Tamesis Issue 230
Peter Collier has not been able to organise his usual baroque chamber music playing day at Oxford this year, so I am going to run one at Burnham instead. I hope to see lots of you there. Everyone is welcome, but as usual I'm particularly looking for string players, keyboard players and oboists because everyone else always asks to play with them. I've been given a whole lot of string music by Brian Clark who publishes it, with several viola parts, and it would be nice to be able to put on at least one session to play it. Some of you know that I've been trying to fix a recorder workshop with Philip Thorby, but he's so busy that even moving the event to a Friday hasn't helped us to come up with a suitable date yet. You will be able to see Philip in action though at the Amersham Festival recorder masterclass on Sunday afternoon, 15th April. There will be four advanced recorder players, including one of the wind finalists from this year's BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. She will be coached on the first movement of the Vivaldi Recorder Concerto in C minor. There will also be a Handel Sonata and Castello's Sonata Seconda, but I haven't got any information about the fourth piece. Details about venue and booking are in the Concerts list. A couple of small administrative requests - please make sure you fill up your booking forms legibly with all details even if you think we know them already, and always use separate cheques for each event and your membership subscription. Thanks very much to all our contributors. I've kept one review back for next time, but please keep writing. As well as the four forms included with this mailing, don't miss the special one on our web site, to be read on the first Sunday in April.
In the November Tamesis I wrote about the British Library's "Early Music Online" project to digitise their volumes of early music. So far they have digitised 300 sixteenth century books, mainly anthologies of chansons and sacred music in partbooks but also a few choirbooks and some keyboard tablature. Last week I went to a talk about it organised by SEMF where I learned that the digitising had actually been done from microfilm rather than directly from the books themselves, which means it is always just black and white. It was good to be able to handle a set of partbooks that I had been working on and verify that the digitised version is nearly as good as the original and that the last page does indeed have "British Museum" stamped so as to partly obscure the notes! We have had some very successful events since the last Tamesis. I was very pleased that we had about 40 people for the Renaissance Day, the most we have ever had. John Milsom's workshop on Alma Redemptoris Mater was particularly memorable as it gave an idea of what it might have been to be an Oxford University student in one of his lectures. Wonderful music with real insight from our tutor - very inspiring. I think there is a record number of leaflets in this month's magazine so I look forward plenty of good music in the coming months.
Letter to the Editor - more about the Open University
I owe a great deal to the OU - in fact I would probably not be reading Tamesis were it not for the OU.
I began studying for my degree in 1974, the fourth year of the OU's existence. I took six years to acquire the six credits required for an ordinary BA degree, taking humanities courses which were history-based, but containing elements of music, literature, art history etc.
There was then only one specialist music course and I took that in 1976. During the summer school students were given opportunities for practical music-making, which was not part of the course, and that's where I discovered the recorder. The OU had provided two consorts of wooden instruments and I must be one of the few recorder players to have started on bass.
In a week I was hooked. Not long afterwards I discovered the recorder classes at the City Lit, and there met people who introduced me to the SRP. After six years studying and working full time I was ready for a break and decided to take a year off before doing two more credits for an honours degree. However, in that year my recorder playing activities took off in a big way, and I never did get that honours degree!
Renaissance Day Review
On 29.01.12 around 40 of us gathered at Burnham Grammar School for another day of musical surprises planned by David Fletcher (although I did hear a whisper that he may have been computer assisted in his selection of who sings/plays with whom). The music was as varied as ever; I seemed to spend the morning singing lamentations in Latin, German and French. In the afternoon we found relief in a book of madrigals in Italian (and Fa La La) and sang/played the whole book! There seemed to be more singers this year, which brought some interesting issues of balance - don't sing facing cornetts, stand behind them for safety. And I regretted the lack of a sackbut section, the one player I encountered played beautifully but couldn't provide that warm cushion of sound I remember from past years. But surprise is what the day is all about, and some unpromising combinations of instruments and voices proved to be really effective. In my first session of the day we had a cornett, two viols, a cello and two voices and soon found ourselves making good music with Gabrieli's "Beata es Virgo". One of the most successful combinations was a larger group at the end of the day formed as a double choir, and making the antiphonal music that Venice was famous for. This was a stimulating and enjoyable day with room for initiative and creativity. Thank you David.
The Glory of the Muses, a Choral Workshop with Sally Dunkley and Philip Cave on Music by Robert White, Robert Parsons & William Byrd
(Saturday Jan 21st 2012 at St Peter's College, Oxford).
