Thames Valley Early Music Forum
Tamesis Issue 250
It’s hard to believe it but there was a shortage of sopranos at Peter Syrus’s workshop on music from Spain and the new world! You missed a glorious collection of music for vespers by Victoria, Vivanco, Velasco, Guerrero and Padilla. The one thing that slightly spoiled the day for me was the way that people kept their heads in their copies, getting behind the beat and sometimes taking several seconds to notice that Peter had stopped conducting. This happened at the joint workshop with Philip Thorby in Cambridge as well. Both conductors were remarkably restrained on the subject but we shall have to try to do better.
A minor mystery arose at the workshop. Sheila Poole opened an old teabag box among the TVEMF supplies and found a small seashell labelled “Xenophora agglutinas (should be agglutinans) Lamarck, Eocene, P18.11 0247”. The label suggests it is a fossilised shell from a collection. Please contact tamesis @ tvemf.org if it is yours and you would like it back.
Since the last Tamesis we have fixed two new workshops in September and October and forms are enclosed. The Emma Murphy Venetian workshop has not just a director new to us but also a new organiser (thanks Hugh) so please book early.
I’m looking forward to seeing some of you at the Beauchamp summer school at the end of the month – always a great combination of good music, good company and good food – and at the Ardingly Baroque Week two weeks later. That course is going to be slightly different this year, with the theme being the three extant operas from the 1701 competition for “The Judgment of Paris”. As we’ll be having our usual diet of baroque chamber music as well, we won’t be able to do any of them complete. Instead we’ll be dipping into them throughout the week in the vocal and instrumental sessions as well as working on the full choruses in the evenings, and we’ll perform some highlights on the last evening. I still remember how much I enjoyed seeing them performed at St John’s Smith Square some years ago, so I’m really looking forward to it.
TVEMF is well known for its value for money, especially in recent times when we have been trying to reduce our bank balance to a more reasonable level by subsidising our events, keeping the members' fee down to £12. Unfortunately this state of affairs cannot continue for ever as the costs of tutors and venues are rising, as our funds diminish. You may therefore see a modest price rise for some of our events in the near future but I think we will still provide excellent value.
The season of summer schools approaches, so please consider writing a review of your musical holiday, be it shawms in Syria, bagpipes in Baghdad or just recorders in Wrexham.
There was lots of good feedback from Ghislaine Morgan's “French Connection” workshop at which she provided some valuable vocal coaching. I really enjoyed the workshop of Spanish and New World music directed by Peter Syrus using his own beautifully presented editions, in spite of the problems mentioned in the Editorial (above). I felt my cornett-playing was of assistance to the sopranos though of course I would say that wouldn’t I? In the autumn we can look forward to a workshop directed by Justin Doyle on the music of John Sheppard whose 500th anniversary falls this year. At least 1515 is the best guess at his birth year, as unlike Charlotte and George, he wasn't famous when he was born.
The memorial service for Mavis Brown
Mavis's memorial service was held in the Priory Church of St Laurence, Blackmore on Thursday 18th June, conducted by the Rev David Thomas. Tributes were paid by her sister Margaret, daughter Nicola and son Antony. The Stondon Singers (one of Mavis's choirs) directed by Chris Tinker, sang O Quam Gloriosum (Victoria), Justorum Animae and the Agnus Dei from the Four Part Mass (Byrd). The church was packed and the standard of hymn singing was excellent, as one would expect considering the presence of so many singers. The service concluded with Bach's Organ Prelude in E flat played by John Hart. It was a moving and fitting tribute to a much loved friend of so many singers.
After the Peter Syrus workshop on Saturday, Jeff Gill was left with a pair of glasses, a sweatshirt, and a bag with a rather smart water bottle in it. Please contact him if they belong to you.
Letter to the Editor
As a fairly long-term subscriber to Early Music Review I read your piece in Tamesis about its demise in the present form with interest.
