Thames Valley Early Music Forum
Tamesis Issue 199
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 May events.
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 organised them.
The Peter Holman Workshop
Sunday 20th February at West Byfleet
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.
The Eton Choirbook: a workshop for singers
directed by Peter Syrus: 23 February 2008
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 columns as: “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.