From the 2013 TV drama “Reign” to Saoirse Ronan’s memorable performance in the 2018 film “Mary Queen of Scots,” the dramatic life of the 16th century Scottish monarch doesn’t seem to lose intrigue. On Saturday, The King’s Counterpoint, conducted by co-founder David Acres, presented its musical interpretation of Mary Stuart as part of Piccolo Spoleto’s Early Music series.
“In my sad, quiet song, a melancholy air,” Mary began in an ode to her first husband Dauphin Francis upon his death, one of three of her personal letters read aloud during the performance. “And though we are apart, grows no less in my heart.”
The words pierced the quiet air at St. Philip’s Church. What followed were 14 motets from sacred texts sung in Latin and French. The musical selections by composers who lived during her reign were symbolic of Mary's journey, from her relatively peaceful early years to her eventual execution.
For the execution, The King’s Counterpoint chose a two-verse motet by Thomas Tallis, derived from the words Mary uttered at the scaffold: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” It evoked Christ’s crucifixion and was delivered intensely with a beautiful vocal blend, ending in a delicately unified cadence.
The 70-minute concert also included works by Tallis’ contemporaries, including William Byrd, Alonso Lobo, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Robert Johnson and Pierre Attaingnant. The ensemble held the congregation in its grasp throughout. Every “Amen” and “Alleluia” ended with a clear, tender pianissimo.
In Lobo’s funeral motet “Versa est in Luctum,” a prevailing calm settled as the pathos of Mary’s struggle over her condemnation by her cousin Queen Elizabeth unraveled. This calm began with a mirroring of the treble and tenor voices, which gradually built momentum and reached an astonishing climax followed by a controlled, lingering hush.
Another composition that speaks of Mary’s grief in exile is Palestrina’s “Super Flumina,” sung emphatically by The King’s Counterpoint. It began with a melisma depicting sorrow and ended with a release of anguish.
“Ne Irascaris Domine” (“Be not angry O Lord”) by Byrd was a highlight. The singers begin in a relatively limited range, expanding to higher octaves toward the end, elevating the intended impact of this motet, which reveals implicitly Byrd’s sympathies for the Catholic Church during a period of Protestant reform, sympathies shared by Mary.
On a lighter note, the Breton drinking chanson “Tourdion” by Attaingnant was a quick-paced delight, with a bit of call and response: “Let’s sing and drink, my friends, let’s drink,” the sopranos sang, and the altos, tenors and basses followed with, “On this bottle, let us wage war!”
Throughout the concert, Acres gathered the voices in a delicate polyphonic fellowship, and the ensemble treated the audience to a vocal rhapsody that stirred the soul.
Reviewer Lyle Michael is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.