Princes, Popes and Cardinals. Workshops for Voices and Baroque Strings directed by Peter Leech. Exeter School, 3rd May 2014
German Music before Bach. Workshop for voices, viols and recorders directed by Mike Bailey West Bay, Dorset, 29th March 2014
Pictures from Baroque Playing Day, Cheddar, 27th September 2014
Workshop for voices, viols and recorders directed by Andrew Doldorph, Thorverton, Devon. 18th October 2014
Cantantibus Organis Caecilia Virgo. Workshop directed by Nancy Hadden, Compton Dando, 22 November 2014
Monteverdi and Purcell. Workshop for voices directed by by Venetia Caine and Tony Bevan, Glastonbury, 7 February 2015<
Peter Leech is an award-winning conductor and musicologist,specializing in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. His current interest is the music of the exiled Stuart court, which was based in Rome from 1719. The composers were under the patronage of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brother, Prince Henry Benedict Stuart, who was a Cardinal. About 30 singers and a band of string players attended the workshop, using manuscripts which had been beautifully and clearly hand copied by Peter, and it felt a privilege to be bringing this music to life that has so long been forgotten.
The depth of Peter’s knowledge and his immersion in the subject only enhanced the day, and the balance between music-making and historical context was perfect. We were invited to imagine a Rome with over 1200 hundred parishes, each with its own church and organ, many with two choirs. Wealthy patrons indulged their interest in art, music and architecture.
The composers we looked at were: Costanzi (1704–07), Bolis (1750–1804), Jommelli (1714–74) and Giorgi (1700–62). Bolis was very enjoyable to sing, using chromatics a bit like Rossini in the Petite Messe Solennelle, which would put him well ahead of his time! Some of Jommelli’s writing was reminiscent of Pergolesi in his Stabat Mater, and it is known that these two did meet. Peter had with him a recording he has made with Harmonia Sacra of some of these works, which is about to be released (Nimbus Alliance NI 6273). The music was very accessible for reading and enjoying within the time frame. The numbers were well balanced and the singers were appropriate to historical choir size, apparently! We played and sang through everything twice, but gave no ‘performance’ at the end of the afternoon.
The venue gave us slight problems. The music school hall is not easy to find if you enter from Victoria Park Road. Entering from Manston Terrace the music hall is just on the right, with a car park, so maybe this address should be used in future. The water heater for coffee was a bit unpredictable, but otherwise all was well with delicious, viol-shaped biscuits provided by Heather Gibbard as refreshments. Thank you to Clare Griffel and her helpers for organizing a most enjoyable day, and for inserting a briskly conducted AGM into the lunchtime slot, with almost no interruption to the musical element of the day.
Nestling by the harbour, the low, whitewashed St John’s Church, bathed in sunshine, was again our home for the day. This was the first West Bay day organised by Wendy Carnell since taking over from Paula Biss. Almost immediately, Wendy was plunged into a crisis when an electrical fault put the sockets out of action: absolute
no possibility of boiling a kettle; no tea or coffee. How would we survive! Thanks to Paula’s flash of inspiration, a deal was negotiated with The Harbour Café to supply take-away hot drinks.
Equilibrium restored, we settled down to the serious business of the day, an excellent workshop directed by Mike Bailey, exploring the influence of the Italian Baroque in Germany, 1570–1670. Mike had undertaken considerable research on the German composers whose works we were studying, and provided concise biographies of their professional lives. The majority had studied in Italy, specifically in Venice, where Giovanni Gabrieli had been a significant influence. Also helpful was Mike’s time-line of the principal composers of the period, including those whose works he had selected for the day, covering the years from the birth of Martin Luther (1483) to the death of Samuel Scheidt (1654). Most of the repertoire for the day was in German.
Mike gave advice on pronunciation, favouring a harder, North German sound. He also gave tips on the Latin of the sacred pieces. We got off to a confident start in the Renaissance with Ein’ feste Berg, Martin Agricola’s 4-part harmonization (probably the first to be written) of Martin Luther’s chorale based on Psalm 46. Warned in advance that the occasional drinking song would feature, we then tackled Caspar Othmayr’s Vidi alios intrantes – Da truncken Sie. The bilingual title was deliberate. The tenors sang cheerfully in German of a convivial evening of singing, drinking, eating and unbridled enjoyment. The sopranos, altos and basses, however, were thoroughly disapproving and sang sternly in Latin of the noise, mess and pile of fish bones. A case of two interpretations of the same event!
