Early Music Playing Day at Thorverton with Ralph Woodward, 20 Oct 2012
Music from Henry VIII Book, with Ralph Allwood, 3 Nov 2012
Robert Whyte Lamentations of Jeremiah" with Tony Bevan, Glastongury, 26 Jan 2013
Renaissance Viol Weekend at Charney Manor with Alison Crum and Roy Marks, 18-20 January 2013
The Renaissance Wind Band, Gloucester Folk Museum with Tim Bayley, 20 April 2013
Voices and Viols, Backwell with Bill Hunt, 27 April 2013
Music by Heirich Isaac with Peter Syrus, Westbury Leigh Communiity Hall, Wilts, 25 May 2013
The Golden Age of Portuguese Polyphony, with David Allinson, Victoria Rooms Bristol 13 July 2013
On a beautifully sunny, autumn day in October, about twenty singers and fifteen instrumentalists (mostly recorders and curtals) met at the Parish Church in Thorverton for an Early Music playing day. We were directed by Ralph Woodward, from Cambridge.
We began the day by playing through a glorious mass for two choirs by Victoria, the “Missa Salve”. After coffee, we looked forward to Christmas by playing two marvellous motets by Praetorius – “Ein Kindlein” and “Von Himmel Hoch”.
At lunch time, many of us ate our sandwiches in the church, and some went to the local pub! After lunch, we worked quite hard on the music, and finished the day by playing through everything as a little concert. It wasn’t note-perfect, but I think we all really enjoyed getting to know the music and performing it.
Our thanks go to Ralph, who took us through the day so knowledgably and efficiently, often singing our parts for us if we got a bit lost! He achieved a happy balance of trying to get things right but not intimidating us! Thanks also to Mary Thomas, who organised the day, together with her helpers who provided us with teas, coffees and biscuits. We all look forward to other playing day soon at Thorverton church, which is an ideal place to enjoy such music.
Chris & Chris Ainslie
The venue at Exeter School was not easy to find, but after some minutes spent wandering about asking each other and passers by we all came together. The music school is comfortable and well equipped with instruments; there are reputable pianos in each practising room including one noble instrument by Bechstein, 'suppliers to the nobility and royalty'. On the wall are big photos of attentive young string players in action, and one of the school choir in a baroque church on a German tour.
Ralph Allwood made a very suitable conductor for this music, being energetic, impetuous and evidently enchanted by the era. He assumed competence from all concerned and pulled us all along with him, so producing a strong, lively response.
During the day we played the best known works 'by' Henry VIII himself and pieces by other composers. The musical style and lyrics of these pieces suggests much machismo, drunkenness and rough energy with a dusting of morality. In Blow thy Horn Hunter for example... 'she lay so fair I could not miss - I think his bow is well unbent, his bolt may fly no more', and after all that the singer retires to the boozer exhausted. Gentil Prince de Renon vilifies the French army as liars, rapists, house burners: 'right matey, so ya wanna be hung and thrown to the ravens?' The only truly reverent piece was the quiet and beautiful Quid petis, O Fili?, sung by Mary to the baby Jesus; Mary 'full lovely looking on the Lord, the lantern of light'.
All these works were drawn from Musica Britannica. Henry's own music book still exists, and many of the instruments used by his fifty eight musicians, who were employed on compositions for ceremonial occasions and on drunken knees ups after banquets, as well as giving Henry's attempts at composition a tactful lift. We played one work that had an awkward and ill fitting third line, and speculated that this might be Henry's work. The excellent William Cornish was also used to attend to the urinals, which says something relevant about the rank of a Tudor musician.
