Passion and Penitence
To your reviewer, contemplating the primly respectable facades of the houses in the vicinity of the Quaker Meeting House in Ealing, it seemed an unlikely setting for such a frame of mind. What did the emerging mercantile middle class who first occupied those houses know of passion? Could they have conceived that they had anything about which to repent? Nevertheless, that was the chosen venue for the TVEMF workshop on Saturday, 28th February, a substantially over-subscribed event. And an admirable venue it turned out to be, once the thermostat had been adjusted and the windows of the meeting room opened to the optimum extent. We were then able to settle down, and be guided by Alistair Dixon, whom we were delighted to welcome back, through a programme of interesting contrasts.
One would not, perhaps, readily guess on hearing the music that was chosen for the workshop, that Palestrina (ca 1525-94), Tallis (ca 1505-85) and Robert White (whose date of birth is uncertain, but is thought to be ca 1538, and who died of the plague in 1574) were contemporaries. As Alistair reminded us, English music of the period was almost untouched by foreign influences, except for Ferrabosco, and the echoes of the Eton Choir Book to which he drew our attention in White’s Lamentations find no counterpart in Tallis’ Derelinquit impius and In jejunio et fletu.
We began with a painstaking rehearsal of a piece which must have been familiar to many of us, Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis. Here the focus was on producing the melodic line which is so characteristic of Palestrina; Anthony Petti, who edited this motet for the First Chester Book of Motets, says that it “seems to be the quintessential musical expression of grief in exile, gradually building up momentum from the opening melisma of sorrow to the release of pent-up anguish in “suspendimus organa”. Alistair did bring out the contrast between the phrasing of ”in salicibus in medio eius” and “suspendimus organa” with the break after “suspendimus” as a piece of word painting. However, whether by design or accident, he did not draw our attention to the feature of the ending which Petti describes as “a tortured irresolute Phrygian cadence in an otherwise Aeolian motet”. We may have produced some tortured irresolute sounds during the course of the day but it seems unlikely that they were attempts to perfect our rendering of this cadence.
It was then purposed to move on to the other Palestrina piece, from the Lamentations (Book Three) for Maundy Thursday, but the curse of the errant photocopier had struck and, for about half of us, “Aleph” stopped in the middle and was followed by an unrelated section of text. We therefore moved on to the White Lamentations. He wrote two, which have been published in vol. 32 of the English Church Music series, one in five parts (which is scored M CT T Bar B), and one in six (scored Tr M T1 T2 Bar B). These are said by Irwin Spector and David Mateer, who are otherwise a bit sniffy about him in the New Grove (e.g., “the antiphons and alternatim works are doubtless among the composer’s juvenilia”; “in general, White’s antiphons lack the technical mastery of his motets”) to be “particularly fine and [to] represent a highpoint of Elizabethan choral music”. David Mateer, who edited these for the ECM edition, observes that “Tudor composers of Lamentation settings did not have the guidelines of a long-established tradition on which to draw, as was the case with the respond and Magnificat…the genre in England, represented by the settings of Tallis, White, Byrd, Parsley, Ferrabosco the Elder and John Mundy…seems to have been an Elizabethan phenomenon”.
We worked on the six-part Lamentation in a different edition (Cantiones Press) from bar 135 (Lamed) to the end. The text of Lamed and Mem is from Lamentations i, vv.12 and 13, and the text is completed by the non-scriptural “Hierusalem” refrain. Here, the emphasis was on appreciating the harmonic structure rather than creating a smooth line. Mateer says that “most of its vocal lines have a control and sobriety in keeping with the solemnity of the words, and even the acrostic letters contribute to the overall effect with their slow-moving harmonic rhythm and dissonant part- weaving”.
The photocopying problem solved, we returned to the Palestrina (text from Lamentations i, v.2), for SSATB, and were exhorted to display empathy and musicality in order to create the desired vocal effects. These having been achieved to a moderate extent, we turned our attention to Tallis and two of his best-known works from Cantiones sacrae, Matins Responds for the first Sunday in Lent. There was some discussion about whether “Derelinquit” should actually be “derelinquat” but your reviewer is able to assure readers that the printed text is correct. The English version is “The wicked man forsakes his ways”; had it been that the wicked man was being exhorted to forsake his ways, the subjunctive “derelinquat” would have been appropriate. Trickier than the linguistic problem perhaps, was the introduction of a facsimile copy of “Derelinquit impius” into the proceedings and an invitation to sing it through from the facsimile. Those of us who had had more than two units of alcohol at lunchtime may have lost count at some point. That experiment abandoned and tea, embellished with Mary Reynor’s admirable cakes, consumed, we had a brief encounter with In jejunio et fletu before a final sing through of the two Lamentations settings, Derelinquit impius and Super flumina. Your reviewer may not have been the only person to experience a slight pang of regret at not being able to discover what actually did happen when Jesus went into the house of Simon the Pharisee, but perhaps that may be for another day. All in all, an excellent and rewarding day’s singing of a well-selected programme in a pleasant and commodious venue. Warmest thanks are due to Michael and Mary Reynor for organising such an enjoyable event, and to Alistair for taking us through the day and providing us with musical insights, anecdotes and gastronomic similes. We hope that there will not be such a long interval before we see him again.
© Sidney Ross 2017