No apologies for the focus on editing - while en route to Oxford I read Elaine Gould's thought-provoking article "What Get's My Goat...Poorly Presented Music" (Making Music January 2012) then the February Early Music Review with editorial musings on clef-configurations for late-Renaissance music. EMR definitely 'vaut l'abonnement'. Clifford suggests - I paraphrase somewhat - that for a sing-through of Palestrina motets printed in high clefs, singers should sing a little lower - the average amateur singer can manage to sing around a tone lower without having to think that they are transposing. That's nothing - some of the choirs with which I have been involved can modulate microtonally from C down to A with an ease that Ligeti would envy (B.O'H). In Philip's combination warm-up/ear-cleaning we practised D Major arpeggios followed by d minor, then F Major. Parson's Ave Maria a 5 ends with a Tierce de Picardie - acoustically the major thirds resonates better in a domed cathedral. The college chapel has no dome but the stained glass survived our major chord. Incidentally the non-PC etymology T. de P. is based on the theory that the gypsies (horse-nobblers pickpockets etc) came to Spain via the Spanish Netherlands and the cadence on a major chord ("expect the unexpected") is typical of card-sharps. Oddly enough no such racial overtones attach to the English cadence, unless perhaps some French musicologist writing circa 1815 suggests that deceptive suspensions are typical of l'Albion perfide. Warmed up, we practised "Swedish" vowels (for brilliance) and Swingle-type nigunim (to maximise phrase-lengths), and, now "in the mode", we sang the Parsons. My neighbour was familiar with an edition by the indefatigable Lily Pond and ignored Philip's advised to listen to the other voices with the result that his underlay went awry by the 2nd note! No excuses, Giles, you should have gone to SpecSavers. The Parsons is not quite a fugue, with imitative entries at the 4th & 5th but paired 3rds. "It's counterpoint Jim, but not as we know it" (Fux). The soprano voice has the theme in augmentation and inversion. For the sing-through Philip quoted "Do you feel lucky? You are no longer sight-reading, this time its serious." (Die Wahre Kunst des Singens - Schwarzeneger transl. Eastwood.) Although Elizabeth (Tudor) had decreed that services should be in English, she tolerated (encouraged?) some Latin which, as the language of the Mass, would have had a special poignancy for Catholic recusant composers, as would the themes of exile and loss. In some synagogues Eicha (Lamentations) are recited in darkness while the congregation sits on the floor. The Christian Tenebrae in Holy Week also features darkness as the candles are successively extinguished. Sally, now talked about sources, clefs and facsimiles. White's lamentations survive in a copy by the calligrapher Robert Dow which includes the words "No music is so sad as the music of my composer". As in the Tallis and Byrd settings, the letter-names of the Hebrew alphabet which number the verses in the Hebrew are set as lengthy melismata. Jerusalem is pronounced as in modern English. (Hierusalem is a calque - Holy City - on the Greek 'hieros' rather than an initial letter Yodh). Hocquetus is not in White's musical vocabulary though phrygian episodes and word-painting ('vilis' in lower register) is. I went back to EMR at this point to see if it serendipitously had anything about Byrd or Tallis and found the review of 2 Fux CDs of Triopartiten, so JJ was "not just a dusty old fuddy-duddy who dreamt in four-part invertible counterpoint" but a jolly good composer into the bargain, almost as much a surprise to me of Prout's quasi- Wagnerian Requiem. Reverting to White, spot the false-relation in Ad focillan-dam animam; make a melody out of intervals; use the space between repeated notes for breathing. Even with a small number of works the order in which they are performed is a matter for thought, as is the tempo at which to take the chant. We then studied Byrd's Christe qui lux est et dies (a favourite also with White who set it four times) in the 5- part setting: bring out the voice which has the chant. Now for some inconclusive mathematics. Bar 1 and 4 of the chant each have 9 crotchets, as do bars 8-9 12-13 16-17 20-21 and 26-28, while bars 24 and 29 have 10 and 7 beats respectively. Conclusion? Search me but it looks intriguing. In the Byrd Lamentations 1) the non-standard barring is designed to help the singer; 2) Teth has more quaver-movement than Heth; 3) the dramatic semitone in F Ab, Ab G connotes misery, similarly "the sunken gates defixae sunt". I wonder if composers who did not experience the Reformation at first hand (Crequillon, Lassus, Victoria) achieved Byrd's intensity. Philip suggested pencilling a mini-triangle over a stressed syllable in such words as pEr didit, gEntiles, Contr I-i-i-vit. Sally talked again about clefs (When I got home I consulted the Anthony Petti "Chester Motets" which show original clefs as well as vocal range. If we interpret Mean to mean the average boy soprano, then perhaps David Wulstan's influential views need to be revised. Before "oculi somnium capiunt", I'll try to summarise what I got from the day. 1) I learnt that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you get to the OUP-Dunkley Musica Dei Donum. 2) When His Master's Voice says "You know my methods, apply them", I go to the sources, scrutinise the clefs, burnish my tessitura and shape the phrases. Who could ask for anything more? Thanks to Diana Porteus for organising the day. I note the Bruno Turner Mappa Mundi Victoria Requiem combines lightness with near-hardback rigidity compared to the Mappa Mundi Striggio, and the OUP Spem in full score - nul points for ease of handling. As for Giles, he more than redeemed himself (and earned a round of applause) with his solo on the final syllabic -em of Mem. Very well done indeed (oh, and thanks to Philip and Sally).
