Tamesis Issue 226
I’ve been listening to an unexpected programme on Radio 4 in the afternoons - The Making of Music with James Naughtie. It’s very brief but contains some lovely music. He may have got past early music by the time you read this but you can catch up with at least some of it (listed under M) on the BBC iPlayer
News of some of our forthcoming workshops. Michael Reynor has asked me to say that the Victoria workshop in August has waiting lists in all parts except for tenors.
David Hatcher has now chosen the music for his workshop in September. He writes: “I have recently been looking at British Library Ms. Royal 8 G.vii, a choirbook copied in the Netherlands under the rule of Marguerite of Austria between the years 1516 - 1522, and presented to Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon. It contains twenty-eight four-part Latin motets all lacking ascriptions, many of which can be found ascribed to composers in other sources. There are five settings of Dulces Exuviae (Dido's Lament) and one of Fama Malum (also Virgil) and a puzzle canon in eight voices. Composers represented include Josquin, Isaac, Mouton, De la Rue and Ghiselin. I am working on editions of a number of pieces myself, and there are also editions of some pieces already available.”
I’ve now had my orchestra’s concert dates and there isn’t a clash, so I can confirm that my regular baroque chamber music day will be on November 5th.
For our December workshop, which as usual will include our Christmas lunch, Michael Procter is anticipating the 400th anniversary in 2012 of the death of - not Giovanni Gabrieli but his friend Hans Leo Hassler. There are likely to be works for 7, 8, 10, 12, 16 and 18 voices, with appropriate instruments of course.
As usual I’m off to the Beauchamp House early music week with Philip Thorby and Alan Lumsden (Schütz this year) and the Oxford Baroque week a couple of weeks later, and I’m really looking forward to them. They’re completely different, but if I could only go to one of them I really don’t know how I would choose. As far as I know they still have vacancies, if you haven’t made up your own mind.
In spite of some prior misgivings about my ability to sing the music with all its dissonances, I enjoyed the Gesualdo workshop with Gerald Place and as far as I could tell, did so everyone who was there. The viols were a great help though they had their own difficulties because of (shock, horror) keys involving as many as three flats.
The summer schools is almost upon us, so do consider writing a brief report for Tamesis. I’m told that the Beachamp course could do with some more tenors and basses – I’ve lost count of how many of these courses I’ve been to but they are always good, and the music of Schütz is particularly suitable for the likely lineup. Unusually we have a workshop in August, when we shall be commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria. I think most of us find his music very gratifying to sing so no doubt David Allinson's workshop will be well attended in spite of being in the holiday season. There are rather a lot of new members and changes of email and of address given in this issue. Some of the latter are due to retirement or marriage - I offer my best wishes to all embarking on a new phase of their lives.
Striggio Forty Part Mass at Waltham Abbey
Saturday 30th April, directed by Philip Thorby
This was only my second visit to an EEMF day, but turned out to be by a long way one of the best workshops I have attended this century; indeed one of the best of my forty years singing. The scores from which we sang, prepared and edited superbly (of course) by Clifford Bartlett, were a model of clarity, being two-to-four choir part- books over the ground bass. They were not only perfect to sin g from, yet gave an insight into the greater structure of the piece. Only by performing from the map of the full score could a full overview have been possible, but then we would each have quickly have ended up in no doubt in disjointed interactions, dead-ends, no-go areas or solitary wildernesses! (I well remember many years ago hearing a very august institution’s attempt at a performance of Spem in Alium from full map scores breaking down amidst consternation and acute embarrassment!)
That we did not is due entirely to the wonderfully capable Philip Thorby, tutor for the day, who with great good humour even redistributed us to a full complement of sixty voices for the final Agnus Dei; a magnificent conclusion to the day. Not only did he keep us amused and geed up at the same time (e.g. “The more rubbish you are, the less likely I am to beat in four”), but shepherded us expertly through the notes, to the leads and the parts, while fascinatingly introducing us to the rhetoric which helped us unlock the style and articulation of each line. The key elements of the character of the word-setting, we learnt, lay in the difference essentially between “vivace” and “suave”; by analogy the “suave” style takes the bow away from the bridge to express longer notes more fully, in contradistinction to the faster, more florid passagework of the “vivace” style.
