Thoughts after Kilburn

July 2010

The group of twenty-seven singers which gathered at St Augustine’s Kilburn on Saturday June 12th had a more cosmopolitan flavour than usual, including as it did one Danish soprano and two Norwegian altos, who contributed significantly to the quality of our performance. The main work which Michael had selected was one of Victoria’s 15 parody masses, the Missa Gaudeamus, one of the four which were not based on his own compositions. The other composers on whose works he based parody masses were Palestrina, Guerrero, Jannequin and Morales, and it was Morales’ Jubilate Deo on which the Missa Gaudeamus was based.

The introduction to the special edition of the music (the Mass and the motet) which Michael had once again helpfully produced tells us that the motet was composed to celebrate the peace brokered in 1538 by Pope Paul III between the Emperor Charles V and François I of France. A brief survey of the confused and inflamed political and religious landscape of Europe during the 1530s shows us what a stunning feat of diplomacy the former Alessandro Farnese, Dean of the Sacred College at the time of his election to the papacy, had achieved. The Spanish Hapsburg Charles V of Spain, (Emperor 1519-58), and the Valois king François I (1515-47) had engaged in a lengthy struggle (1521-29) for domination in the Papal states, in the course of which François was defeated and captured by Charles at Pavia in 1525. Although both were opposed to evangelical Protestantism, with Charles outlawing Luther and Calvin fleeing from the French regime under François, the enmity between the two potentates was bitter enough for François to ally himself with the Schmalkadic League under the Lutheran Philip of Hesse. Into this melee stepped the conciliarist Paul III, whose first attempt to call a general council at Mantua had failed partly because of that enmity and partly because the Duke of Mantua refused to guarantee its orderly progress; but having convoked a council at Vicenza on 1st May 1538, he succeeded in bringing about a ten-year truce between the hitherto implacable opponents, which was proclaimed by the treaty signed at Nizza (Nice) on 18th June. In addition to the Mass and the motet, Michael had provided two other works for us to perform, Monteverdi’s six-part motets (SSATTB) Adoramus te, Christe and Cantate Domino. Under Michael’s guidance in his inimitable style, which, as always, blended instruction with amusement, we made such satisfactory progress on the Saturday with the Mass and Adoramus te Christe, which were to be performed at the service, that we were able to spend some time on the Jubilate Deo and Cantate Domino, which were not. In the course of his exposition Michael regaled us with some vignettes of the Renaissance musical world which are, perhaps not widely known. Reminding us in general terms that “the text is the senior partner” Michael told us of a letter by Monteverdi (in the role, it would seem, of a Renaissance Simon Cowell) which recounted auditions ending in the rejection of young lady singers “with very nice voices which were only big enough for opera, but not for singing in church”. We were also treated to a representation of Luther expounding Isaiah 50:9 “Lo, they shall all wax old as a garment: the moth shall eat them up” as “they shall die - just like that !” - with a snap of the fingers; and an anecdote which ought to be true even if it is apocryphal, of Lassus and Palestrina meeting in a Roman drinking establishment and attempting to cajole each other into disclosing their latest innovations. Michael was of the view that Victoria, although he spent a long time in Rome, probably did not participate.

There were also some remarkable similes to illustrate the required vocal effects. Thus, although the opening of the Gloria is gentle rather than (as is often the case) exultant. we were exhorted not to be too Anglican or to resemble angels pussyfooting about. The liquid quality which he wished the female voices to exhibit brought forth a reference to “honey trickling down Aaron’s beard”. Your reviewer has tracked this down to Ps 133:2 in which the dwelling together of brethren in unity (obviously desirable in a vocal ensemble, and no doubt applicable to sisters also) is likened to “the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard; that went down to the skirts of his garments”. The King James Bible follows the Vulgate, which has “unguentum”, not “mel”; so one is led to wonder whether Michael has a copy of the so-called “Treacle Bible” where Jeremiah 8:22 is translated “is there no tryacle in Gilead ?” rather than the more familiar “balm” (“resina” in the Vulgate).

During the Sunday morning warm-up, which went well, an interesting point emerged regarding the difficulty of singing a descending major third accurately. Michael explained that this is because a descending minor third is a much more natural interval to sing, as exemplified by the way in which we call to children or pets. He illustrated this by calling an imaginary and pedantic dog (Fido, who spells his name faedus). Your reviewer was intrigued by this and, as the owner of three cats with disyllabic names, tested the theory on returning home and found it to be correct. His cat call is E flat to C. The cats tend to reply with portamento yowls of varying ranges.

Michael appeared to be well satisfied with our performance at the service-certainly there were no obvious glitches, and Canon Yates was extremely complimentary. Unfortunately, his impending retirement casts doubt over the future of the event, though he expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of its survival. We, of course, would greatly regret its disappearance from the TVEMF calendar.

Having earned our extended lunch break, the majority retired to the Queen’s Head, the eighteen singers who returned for the final session having been considerably fortified. Although the lower voices were considerably depleted, we managed to get through the Morales Jubilate Deo with two to each of T1, T2 and B, our forces being redeployed so that Margaret Jackson-Roberts sang bass with Michael Reynor. We also had a run through the Credo of the Missa Gaudeamus and the two Monteverdi anthems, finishing with Adoramus te, Christe, scrambled. All in all, a very satisfactory musical week-end for which we are, as ever, much indebted to Michael for his choice of music and his expert guidance through its complexities.

Warmest thanks also go to Neil for organising the event, to Penny Vinson and Jenny Robinson for making the necessary arrangements with the church, and to both of them and to Mary Reynor for the admirable refreshments which added another international dimension to the event; Danish and Norwegian singers, Dutch apple cake and Greek carrot cake. Thanks, also, to all those who helped with making tea, clearing up, and so forth. Finally, it is most appropriate, after all the years in which Jenny has participated in this event as singer, organiser and cake-maker, for us to offer our best wishes to her and Stuart as they prepare to leave Harrow for Skipton later this year. We hope that the move goes smoothly, that they will be very happy there and that they will stay in touch with us.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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