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The In Nomine

I want to talk about the In Nomine, provide examples of them, then show you my own example.

The In Nomine is an English form of instrumental music, for viols, that originated as a response to a certain section in a John Taverner (1490-1545) mass. So, right off the bat, John Taverner is the winner here: he made something that hit such a vein—perhaps even a vein that tapped into natural English proclivities—that it became a popular form throughout the late 16th and most of the 17th century, the last examples being written by Purcell, in 1680, as a deliberate homage to his predecessors. There are two things, technically speaking, that classify something as an In Nomine. The first is a plainchant (often in the alto voice), held in whole notes or double whole notes, the plainchant is more or less this (in D dorian): D-F-D-D-D-C-F-G-F-G-A-A-A-C-A-Bb (sometimes)-A-G-F-E-D-C-D-D-D-D. Variations on the exact configuration varies depending on the composers needs. For instance, sometimes during the descent, they will oscillate in the F-G-A area more (as they did on the way up). Often, the plainchant will be a 5th up from the actual key center, so if you’re in G minor, the plainchant would start on D. The second thing that characterizes in Nomines is that they are polyphonic. Homophony defeats the cool part about the In Nomine, which is the rub created between the active outer voices and the stable, calm inner voice. I look at it as the mind dancing around the soul. You can look at it however you wish.

In my opinion, the artistic or poetic thing that unifies most In Nomines is a profound melancholy, and a sense mystical reflection. This is by no means all In Nomines, in fact one of the examples I’ll provide is anything but calm and reflective. But in general, to my ears, this is spiritual heart of the In Nomine—this sense of calm, piercing, mystical reflection. This is the mood I tried to achieve in my own In Nomine. Partially, this is due to the modal nature of the plainchant, and partially it is something unique to the In Nomine.

Here are some examples, going chronologically. You may notice that after Purcell there is a leap directly to…me! This isn’t to say that there were no In Nomines written between 1680 and 2015, in fact Brian Ferneyhough wrote one (and a wonderful piece it is), but my goal here is to set forth examples from the heyday of the In Nomine, when it wasn’t an archaic form but a vital one. My own In Nomine adheres strictly to the technique of Byrd’s time, and to the technical qualifications I specified.

To be clear: these are only SOME examples. Practically every composer chimed in on the In Nomine tradition: Bull, Jenkins, Tomkins, Dowland, Tye, White, Ward and others did highly interesting work. In the interest of brevity, I’ve included only a couple of ones that I really like, by 4 of the greatest composers in English history. I particularly recommend the Tomkins and Tye In Nomines for those interested.

This Tallis In Nomine is controlled, focused, and almost brutally austere in technique. This is exhibit A for the things I talked about that define In Nomines. He opts for perfect 5th at the end, instead of the glaring major third that is slightly more common (and in imitation of Taverner’s own striking ending). Note how, at around the golden ratio, he chooses a sublimely simple canon (at 1:57) that elegantly leaves the plainchant untouched. The feeling is this moment gets me every time.

William Byrd, younger than Tallis. Brilliant, Beethovenian in his restless development and changeability, and probably along with Lassus the most versatile composer of the Renaissance. Anyone who has heard this music won’t bat an eyelash at the false relations between major and minor 3rd. The way the treble voice starts this bold upward melody at 0:13. The way he starts running with the galloping rhythm at 1:23, and soon enough has transformed it into a clear idea. A born improviser. And we’re suddenly dealing with this leaping motion, this funny leap, almost comical in it’s thrusting confidence. And then he transforms THAT into a brilliant 5 note motif at 1:59, playfully changing the sense of pulse. But BEFORE he does that, he takes a breath at 1:49 in the most ruggedly playful way, with the glib treble making a sudden plagal close while the lower voices follow in exquisite imitation. So he makes a little marker, to say, ”okay, now we’re going to get into some real shit”. The ending is angular and bold, EXACTLY like the original Taverner one in effect.