Early Baroque composers featured included Hassler, both Michael and Jacob (the younger) Praetorius, and the trio of Schütz, Schein and Scheidt, all born within three years of each other. Pastoral life was represented by Schein’s madrigal, Die Vöglein singen, and by Hassler’s Tanzen und springen. Sacred music included the serious and beautiful O lux beata Trinitas by Michael Praetorius, one of the most versatile composers of his age.Highlights of a full and musically rewarding day were two 2-choir , 4 -part settings. The first was Laetatus sum, a substantial work based on Psalm 122 by Johann Hermann Schein (text also set by Parry as the anthem I was glad). It is believed that Schein never left Germany, but he absorbed Italian influences and used their early stylistic innovations in his music. Heinrich Schütz, on the other hand, travelled widely and was generally regarded as the most important German composer before JS Bach. His Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, based on Psalm 98, proved a popular 2-choir work with which to start the afternoon.
For this day we tried a new seating arrangement. Strings remained at the front, but the recorders were now placed on either side of a narrow, central aisle, with singers at the sides and back. Thus, those singing or playing the same part were now closer together. Even so, some recorder players found it difficult to see the conductor when the singers were standing, and it was agreed that a rethink of the seating was needed.
Respite for players came in the form of Samuel Scheidt’s Puer natus in Bethlehem, for singers only, although players were encouraged to join in. Mediaeval texts of Christmas and Easter verses, set to a tune of the period, were arranged as a 4-bar Cantus line repeated in a harmonized version. Finally, Surge, propera amica mea, by Jacob Praetorius, concluded the day in suitably spring-like fashion.
A quick cup of tea, then it was time for our informal performance to an appreciative audience of family, friends and visitors. Mike introduced a selection of the pieces on which we had worked and we proved to him, and to ourselves, what can be achieved in a few hours of concentrated study. Thank you Mike and Wendy. We all look forward to meeting again at West Bay in September.
We began the day with a very effective warm-up: a round in D minor, which singers and players learned by ear and then put together using a variety of vowel sounds and dynamics. The emphasis was on listening, tuning and balance, and then the piece was changed from minor to major, so the contrast of thirds and sevenths became the focus. I personally found this a very relaxing and useful way to warm up my voice and ears.
Then followed a unison song by Monteverdi, Musiche de alcuni eccellentissimi Musici composte per la Maddalena, which enabled us to get used to singing together, to apply our warm-up experience of major/minor contrasts, and to sing in Italian, never easy when elisions are required. Andrew put together a performance plan for this piece, which enabled each group of instruments, recorders, other winds, strings and higher and lower voices to alternate and contrast effectively.
Andrew’s pace for the day was measured and relaxed. He encouraged us to think about how to achieve good, authentic effects in our performances, allowed plenty of time for repetition and we played and sang reasonable chunks of a piece rather than being stopped every few bars. He himself accompanied and embellished all the performances throughout the day on the keyboard (harpsichord mode), very expertly, often one-handedly! The instrumentalists also provided some competent, pleasing decorations, especially the string players. Andrew’s sense of humour came through when there was a troublesome tuning moment and he commented that just about every note had been covered!
The music from the Rameau opera was challenging at times, the soprano part often unremittingly high and the alto part rather too low. I’m not sure how the basses and tenors found this. Even the sopranos had to read ‘down an octave’ for one piece. One scene for choir had a worrying moment when, at first glance, it seemed that the tenors – we had 6! – would have to sing from the alto C clef. However, Mary Thomas had spotted this in advance and transposed it for them – phew! – one more example of her superb effort and preparation, such as copying music, providing refreshments, setting up the church etc. Special thanks were also paid to Andrew’s wife, Sally, who had done much cutting and pasting in preparation for the day.
The dance movements for instrumentalists between choral scenes in the opera were a delight, and although at times one could have wished to be singing or playing for longer, Andrew devoted time to singers and instruments in fairly equal measure, giving us a chance to learn from and enjoy each other’s music. I shall certainly be hunting out a recording, or watching out for a performance of the Rameau opera; ‘feel-good’ music even when singing about troubles and hell! Monteverdi’s Laudate Dominum was a refreshing change from the better-known Beatus Vir, and the Janequin madrigal about May is a super little piece to add to any choir’s repertoire.Thank you Andrew, and to Sally, for a great day of music, and to Mary, who in addition to all her organization had procured an audience of some 15 or so friends and neighbours, who appreciatively encouraged our end-of-day run-through and made us feel that the musical enjoyment had not just been our own.
From a tiny bit of biographical information, that St Cecilia is said to have heard heavenly music at one moment in her life, has grown the legend that claims her as the patroness of all Western music; which brings us to our workshop!
Nancy Hadden has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a musicologist and renaissance flautist, so what better person could we have to guide us through 16th-century music celebrating St Cecilia on, most appropriately, Nov 22nd?
