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
Janequin to Charpentier: Workshop for Voices, Viols and Recorders with Mike Bailey, West Bay, Dorset, 21 September 2013
Dowland Workshop for Voices, Viols, Recorders and Plucked Strings with Clare Griffel, Thorverton Parish Church, 12 October 2013
Madrigals with Venetia Caine and Victoria Requiem with Tony Bevan, St Mary's Church, Glastonbury, 1st February 2014
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
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.
By nine o’clock in the morning, the little harbour-side church of St John in West Bay was already filling with instrumentalists and singers arriving for a day of French music 16C-18C organised by Paula Biss and directed by Mike Bailey. An hour later, over forty participants had arrived through the morning mist for a day working on music from Janequin to Charpentier.
We warmed up with a gentle Pavane, composed by Thoinot Arbeau, a scholar of dance and musician of the late 16C whose music epitomised the grace and precision both of the text and the dance itself. Mike seemed sufficiently well-pleased with our efforts to move on to a much more challenging task, “Le chant des Oyseaux” composed several decades earlier by Clement Janequin who delighted in creating musical effects. As the title suggests, we were called upon to imitate a whole dawn chorus - doves, nightingales, cuckoos and several lesser species! We trilled and tutted with all our might, and rolled our “rrrs” with gusto! Instruments too warbled and tooted as owls and thrushes joined the chorus.This must have been to some effect, as our audience later commented that we were quite clearly attempting to be birds! Whether this was a result of the helpful explanations given to them by Mike before the piece, or a true reflection of our mastery of French consonants, I wouldn’t like to say!
A totally different theme came later - music written again by Janequin - with a piece entitled “Martin menait son porceau au marche.” This was far more down-to earth in every sense! Workshop participants, and later the audience, were very amused to learn of the difficulties poor Martin had in securing his pig while enjoying the delights of his pretty companion, Alix, on the way to market. Again, the music bore Janequin’s musical hallmarks, and the rhythmic line, culminating in Alix’s cries of “serre, Martin!” (hang on, Martin!) was quite dramatic! The audience was left in no doubt of the gravity of his situation!
Everyone enjoyed the Charpentier extracts from the Te Deum - Prelude and Pleni sunt caeli after lunch and we achieved a good sound. The afternoon session closed with the inspiring “Ave Verum Corpus” by Charpentier. This beautiful music, with its moving harmonies so in tune with the text, allowed the band full scope. The lyrical interludes between singing lines were played with a very fine touch, and we truly felt we had performed the work of one of the masters of sacred vocal harmony.
Many thanks go to Mike Bailey for his skill, patience and leadership, and to Paula, who is stepping down from the organisation of such events, after ten years of giving us all these opportunities to enjoy this wonderful music.
Approximately 30 players and singers met for this workshop in Thorverton. Clare Griffel is not only the SWEMF Chairperson, a knowledgeable and entertaining director but also a superb singer (as she showed when demonstrating some of the trickier corners in the Dowland part songs).
Clare started by dispelling many of the myths of Dowland “semper dolens”, giving a short history of his life in Tudor England and in Denmark under Christian IV and providing us with a selection of his part songs to illustrate his various moods and methods of working. Although many of the songs were originally for lute or other stringed instruments, it was financially more successful to add voices. We sang and played songs from Book 1 which were instrumental with fairly simple 4 voice parts added. In the second book the songs are more complex and the vocal parts are more independent. In the third book, the vocal parts are more madrigalian and polyphonic. The songs are in similar keys as lutes do not transpose into a variety of keys.
Clare encouraged us to sing / play them in various combinations of voice and instrument which gave a wonderful diversity to the day. The scores she provided were modern but we also experimented with singing one song from parts as would have been common practice. This was fine for the sopranos who had the tune but caused some problems for lower voices. Of course, instrumentalists frequently play from parts and so this was not an issue for them. She also introduced us to 10 precepts from the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus which Dowland translated;an idiosyncratic and entertaining list of instructions for singers. We tried very hard not to bray like asses thereafter. One issue arose during the day which it might be useful for the Committee / members to discuss. After the first break, Clare said that she'd been told that she was talking too much and so would concentrate on directing the music thereafter.