Ralph proudly showed his latest toy; an electronic tablet with large pitch compass that could be seen in the back row and apparently ensures that no musician goes ‘flarp’. It can cope with baroque pitch and unequal temperament, so obviously a must-have for a conductor. In a neat demonstration of unequal pitch we sang note three in a chord of F sharp major which changed to G minor. To be in tune with the G minor note three had to rise perceptibly. We learned that Tallis' own organ still exists in St. Alphège's Church, Greenwich, with separate notes for C sharp/D flat, D sharp/E flat, etc, and Ralph demonstrated natural harmonics by doing some overtone chanting, which causes unearthly harmonics to fly round in the air overhead like angel voices; bells; insects – the sound is hard to describe. Incidentally this most interesting technique is still being taught in workshops by Jill Purce, and it has a wonderfully clearing and energising effect on the head; a kind of sonic massage that someone has probably discovered as a pathway to Nirvana.
We had some sectional rehearsals during the day for voices and instruments separately. During the instrumental rehearsals a quartet of buzzies struggled hard to get sufficiently in tune to perform but didn't quite manage it for lack of experienced players – a shame as there is nothing more macho and raucous than crumhorns. Our final run through omitted the most scary numbers with showers of uncontrollable semiquavers, and concluded a good energy rousing day.
A footnote. On missing my bus by a whisker I waited in a warm alcove in the R D and E and was humming some parts extremely softly when I was staggered to be asked if I was a professional singer! I wish.
It was a sunny afternoon in January when nearly forty people gathered in Saint Mary’s Church Hall to study and perform The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Robert Whyte under the direction of Tony Bevan. The church hall continued to be filled with light for the whole of the afternoon and this light proved to be useful later on.
The Lamentations of Jeremiah tell the story of Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of its inhabitants. This suffering is vividly portrayed in the text with their enemies entering the sanctuary and stealing their valuables. The inhabitants suffered starvation and squalor as Jerusalem was destroyed.
Generally the verses of the Lamentations follow an alphabetical arrangement, according to the Hebrew alphabet. Robert Whyte divides his Lamentations into two parts, using only a few of the letters from the alphabet. Each part is divided into three – the first part Heth, Teth, Iod, the second part Caph, Lamed, Mem. These initial letters are used as extended melismas i.e. long groups of notes on the same vowel. Each part ends with the words Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (“Jerusalem, return to the Lord thy God”).
The lights failed at tea-time so the final performance was done with daylight fast fading, very apt for a piece which is performed during the ceremony of Tenebrae when darkness descends as up to fifteen candles are being extinguished. This final performance was dedicated to the memory of Margaret Somerset who had previously organised the Glastonbury workshop for many years, the last one two years ago.
Tony was a patient tutor even though the pitch had a tendency to sag. However he praised the final performance as an expressive attempt considering the time allotted for learning the music.
Thanks are due to Jenny Abraham and Sue Bond who organised the teas. A special thank you is owed to Venetia Caine who organised the day so efficiently.
About 15 intrepid renaissance viol players braved some very cold and snowy weather to enjoy an annual weekend of consort music at Charney Manor, a 13th century conference centre and retreat owned by the Quakers. The tutors were Alison Crum and Roy Marks, the latter kindly offering to replace Peter Syrus who was marooned by snow in the north. The venue, not easily accessible without a car, is surrounded by beautiful countryside, Solar & oldest part of the house suitable for peaceful walks and for bird-watching. The playing rooms in the house are cosy, and there is also a spacious upper room in the barn which can accommodate a large group of musicians in comfort. The solar is especially atmospheric.
This was my first attendance at a SWEMF workshop, so armed with a great bass cornemuse, I entered the Gloucester Folk Museum in trepidation. I needn’t have worried. I was greeted by a friendly group of wind players and the organiser Simon Pickard. There was a slightly embarrassing moment when I asked a member of the group if he attended these workshops regularly and whether he had come a long way, to discover subsequently that he was in fact Tim Bayley, a founding member of the York Waits and our tutor for the day. Tim’s first task was to divide the players into three groups. The softest wind, the recorders were on one side, the medium volume buzzy wind, cornemuse, crumhorn, racket and curtal in the middle and the loud wind, shawms, sackbuts and cornetts positioned as far away from the rest of the group as possible.
