Exsultemus Emerges

Racing across the street to the Chapel, I arrived, breathless, at its closed doors. Pulling them open in hopes of sneaking into the concert only fifteen minutes late, I was shocked to find the inner doors closed, barred by the ticketseller. From the crack between the doors, I could just make out a sweet, evocative melody from within Cochran Chapel. The concert was well underway. Noting my anxious countenance (after all, I could not write the article if I did not see the concert), the usher kindly offered me entrance into the concert…after the first piece had ended. Disappointed but glad to have gained allowance, I nodded, beginning to read the informational pamphlet on the table to my side. Better late than never, I thought. According to the pamphlet, the concert at hand was arranged to celebrate the musical accomplishments of four of the English Renaissance’s great composers: Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Martin Peerson, and Thomas Tomkins. The program, performed by Cambridge-based period vocal ensemble Exsultemus, consisted of nineteen short pieces divided by a brief intermission. When I was finally seated, five members of Exsultemus were performing a poignant piece entitled “O Nata Lux.” Arranged in a semi-circle with the soprano and alto at the ends and the bass and tenors in the middle, the singers superbly executed their selection. Unaided by a conductor or any musical accompaniment, the five sang in total harmony, knowing when a certain performer had an entrance to make, and softening to accommodate him or her. Despite the fact that each singer had his or her own line to maintain, the music was written so that the singers would end together in harmony; the performers’ expertise enabled such endings to occur in reality, making each song all the more enjoyable. The remainder of the concert was very much the same, the songs sounded nearly identical to my inexperienced ear as a result of their similar style. However, that did not make the concert any less interesting. The performers were beyond comparison in their vocal talent and discipline. They knew precisely when to enter into a song or to trail off and decrease their volume for musical effect. Occasionally, there were lyric pronunciations that seemed awkward when the “t” and “s” consonants simply remained spoken for too long. Additionally, while the singers seemed to be synchronized most of the time, there were times when one member of the group would begin conducting with his hand in order to keep them together. Yet, all in all, Exsultemus sang very well. One particularly good singer was found in the soprano section. With a high but full voice that produced the most beautiful tones, this soprano stood out in particular among the singers. She was unique not only because of her high sound, but also because of her extreme talent. In comparison with the other soprano in the group, her singing was particularly well-rounded, and her voice was one of the highlights of the performance. In addition to the excellent singing, the pieces performed at the concert had a profound effect on its positive outcome. The music was written so that a soloist would start off and then be smoothly joined by his or her fellow singers. Some pieces began with the soprano singing sweetly to have her joined first by an alto, then a tenor, and, finally, the bass. Meanwhile, one song did the exact opposite, having the bass begin singing for the first few beats of the piece and then adding the tenor, alto, and, finally, soprano. Such arrangements made for very smooth transitions from melody into harmony and back again, making the concert pieces fun to follow. When the performance finally came to a close, the audience was rapt with attention and desire for an encore show. Even I, whose stomach was growling for a dinner that would not come until I could head back to Commons, did not want the music to end. Luckily, Exsultemus obliged us all with one last song before disappearing into the depths of the Chapel basement. Their last notes hung in the still Chapel air after they had ended, lingering for a moment before vanishing into silence. Since the time those notes were written, three centuries have passed and their composers have long passed on; yet, for those two hours on Sunday, the geniuses of Tallis, Byrd, Peerson, and Tomkins lived once more.