Composed in 1958, Giacinto Scelsi‘s Tre Canti Sacri (Three Sacred Songs) is one of his most well-known and frequently performed vocal works. The three songs—’Angelus’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Gloria’—draw on texts associated with the Annunciation, the Mass for the dead, and the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Thematically, these texts are somewhat disparate, but the specific choices could be said to be arbitrary, as in each case Scelsi explodes the texts, often focusing on fragments and individual words rather than immediately comprehensible phrases. Furthermore, despite drawing on Christian texts, Scelsi again distances himself from their specific nature, diffusing the religious content. It’s an approach that i think sits well within the present season, seeking as it does something undeniably spiritual (these are, after all, sacred songs), yet casting off the trappings of familiarity and comfort.
‘Angelus’ is the most overtly melodic of the the three, and the most textually and stylistically clear, alluding to conventions of choral counterpoint. However, Scelsi matches this with abrupt dynamic shifts and microtonal inflections, sometimes combined violently and protruding outwards as harsh, beating dissonances. By contrast, the latter two songs are each founded on a specific interval at their epicentre. ‘Requiem’ moves around a rather rudely intoned tritone, the nasal distortions suggesting a more raw mode of expression than one is perhaps used to in a context such as this. The tritone is made to slither queasily on a bed of glissandi, and while it gains in both momentum and power, the words seem entirely secondary to the act of utterance; there’s ever the sense here of something that simply needs to be said. The song settles on a consonant final chord, but there’s something restless about it (interesting, considering the title), as though its end is only temporary. The final song, ‘Gloria’, centres on a perfect fifth and notions of cadence. Scelsi opts for a vigorous display that grows constantly, the singers practically clinging to their notes, distorted fifths and unisons occasionally breaking out into some wonderfully rich chords. One’s ultimately left wondering if all that vigour isn’t slightly forced, as the music peters out rather suddenly at the end, casting over the piece a distinct and thought-provoking air of uncertainty.
This performance of the Tre Canti Sacri was given by the infeasibly brilliant vocal ensemble Exaudi, directed by James Weeks. The accuracy of the group’s intonation in such challenging repertoire as this is just astonishing.