Alma Redemptoris Mater Workshop Review
Some 50 well-balanced singers gathered in the Headington Community Centre in Oxford to be guided by the inspiring John Milsom in exploring three 16th century settings of the plainsong alma redemptoris mater by Festa, de Silva and Victoria. He had transcribed the three pieces for us in semi-modern notation, in scores (the 16th century singers would have had only their own parts to look at) and using unbarred staves reading across the two-page spread. It was an exploration for us in how this well-known plainchant was incorporated by the three composers, and for Milsom in seeing how well a large group (the originals would have been sung by one voice per part) could catch some of the fine points in a day's work.
He began by exposing us to the plainchant itself, in original notation, modern notation, and then in excerpts pasted above the parts we were singing, to show what part of the plainsong was being addressed. He explained that everyone in the 16thc would have known the plainsong by heart from hearing it so often Î not so for the modern singers and listeners who needed to be reminded. So we sang it over a few times until some of it was beginning to sink in. This was how he illustrated the relationship between memory and invention Î a different way of singing in those days, when each time a bit of the plainsong came along the singer would know that and bring it out. We needed some work to "get" that. He left the underlay in two of the three for us to decide where to place syllables. The singers of the time would have known how to do that Î or would have listened to how the leading voices did it and remembered to do the same. We never really got that after the first few phrases, but came close. It was all part of what he termed "defamiliarizing us" with modern barred, edited, and scored notation. It got some of us actually listening to what was happening in the other parts, which, when we got out of note-reading, began to reveal some of the composers' insights.
He also revealed to us one of the driving reasons composers of the time tried to write their very best music for these papal chapel occasions. Not just to impress the clerics, their employers (or the noble employers, in Venice) but to impress other composers, their colleagues and sometimes rivals who were either singing in the choir or listening to it. He discussed whether they would have composed the works by building them up from parts of the plainsong, or, in a change of mentality, have imagined to themselves the whole piece at once. Whereas the first two settings were built up bit by bit, he suspected that the latest of the three pieces, Victoria's, was designed differently. The idea of a "non-standard" ending could have served as the original inspiration. Victoria's ending strays away from the original plainsong, and at the very end where the closing words "peccatorum Miserere" return to the plainsong music, it is as if the composer was saying to the listener "whoops Î sorry about that."
The Victoria setting proved easier for us because it was constructed in four-bit (or four-"bar") phrases, a technique more familiar to the modern singer, and also because the harmonies were more "accessible and rhetorical. Votes at the end for "favourite" among the three showed that one in the lead, although I and a few others liked the deSilva more because it was so close to Josquin Î with whose music DeSilva must have been familiar.
At the end of the day, which passed quickly, we came away with a new understanding of 16th century composition, how the composers seemed to be passing the effects on from one composer to another. Milsom hoped that we might now be able to pass some of this along to our own singing groups, inviting us to take along the music to try out the three pieces in smaller groups. Most of the music was taken away, and many of us will indeed try what he recommended. This "envoi" at the end of a day of singing under an inspiring leader is an example of the value of gatherings organized by TVEMF.
Plaudits to organiser Nicola Wilson-Smith for the workshop, and of course to Mary Reynor for her wonderful cakes at teatime.
Inspired by Tallis - a contemporary forty-part motet
Thomas Tallis's 'Spem in Alium' will need no introduction to anyone with a interest in early music. It makes use of the full gamut of choral compositional techniques Î spatial, antiphonal, block harmony and true, independent polyphony, in which all forty parts are simultaneously doing different things but nevertheless fit together to make a glorious and harmonious whole.
The very challenge of putting on an amateur performance of the work inspired conductor and composer Robert Hanson to set himself perhaps the even greater challenge of writing a forty-part motet of his own. If one has managed to assemble the requisite singers for the Tallis, why not make use of the occasion by giving them another piece to sing?
So 'And There Shall Be No Night There' came into existence, utilising a brass quintet and organ as well as Tallis's vocal line-up. The work sets texts from the book of Revelation and the Nunc Dimittis.
The example of Tallis was constantly in front of the composer as he worked, and although the finished work does not sound like Tallis, some of its compositional procedures were influenced by 'Spem in Alium'. There is a timeless quality and structural purity in Tallis which, despite the Renaissance musical technique, seems to retain something of the late Medieval about it. Hanson has sought to emulate this quality in his own work. Tallis's use of plainsong in some works, too, is echoed in Hanson's quotation of the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Hanson describes the composition of his forty-part motet as "intellectually one of the most demanding things I have done of any kind Î and I must say that my respect for Tallis grew week by week as I worked on my own piece."
The Borough Chamber Choir, conducted by Robert Hanson, will be performing 'And There Shall Be No Night There' along with 'Spem in alium' and works by Gibbons, Josquin and others at St George the Martyr Church, Borough High St SE1 1JA on Saturday March 31st at 7.30pm (see events list for more details).