However, this led me to wonder about the demise of Sidney Ross. May I ask what happened to my review entitled The Great Byrd Mystery? I should hate to think that it had been suppressed on account of any heretical views propounded therein (and I don't, on re-reading it, observe any).
I’m so sorry Sidney. There have been problems with forwarding to me emails addressed to secretary @ tvemf.org and tamesis @ tvemf.org (now sorted out) but here it is now, still very well worth reading and devoid of heretical views as far as I can tell!
The Great Byrd Mystery
When did he write it? At whose request or command, and for what occasion, was it written? Where was it intended to be performed? Such were the questions that remained largely unanswered at the conclusion of the TVEMF workshop devoted mainly to Byrd’s Great Service, which took place under the direction of John Milsom at the Headington Community Centre on 14 March.
Before immersing themselves in the complexities of the Great Service, the fifty singers who took part were required to circumvent the obstacles placed in the way of their arrival at the venue by the Highway Authority, who had decreed improvements along the London Road. This they were able to do with the aid of various bulletins and maps provided in advance.
The Great Service, which is scored for two five-part choirs (SAATB) and is a setting of music for Matins, Communion and Evensong, consists of seven movements, the Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus, Kyrie, Creed, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Meticulous preliminary organisation of all five parts was required; we were no doubt all aware of the need for division into cantores and decani, but it came as a surprise to your reviewer (and, no doubt, to others) that we were required to engage in an exercise in self-assessment and divide ourselves into leaders and followers. This was accomplished with commendable rapidity and proved to be well worth while, as the seating arrangements remained unaltered throughout the day, sparing us the continual va et vient that regularly occurs in workshops featuring polychoral music. However, before embarking on our exploration of the day’s programme, we were introduced to one of John’s attainments not previously (at least in your reviewer’s recollection) displayed to us - his mastery of the Wacky Warm-Up which placed him in the same class as such noted exponents of the genre as Robert Hollingworth and David Allinson-a series of positively Diabellian variations on the theme of ‘picketty-pocketty’, ending with an exhortation to render it in the style of Caruso.
We studied four movements of the Great Service, the Benedictus and Creed in the morning, and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in the afternoon, using an edition specially prepared by Simon Lillystone. It appears from the internet that he is (or was) a counter-tenor in a group called Musica Contexta, which produced a well-reviewed recording entitled The Great Service in the Chapel Royal, released under the Chandos label in 2012.
It appeared, from an initial show of hands, that very few of us had previously encountered any movements of the Great Service other than the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. John told us that church music set to English texts (ECM) did not attain, and has not subsequently attained, the popularity of its Latin counterpart. The initial lack of enthusiasm accounts for the absence of any contemporary manuscripts and is the root cause of the mysteries surrounding the composition of the Great Service. As Fellowes observed (William Byrd, 2nd edition, 1948, p.128), ‘the scarcity of text, even allowing for loss and destruction, suggests that it was never widely used’, though he goes on to deduce from the existence of surviving text that it seemed certainly to have been used regularly at Durham, York and Worcester, and also to have been sung at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The current lack of acquaintance with it apparently derives from a combination of dislike on the part of the clergy for the ECM genre and a regrettable paucity of sufficiently agile altos. No solution to either of these problems was proposed.
Although the passing into law of the Act of Uniformity required the use of the ‘Book of Common Prayer and none other’ from the feast of Pentecost 1549, it did not, as has sometimes been asserted, require texts to be set so that there was ‘for every syllable a note’. While some early settings of canticles in the ECM genre were composed on that basis, Byrd, as the Great Service demonstrates in innumerable places, never felt himself to be constrained in that way. In fact, as John remarked, there is a decidedly madrigalian feeling to the Benedictus, and it is worth recalling, in that context, that Byrd was the first of the English madrigal composers, the abbreviated title ‘Psalms, Songs and Sonnets’ by which his 1588 collection is generally known obscuring the fact that it includes one of his best-known madrigals, Though Amaryllis dance in green. It is interesting that John should have detected a reminiscence of ‘came running down amain’ in that movement, because that phrase is found in Weelkes’ ‘As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending’ and it is Weelkes, along with Morley and Wilbye, whom Fellowes (The English Madrigal Composers, 2nd edition, 1948, p.169) identifies as influencing Byrd in his composition of madrigals.