After stressing the importance of tuning to chords in the piece we were about to play, we then launched into a stately intrada by the impressively titled Moritz Landgraf of Hessen. The repertoire for the day proved to be wide and varied, from German chorales and Italian carnival music to French dances and Flemish polyphony.
Tim’s approach was to try and play through each piece first, warts and all, then concentrate on certain passages where difficulties were encountered and finally to conduct the new improved performance. Tim had a relaxed and genial manner which made for much humour and good natured banter throughout the day. He was also sensitive to the needs of the players for frequent rests, as playing some of these wind instruments can be quite tiring. I saw the advantage here of having more than one player on a part, as it then became possible for an individual to drop out to take a well earned break if required.
Personally, I would have liked a little more information on the historical background of wind playing in the Renaissance and the status of wind players. This could have served as a way of introducing different national styles and to give a natural break between the pieces. I also felt there was a tendency sometimes to move onto a new piece before the previous piece had been explored sufficiently. A feedback questionnaire completed by the participants of any course or workshop is a very useful resource for the organiser or tutor to receive.
Gloucester Folk Museum is centrally placed in the city close to the Cathedral and has a good café and garden to relax in. The room we played in was large, modern and airy and Simon is to be congratulated on his excellent choice of venue.
By the end of the day I felt that I had definitely improved my lung capacity with a great workout equivalent to at least an hour’s aerobic exercise in a gym.
It was a bitterly cold winter’s day in late April when we met in the WI Hall, Backwell for a feast of music by Gibbons and Tomkins, under the enthusiastic and expert guidance of Bill Hunt. There were about 18 singers, 7 viols and 7 wind instruments, plus chamber organ; Bill arranged us with the singers in the middle, viols to our left and winds to our right, so we were all quite close to the conductor. But for the "final" performances the singers moved round so that we were more or less facing the instruments - acoustically much better, since players and singers could hear each other better.
We worked on Gibbons "We praise thee O father" and Tomkins "Know you not" which Bill told us was written for the funeral in 1612 of Prince Henry (after he incautiously went swimming in the Thames and caught typhoid).Bill talked about the origin of verse-anthems in the Reformation as a plain and understandable way of presenting text to a congregation, as opposed to the highly complex pre-reformation music, where most people wouldn’t have a clue what words were being sung; he strongly recommended Peter le Huray’s book "Music and the Reformation in England 1549-1660". He also showed the part played by rhetoric: for example, in the text "Know you not that a great prince is fallen", Tomkins emphasises the crucial word "not" with a blue note (Bill’s phrase); and "fallen" is on a highly expressive descending phrase. Another striking feature appears at the word "prince", where the top line has a beautiful phrase which zig-zags upwards and downwards, producing the outline of a crown in the score. In the Gibbons, Bill drew our attention to the phrase "taken away the sins of the world", where several musical lines and rhythms come magically into alignment on the word "away"; he compared it (in true 17-th century style) to a conjunction of all the planets.
Of course musicology is one thing but practical music is another, and we had plenty of that; with two groups of instruments we could experiment with different orchestrations, and a capella sections. I thoroughly enjoyed singing this wonderful music, and I think we all had a most enjoyable day.
Thanks are due to all who worked to organise the workshop, especially Heather Gibbard who organised the refreshments (not forgetting her signature viol-shaped shortbreads).
NB. Thanks from the organiser to those who helped with refreshments and chamber organ and chair manipulation on the day.
Peter Syrus, lecturer at the Northern College of Music in Manchester, is a well known and much appreciated conductor of early music events for amateurs. As usual, he had a great collection of pieces (set by himself using computer software) with much variety, despite being by one composer. Peter made the point that many people focus on the 16th and early 17th centuries of Renaissance music, but there is much great music from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Heinrich Isaac is perhaps less well known than some of that period, for example Josquin des Prez, yet he composed some of the greatest music of that time. Born in Flanders, Isaac then spent most of his life in Italy and what is now Germany and Austria. In 1485 he is recorded as a singer at S Giovani in Florence. In 1496 he found new employment with Maximillian I, king of the Romans, following political upheavals in Florence. By 1502 he was back in Florence and retained his contacts there until his death in 1517, though he spent time composing at the court of Maximillian at Konstanz.
