Tamesis Issue 218
I spent a rather sad afternoon a couple of weeks ago on the very last day of opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s musical instrument collection. It’s been closed every time I’ve visited in recent years and now I have discovered, too late, that it was open once a month. What a way to treat such a national treasure! No wonder they think that it isn’t a popular exhibition. For those who haven’t been, you can still get an idea of the wonderful collection of instruments by looking at it on the V & A’s web site. Not everything is remarkable, but the collection includes the famous Bressan baroque flute with silver inlay, a beautifully decorated recorder and baroque oboe, important early keyboard instruments and harps. The collection is to be dispersed, some possibly to the Horniman Museum with a few items kept in other departments of the V & A. They are to be replaced by an extens ion to the already, in my opinion, rather too large costume gallery. You can see the whole sorry story on Facebook where there is a group called Keep the V & A Musical Instrument Gallery Open. You can also sign the Number 10 petition on the web by visiting Ruth Harris has emailed a number of us to say that the advice of her contact at the V&A is to keep up the pressure and write to the trustees, as well as signing the petition. I’ve been asked to make sure that you’ve all noticed that the baroque chamber music day at Oxford is definitely on Saturday, not Sunday as in previous years. I’m looking forward to seeing lots of you there. It’s always a good day.
Everyone seemed to enjoy John Milsom's Renaissance Requiems workshop, as there is something deeply satisfying about singing gloomy music, and John's enthusiasm and scholarship made it both entertaining and informative. I have long realised that I'm very poor at recognising the style of a composer, especially a renaissance one, so it was no surprise to do rather badly in identifying the authors of the twelve Introits that we tackled. I'm sure that we shall be trying this type of event again before too long - many thanks to Diana Porteus for organising it. My Renaissance Day also seemed to go quite well - at least nobody complained! Arranging the groups is like attempting a sudoku with no solution, made somewhat worse by the traditional absence of tenor voices, but with a few sackbuts and viols we survived quite well. There were one or two groups with "interesting" combinations of voices and instruments but it all seemed to pass off without tears. It's the time of year where I try to create a definitive membership list, which you will find enclosed. The new standing order complications (one bank thinks it is paying the Thames Valley Early Muslim Forum) and human error may mean that some people are omitted or have incorrect details, for which I apologise. I should point out that the most reliable ways of paying are by standing order (now available from our web site) or by sending me a cheque accompanied by the personalised yellow form which was sent with the November Tamesis. If you combine workshop fees with membership in a single cheque or fail to give me a form then the error rate will go up. I'm looking forward to some excellent workshops in the next few months - see the front cover for details.
Letters to the Editor
.... I was amused to read in the January Tamesis Kathy Edmonds’ collection of David Allison’s way with words .... She must have listened hard to find his ways with words which don’t mention food! David has always, in my experience, made extensive use of food allusions to get his points across. Maybe he was on a diet in September!
A challenge to my expectations
In recent weeks I have attended two events which have challenged my expectations. The first was John Milsom’s excellent workshop on 23rd January. Billed as a study of Requiems, in fact it focussed solely on Introits and one might presume that numerous settings of the same words and based on the same plainchant would prove dull and repetitious, but this was far from the case. We travelled through time and place, guided by John with good humour, enthusiasm and erudition and encountered composers both familiar and unknown. There was, in fact, much variety and proceedings were further enlivened by a running quiz as we tried to guess who had composed which Introit. If John was disappointed at the end by our failure to vote for a repeat performance of the Lassus Introit (his personal favourite), he seemed to feel compensated by the opportunity to hear texts he had only previously seen in manuscript, and by the improvement in our performance during the day. I should add that the venue was very accessible and suitable and all the music was available at reasonable cost. I would rate this TVEMF workshop as one of the most enjoyable I have attended.