Gibbons, in my opinion, wasn’t at his best in purely instrumental music. Never-the-less, this is an In Nomine that embraces the slow melancholy I talked about. It isn’t exactly native to Gibbons’ style. The typical Gibbons sound is open, clear, expressive, proud, and bright. This is more haunted. Gibbons had an immense natural talent; he deftly handled parts, maintaining perfect clarity even in the midst of 6 or 7 voices. He never pushed himself that hard, but that’s another story. In regards to this piece, the opening is very Gibbons—crushingly pure and simple, yet somehow special. Like Mozart, like Purcell, he had that innately musical gift that turned what could be rote into something deeply felt. It’s a string of consonances, and yet…there’s something there, already. I love how the color suddenly changes at 0:35. Listen to how clear the melodies of all the voices are—-Gibbons at times seemed incapable of writing something other than a perfectly formed melody. I’m serious. The texture becomes even more spare and solemn, at around 2:35, the voices seem to be moving in slow motion. He touches time here, for me, he touches what time is. The cadence at 3:18 is solemn and bleak, and seems filled with emotion to me. He is forming what sounds like a typical cadence into a major sound, and then, boom…desolation. He opts for the usual In Nomine ending, on a note of resolution.

Let’s jump to Purcell. Purcell was always trying to outdo everyone. People in the past, people in his present, and even the people of future generations. Thomas Tudway, himself a minor English composer who knew Purcell “perfectly well”, said something like, “He had the very admirable ambition of eclipsing everyone in his time”. He was proud, and aware of his abilities. He took immense care in preserving fair copies of his works, he wrote down on the score—in his early works—when he inserted a complicated technical device into a work (ala: “canon, 3 in 1, arsin et thesin”). If his teacher John Blow wrote an Ode with a great song on a Ground Bass, well, you can bet that Purcell would have to outdo him with an even better song on a ground bass as soon as he got the opportunity (and he had no shortage of opportunity. Organist at Westminster abbey at age 20; after, it is said, John Blow resigned his post in favor of Purcell. There was no field of music—dramatic, sacred, chamber, songs—where he did not dwarf his competition.) So it makes sense that, with this In Nomine, Purcell uses the plainchant in the outer voices as well, in canon. The entrance of the treble at 0:45 is masterfully clear, although every moment in this work—as in all his fantasias—provides irrefutable evidence of his comprehensive mastery of counterpoint. A mastery that, again, dwarfed everyone in his time. Sounds like rhetoric; is actually true. 1:00—what a gentle sing-song canon, but it quickly tightens into intense pathos at the 9–8 of 1:17. The 4-3 at 1:42 marks the beginning of the end of the piece; all that follows will be a winding down.

I learned a lot writing this piece and had to re-start from the ground up several times. Sections had to be composed and re-composed. The reason is that I wanted to preserve a simplicity and boldness in my melody, have a clear energy narrative, and maintain the tone and feeling that I love about In Nomines, so every time I violated one of those things, even if the result was a cool idea in it’s own right, I circled back and tried again. The In Nomine is a brutal mistress. When you are writing quarter-note based, largely modal melodies, trust me, you’ll know when it doesn’t work. It’ll be boring, it’ll be cliche, it’ll lose the drive, it’ll sound trite. To make a really compelling quarter-note pulse melody from a single scale is in many ways harder than writing one with complicated rhythmic and melodic figurations. The plainchant, again is brutal; it forces you to be really honest with what you’re writing. You can’t just disguise lack of narrative or loss of tone or loss of technique with some cool whiz-bang shit, because when you come through it you can bet that note will be waiting for you. So control is necessary, technically. You also have to have a grasp of how passing tones work, because at some point you will almost definitely need to use them—and like I said, you’ll know if it doesn’t work. There is nowhere to hide in tonal, polyphonic music. You either can get on the horse and ride it, or you can’t. I can hang sideways off the saddle, usually.

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