The music was for 4, 5 and 6 parts. Mostly Peter kept the instruments in a separate choir from the singers with the viols on one side and the blowers (recorders and curtals plus occasional sackbut and cornett) on the other. The 36 participants soon discovered what Peter described as the instrumental writing, typical of the low countries, with wonderful lines and rhythms. We worked at the Kyrie and Sanctus sections of the “Missa Comme femme desconfortée” (4 part) and Missa Paschale” (6 part). The other pieces we tackled during the day were: “Angeli, Archangeli” (6 part), “Quis dabit capiti meo aquam” (4 part), “Regina caeli laetare” (5 part) and “Tota pulchra es, amica mea” (4 part).
As often happens on such days, the quality improved after a while, especially for a large ensemble of curtals. Given the relatively short time available, the group produced some impressive performances and clearly everyone enjoyed themselves.The venue is a fairly new one for SWEMF, and very good it is too, with a moderately large hall plus kitchen, loos and parking that make for a comfortable day. The under-floor heating not only made the hall pleasant for us, but kept the instruments warm (more than expected). The SWEMF AGM was held during the lunch break and had a good attendance, while those not in SWEMF were able to eat their lunch in the sun outside.
Finally, we must thank Stella Worrall for yet another well organised event.
This workshop took place in the University of Bristol Music Department, housed in the building at the top of Queen’s Road, and personally I feel grateful to David Adams for arranging the day and allowing a view of the interior – oh yes, and a wonderful musical experience. We arrived early and made the acquaintance of a friendly porter at the desk, to find that the inside of the building was not oppressively heavy but very charming in detail, though sadly shabby. There are winding corridors downstairs round a central concert hall, and upstairs a wide skylight that must have leaked a lot in winter, to judge by the carpet below. Apparently the place was designed for music; according to Google, Jenny Lind sang there in her days of glory. David Allinson was obviously at home in the building having worked there for the past two years, and when we had brought each work to a singable standard, we trooped out to a room shaped like a bell or circular well to hear the sound resound round about us more satisfactorily.
The composer chiefly studied was Manuel Cardoso, praised enthusiastically for the craft that went to the construction of the Requiem fr Six Voices, making it a straightforward, simple and beautiful piece. Beside the Mass we sang some of Cardoso’s penitential motets which powerfully expressed sorrow and in this reminded me of the intensely sad Robert White Lamentations we sang in Glastonbury a while back.
And what of the direction? To my mind David bears comparison with Philip Thorby – I can say no more! Full of energy and burning with enthusiasm; skilful, tactful, very funny and only learned when relevant. I wish he was still in the Exeter area. His next appointment is in Canterbury Christchurch University as director of music … and I hope his next pupils and colleagues appreciate him.
The proceedings of this NEMA International Conference held in association with the University of York Music Department and the York Early Music Festival can be found at www.york.ac.uk/music/conferences/nema/
Richard Bethell (NEMA organiser of the conference) writes
"The 16 essays presented on this website are re-workings of papers given at the NEMA conference held in the Music Department on 7–10 July 2009. In my view, these proceedings make a valuable contribution towards historically informed vocal practice. Some essays include links to vocal illustrations, using recordings made at the University or taken from external sources. In addition, two contributions (those from Elisabeth Belgrano and myself) include an illustrated video or embedded sound clips providing essential support to the authors’ arguments. Taken collectively, the essays certainly cover most the conference themes flagged up in our call for papers (see website introduction). However, vocal vibrato (tackled by four contributors) was by far the most popular and controversial topic.