The second event that challenged my expectations was the performance at the Wigmore Hall on 29th January by the Early Opera Company of Handel’s “oratorio” “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno” – here translated as The Triumph of Time and Enlightenment. I had no previous knowledge of this work and went along as much as anything in the spirit of my desire to hear as much as possible of Handel’s music before I turn up my toes than with a high expectation of pleasure and this prejudice was rather reinforced by reading that it was about the efforts of Time and Enlightenment to persuade Beauty to renounce Pleasure and the text was wr itten by one Cardinal Pamphilij. I feared it would be rather dry – how wrong I was. I should have remembered from annual Messiah performances how much of Handel’s music is based on dance rhythms and this is certainly the case with “Il Trionfo”. As ever, I was bowled over by Handel’s melodic creativity but what struck me most in this piece was the variety of orchestral texture, from delicacy in the mellifluous wind section to more robust by intensely sweet strings – and much in between. There is more musical characterisation than I had anticipated – in particular, Pleasure (Anna Stephany) is by turns caressingly seductive and fiery and peevish when she is losing her hold on Beauty, and poignant in the aria “Lascia la Spina” (to be transformed into “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” in the opera “Rinaldo”). Lucy Crowe was in radiant form as Beauty, and moving in her renunciation of Pleasure – “I want to change my desire and I want to say ‘I repent’ not ‘I shall repent’”. Andrew Staples as Time had less to do, but was equally satisfying. If I had a criticism, it was of the choice of Hilary Summers as Enlightenment. I cannot fault her performance, but some of her music lay very low in her register, which led me to believe that the role may have been written for a male voice originally. Certainly I missed the plangency and bite that I think a counter- tenor would have brought to the role. Perhaps a musicologist or Handel scholar can enlighten me – no pun intended – on this. An evening of exceptional beauty, made all the more enjoyable by being unexpectedly special. Does this constitute an argument in favour of Prejudice rather than Open-mindedness? And could that in itself be a worthy subject for a Handelian musical discourse?
On Saturday 23rd January I attended, together with over 50 other singers, a workshop on Renaissance Requiems directed by John Milsom at Headington Community Centre. The warm-up consisted of the various sections of the choir in turn singing the plainchant Requiem Aeternam at various pitches after which John explained his programme for the day. He had taken twelve polyphonic settings of Introits from Renaissance Requiems, transposed them all into the same key and given them all the same note values so that they could be very easily compared and contrasted. He only revealed the name of each composer after we had sung each work and tr ied to guess the composer if we did not already know the work. The music was all hand-written which, John said, he can do more quickly than using a computer. I find this quite surprising but both the music and words were extremely legible and the number of mistakes found throughout the day negligible. Furthermore hand-written music is more characterful than computer set music. One setting (Ockeghem or possibly Dufay) was in three parts, six (Prioris, Antoine de Févin, Guerrero, Pujol, Pierre de la Rue, Giovanni Francesco Anerio) were in four parts, three (Philippe de Monte, Lassus, du Caurroy) in five parts and two (Victoria, Richefort) in six parts. As can be seen, the composers ranged from giants of the Renaissance to fairly obscure figures but needless to say John made sure that all the works were well worth studying. He also ensured that the choir was well balanced regardless of the number of parts required and was helped by the fact that both tenor lines, when divided, had low tessituras. The settings were studied in roughly chronological order and John pointed out connections between them and also moments that gave him a ‘tingle’. The Requiem text was not necessarily sad but rather its mood depended upon theological views. The plainsong is in the Myxolydian mode, essentially a major scale with a flattened seventh.
Taking the works in the order we studied them, the setting by Prioris (fl. C.1485- 1512), a contemporary of Josquin, is the first Requiem that survives complete. As with all the settings, this has an A-B-A structure in which the very simple chant of the ‘Te decet hymnus’, based entirely on the first three pitches of the mode, is framed by the more extensive and complex ‘Requiem Aeternam’. The chant remains in the top line throughout. By contrast Févin’s (c. 1470-1511/2) setting, probably composed for a French royal funeral, moves the plainchant from the top line to the third line in the central section. John suggests that this could be to lessen its prominence. Philippe de Monte (1521-1603), whose Requiem we next sang, worked in Vienna and then Prague and was a prolific madrigal composer. This may be the reason why his Requiem setting has far more suspensions than earlier settings. Another innovation is that the central section begins in what we would now describe as the relative minor key. The fourth work we sang was by Orlande de Lassus (? 1532-1594), its opening chants pitched in the low bass register although transferred up an octave to the middle of the five vocal lines during the polyphony. This was clearly one of John’s favourite settings and he gave us a number of reasons for this. Unlike earlier settings, Lassus sometimes repeats words for rhetorical effect. In addition there are a number of ‘tingle’ moments, generated by false relations and suspensions. John described the following setting by Guerrero (1528-99) as harmonically volatile. The plainchant remains in the top line throughout this four-part setting which was composed in the 1560s. In contrast the setting by the Catalan composer Joan Pau Pujol (c1570 - 1626). written around 1600, John thought to be the cleverest of all the settings. It is continuously polyphonic and there is much melodic imitation. Intriguingly Grove says that Pujol was a very prolific composer who was much appreciated in his day but now is one of the most berated composers in the history of Spanish music. No explanation for this harsh view is given.