Some 37 singers and instrumentalists gathered in the pleasant surroundings of Compton Dando village hall to start the day off with Francisco Guerrero's Dum Aurora (1589). The words are the Benedictus antiphon from the office at daybreak, on the feast of St Cecilia, virgin and martyr. From there we moved on Virgo Glorioso, a hymn to the musical saint by the Flemish composer Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1505–c.1557), Nancy’s professed favourite. There was lots of imitation through the parts, and new phrases of music came in tandem with new phrases of text, which made for engrossing playing, with the occasional dissonance to spike it up.
Ferdinando di Lasso (1560–1609) was our next challenge, with his Cantantibus Organis. This was a darker, thicker textured, more rhythmic piece in 2 sections. We finished the day with Cecilia Virgo by Peter Philips (1561– 1628), technically a challenging and complex piece showing distinct Italian influences,
Our grateful thanks go to Madeline and her team for organizing such a fascinating day, and to Nancy, who is so skilfull at knowing just how much we can achieve in 6 hours!
It was a chilly day when we filled St Mary’s hall with singers in winter woollies, to tackle two contrasting seventeenth-century works by Monteverdi and Purcell. In more ways than one, a warm-up was required, but after Venetia Caine had led us through some exercises, first humming then singing scales, both the room and the vocal chords felt significantly cheerier. A few altos volunteered to augment the tenors to help balance the choir, and there wasn’t much difference in the range required, as both parts turned out to need bottom F.
Monteverdi’s Latin mass of 1641 is, unusually for him, scored for only four voices; an intimate, meditative piece, probably designed for Eleanor Gonzaga of Mantua’s private devotions. It is written in the old style, probably intended for a small chapel rather than the grandeur of St Mark’s, Venice. Mindful of its scale, Venetia encouraged us to sing softly and sensitively, aiming for a gentle lilt rather than a slavish crotchet beat. Dotted crotchets were to be approached with a rocking sensation, a contrast to the double dotted drive we encountered later with Purcell.
There were a few note queries – should certain Bs be flattened? – and Venetia made us aware of the constant shift in tonality between major and minor. It was precisely the mix of B naturals and B flats, sometimes in the same bar, that gave the piece its distinctive colour. The Kyrie began with a series of fugal entries, followed by a yearning, descending figure for ‘Christe eleison’. Throughout the day I was reminded what great word-painters Monteverdi and Purcell were. There was a shiver when we sang the pianissimo chords of ‘Et incarnatus est ‘, and again in the stark fifths of ‘crucifixus’. Venetia then guided us through the lovely change to triple time for ‘et resurrexit’, and a joyous, dance-like ascension. A measured Amen led to the beautiful Sanctus, which interwove simple, minim statements with soaring upward figures in open, angelic harmonies. We came down to earth with the Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Thank you, Venetia, for navigating us through this deceptively simple and precise work, and also to Simon Pickard for grounding us all with his organ accompaniment.
Purcell’s anthem My heart is inditing, written forty years later, also focuses on a Catholic Queen – Mary of Modena, second wife of James II – and was apparently sung after her entrance during his coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1685. This is a very public piece, theatrical and ceremonial, with a double choir of eight voices and a string section. We were very fortunate to have a seven-piece string band, and Simon, who flicked the switch to harpsichord, to support us and give the piece the pomp and scale it deserved.
Tony Bevan led the afternoon’s workshop, deftly dividing his time between the singers and instrumentalists. He wisely kicked us off with the easier last section, ‘Praise the Lord’, so we could get used to the larger, double-choir sound. The words, from Psalm 45, were in English, as expected from a protestant country scared stiff of any return to Roman Catholicism. In my opinion the anthem felt more theatrical than spiritual, with many references to the Queen’s clothes, her handmaidens and her hopeful fecundity (as Edward James pointed out at the end of the session). I wondered if Purcell had been briefed to pull out all the dramatic stops to bolster up a very unpopular Catholic King, who was, in fact, deposed by parliament four years later. But the music is gorgeous and Tony Bevan encouraged us to articulate it carefully, paying attention to the lilting dotted quavers and the distinctive scotch snaps. Tony reminded us that Purcell was acutely sensitive to the English language, and that we should be too.
Like Monteverdi, Purcell moves between duple and triple time, and there were some spine-tingling moments when, after ending on a minor chord, the choir burst in on a major one. As Tony pointed out, this effect on the entry ‘Praise the Lord’ is electrifying. Throughout the piece, Purcell contrasts ceremonial eight-part counterpoint with softer ’feminine’ sections, using two groups of three voices which respond to each other, as in ‘ Hearken O Daughter, consider” . Tony worked us hard for a couple of hours and we all noticed how much better the sound was when we stood up to sing. After a tea break we sang through the whole piece with the orchestra and found it a very satisfying experience.
Thank you Venetia and Tony, for your leadership and musical expertise, Simon for his subtle continuo, and not least Jenny for keeping us refreshed, especially when the tea-urn was playing up.