Tamesis Issue 174
There are two new dates for your diary this month. Jeffrey Skidmore’s workshop on South American music has been moved to Sunday 20th November to avoid a clash of dates. We are also planning a medieval day on 22nd October. More details will be in the September Tamesis. We have one or two ideas about a tutor for this, but would welcome suggestions. This mailing includes a form for a renaissance music day organised by the National Trust at Dudmaston Hall near Bridgnorth. It looks rather expensive compared with our own events, but it does include lunch and entry to the Hall and gardens. It’s aimed at intermediate players and the instrument maker Eric Moulder is one of the tutors, so there will be a chance for recorder players to try shawms and crumhorns. I Fagiolini are giving TVEMF members a 20% discount on tickets for three performances of their show The Full Monteverdi at the Conway Hall this month. Full details are in the listings. It should be a very entertaining evening. Thank you very much to Wayne Plummer and Helen France for reports of the Tallis spem in alium day at Waltham Abbey. I only managed to be there for the morning, which unfortunately turned out to be even shorter than I expected, and the traffic on the M25 was too bad for me to get back in the late afternoon. It was already obvious when I left at 12 o’clock that it was going to be an exceptionally good workshop. I’m off to Beauchamp House renaissance week on Sunday and am hoping that the really hot weather is going to last (I’m camping). Don’t forget that there is no Tamesis next month. Copy date for September is earlier than usual - the 5th September.
You will find two reviews of the Spem in alium workshop in this issue, so I shall simply say that it was an excellent day - many thanks to Philip Thorby and Clifford Barlett. I signed up for the voices and viols day with Alison Crum somewhat belatedly when I heard there was a shortage of singers. The form said "confident singers" (double check - yes "confident", not "competent"), so I put on a bold face for my first experience of this type of event. As it turned out, I need not have worried, since I was always accompanied by a viol and had no solos, so it was quite relaxing. I have played the cornett in the company of viols which was much scarier! When I wasn't singing I could follow the bass line and imagine singing it, otherwise it would have been a bit too relaxing. In the four session we did various consort songs and verse anthems but my favourite was the Lassus seven-part Tears of Peter. The soloists were good and though some of the viols were relatively inexperienced they coped well, so the results were musically satisfying. Thanks then to Alison Crum for her friendly advice and to Jackie Huntingford for good organisation and especially her flexiblity in the face of last-minute changes. I look forward to David Allinson's event in September as he is always full of enthusiasm, and though the day will be devoted to lamentations for composers and others, I doubt it will be without humour. In October we hope to hold a tutored medieval day - our first for a goodly while, so bring out your harps and recorders, rebecs and bagpipes. In the latter two cases perhaps we should insist on evidence of competence. I was amused by a piece in the Telegraph on July 9th describing a visit to the Morpeth Bagpipe Museum. Apparently you can put on wireless headphones and sample the sounds of the various instruments, but if you stand between two exhibits "it sounds as if you're earwigging a kazoo-eating contest on a police radio channel."
“Spem in Alium” - Philip Thorby - Waltham Abbey - 18th June 2005 - a review
It became apparent even weeks beforehand that this combined EEMF/TVEMF event was not going to be a run-of-the-mill early music forum event. A letter from Clifford Bartlett dropped on my doormat explaining not only how to get to Waltham Abbey, but also what to expect and how to behave once we got there. This was clearly essential given the number of people attending - about a hundred of us by the look of it on the day. The day of the eighteenth of June 2005 dawned clear, bright and… well… hot! Driving to Waltham Abbey at 9am in the morning with my family in our aging car without air- conditioning was a sticky experience - I don’t remember having had such a hot and sticky journey quite so early in the morning ever before - this turned out to be the day when temperatures in London soared to 30 Celsius… and I don’t think Waltham Abbey was far behind! Walking to the Abbey itself from the car park we chose involved crossing through Lea Valley Park, including a rose and herb garden redolent and resplendent in the early morning sunshine (and even after just this short walk, I could feel the burn of the sun’s heat - it really was remarkably hot for 10am - phew!) When we got there, the Abbey building itself felt pleasantly cool and doubtless kept us several degrees cooler than the outside temperature throughout the day, though still decidedly warm at times. In the short queue waiting to pass Clifford’s HQ table in the main doorway to the Abbey, we could already see many faces we recognised. Clifford had our name badges ready, clearly marked with choir number from one to eight and voice part. We also received our music, each a partial score for two of the eight choirs with a single continuo stave below. This new edition of Clifford’s worked very well, although the lack of visibility of what the other choirs were up to during periods of prolonged rest sometimes left one at a slight loss when the others were rehearsing.
