Composed in 1958, Giacinto Scelsi‘s Tre Canti Sacri (Three Sacred Songs) is one of his most well-known & frequently performed vocal works. The three songs—’Angelus’, ‘Requiem’ & ‘Gloria’—draw on texts associated with the Annunciation, the Mass for the dead, & 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 focussing on fragments & 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 & comfort.
‘Angelus’ is the most overtly melodic of the the three, & the most textually & stylistically clear, alluding to conventions of choral counterpoint. However, Scelsi matches this with abrupt dynamic shifts & microtonal inflections, sometimes combined violently & 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, & while it gains in both momentum & 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 & notions of cadence. Scelsi opts for a vigorous display that grows constantly, the singers practically clinging to their notes, distorted fifths & 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 & thought-provoking air of uncertainty.
This performance of the Tre Canti Sacri, broadcast in January 2010, 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.