Tamesis Issue 258
Diana Porteus’s article on vibrato in September obviously struck a chord with a lot of people. Just after it came out everybody I met mentioned it, and I received two letters, printed below.
Many thanks to Penny Aspden for her review of the Peter Syrus day which I had to miss. I’m sorry nobody felt inspired to review the Robin and Marion medieval day. We all seemed to enjoy it and a fine collection of medieval instruments added to the occasion. The centre of the day was a comic play with monophonic songs written while the composer, Adam de La Halle (c.1235-c.1288), was serving at the French Court in Naples. I’d been worried that people might not be willing to take part in the play, which was certainly a first for the forum, but we all read it enthusiastically in chorus, the men taking the part of Robin and the women Marion. Thanks to Kate for organising it and to everyone who helped with the chair-moving and coffee-making.
The Baroque day is always a bit of a nightmare to organise, with some people who only play at A=415, some at 440 and some who helpfully bring both pitches. I work out all the groups and music the day before in case somebody falls ill at the last moment but nobody did, and we even managed to overcome the problem of Burnham station being closed thanks to Alison, Penny and Simon who made sure that everyone had a lift. The end result was very satisfying to hear as I walked along the corridor outside the playing rooms. The quality of the playing these days is often impressively high.
Our next event is our annual Christmas workshop with a shared lunch. The form has been on the web site for some time and a printed one is enclosed with this mailing. There is now a file at with links to all the music. There is no need to type in this rather long address – you can click on a link on the TVEMF events page. There is no reduction for printing your own music or reading it from a tablet this time (see David King’s article on page 5) but if you don’t need us to print it for you please let me know so that we don’t waste money and paper printing it out for you. I’m looking forward to seeing lots of you on the 11th December and welcoming James Weeks to conduct what looks like an attractive selection of music for a Spanish Christmas.
There have been two very different event since the last Tamesis: Le Jeu de Robin, arguably the first opera, and a Baroque Chamber Music day. The music for the former was several centuries earlier than we normally tackle, but Sarah Stowe took us through it with enthusiasm and good humour to achieve a satisfying run-though. The regular autumn Baroque Day was very successful and I am always impressed at being given specific music for the sometimes improbable combinations that inevitably arise at such an event. On my Renaissance Day I rarely manage this, relying on what might be considered an over-provision of music. One of the delights of these one-to-a-part days is coming across enjoyable music by some neglected composer (Prowo for instance) even if on other occasions the neglect turns out to be deserved. On Sunday I had an example of both, but one can always fall back on Telemann, and of course the company was excellent, so I went home happy.
Sunday 11th December 2016 at 5.15 approx.
(after the Christmas workshop in Amersham)
1. Apologies for absence
2. Approval of the minutes of last meeting
3. Chairman's report
4. Secretary's report
5. Treasurer's report
6. Election of officers and committee
7. Any other business
Letters to the Editor
Four of us in my north London madrigal group of (on that day) nine are members of the TVEMF. Last Friday one said, “Did you see the letter about vibrato in Tamesis?” and the other three replied, “YEEEEEEEEES!”. Thank you, Diana!
Diana may have been unfortunate in her neighbours by having been discomfited so often; I cannot think of any regular “offender”, but when it does happen it’s awful. In my book it’s an affectation and mannerism, not without musical arrogance - “look (or rather: listen to) what I can do - I sound just like a professional opera singer!”. Only that we don’t do C19 opera in TVEMF workshops, leave alone its solo parts, and musicological research, by now not even that recent, on early recordings shows that vibrato hasn’t been an accepted feature of even professional solo singing since time immemorial but only crept in around 1900 (stringed instruments ditto). Vibrato had been known for centuries, even in the Baroque, but it was considered an ornament like trills, to be used occasionally and sparingly, not a case of “chips with everything”.
I personally think our excellent course leaders should squash this practice, and if they don’t notice (can be hard, standing quite a distance away from the group, depending a lot on the room and its acoustics) we participants should not hesitate to alert the conductor during intervals, so he/she listens out and can then ask, firmly, for the “off button” to be pressed, equally firmly. If there is the odd participant who can’t actually switch it off, it's a pity for them if they enjoy singing early music, but they really shouldn’t apply to come. You can’t do topiary with a modern electric hedge cutter - you mustn’t sing choral music, of any period, with vibrato. And vibrato comes with increased volume, compared to that of non-warblers: I’ve never yet encountered a warbler who warbled softly and thus might be ignored.
If singing “straight” is ok for professionals from Agnes Giebel to Emma Kirkby, surely it’s ok for us?
Feeling better now.
* * *
I agree with Diana Porteus that the worst thing about vibrato is singers and players who cannot turn it off. Maybe some of it is the fault of some teachers who think that it is 'the proper way' to perform.
Many years ago, two of us had lessons with a very good teacher on the modern flute. He said that I could do with adding a little vibrato, whereas my friend played with a 'continuous nervous flutter'. One week, he told us to stop working on the Poulenc or Hindemith and that he wanted us to do nothing but play long held notes, and then add various types of vibrato - wide, narrow, rapid, slow etc., and switching them on and off. We could then select what we liked or what was appropriate for the music. I think that many teachers could do the same.
TVEMF event prices and application procedures in 2017
The prices of TVEMF workshops events have been the same for around 10 years or more but the time for a modest price increase has finally arrived and from the beginning of 2017 most workshops will go up from £12 to £14 and playing/singing days up from £9 to £10. However at workshops when the tutors do not bring the music but it is taken from the Internet, participants may be offered a £2 discount if they print the music themselves and all other participants will be able to keep the copies provided on the day at no extra cost.