There may be a difference of expectations here. Some participants enjoy these workshops because we learn about composers and their social, musical and political milieu as well as dipping into the music. It obviously helps when the discussion is as entertaining as Clare's. Others obviously love to sing and play as much as possible. I'm not sure what the answer is; do we just muddle along and let the Director lead the workshop as s/he sees fit or should workshops be advertised as either performance only or as a wider educational day?
However, this was a really enjoyable and educational workshop. The venue is lovely and many thanks to Mary Thomas and her band of helpers for organising the day so successfully.
The addition of madrigals was a good idea; it made the day longer and the journey more worthwhile, though that is certainly not to suggest that the main workshop would not have been worth coming to. It was also the first time I have sung madrigals with SWEMF, which I was glad to do: yes we were a larger group than is recommended but not that many people are lucky enough to sing madrigals regularly.
In an interesting attempt to get us to sing as one, Venetia mentioned French practices for singing groups; apparently sight reading is thought to be beyond amateurs but there is more emphasis on technique. This made me think of English choirs who could do with more technique, but since not many younger people are joining standard choral societies now, it is possible that technical practice might put them off.
Because there was a yoga class in the main hall, we spent some of the morning downstairs in a room Venetia described as cosy, (jam packed), but actually we might not have sung any better elsewhere and madrigals are meant to be intimate. The first we tackled were John Bennet's 'Weep O mine Eyes' and Wilbye's 'Lady when I behold', at which point our spies reported that the yoga class was gone and we were released into the sunny spacious upper room (pretty curtains!). There we made our way through Thomas Tomkins' 'Music Divine' and Byrd's 'Lullaby, my sweet little Baby', which were more difficult: I ended the Byrd without having made much musical sense of it, sadly, because Byrd is magnificant, but there isn't time for detailed study on a workshop. Last was the very charming 'Sweet Suffolk Owle' by Vautor.
The Victoria Mass after lunch was a lovely experience; its unity and repose made me think of a deep slow flowing river and imagine that the composer must have a firm religious faith. Tony's beat was smooth and expressive and he piloted us through with no trouble, surprised so he said that we managed to get through the whole work, and satisfied with the sound we made. The first tenors struggled a little being few in number, and the Lydian mode tripped us up at times, being so near to the usual Ionian with one little difference.
A few notes on works and composers: Bennet's sad and very beautiful 'Weep O mine Eyes' was founded on Dowland's melancholy falling phrase, and at points the music suggested tears or sighs where it surged and fell in waves; 'to swell so high that I may drown me in you'. It was a good choice to start with.
Wilbye is said to have dealt skilfully with the interplay of words and musical rhythms and to have paid close attention to the quality of lyrics (in both senses), though this one, a standard comparison of his mistress' lips to roses, seemed to me overblown. He came from a farming family and did well by his patrons, who leased him a profitable sheep farm in Suffolk, and if there were owles in his barns he didn't consider putting them into madrigals.
Thomas Tomkins was Welsh. He came late in the era of madrigal writers and lived through the civil war to a time when his style was becoming outdated. His madrigal writing is often serious, in contrast to the very frivolous pieces produced by some contemporaries. This is a high minded work with I think a slap at the end to those who do not take love seriously – though that may not be his meaning.
The text of the Byrd is simple and rather rustic and runs to several verses; I was reminded of folk carols and trying to imagine the difficulty of memorising that many words to such complex music – the text was at the end and not underlaid. The lyric seemed appropriate because to my mind it is the vivid energising folk element that often peers through his music that makes it so moving and powerful.
Vautor's most famous madrigal is this one; it is indeed a sweet and lively work with music to match the slightly satirical lyric. 'Thy note, that out so freely rolls, with shrill command the mouse controls, and sings a dirge for dying souls' made me wonder whether the dirge was for mice or men, and thus reminded me of a Victorian song about burying pets in the garden that was one of the songs my grandmother taught me; it was by Victoria Horatia Ewing and the line that came back was 'muffle the dinner bell, mournfully ring'. It is worth a google; slightly satirical in a different way.
The Victoria Mass was written at a time when the regular performance of masses was still considered necessary to save the souls of the dead; it was dedicated to the Empress Maria, sister to Philip of Spain, whose chaplain he had been for many years. Victoria was a priest as well as a composer, and may have studied under Palestrina. According to one writer the work shows 'an utter suavity of harmonic and melodic gesture' and I dare say it does, but it was a rare experience to be able to sing it for which I am grateful to all concerned, including the tea maker who has not yet had a mention!
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.
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.