld of chant, not just Gregorian but also alluding to the more varied melodies found in Ambrosian chant, with one or two elements of folk music as well. Everything is extremely clearly demarcated, from the episodic character of each motet—changing gear as it follows both the verse structure and the narrative of each text—to the use of the choir, where male and female voices are employed in a mutually supportive capacity but for the most part avoiding simultaneous interaction.

Drones are a recurring feature, usually at the close of a phrase which then extends through the answering phrase from another voice. The opening motet, Hymnos sacrae quos virgini , employs this approach initially as a kind of slow, stylised hocket between men and women, developed later such that it occupies extended episodes in each respective register. In In mense autem sexto Finnissy excitingly uses a similar approach within the context of rapid two-part counterpoint (enlivening otherwise somewhat humdrum narrative), interrupted by tutti refrains for the words spoken by the angel Gabriel, and a beautiful, ecstatic melisma for Mary’s own words. Similar melismas over sustained pitches occur in the Ave Regina , alternating with a lovely melodic line articulated in octave unisons, whereas in Stabant autem iuxta crucem they are answered by a gorgeous four-part coda that sounds impossibly new and ancient simultaneously, laden with pained suspensions. Salve Regina takes the dronal approach to the extreme, dividing the music into two layers, an omnipresent drone that continually changes in make-up but not in its pitch focus, around which a constant stream of short melodic phrases twirl and spiral.

One of the most movingly effective is Et cum factus esset , recounting Jesus’ first youthful teachings, where slow, patient, highly lyrical but restrained counterpoint (again uniting the voices, but only a couple heard at a time) moves through a harmonic space that’s entirely fluid, continually alighting on new ‘tonics’ that last but a few moments before drifting out of focus. The concluding motet, O Virga, floriditatem tuam , is full-blooded and passionate, pushing its melismas to the limit in terms of altitude and decoration, overlapping them and thereby causing acute but exquisite glancing dissonances. As they progress, the initial ostensible similarities to conventional ecclesiastical chant become more and more implausible, Finnissy’s writing somehow encapsulating austerity alongside deeply heartfelt, emotional word-painting. The performances, by the nine-strong Voces Sacrae directed by Judy Martin, are utterly spellbinding, a recording from the late ’90s that still sounds incredibly vivid.

—Simon Cummings