From the beginning of 2017 participants will be able to apply for some workshops electronically by email and bank transfer as well as by post and cheques. Electronic applications have many advantages including speed and the saving of postage and stationery cost. However there is no intention to phase out post and cheques as an option.
David King (Treasurer)
1535 - a year in the life of Pierre Attaingnant
‘Pile it high and sell it cheap’ was the motto of Tesco’s founder Jack Cohen, and on the back of it, he transformed his modest grocer’s shop into the world’s third largest retailer.
Hang on. What relevance has the rough-and-tumble of the grocery business to the altogether more courtly and refined world of early music?
Well, commercial strategy influences musical culture as surely as it determines how much we pay for lettuce and cornflakes. If this seems a controversial claim, consider September’s workshop, in which we were transported back to that point in history when mass production changed music publishing from an art into a business. Under the genial, scholarly guidance of Peter Syrus, singers and players sampled the output of a single year - 1535 - in the working life of 40-year old French composer, lutenist, music printer and publisher, Pierre Attaingnant. He had married the daughter of a music printer, and in the late 1520s started publishing from premises in the evocatively named Rue de la Harpe in Paris. Attaingnant is a key figure in the development of music publishing because, along with Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice and Tielman Susato in Antwerp, he led a revolution in the availability of sheet music during the Renaissance. He came to dominate the French chanson market, and we owe to him much of what we know of the music of Clément Janequin, Claudin de Sermisy and their contemporaries.
A page from one of Attaingnant’s 1535 partbooks
The key technical innovation that enabled Attaingnant’s firm to flourish wasn’t printing
with moveable type as such - Gutenberg had made that breakthrough a century earlier - so much as the ability to print a page of music in a single pass through the press. Before Attaingnant’s time, publishers like Petrucci printed the notes, words and staves separately, so each page needed at least two impressions. In addition, this method requires precise and time-consuming alignment of each page in the press, to make sure that all the notes line up properly on the stave. Output was modest - an edition every couple of months, with a print run of about 300, was typical.
In the 1520s, Attaingnant adopted the radical practice of including a fragment of stave with the note on each piece of type. This change made it possible to print a page of music in one impression and speeded up the printing process no end, though it still takes some skill to line up the segments of stave (see the illustration above). Mass production allowed him to increase his output and print runs grew to 500 or more. It brought the price down dramatically and opened up the market - previously confined to rich aristocrats - to the expanding bourgeoisie. Volumes of chansons, motets, dances and masses poured out of his print works and onto the desks of singers and players across Western Europe. Other printers rapidly followed suit, and ushered in the era of commercial printing. The system promoted by Attaingnant remained in place for the next 200 years.
Our workshop opened with a spring edition, taking from it an Easter motet on the plainchant Regina Caeli Laetare, in a setting by Adrian Willaert. Later in the day we returned to the same plainchant and explored a more elaborate arrangement by a composer virtually unknown today, Jean Rousée. He used two four-part choirs, an innovation for the time; this creativity, together with evidence that contemporary critics and collectors rated his compositions highly, makes his subsequent anonymity all the more mysterious.
The next obscure composer at least had the excuse of being Belgian. Jean Richafort might have studied with Josquin des Prez; he became a choirmaster in Mechelen, then Bruges, and moved to Brussels in the 1520s. His five-part Salve Regina, from the same March edition as the previous motets, came in three linked sections and contrasted exuberant counterpoint with declamatory unison passages to bring out the meaning of the text.
Next, we backtracked to a volume of chansons published in February, and looked at two settings, by Claudin de Sermisy and Clément Jannequin, of the ditty ‘Martin menoit son Pourceau’. This chirpy man-meets-a-maid chanson concerns Martin, who in the course of leading his pig to market encounters saucy Alix. Animal husbandry takes a back seat for the next couple of verses, until Alix cries out that the pig, tethered to her leg to stop it wandering, has taken fright at their doings and is dragging her away.
Following the jaunty chanson, a sober penitential motet, also published in February. Jacquet Colebaut, known as Jacquet of Mantua was born in Brittany but, as his name suggests, spent his working life in Italy. Domine non secundum peccata nostra experiments with textural contrasts, juxtaposing long-held notes with rapid passages, and high with low voices.
Finally, we moved forward to May 1535 and Pierre de Manchicourt’s motet Caro Mea Vere. He was the only composer to whom Attaignant devoted an entire volume, and could well have known the publisher personally, as he had been a singer in Northern France before moving to the Spanish court of Philip II.
Singing and playing these works gave us other things to think about, aside from the music itself. We pondered briefly on the enduring problem of how best to arrange singers and players so that each can hear and help the other. One drawback of the common arrangement in which players sit in front of the singers (or vice versa) is that the people at the back can’t hear or see those at the front. In this workshop, Peter placed the singers in a semicircular block, while beyond them the players sat facing one another in two groups - on the ends of the horseshoe, so to speak. Thus the singers could see, and mostly hear, the instrumentalist(s) doubling their parts. If the music doesn’t now seem quite so daringly inventive as it did at the time, it is still beautiful, which makes the eclipse of most of these composers a puzzle. Josquin des Prez is a pretty famous figure from those years, but Jean Richafort, Jacquet of Mantua and Jean Rousée definitely aren’t, though it’s not clear why. Not the quality of their music, anyway, as at the end of a full and exhilarating day we all agreed.
Further reading: this doorstep of a book is the last word on Pierre Attaingnant’s life and work Heartz, Daniel (1969) Pierre Attaingnant, Royal Printer of Music: A Historical Study and Bibliographical Catalogue. Berkeley, University of California Press