Tamesis Issue 277
10 across. Such a rare voice! (5). That’s one of the clues in this month’s Border Marches Early Music Forum newsletter. We seem to be suffering from the same problem. There were only three tenors at the Christmas workshop, and only four have booked so far for Keble. This is nowhere near enough for a polychoral workshop even if the parts can be covered by sackbuts, so I do hope more of you are going to come. A reasonable number have booked for David Allinson’s Palestrina workshop on Saturday, but Kate Gordon who is taking the bookings as asked me to say that David would like there to be more, so tenors will be welcome to book at the last minute if they see this in time. For upper voices there is now a waiting list.
For the Keble workshop next month we don’t need just tenors but more basses too. If anybody is being put off by having had to move ramps or the shortage of chairs at lunchtime last year, I’m assured that those were just teething troubles and it won’t happen again. At the moment there are still vacancies for all voices and instruments and bookings are arriving daily, but please don’t wait until the last minute to book as there is a lot of music to be printed. Almost fifty people have booked so far, but this is one of those workshops which will work best with a lot of participants so I’ve reprinted the form on the back cover. I recently went into Oxford by the Park and Ride service that stops a few minutes’ walk from Keble (details on the form) and it was very easy and quick. Do get in touch, though, if you have any concerns. Incidentally, though Buccinate is on the form, I’ve suggested to Ben Nicholas that we don’t do it as Philip Thorby explored it very thoroughly at the Christmas workshop and many of you were there. Luckily Gabrieli composed plenty of suitable alternative pieces.
Many thanks to our contributors this month. We have a review of the Christmas event, a second one of the magnificent Biber weekend in Thaxted (the first one was in the November Tamesis), an account of the splendid Brighton Early Music Festival workshop with Gawain Glenton which I also attended, and a review of an extraordinary opera by Musica Antica Rotherhithe. I’m reminded of the cartoon of four surgeons surrounding the bed of an unhappy patient, telling him “we’re the London Consort of Surgeons and we perform authentic operations on period instruments”. I hope someone is planning to review the Keble workshop (if so, please tell me), and it would be good to have a write-up about David’s renaissance day next month as well. He and I put on these chamber music days every year but they rarely get reviewed so it’s hard for new people to know what they’re missing.
Two TVEMF events in the next couple of months are guaranteed to brighten the winter gloom: David Allinson's January event explores the sublime music of Palestrina and in February Benjamin Nicholas directs us in some of Giovanni Gabrieli's exuberant large-scale choral works. We amateurs don't perhaps realise how lucky we are to be able to perform these pieces in 16 or more parts; professionals rarely have that luxury, as it's usually too expensive to employ so many musicians. In this modern age we are also fortunate in having access to many centuries of music from across the world, whilst I doubt if Bach ever encountered music by Dufay, or Mozart came across Josquin. We owe a great debt to the industrious editors and publishers who have made so much music available to us.
Jubilate Deo workshop with Philip Thorby, 15th December 2019
A good number of instrumentalists and singers met at Amersham Community Hall to tackle three multi-choir works. These were:Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) Jubilate Deo (Psalm 66 verses 1 & 2) for three 4-part choirs, Giovanni Gabrieli “Buccinate” (sound the trumpet) of 1597, for 19 parts plus continuo, taking a text from Psalms 80, 84, 97 and 150, and, the main attraction, Alessandro Striggio (1536-1592) Gloria from the Mass “Ecco si beato giorno”, in 40 parts of 1566, now getting airings to rival those of Tallis’ better known but later “Spem in alium”, which many of us had previously encountered. All of these were in a suitably Christmassy rejoicing mode. We were fortunate to get through the whole programme, as sadly one of our number collapsed shortly after lunch and had to be taken away in an ambulance, which put a bit of a dampener on the afternoon. We wish her a speedy recovery.*
Philip Thorby, our director has an amazingly ebullient personality which can survive hours of musical drudgery. He gave up most of his lunch time to sort out and number Striggio parts in order to make the often tedious process of giving out the music fast and efficient. As a director, he can keep a roomful of somewhat mixed ability musicians happy to work on two pages of not too difficult music for the best part of two hours. In the Praetorius we learned, assisted by some eccentric conducting, to go with the flow rather than be imprisoned by the bar lines that had been imposed on the work centuries later, and to recognise and respond to the big tutti moments with a full sound. I wish I had been able to record the day, so many were the quotable remarks and insights.
