Tamesis Issue 199 March 2008
Thanks to everyone who contributed this month. Next month is the 200th
edition of Tamesis so let’s see if we can make it a bumper issue! All
contributions will be gratefully received, not just reviews but anything else
relevant you feel like writing. Perhaps a competition? How about something
from our past editors?
There are forms for three of our events inside this issue. Unfortunately we still
haven’t managed to get hold of the new 40-part Striggio for Waltham Abbey
(perhaps next year?) but I’m sure that the music Philip Thorby has chosen will
be equally enjoyable and given his usual unique and informed interpretation.
I’m looking forward to seeing many of you there and at our other April and
On a more mundane topic, our brown cup-holders keep disappearing. We’ve
bought fifty more, so please make sure you don’t accidentally throw them in
the rubbish bag.
I was rather apprehensive about the event in Eton College Chapel, not knowing
the layout of the venue or whether the music would work with so many
participants, but it seemed to go off all right. Peter Syrus calmly led us
through the undoubted complexities of the Eton Choirbook and it was a special
experience which I shall remember for a long time. In anticipation of having to
cater for 75 people with no urn provided by the school, I purchased a second
slightly larger and faster-boiling urn for the occasion and I'm glad to say that it
functioned well. I think our insurance would have covered it, but fortunately I
didn't go down in history as the person who burned down Eton College!
I'm pleased to see a number of new names in the list for the Shakespeare's
Songs workshop this weekend - a new type of event for TVEMF. There are
plenty of other events coming up - many thanks to all those who have
The Peter Holman Workshop
It was a real treat to be playing in a baroque orchestra with Peter Holman
conducting from the harpsichord. When he’s waving his arms he had us just
where he wanted and when he was playing he puts in little extra twiddles
which gave a clear indication of the speed and style he wants. I find it
magical. He also gave us interesting snippets of history and stories about the
composers we were studying.
We started off with Handel’s Concerto Grosso in Bb Op 6 No 7 (pub 1739).
Handel is always good and this piece eventually got us listening and playing
well together. We then went on to John Stanley’s Concerto Grosso in B minor
Op 2 No 2.
It was a long morning. By lunchtime we were all ready for a break and some
food. It was nice to be able to have a stroll is the adjacent park, but too cold
for eating out. The West Byfleet school we used was very suitable, but there
was only one toilet at our disposal.
In the afternoon we tackled Pieter Hellendaal’s Op 3 No 4 in Eb (1758). This
was a lovely piece but I was feeling quite drowsy after the long morning and
some food (but no alcohol). We followed it with a manuscript piece in E minor
by William Boyce. I like his symphonies so I was glad to try something else
that he’d written.
For me the highlight of the day was when I offered to play the solo cello part in
Stanley’s Concerto Grosso. It was quite a busy part but very exciting to do. I
always find facsimile music difficult to read especially when it keeps changing
clef. As a result of being conducted by Peter at many Summer Schools and
workshops, I had sudden memories of his many words of wisdom flashing
through my head while I was desperately trying to sight-read this challenging
music. No wonder I wilted a bit after lunch!
Thank you to Simon Hill and his helpers for a very successful workshop.
Sunday 20th February at West Byfleet
The Eton Choirbook: a workshop for singers
About seventy-five TVEMF members gathered on a clear though cold February
day to share the remarkable privilege of experiencing this wonderful music in
Eton College Chapel itself. This was thanks to the organisational abilities of
our Chairman and Jeff Gill, and to the kindness of the School, in particular the
College’s Precentor, Ralph Allwood, who welcomed us, made sure that
everything was going to run smoothly, and even joined us for a short while in
the afternoon. A slight hitch with entrance examinations taking place in the
morning in Upper School across the landing from the antechapel was
pragmatically solved by opening the direct entrance from the School Yard,
which also made a slightly shorter trip to the toilets! The Upper School was
also kindly made available to those who had brought sandwiches as a slightly
warmer alternative to the antechapel.
Peter Syrus was once again splendidly organised for the day, with plastic
folders of his editions of music ready made up for the singers. Each pack
contained notes on the Choirbook, the College itself and possible performance
questions, and included a very handy chronology “from the time of the
Hundred Years’ War to the death of Henry VIII”. Leaving aside William
Cornyshe’s Ave Maria, mater Dei (ATBaB), we studied Walter Lambe’s Nesciens
Mater (SATBaB), Cornyshe’s Salve Regina (SATT/BaB), John Nesbet’s
Magnificat (SATTB) and finally what is regarded as the masterpiece of the
collection, John Browne’s Stabat mater (SATTBaB). Many of the Choirbook
composers are relatively shadowy figures, and it is perhaps particularly
disappointing that so little is known about Browne. Peter also said that it is not
absolutely clear how this distinctive musical style came about, with its complex
interweaving lines, a contrast between relatively few high voices and denser
writing for divided lower voices, and a concern more for the beauty of the
sound rather than the message or the clarity of words. The ten bars devoted
to the word “angelorum” for the three lower voices in Lambe’s Nesciens mater
is a glorious case in point.
However, the book suffered much the same fate as the Chapel’s fine wall
paintings, and for the same reason. The former were whitewashed in 1560 by
the College barber, and forgotten for almost three hundred years. In the case
of the music, its elaborate style, Latin texts and Marian dedications were
proscribed during the reign of Edward V. An injunction of 1547 stated that “No
anthems were to be allowed but those of Our Lord and they in English, set to a
plain and distinct note, for every syllable one”. Though the Choirbook may
have been restored to its desk during the rein of Queen Mary, it would have
been replaced by music such as the eight books of psalms bought by the
college in 1563-4. Frank LL Harrison in his introduction to Volume X of Musica
Britannia suggests that it would by this time have been falling apart, its
binding coming away, and nine complete sets of eight leaves and thirteen
other double sheets lost. Sensationally, someone took the surviving book to
London and had it bound, and thereafter the book was to all intents and
purposes lost in the college library until the advent of M R James, whose
researches first as a schoolboy and later as Provost led to his first catalogue of
the library in 1895, and the first printed description of the book and a
transcription of its Index.
The music is demanding largely through the rhythmic complexity of the
individual lines, and I think the singers ought to be congratulated for coping
relatively well on the day. There was a good turnout of men, without which
the music could not have been attempted. The size of the group allowed as
many singers to take part as possible, but created great problems in the
resonant acoustic for ensemble and for the ability of everyone to hear Peter,
who admitted that he was not ideally equipped to throw his voice over the
distances required. I experienced this when, after a balance problem was
identified, I swapped from “contratenor” to “tenor” in the Nesbet, confident in
the volume of sound being produced by my contratenor colleagues. However,
once installed on the other side of the chapel, I could barely hear them.
Ensemble was therefore rather at a premium, with the unsatisfactory choice of
watching Peter’s beat or reacting to what one could hear. I know one always
has to do the former, but it is a shame to have to make the choice and cut out
a large part of one’s aural experience.
Having said this, it was my first opportunity to sample the Nesbet and the
Browne since performing them as a student in Edinburgh in 19humhum and I
was particularly pleased to be able to experience them in their original setting.
I did some research beforehand on the Chapel, and was given the chance to
present these notes to the group during the afternoon: what struck me
particularly are the resonances between the Chapel, its beautiful and important
wall paintings dating from c1479-87 and the Choirbook itself. For example: all
three are surviving fragments of their original extent or design. We have
already seen how the Choirbook and the wall paintings fell from favour in the
mid 16th century: it is interesting to note that M R James had an important role
to play in the restoration of the paintings as well as in the recognition of the
importance of the Choirbook. And finally, the music of the Choirbook was
heard in the Chapel for the first time in four hundred years when Browne’s
Stabat mater and Lambe’s Salve regina were performed and recorded for the
BBC in 1951, a mere six years before the Chapel was “finished” by the
replacement of the unsatisfactory 17th century ceiling with the stone vault to
designs by Sir William Holford.
All in all, a fascinating if not flawless day of music making. Centre stage of
course was the Choirbook, described in the chapel inventory in 1531 as “a
grete ledger of prick song” (pricking being an old term for setting out musical
notation). The original is still in the College, and the Precentor apologised that
a librarians’ visit prevented its being displayed to us this time. Let us hope
that there will be a next time: if we tackle music of the scale and complexity of
the Eton Choirbook we may need to consider alternative arrangements,
possibly restricting numbers or splitting up into smaller groups for rehearsal to
reconvene in the Chapel on a masterclass principle.
Perhaps I could end by quoting a tiny section of the letter written by Robert
Birley, the then Headmaster of the College, to Holford after the completion of
the ceiling. He had been sceptical about the scheme but confessed to being
completely won over. He described the effect of the spring of the ribs from the
“This is really exciting. The rocket goes up in one and bursts”.
I think “the rocket goes up in one and bursts” is also a wonderful description of
the music of the Choirbook.
directed by Peter Syrus: 23 February 2008