In the four movements which we studied there are some features specific to individual movements-for instance, the Benedictus includes a most unusual grouping of voices (three altos and a tenor) for the passage ‘And thou child shall be called the prophet of the highest’ but there are many which emphasise the essential unity of the Great Service overall, whether or not the individual movements were composed separately over a period of many years. Thus, all four of the movements which we studied open (as does the Venite, also) with the same combination of voices (the bass being omitted in each case) with a very similar phrase. Byrd demonstrates his versatility in the six different settings of the doxology but, again emphasising the overall unity, the scale passages of the ‘Amen’ which concludes the Creed strongly resemble those at the conclusion of the Gloria in both the Benedictus and the Magnificat. Your reviewer gained the impression that John was more enthusiastic about the Creed after we had worked through it than before we started, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to disagree with his expressed view that in the evening canticles of the Great Service we have Byrd at his best.
We also briefly explored two pieces edited by John and set to English texts (O Lord, give ear, SAATTB, and Behold now, praise the Lord, SAATBB). The Latin text settings are from Cantiones Sacrae (1575), numbers 17 (memento homo, for Ash Wednesday, the original, suitably gloomy texts being taken from Ecclesiastes and Job) and 18 (laudate pueri, a vocal adaptation of a six part fantasia, with psalm texts) which John described as ‘neither an anthem nor a motet, but fun to sing’ – a judgment with which it was easy to agree.
The session after tea was devoted, as is usually the case, with a sing through, for which we had sufficient reserves of energy to manage successfully. We are, as always, greatly indebted to John for guiding us so expertly through territory which was to a considerable extent unknown to us, and we look forward keenly to our next venture into the unexplored hinterland of early music under his direction. Warm thanks are also due to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising the event, to David King for assiduously supplying us with bulletins detailing the complications created by the road works, to Dag Bergman for making his local knowledge of means of access to Gladstone Road available by way of maps, and to the providers of morning and afternoon refreshments.
Spem in Alium Workshop for Voices and Instruments with Philip Thorby
(St Paul`s Cambridge, 16 May)
Numbers were a little down because of the difficulty of travelling to Cambridge (!!) - I have travelled to Wales for a workshop with Philip ( and I don`t drive!) - so I have very little sympathy. I find St Sepulchre the most accessible of the usual venues and although I feel that Spem virtually sings itself in Waltham Abbey, St Paul`s was perfectly satisfactory (and the tea facilities more than adequate.)
Philip began by warning that although he intended to rehearse at a slow speed he was going to take the final sing-through faster than usual. He then surprised me by saying that there is some evidence - notably the somewhat perfunctory underlay of the Latin text in the earliest (17th century) mss - that Spem (in Latin) is a contrafactum of the (English) "Sing and Glorify Heaven’s High Majesty" (for the 1610 investiture of Henry, Prince of Wales), rather than the other way round. For today`s workshop Philip had rewritten the underlay slightly, replacing some melismata with syllabic writing and re-ordering the words in places to give better rhetoric between choirs.
Next a few words about "Time Signatures". O is triple (the Trinity being perfect) and cut-common implies a semibreve tactus. The rule-of-thumb which equates minims with beats of the heart is expressed more scientifically by Hans Gehrle when he says that "Schlag" is the speed with which the clock strikes the hour, or at which one counts Thalers carefully! Sir Donald Wolfit lived again (briefly) as we relaxed the soft palate. Philip also made some common-sense remarks on word stress and accent (DE-us, for example), strong and weak syllables, etc, and enjoined us to work towards the end of the phrase.