Seating arrangements were pretty good, using the choir stalls and first four pews with plastic chairs arranged around and about to get us in a vaguely oval arrangement facing in towards Philip Thorby who took musical charge of the day. As Philip explained this unavoidably resulted in his presenting his back to half of us at all times which for me at least was more a problem from the point of view of hearing what he was saying than from that of the view presented. I don’t see any way in which this could reasonably been improved upon, however. To my surprise, having completed his role as quartermaster, at this point Clifford sat down and relaxed rather than assuming his usual position at the keyboard, this duty having been left in the amply skilful hands of Waltham Abbey’s young resident organist. Philip started off by giving us some fascinating information about “Spem in Alium”. The bit that particularly interested me was the numerology of the piece that pointed to the idea that Tallis knew this was going to be his signature piece - apparently Tallis worked out that his name summed to 69 when assigning a number to each letter of the alphabet, A=1, B=2 etc. (ignoring the upstart letter “J”, of course) - the work is precisely 69 lungas long, the first major climax occurring in bar 40 (the number of parts) with another in bar 69 (Tallis’s personal number again). And then to the music itself… Philip clearly had a carefully considered plan for getting from a 10:30 start with about a hundred sundry singers and a forty-part piece to a final run-through at 5pm. He choose a good order for rehearsing the material and paced it out well throughout the day, being quite strict when necessary about not letting us stray into subsequent sections which he was not yet ready to let us explore. The overall standard of singers was high and there were many outstanding contributions for numerous prominent sections from all quarters (or should that be eighths? J) Now, I have seen Philip in action enough times now not to be too surprised, but there were people around me who had never seen him before who really could not believe his skill, enthusiasm and energy in directing a large, disparate group and achieving a remarkable degree of ensemble by the end of the day. Fortunately, he only occasionally had to resort to direct commands for participants to be quiet while not actually singing, although there did seem to be the usual small contingent of thick-skinned individuals happy to just keep on chatting through even these! More usual were the quips from his apparently endless supply to focus our attention - sadly, I didn’t take notes of these throughout the day, but one particular favourite stuck in my mind: “The moving pencil also has another trick… it moves at different speeds at different times!” With this, Philip introduced his exercise of repeating a key passage at various widely varied tempi forcing those normally not interested in watching his beat to lift their heads up out of their copies. As Philip pointed out, it’s not good enough to watch the beat once first thing in the morning and think that that will be sufficient for the whole day! As usual, Philip showed absolutely no sign of flagging, even though the temperature climbed throughout the day and he was completely soaked in sweat for most of the afternoon! Perhaps he should consider starting to teach a new module in his professional music courses on musical athletics with dietary and physical training advice? (I’d certainly like to know his secret!) We had a short break just before doing our final run-through at 5pm. We had attracted about thirty people to serve as an audience for this. I was very impressed that many, if not most, of Philip’s lessons during the day seemed to have “taken”, and many of the tricky bits came out passably well (although Philip did occasionally needed to resort to the “windmill” style of
conducting to move us towards his desired tempo). I really enjoyed the final run-through and so did my family and other members of the audience as they reported subsequently. For example, a middle-aged couple who were visiting from Australia who sing in a choir over there took some convincing that we didn’t sing together on a regular basis and that we had only come together that very morning to perform the work; they were very pleased to have stumbled upon our workshop and will undoubtedly be reporting back to their singing friends in Australia upon their return. Waltham Abbey’s organist told me just how pleased he was that it had been possible to have something like this event organised in the Abbey - especially with the connection between the building and the composer. He had really enjoyed the whole day and hoped that more events like it would be possible. A final nice touch was that we were all able to keep our own copies of our parts for a nominal fee to cover photocopying costs - something I took advantage of. I have since listened to my CD of “Spem in Alium” and followed along. I certainly find myself agreeing more with Philip’s ideas on interpreting the piece than that of the musical director on my CD which now seems a lot more one-dimensional to me than it did before!
