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
Pictures from Baroque Playing Day, Cheddar, 27th September 2014
Workshop for voices, viols and recorders directed by Andrew Doldorph, Thorverton, Devon. 18th October 2014
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.
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.
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.