If the Pujol’ Requiem was ‘clever’ then Victoria’s (1548-1611) was a ‘work of genius’ suggested John and I would certainly concur with this view. It is an intensely emotional piece full of chromaticism, dissonances, suspensions, shifting tonality and full of ‘tingle’. After this work we went significantly back in time to the setting by Pierre de La Rue (c.1452-1518). This had a number of interesting features. It was one of the first settings to explore the minor mode within the central section and it is also rhythmically very complex with simultaneous duple and triple figurations. This piece was followed by one that was very familiar to many of us since John had devoted an entire TVEMF workshop to the complete Requiem very recently. The Introit by Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) therefore needs no further explanation but suffice it to say we really enjoyed singing this amazing work again.
The setting by Du Caurroy (c. 1549 - 1609), composed in the 1580s, was popular for a long time and John considers it very successful as a choral work. We followed this with a setting by Giovanni Francesco Anerio (c.1567-1630) which is somewhat reminiscent of Byrd’s style, and finally sang a three part setting originally thought to be by Ockeghem (c.1410-c.1497) but now considered possibly to be by Dufay (1397- 1479).
Having studied all twelve settings we then sang through all the settings in probable chronological order as an uninterrupted sequence. There was only time to sing the A section of each setting although we made an exception for the Victoria which was sung complete. With the music fresh in our minds we were then asked to vote for our favourite, excluding the Victoria, which we would then repeat. Richafort received the most votes just ahead of Lassus and Guerrero.
By the end of the session not only had we all had a very good sing and got to know a great deal of new music but in addition we had learned a huge amount about the Introit sections of Renaissance Requiems. We also improved our standard of singing noticeably as the day wore on. John cannot be praised too highly but a great deal of credit must also go to all those who organised the event, especially Diana Porteus who expertly masterminded it. Everything was run extremely smoothly and efficiency and considerable attention was paid to detail which ensured that everyone enjoyed themselves. This workshop has set a standard of excellence that will be hard to surpass.
The Alternative Guide to reading from Original Notation
O = Tempus perfectum, or going round in circles
C = Tempus imperfectum, or bad time-keeping
(diamond shaped notes) are a girl’s best friend
quaver = fusa
quaver not filled in = white fusa
quaver crossed out = refusa
minim = white semi-minim
crotchet = black minim
Pes = putting your foot in it
Longa = the note you hold on to when you get to the end before anyone else, g iving rise to the phrases
Longa Longa, Linger Longa, Shorter Longa and Don’t Belonga (when it doesn’t fit the harmony)
Brevis = what vita is. Alternatively the cry of the Flemish tree-frog (brevis, brevis)
II variously interpreted as 8 minims’ rest, 4 semibreves’ rest, 11 bars’ rest, double bar line, scribe trying out his pen
ii = aye aye, forgotten the words again
C1, C2 etc = various methods of Confusion
F1, F2 etc = various methods of Flummoxation and other words beginning with the same letter
m = Don Custos, the Spanish opera singer addicted to singing mordents at the end of each line
Quinta pars = often the second part down
Secunda pars = the next section
Prima pars = often the only decent clef
Below pars = the ones who can’t cope
Josquin des Pars = composer who died of a surfeit of ligatures
Ligature = a disease of adhesion affecting long notes
Canon = a cop-out which lets you copy someone else instead of reading the music
Cop ligature = spotting one of these lets you cop out of using ligatures (not spotting them makes them legally binding)
Tactus = what the tutor needs at all times
Musica ficta = making it up as you go along
Musica afflicta = disagreeing with someone about the above
Musica Nicta = someone’s taken your copy
There are various dots, most of their functions are self-explanatory:
Mensuration = the dividing of music into periods
Strangulation = the effect of the tenors reading in the wrong clef
Coloration = the sopranos blushing when the text is translated
Minor color = choirboys doing the same thing
Sennfliction = addiction to Sennfl
Congruence point = a mark inserted in as many different places as possible
Textual intercourse = discussing the words
Textual orientation = holding your music the right way up
Simulation = pretending to read the music when you know the piece by heart
Struggulation = not giving up
Imitation = making the same mistakes as other people
Flemish polyphony = the sound of the basses clearing their throats at different times
Fermata = a Marian piece