Philip had recently directed the Padovano Mass for 24 voices with NEEMF, working from individual parts - this implies using the EARS, the MEMORY, ... and understanding the Principle of Counting Rests. (My first experience of singing Spem was at Morley College, the choir disposed in a circle, one to a part, and using the O.U.P. full score - this remains my favourite format, as singing Bass 2 in Choir VIII while supporting the score reinforces the feeling of machismo which is proper to Second Basses and enables one to see at a glance the structure of the piece. I have yet to construct a choral periscope, and although I have never taken part in Karaoke I remember well the "bouncing ball" of pantomime choruses in my childhood - indeed an Open University programme on Boulez used this simple device to take one through complex scores. Could some form of back-projection and an electronic pointer reduce dependency on the Pencil of Truth? In the event each choir had its own score, which confused me slightly. Were there one, two, three or four GPs?
Philip’s conducting was as energetic as ever, and he led by example (sometimes giving notes or a phrase on recorder). "This is an exultant bravura piece, not a supplication... Make your entries confident!" (At bar 88 Choirs III/IV were told to get in touch with their inner Zadok.) "Spem has Passagii contrasting with choral declaratory sections - it does not consist uniformly of block chords." (Although I thought I knew the piece fairly well, the use of choir part-books made it difficult to appreciate inter-choral rhetoric.)
I found the instruments disconcerting on occasion. (At one stage I thought that an unacknowledged organist was playing a gentle accompaniment on a generic "woodwind" stop - it turned out that the Alto part in Choir III was being played on a contrabass recorder which had been borrowed from the Astronomy Department.) The rehearsal itself was structured somewhat differently from the way to which I had become accustomed. Some voices in some choirs complained that they were not getting enough singing time, until it was pointed out that the choirs who sang more were in fact those who needed remedial attention. The mixture of Sectional Rehearsal and note-bashing left me feeling that I (and not the piece) was being pulled apart - I would rather have carried out a full-scale Schenkerian analysis. I did however acquire new insights - if I had had my own score there would have been lots of annotations - the "trumpet parts" at bar 40 and in Choir V (bar 69) reminiscent of Josquin's La Guerre and other Battaglia pieces, the slowing down (tactus in 2) and triadic writing from bar 122 to the end...
After the sing-through I found myself wishing that we had sung in the round so as to experience the Mexican Wave effect. Is Garrick’s Octagon available for performance? (And more importantly, does it have facilities for making tea?) ..which reminds me that I almost forgot to thank Ellen!
P.S. I had an interesting Polyphonic Epiphany a day or so later. Renate and I had gone to Berlin for the Latvian opera "Valentina" (Arturs Maskats). As we enjoyed a romantic meal at the Ristorante Peppone (Potsdamer Platz) I tried to eavesdrop on the couple at the table behind us, but could make no sense whatsoever of their conversation. Eventually I turned round and saw each of them with fork dangling upside-down in the left hand (alla Tedesca), right hand holding mobile phones firmly to the right ear, and conducting totally independent conversations. Does this extraordinary behaviour have implications for Polychorality in the 21st Century?
The French Connection, Ealing, June 13th 2015
I have to confess I’m not a singer in the sense that Ghislaine Morgan is a singer. I’m very happy to turn up and sight read 20 pieces of renaissance or baroque music with not too much talking in between; my voice is nothing special but it gets round the notes, and at my age I don’t feel the need for a great voice any more than I want to swap my Ford for a Porsche. Warmups are like having to eat the broccoli and spinach before you’re allowed to have the tiramisu. So if I can say that I enjoyed this singing day, Ms Morgan must be pretty special.
She is particularly good at explaining what each exercise does for you – working up the body gradually relaxing and correcting posture - the use of laughing to exercise the muscles – Happy Birthday with one breath per note – moving the head back for low notes and forward for high ones (which seems to be the opposite of what comes naturally); after lunch when many of us tend to sag, making an infinity sign with our noses, pulling ears and the energy yawn. It was salutary to get a pep talk about keeping our voices fit as we age and not giving up on them too easily. Basses had to give more depth to their lower notes with “fee fi fo fum” and we had to put our fingers in our mouths to make the tongue work harder.