Choir directors can be voice production specialists who insist on warmups so lengthy that one can despair of ever seeing a note of music. Philip Thorby’s approach is that of a musicologist seeking to inform us about the compositional style of the period, the sense of the text and how it has informed the setting, but always in the context of a specific phrase which we then repeat with greater understanding. There was always just enough musicology and not too much.
If I had any regrets about the day, it was perhaps that the splendid number of instrumentalists came near to drowning the rather few singers; when Philip referred to one section sounding like a trombone concerto, he was not wrong. There were one or two naturally outspoken cornetts as well, with whom a tiny number of untrained voices cannot hope to compete, so one heard a few individual voice parts standing out while others equally important might be accompanied by recorder and stayed politely in the background. Of course, a Gabrieli piece called “Sound the trumpet” would certainly have contained brass but it’s unlikely that they would have have drowned the professional singers of his day. Modern recordings of this piece give an exciting blend of full-throated choristers with the elegance of renaissance brass.
I was a little regretful that we only tackled the Gloria of the Striggio mass, and I do hope the whole work might be on the TVEMF project list. Pending that, the story of Striggio’s campaign to interest various courts (including the English one where Tallis reigned and presumably took up the challenge) is a fascinating one and can be found on YouTube. I would clear my diary and go quite a long way to sing the Striggio in full, though hopefully not just as a choral work – I really do like the cornetts and sackbuts – but one in which we can spare the time to get a more even balance.
I do hope Philip Thorby caught his train and will be back again in 2020.
*I’m pleased to be able to report that Sue recovered quickly. She’s asked me to apologise for the disturbance she caused but says she is now fine again. It was the result of the medication she was on. She’s grateful to everyone for their concern and understanding.
Philip had a terrible journey back because his Greater Anglia train was cancelled and he missed his connection, but he says that’s normal service! I’m glad to say we’re already thinking about a date for the Christmas 2021 workshop.
Eastern Early Music Forum Workshop – Biber Missa Salisburgensis, Thaxted 11-13 October 2019
If you had wandered into Thaxted parish church around 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday 13th October, you would have encountered a large group of musicians singing and playing Biber’s amazing Missa Salisburgensis in 53 parts, preceded by an Intrada by Pezel for trumpets and drums. This was the culmination of a magnificent weekend workshop organised by the Eastern Early Music Forum and conducted by Patrick Craig. This extraordinary work, only rediscovered in the 1870s in the home of a greengrocer in Salzburg, was written for the celebration, in 1682, of the 1100th anniversary of the establishment of the Archbishopric of Salzburg. Clearly no expense was spared because the work calls for two eight-part choirs, which have solo as well as tutti sections, two six-part string bands, a band of oboes, flutes and clarino trumpets, a band of cornetti and sackbuts and two bands of four trumpets and timps – plus organ continuo!
The first thing to say is congratulations and thanks to the organisers, Ellen Sarewitz and Janet Tanburn and no doubt others in EEMF for having the courage to take on this monster and then to make it happen.
They managed to assemble some 70 plus musicians and got almost all the parts covered. I think there were a few string parts missing and the oboe parts were played on recorders, but we had a full complement of brass and timps, much credit to Bill Tuck who pulled in trumpeters from all over the place, and I’m told we made a magnificent sound!
The whole weekend really ran very smoothly. It started with a run through for soloists (all 16 plus of them) in the beautiful Guildhall on the Friday evening. The Saturday was spent solidly working through the movements with everyone and continuing on Sunday until around 3, by which time we needed a break to regenerate brains, lips, fingers and voices in preparation for the final run through.
Managing the whole musical development was Patrick Craig, who ran the event with great authority and sensitivity. He knows so well how to work at a section, when to leave it, when to pause and deliver a bit more background information, spiced with pithy observations, and all delivered with a constant flow of encouragement which really gets the best out of people.
The mass itself is an extraordinary construction. It has many sections within each movement, which helps a lot if you get lost(!), and switches constantly from massive tuttis to solo voices and continuo, and from duple to triple time and back. As well as the normal five mass sections, there is a motet Plaudite Tympana for the same scoring which honours Saint Rupert, the founder of the Archbishopric. Musically it is all pretty static, rarely venturing very far from the key of C major, the home key of the trumpets, but it gets its effect by the sheer power of its forces.