Interpretation of the detail of course did not end there, for the words of “Domine Deus”, for instance, needed full expression of the stressed syllables, following the injunctions of stylists such as Heinrich Schütz that music should be written “in the style of careful speech”. Further, the setting of these words by Striggio bore resonances of temporal kingship in chords fitting for trumpets, as did the sumptuous brilliance of regal C major at the words “Qui sedes” (and “Et resurrexit” bore unmistakable echoes of the last trump!) whereas the setting of the word following, “Pater..”, described a quite different character of intimate tenderness and concern, far removed from the stentorian glory of the preceding section. Comforting triple-time rhythms in the “Agnus Dei” and smaller notes symbolising the humbleness of the “manger” were further examples, as was the use of just four voices at “Adoramus”, but all forty at “Glorificamus”. Then we were shown how in the ominous setting of the words “Et iterum..”, cast into D minor, B flat and G minor, such darkness of emotion emphasised the longing for the second coming. So it was fascinating to come to understand how in a non-madrigalian way, Striggio had responded so immediately and yet also so subtly to the images of the text, alongside a varied use of choral texture and colour. This was further underlined in Philip’s injunction to us: “If you have a strong syllable, start with a sforzando then crescendo; if you start with a weak syllable it starts quiet and you crescendo”.
So far as the sonority and detail of the mass was concerned, many of us sensed unexpected resonances of Spem, as it was this Mass, not Striggio’s forty part motet “Ecce beatam lucem” which was held up to English composers of the day as a model to emulate, eliciting Tallis’ glorious response. What a brilliant tutorial the mass was, and is. What I found so telling, and for which I gratefully thank Philip, was that this elucidation of style, rhetoric and articulation came not in an erudite introductory lecture, but at each relevant point in our preparation of the music. The result was that performance of the phrase or section in question immediately improved and gained in confidence, while the information remained much better in the memory for having been focused in example.
The day and the performance could not have been complete without the contribution of splendid brass and wind playing, which to my mind offered much more than accompaniment. It not only, literally, offered a fundament, but also in added character and helped produce a thrilling sound, which this correspondent found utterly compelling. How these instrumentalists manage to breathe and keep in time was the one great, unanswered mystery of a day splendidly arranged by the Thames Valley forum which will live long in the memory, and for which I am thankful, and privileged to have been a part.
Heinrich Isaac at United Reformed Church, Ickenham,
Saturday 11th June, with Peter Syrus.
As a new-this-year member of TVEMF I’m on a steep learning curve with regard to almost anything written before about 1550, so I hadn’t heard of Isaac before signing up for this day of singing. Isaac (c.1450-1517) came from Flanders and worked in Austria and Italy; we were provided with a very full chronology and reading list, and sang two masses and four motets. We also had an opportunity to buy the music at very reasonable prices.
I did consider beforehand playing the recorder, and I do appreciate having the opportunity to choose between singing and playing. There are definite pluses to having the instruments. It is of intrinsic interest to see and hear not only the usual viols and recorders but also sackbuts, cornetts and curtals, this last a new one to me. It’s also more authentic sometimes to have the voices reinforced – although in Masses? I wonder. The instrumentalists managed an attractive blended sound, not always quite in tune, but probably helped the singers to stay in pitch. The one thing missing was a really firm instrumental bass sound. Are there no serpents? The biggest recorder bass in the world can’t compete with that, and I think the bass singers could have done with it, especially when we were in six parts.
The downside to having the instruments is that vocal technique isn’t going to get much attention in that setting, the emphasis being mainly on our sight-reading skills, which were certainly tested. I very much enjoy being among musicians who don’t expect to be note-bashed and can get through a fair bit of quite florid material in a day. I note from previous reviews in Tamesis that singing-only workshops do get quite technical, and it’s quite right that TVEMF offers a good mix of both types. Peter Syrus is of course an academic. Among the musicological topics which he discussed in passing was the problem of pitch created by the fact that such works were originally written for an all-male choir and not necessarily one with boy trebles. One good male alto would probably have out-sung a whole row of women singing below their natural register. In the editions we used, one work was raised a tone from the original pitch, another was raised by a fourth. Quis dabit capiti meo aquam remained at its original pitch (I think) and dispensed with the sopranos. The final work, Angeli, Archangeli, was a delightful change for the sopranos, allowing us to go a bit nearer to the top of our registers and really sing out. Like other TVEMF events I have been to, this was outstanding value for money and a really enjoyable day. I’d love Peter Syrus to have some voice production lessons so that he didn’t mumble his interesting insights to the six people nearest to him, and we all cheered when he finally raised his voice – but if he’s booked again I will happily sign up.
Gesualdo study day for voices and viols, 2nd July 2011, Burnham
Some fifteen singers and not quite enough viol players assembled at Burnham to taste the delights of, and lay some myths about, Gesualdo’s music. We started with a piece not by Gesualdo, ‘O vos omnes’ by Scipione Stella, his fellow Neapolitan, who eventually worked for Gesualdo and prepared his first two books of madrigals for publication. We were able to compare Stella’s piece with Gesualdo’ own setting of ‘O vos omnes’ . The similarities – the use of unexpected key changes and chromatic steps to enhance the emotional impact of the text – were more marked than the differences. We then split into two groups, to study two of Gesualdo’s madrigals, ‘Dolcissime sospiro’ and ‘Beltà, poi che t’assenti’, both on the familiar theme of the suffering of the lover. Three sopranos (four actually) separately studied ‘Donna se m’ancidete’, a brilliant madrigal written for the three ‘singing ladies of Ferrara’. This must have been the most satisfying achievement of the day for these singers. There were participants whose expectations were, for at least part of day, to sing one to a part or at least in small numbers, and this could be achieved only by splitting into smaller groups. Those participants appreciated Gerald's respect and confidence in their abilities. Other singers would have welcomed being able to study a piece separately, before putting it together with the viols. Meanwhile, we moved on to sterner stuff – a sacred madrigal ‘Sparge la morte’, describing Jesus’ dying moment on the cross. We then came together for the last piece of Gesualdo, the respond for the third nocturne of Holy Saturday, ‘Plange quasi virgo’. These solemn pieces were possibly the most successful ensembles of the workshop – the key transitions are more manageable at their slower tempo. The day’s main difficulties arose from having two groups working simultaneously. Gerald had to flit from one room to another, on one occasion leav ing a group to rehearse itself in an unfamiliar piece and an unfamiliar idiom – how many of us get the opportunity to sing Italian madrigals? Minor difficulties arose from the editions - at one point Gerald found himself conducting a piece where the viols were in a different time signature to the singers! However, this was a most satisfying and interesting workshop, and Gerald is to be congratulated on the brilliantly selected pieces, and for skilfully directing both the small and larger groups, making sure of a rewarding experience for us all, and achieving at the end some quite creditable ‘performances’.
Musical Quotations collected by Red Priest
Earlier this year I found a collection of interesting musical quotations on the Red Priest web site If you want to look yourself, you’ll probably find it easier to search for Red Priest rather than type in this rather strange address. I emailed Piers Adams for permission to use some of them if I had a space to fill, and here are the first few:
Mattheson (1738) “Both the soul and the intellect are deeply moved by music. What causes this? Surely not just the sound-vibrations themselves, nor their shape, size and figuration; but mainly their original and endless combination, variation, application, mixture, character, interweaving, height, depth, stepping, springing, loitering, speeding up, turning strength, weakness, violence, usual and unusual tempi, softening, slowing down, silence and a thousand things more, which no compass, no ruler, no standard can measure, and none can judge except the noblest, innermost part of the man whom nature and experience have educated.”
Geminiani 1751 “Experience has shown that the imagination of the hearer is in general so much at the disposal of the master that by the help of variations, movements, intervals and modulation he may almost stamp what impression on the mind he pleases. These extraordinary emotions are indeed most easily excited when accompanied with words; and I would besides advise, as well the composer as performer, who is ambitious to inspire his audience, to be first inspired himself.”
Mattheson (1713 and later) “Concerning such would-be luminaries who believe music has to follow their rules, when in truth their rules have to follow the music, one can rightly say: ‘they manage their thinking to understand nothing’.” “Rules are valid as long as I consider it well and sensible to abide by them. They are valid no longer than that.” “Rules are what I like and as long as I like it.” “The rule of nature is, in music, nothing but the ear.”
Praetorius (1618) – on rules of keyboard fingering “Let a player run up and down the keyboard with his first, middle or third fingers, or even with his nose if that will help him…”
Muffat (1701) “From the first note where they are so indicated, forte and piano should be played by everyone in such a way that when piano is played it is scarcely heard, and when forte is played it sounds so powerful that listeners remain amazed at so much noise.”