Most of the chosen repertoire by Josquin dePrez, Certon, Jacquet of Mantua and Passereau, had a technical issue, e.g. in “O vos omnes” the transition from low to high notes using an imaginary glissando, in “Tu solus” the importance of correct vowels in keeping in tune, with much practice on the word “pretiosissimo”. Sight singing doesn’t really go with good voice production, getting acquainted with the notes with a lively syllable such as “ging” or “fwa”, gives the tongue or lips a necessary workout to give clarity to rapid chansons such as “Il est bel et bon”. With “Tant que vivrai” we used rrr or vvv in continuous legato (though for some with difficulty) to learn the notes. We miaou’d through the Alleluia, though I’m not too sure that I could tell the difference between 60% and 80% catty vowels, or whether I was doing them at all. Perhaps the least successful item was “La, La, La” the last one we tackled and in some cases flagging at the end of the day; we also suffered the old bugbear of different editions, and the one we had not very helpfully set out. I don’t think we sang this all the way through, but with very efficient direction we achieved respectable and complete performances of all the others.
It was not entirely technical; I’ve been to courses so deeply musicological that abstruse compositional details of Renaissance harmony have been discussed without us getting much idea what the words mean. Ghislaine Morgan always wants us to know what we are singing about, and in “Au joli bois” encouraged a little more word-painting – sing the meaning. We gathered when and where each composer was, (though they all seemed to have travelled a lot), and by whom influenced; Passereau, Certon and Jacquet of Mantua were completely new names to me, but Josquin desPrez with his two contrasted styles way ahead of the pack.
Our director was obviously rather disappointed that almost none of us had looked at the music beforehand, even though the form stated that participants were encouraged to look at the music in advance and PDF scores could be emailed on request. If we had printed it for ourselves we could have put the music in some logical order or given it a contents list, as the provided pamphlet as far as I could see wasn’t in alphabetical order of composer or title, date order or the order in which we sang the items. I seemed to be doing a lot of shuffling through looking for the next piece. Having said that, I’m very grateful to the TVEMF management for laying on such excellent days as this at such reasonable cost and with music provided.
P.S. I have one little niggle about a few of the people who go on these courses. Some singers have a habit of practising bits when the music director is talking. It’s distracting and particularly infuriating when they are not even getting it right. I hope you know who you are.
New(ish) Early Music Festival
What I seem to remember describing as a “duo to die for” in Tamesis, back in the last century, has re-surfaced. I managed to get to two concerts at the Stroud Green Early Music Festival, which was started by Clare Norburn last year, at both of which Clare and Ariane Prüssner (soprano and mezzo) were singing together for the first time for 13 years – they have lost none of their magic, their voices still complement each other wonderfully. In the first concert Clare and Ariane were joined by another lovely soprano, Yvonne Eddy, and Clara Salaman on hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa (with everyone contributing percussion as required), and performed music from the Spanish Llibre Vermell and the Cantigas de Santa Maria, as well as some by Hildegard of Bingen. The penultimate item was Ciconia’s O rosa bella – I remember being blown away by Clare and Ariane’s performance of it all those years ago, and it was wonderful to hear them sing it again. In the second concert they gave an all-Italian programme, a first-rate performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (with Elin White and Pablo Castro on violins and Geoffrey Higgins on organ), as well as various solos and duets by Monteverdi, Merula, Merulo and Sances (this last, Lagrimosa beltà, is rarely heard). The rest of the festival concerts (all taking place in Holy Trinity Church, Granville Road) were also very tempting, but I couldn’t manage any more of them – I have put myself on the mailing list so that I will have earlier notice of next year’s festival, and I would recommend that anyone interested should email norburnc @ dircon.co.uk and do the same – you can find out more about the festival from www.stroudgreenfestival.org.uk – the programmes are interesting and the musicians of* very high quality.