Did we manage to deliver this power? I think we did. Our singing and playing grew in confidence and coherence as the sessions proceeded and I think if you had ventured into the church on that Sunday afternoon you would indeed have been impressed. We all certainly had a great sense of achievement and satisfaction, even if we were completely exhausted!
BREMF Workshop 29 September 2019 Gawain Glenton – Polychoral Transformations
The theme of this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival is Metamorphosis and this was the basis for Gawain Glenton’s workshop for voices and instruments on 29th September. He chose pieces to demonstrate how composers used existing works to create new ones and how standard musical building blocks could be adopted and extended as part of the process.
The first piece was the five part madrigal ‘Cara la mia vita’ by de Wert. Gawain took us through the music and pointed out that it starts with a version of the very popular Romanesca harmonic and melodic figure (Google it!). He also highlighted other structural features in the music, such as the chordal opening to the second section. Then we moved on to the Kyrie of a mass by Merulo which is based on the madrigal. This is now expanded to an eight part double choir version, but the same features crop up, such as the Romanesca opening and the chordal passage now used to open the Christe section.
The other pieces we worked at were a delightful four part madrigal ‘Douce Mémoire’ by Pierre Sandrin, which once again was put together using common musical building blocks, and two twelve part pieces, the motet ‘Domine quid multiplicati sunt’ by Lassus and a setting of the ‘Magnificat’ by Priuli. This last piece is one where there is a high choir, with the top line, which sits around high Gs and As all the time, being intended for an instrument, not a voice, a middle normal SATB choir and a low choir, with all parts in Bass clef, where the bottom line goes down to a low A (at which point the music spans 4 octaves), so intended for an instrument also.
This collection of pieces gave us a nice variety of sound worlds and structures to work at, with Gawain drawing out the relevant features as we worked through. One of the points he made was that when these pieces were written, there was an expectation that all the musicians taking part would have a basic repertoire of decorative figures which they would add to the written lines as a matter of course. These are not the same as the florid divisions that a solo singer or player would incorporate in a performance, but are much simpler figures a singer would use to move from one note to another. This implies that the modern practice of singing and playing these pieces exactly as written is actually wrong! Luckily Gawain did not expect us to add such decorations on this occasion, but this did indicate another type of fluid transformation which would have been present in this type of music.
Another point he explained was that although there would probably be somebody keeping the beat going during a performance, he was not ‘conducting’, i.e. shaping the performance of the piece in the modern sense. His job was just to keep a steady beat while the musicians added such expression as was appropriate.
Gawain had brought a chamber organ with him for the day and at one point he used this to demonstrate the effect which meantone temperament tuning has on how chords sound in different keys and how major and minor thirds should be treated in this situation. This is not the place for a discourse on different tuning methods, but it is worth noting that hearing the organ play the different chords is far more effective than any amount of learned discussion!
Altogether this was a very enjoyable and informative day, enhanced by Janet Gascoine’s cakes for tea, and many thanks go to Gawain, to Malcolm Keeler for his organ playing, and to BREMF for putting on the event.
Musica Antica Rotherhithe
On 27th November 2019 I attended a very enjoyable performance by this company of Lo Spedale, a mid-17c comic opera rediscovered some five years ago. The composer is at present unknown, but the libretto was most likely written by Antonio Abati during his time at the Imperial Court in Vienna in the 1640s. It is a satire about healthcare, medicine and hypochondria which feels quite contemporary, despite having been written 350 years ago.
The company consisted of five young singers, a baroque guitar, theorbo and viola da gamba. The singing and playing were excellent, both in solos and ensembles, and the instruments put the performance immediately into the 17c. It was sung in Italian with ingenious manual surtitles. The acting was good, with plenty of humour; the set was simple and the whole period production was candlelit.
Every seat was taken so they are clearly attracting plenty of support in their home area. They plan further productions in 2020 and I would recommend a visit to their website for more information:
Bach, the Universe and Everything
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has a new series of lectures on Sunday mornings in partnership with the Oxford University Mathematical Institute and the Institute of Physics. They call it their very own Sunday service for inquiring and curious minds; a place to bond with music lovers and revel in the wonders of science. Each lecture is illustrated with music by Bach played and sung by live musicians. The second two, on 23rd February and 5th April, both at King’s Place, are listed in the Concerts List and there are more details on the OAE website. If you missed the first one which explored the mathematics of the brain, there is a podcast available: