Thames Valley Early Music Forum
Tamesis Issue 262
There are several more dates for your diary and the programme for next year is looking good. I’m sorry a few of them are not definitely settled but we’ll confirm them on the web site as soon as they are.
I’m really sorry to have to miss Alison Kinder’s introduction to playing and singing from facsimile on September 9th. I’ve done quite a lot of playing from facsimile but I’d have enjoyed the opportunity to look at some familiar music in the original notation. I hope lots of you will take this unusual opportunity.
There are two quite different reviews of the Isaac day last month. I’ve talked to several people about the day and they were divided into those who enjoyed the introductions and welcomed the opportunity to gain an overview of a little-sung composer, and those who would have liked to do less in more detail. I must say I always like to have the music put into context so I’d have been in the former camp on this occasion, but it just goes to show that you can’t please everyone all the time. Not surprising with the size of our membership!
I’m pleased to say that we have a new committee member, Jenny Frost, who accepted our invitation only two days after she retired! I’m sure she’ll be a great addition to the team.
As always, thanks to everybody who has contributed to this edition. Please keep your articles and reviews coming.
Over the years TVEMF has put on a number of events in conjunction with other organisations. I think the first one was in the early 1990s when we joined forces with the Historical Dance Society to perform excerpts from the Mask of Squires. Then there were a few events in Oxford held jointly with MEMF and of course more recently the series, mostly in Waltham Abbey, with EEMF. They have also been a couple of Inter-For a events involving wider participation to allow more elaborate works to be performed. The most recent was in Nottingham - Handel's Saul, and in 1989 Philip Thorby directed a splendid weekend in Wolverhampton where we studied the 1589 Florentine Intermedii*. I was reminded of this latter event when on a weekend course with Peter Syrus at Knuston hall where we tackled works by Marenzio (who wrote music for two of the six intermedii) and Vecchi. Two composers I intend to seek out in future. I'm looking forward to Peter's TVEMF workshop on J.S. Bach and his ancestors on July 15th - we could use a few more lower voices if you are free.
The large-scale Inter-Fora events require a lot of effort to organise so don't expect another one for a while. The most recent EEMF/TVEMF event was in Cambridge, which was too far for me to go for a day's music but next year we plan to hold an event at Benslow in Hitchin, which is a bit more central and has good rail access.
I enjoyed Don Grieg's workshop commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Heinrich Isaac, which I suppose is not surprising given my fondness for Isaac's music. There is always a trade-off between having a lot of music to give an overview of the subject or working on a few pieces to achieve a more polished result. In the case of Isaac, who is not as well-known as he deserves to be, I feel that Don was right to go for the overview but others may disagree.
Having recently retired from work, Linda Barlow has kindly taken over the job of Membership Secretary from Kate Gordon - many thanks to them both.
*TVEMF revisited the work with Philip in 2001 - for an account of the missing Intermedio VII see www.tvemf.org/tamesis/humour/index.html
Isaac in Ickenham, and his influence on Webern
On June 17th some 35 singers met at the United Reformed Church in Ickenham to read through some choral music by Heinrich Isaac. Many of us were not familiar with this composer’s music because he is overshadowed by his contemporary Josquin des Prez. The course leader was Donald Greig, who began with a 15-minute warm-up on the history and times of Isaac and a short vocal warm-up. The group was well-balanced,
with enough tenors and basses, but the problem with late 15th century
music is that the voicing for our SATB formation presents problems when transposed up to accommodate women’s ranges. The top line is okay, and the bass line is, too, but the two middle lines, with their range of an octave plus a 6th are sometimes uncomfortably low for altos, and sometimes uncomfortably high for tenors. We tried mixing altos and tenors, with mixed results. Our tutor tried taking things down or up a tone with equally mixed results. To keep things on track he sometimes sang out one of the lower lines, which I didn’t always find helpful.
Reading through music was what we did – including parts of one of the masses, some motets and a few of the songs. There was too much material to spend much time on any one of them, and tutor Greig didn’t go back over many of the details, so sight-reading was the order of the day. He gave us a peek at what he called the smuttier side of polyphony with one secular song with more risqué words to a piece with three different sets of Italian words and a motet on Tota Pulchra es, one of the Songs of Solomon.
The high points of the day were two of the better-known Isaac pieces, the motet Ave Regina Caelorum and the song Innsbruck ich muss dich lassen, both in four parts. It was pleasant to be singing pieces in four parts instead of the usual 8 to 12 parts often encountered in these workshops. The one longish piece we tried had six parts (Virgo Prudentissima quae pia) with named reference to Emperor Maximilian and to Georgius, the Kapellmeister, ending with an amusing repetition in the bass lines of “et ut sol” on the one-five of the chord which would, we were told, have had the choristers all chuckling.
Attending the workshop was Jane Alden, musicologist, who regretted that the influence of Isaac’s music on music of the 20th century was not brought out. She told us that Anton Webern wrote his thesis on and brought out an edition of Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus, which attracted the attention of Igor Stravinsky, who remarked that it was such an important contribution to the study of music that “no household should be without a copy of this edition.”
I looked up the Webern reference and learned that:
“However, neither stylistically nor technically can the influence of Schoenberg, or his predecessors in the ‘German Tradition’, be seen as sufficient to explain the nature of Webern’s mature composition. Certain aspects of his music become much clearer however, when related to his substantial knowledge and love of the Netherlandish composers such as Josquin de Prez, Pierre de la Rue, Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht, and above all Heinrich Isaac.
This observation indicates that Webern’s interest in Isaac went beyond mere technical fascination to a common sense of beauty, and a feeling of personal affinity: he viewed Isaac’s compositional motivations as he viewed his own. Yet, the significance of Webern’s study of Choralis Constantinus lies above all in the technical and compositional possibilities it suggested to him: the profuse employment of canonic devices and of ‘close or more distant imitation’ the ‘subtle organisation of the interplay of parts’; the ‘most delicate observation of tone-colour in the various registers of the human voice’; and the overriding sense of order and unity which is perceptible in Isaac’s (at times) almost architectural sense of form.” (Christian Masson: “Anton Webern and the influence of the Heinrich Isaac”
Organizer Kate Gordon did a great job of balancing the number of voices, and thanks to David King for handling all the finances and music copying chores, and to David Fletcher, our chairman and factotum, who formatted the music and does so much to keep TVEMF running so successfully.
Heinrich Isaac Workshop, June 17th 2017
The Heinrich Isaac workshop on June 17th 2017 was one of the most enjoyable events I have attended. It was a rare opportunity to experience music from the early part of our period (he lived from 1450 to 1517). The unexpected twists to the music, in terms of intervals, harmonies and rhythms, were most interesting. For instance the Missa Paschale, which we looked at first, had a C tonality and final chord but a Bb key signature, although there were several B natural accidentals. This caused some confusion as in several cases it felt unnatural to sing the natural or flat as written and the tutor, who said it was not meant to be Mixolydian in mode, had to confirm the correct note for us. One felt that the composer was feeling his way and experimenting in trying to achieve a consistent style which, as we know, was realised and achieved perfection a little under 100 years later in the work of the famous “golden age” Renaissance composers.
Apart from the sacred pieces, it was good also to sing some of the little-known secular songs of the time which, unexpectedly, could be quite ribald and bawdy with suggestive symbolism. One song in German was remarkably tuneful and inventive and could have been a much more recent piece. Donald Greig was an excellent tutor in terms particularly of the variety of pieces he included, his fascinating introductions, and for the way he allowed us to sing long sections of the music without letting attention to detail overshadow the overall experience. I hope we will have him again to teach us more music from this fascinating early period.
Orazio Benevoli: Music for 16 voices with Philip Thorby
Saturday 13th May at St Paul’s Church, Hills Road, Cambridge
I (Victoria) went to the joint TVEMF/EEMF which was organised by EEMF and held in Cambridge this year. A number of TVEMF members weren’t put off by the journey from London and other points west and it was well worth the effort of getting there. The music was quite difficult but we proved up to the challenge and Philip gradually extracted a very reasonable performance from the assembled singers and players. It would have been nice to have had a couple more cornetts and sackbuts to back up one of the choirs, but I was lucky enough to play bass curtal in a very satisfactory quartet of instruments (including Richard Whitehouse – see below) backing another of the four choirs. The organisation of the event was excellent, as were the refreshments, and the only minor problem was that the sole potential member of the audience for the run-through, my husband Alan who had kindly driven me to Cambridge, found himself locked out of the church. He assures me it sounded very good from outside!
The rest of this review is by Robert Johnson, the editor of the EEMF newsletter from which it is taken, who starts, and by Richard Whitehouse, the Secretary of Southern Early Music Forum.
Here is Robert:
Unfortunately no one offered to write this event up in full, but I can assure readers that it was a everything that one would expect from a Philip Thorby day: full of instruction, insights, hard work, and enjoyment of some impressive works by a rarely heard composer, Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672). As our invitation told us, Benevoli, raised and trained in Rome, spent only two years away from the city, at the court of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria. He returned home in 1646, where he directed, and composed for, Sta Maria Maggiore and then the Capella Giulia. He wrote his most notable sacred choral works for the Papal establishment, at a period embracing both the translucence of the Counter-Reformation and the monumentality of Colossal Baroque.
We studied the 19-part Dixit Dominus and the Gloria from the Missa Tiracorda, both written for 4 x SATB choirs. Richard Whitehouse came up from Redhill, Surrey bringing his lyzard to add to the dignity of the proceedings, and he has kindly sent the following appreciation:
Mini-review of Benevoli workshop 13/05/17
Thank you for a delightful workshop yesterday. I thought Philip was on good form. His pungent comments as usual served not only to entertain but also to inform and engage us with the music and unlock aspects not obvious from a simple play through. The music itself was interesting and challenging (but achievable!). I had not come across Benevoli before but I shall look out for him in the future. The church was a good venue, with an acoustic which was supportive without being overwhelming, and plenty of space to arrange the performers. And my fellow performers were a pleasure to work with. Thanks again for an enjoyable event.
Rameau’s Pygmalion at the Brighton Early Music Festival
For the information of anyone who will be within striking distance of the Brighton Early Music Festival this autumn, there are going to be three performances of Ensemble Molière’s production of Rameau’s Pygmalion, which I would highly recommend. I have just been to the première of the production at the Stroud Green Festival, and was most impressed – musically it is first-rate, and it is a very clever production which really works – or it did for me, at any rate. In many instances the production gets in the way of the piece, but this was absolutely not the case here, and it was very well received by a packed audience.
The Stroud Green Festival in North London is fairly new (this is its 4th year), and is worth keeping an eye on – it is not all early music, but quite a lot of it is, and this year there was quite a bit of Baroque besides Ensemble Molière (whom I first came across at the concert they gave at the London Festival of Baroque Music in May). It is run by Clare Norburn, who co-directs the Brighton Early Music Festival, and is herself a singer (soprano). It started with a concert of Shakespearean music and readings, and the six subsequent concerts that I went to were Ensemble Molière’s Dance for the Kings! (dance music from the courts of Louis XIV and George I); The Little Baroque Company with Cat Mackintosh and Jenni Harper performing John Stanley, William Hayes and Handel; Rameau’s Pygmalion aforementioned; Clare’s concert, Women mystics at twilight (Dame Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen), with mezzo Ariane Prüssner – I described them many years ago as a duo to die for, they sing incredibly well together and seem able to read each other’s minds to an astonishing degree – this time they had a poet Sara Law reading poems which tied in with the general theme, in between the musical items – I was doubtful about that, but in the event I thought it worked well, as the musical items are pretty intense, and a solid hour’s worth would have been a lot to cope with, but the poems, also intense, but in a different way, gave variety without breaking the flow or disturbing the general mood; Emma Kirkby and her talented young Dowland Works lot (voices, viols and lutes) performing Danyel, Dowland, Tobias Hume and Coperario; and a final concert, The Pleasures of Vauxhall Gardens, a programme of songs written for Vauxhall Gardens (the Pleasure Gardens generated an enormous amount of music), instrumental music, and readings – Clare sang, with fiddle, recorder, viol/cello, harpsichord, and a couple of actors. All seven concerts I went to were very enjoyable, well-chosen and well-performed programmes which really held their audiences, and there were other concerts I would have gone to had I not already been booked up for something else. The festival will be over by the time this goes to press, but there is always next year! If these brief remarks have whetted your appetite, you can join the mailing list by email, info @ stroudgreenfestival.org.uk or phone 020-7281-6864, and thus get the information in good time.
News of Members’ Activities
Billed as “ Music for Jane Austen”, the League of Harmony (TVEMF member Rosemary Edwards, baroque cello, and Mike Parker, single action harp) will be giving a programme of 18th century sonatas and duos at Wolvercote Baptist Church, Godstone Road, Lower Wolvercote, Oxford OX2 8PG on Friday 1st September at 7.30 pm. Tickets are available at www.ticketsoxford.com (01865 305305).