EEMF/TVEMF Event – Tallis Spem in Alium
directed by Philip Thorby at Waltham Abbey 18 June 05
For a whole year, every term-time Tuesday at Durham University was spent in a vain struggle to compose 4 part harmony after the style of Tallis’ contemporary Palestrina. It was like wrestling with The Grim Reaper. More mathematical brains than I graduated to 6 part harmony in years 2 and 3, but no-one ever dreamed of tackling 40 part composition. Amazingly Tallis’ monumental work for 8 choirs of 5 voices leaps as effortlessly off the page as a gazelle, without ever being muddy, turgid or repetitive. If only the same could be said for my pastiche Palestrina. Stephen Bullamore, who is in charge of the Abbey’s music, kindly gave us free use of this excellent venue, with any profits going to the Abbey’s musical activities. Despite soaring temperatures in the Abbey’s spacious and relaxing grounds, inside the Abbey we enjoyed refreshingly cool temperatures and an excellent acoustic. Philip placed the choirs in a circle around him and somehow managed to conduct with sufficiently gargantuan gestures so that people could follow the beat and be cued for their entries even when his back was turned. (I was explaining this arrangement to a friend who doesn’t sing in a choir, and she wondered whether Philip had allocated different parts of his body to each choir e.g. his left elbow to choir 4 and his right knee to choir 7 and a flare of the nostrils to choir 8 etc) The advantage of this surround-sound formation for the singers is being able to appreciate the wonderful effects of “octophony” as choirs 1 to 8 begin and cease in turn all the way round the circle … and then back again, each choir briefly overlapping the last. Fortunately we did not have to sing from the full score, which, open, hid most of Philip (this would have been rather like having to sing from a full size open broadsheet, not an easy task with 110 people in a tight circle), but Clifford Bartlett had produced an excellent edition covering just 2 choirs (i.e. 10 parts) at a time. Philip showed us the full score (which he wryly termed his “pocket edition”) and invited us to look at it afterwards, but to treat it gently. Unfortunately as he was holding it up open for us to admire, the binding broke and huge pages cascaded everywhere. Oops! Not only is this massive work filled with rhythmic and melodic variety, but it is underlaid with more mystical significance: when the letters in the name “Tallis” are assigned Roman numeral values (according to the discipline known as numerology) they total 69 - and, guess what, the piece comprises exactly 69 measures. Clifford commented that it was one of the very few pieces of the period where the measures are numbered in the original. The text comes from the book of Esther and was to be used only when there were 5 Sundays in the month of September and readings from the book of Judith were exhausted. In many ways the piece looks back to the Eton Choirbook with its florid counterpoint and rhythmic complexities (we all had times when we had to count as if our lives depended on it) offset by passages of great tranquillity where all parts gathered to sing the word “respice” in the same rhythm. Philip cleverly used these points both to stun the audience with the sheer force of 110 voices singing full throttle and also to woo them with a most dulcet pianissimo. Of course, Philip’s witticisms enlivened the day: one section he described as “6 bars of Botticelli, and thereafter it’s pure Hieronymus Bosch!” When one choir was lacking confidence in keeping going they were encouraged to adopt the belief system “as one bar ends, another will surely begin.” The sopranos of another choir came in at the wrong place: “you’re half a bar late: it was very beautiful and very striking – coming as it did just there…” He obviously spotted the tendency of those who weren’t singing to gaze at the striking Victorian gothic ceiling with its vibrant grey zig-zag patterns and lively pictures. To help us accent the first syllable and not the second of “caeli et terra” we were asked to think of them as well-known renaissance solicitors. Given the sheer physical demands on the conductor we were all impressed with the vigour that Philip maintained during the day. The final informal performance to an uninvited audience of about 30 was a shade tense, like walking a tightrope without a safety net, but we acquitted ourselves very well and our audience was enthusiastic, and I’m sure that we all felt the experience was a proud addition to our personal musical CV.