Thanks to everyone who responded to the recent questionnaire – we had an excellent response, with 60 forms returned, representing more than 50% of our current membership.
The main outcome is that most people are reasonably happy with SWEMF’s current way of operating – only one person indicated that the organisation does not meet their needs at all. Singers (77% of respondents) and recorder players (48%) constitute the majority, with much smaller proportions playing other instruments. The highest proportion of respondents were from Devon, followed by Somerset and Bristol (17% each); only a small proportion were in Cornwall or Gloucestershire.
These facts probably reflect the way we currently operate; it is true that few events are organised in Cornwall or West Devon, and those in North Gloucestershire may prefer to join MEMF or BMEMF. Likewise, it may be that we attract larger numbers of recorder players and singers because of the nature of our workshops.
Surprisingly, pitch did not seem to be an issue for most people, with 60% saying it didn’t matter to them. Only 10% - mostly viol players – expressed a preference for A = 415. Discontent generally focussed on (a) the geographical location of events, and (b) the forces involved – recorder players thought there weren’t enough recorder-based workshops, singers thought there weren’t enough singing workshops…etc!
There is no great appetite for different forms of event other than workshops, though 40% of respondents might be interested in residential courses. More than half (53%) prefer to have a tutor, though 11 people expressed a willingness to help in organising untutored playing days.
There appears to be general satisfaction with the format of the Diary, though sizeable minorities would welcome different kinds of feature, particularly letters from members. Likewise for the website – although there were some critical comments about the lack of photographs etc, and several people said ‘This is the first I’ve heard of a website’!
Addressing the first three of these points will probably involve a rather more systematic approach to the organisation of events, looking at the overall picture and perhaps asking a member if they could suggest a venue in an under-represented area, or pro-actively approaching a tutor to run a specified type of event instead of waiting for tutors to get in touch and/or make suggestions about repertoire.
Your committee will be considering these points further, and the AGM will also be discussing the results of the survey; expect an update in the next Diary.
Clare Griffel (Chair)
Minstrels at Chester, St John's Church, Vicar's Lane, Chester, 16 June 2012
ieEarly French Chansons with Clare Griffel, Nailsea School, 23 June 2012
Thomas Tallis “Spem in Allium” & Motets with Ann Lyall, Batheaston, 9 June 2012
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
Soldiers recline against a stone wall; drinking vessels in hand; an archer lifts and pulls a huge bow, testing it; to one side a scribe pens fluent characters onto parchment; children play games with counters; and a small harp and gittern can just be heard in the background, their plagency interjecting a note of melancholy into the busy scene.
And so it was at the Minstrels' Court in Chester - in 2012, as it might just have been in 1312 - except perhaps for the Styyrofoam cups in which the coffee came.
Yes, there's always some kind of anachronism to remind you that this is an reinvented world, and not quite the real thing, but at times this event came remarkably close to 'realising' the experience of the medieval minstrels' court. The splendour of the Norman work in St. John's Church always formed an imposing background, but medieval churches were places of meeting and business as much as of worship, and we certainly re-enacted that.
The bagpipers, players of loud-wind, and percussionists practised their tunes for the procession. Richard York demonstrated some of the other medieval instruments that might have been heard back in the days. The mummers gave us a good dose from the Doctor, helping out St. George and the Turk. The soldiers showed us how to arm a knight. Trouvere took us back to some of the earliest repertoire musicians can recreate without complete gueswork having to take over, with some expressive playing on a range of quieter ('bas') instruments. Blast from the Past showed how to give a lively presentation of some up-beat medievil repertoire (even if I did keep twitching at the sight of those modern machine heads on the string instrument!). We even did a bit of time-travel whilst Mowbray's Musicke taught a few C16 dances to those capable of putting onr foot in front of another (not me then). Some of us even managed to be filmed, for a short film presenting the history of the mintrel's court and its place in the life of the City of Chester. It was, all in all, very varied and interesting throughout the day. And in the intervals we had the benefit of the church's team of coffee and sandwich makers, on hand thoughout the proceedings to keep us from fainting away.
Procession assembled, at one-of-the-clock we marched confidently into the midst of bemused shoppers in Chester, playing away for all we were worth. Those at the front of the procession were not always quite in the same time zone as the back, but I doubt they were in bygone days. And if the legend about the founding reason for the minstrels' court is to be believed (The Earl rounding up the minstrels, who then scared the Welsh back into the hills) then I also doubt whether it was because everyone on that occasion played in perfect time! So, we marched to the Cross in the centre of the City and back, after which we gave a much more concerted performance of our three memorised pieces, in the church itself, under the benign gaze of the Rector of Chester, who seemed very willing to take our mummery in good part, and to distribute our licences as Minstrels. I'm surprised by how pleased I was to find that I held in my hand a piece of mock-parchment entitling me to "perform without fear of arrest for lewdness or beggary"!
Then, as if the day itself were not enough, came a concert in the evening, including some of those established ensembles who had played during the day. A slightly more formal atmosphere now applied, and in that harsher light a few blemishes and shortcomings in performance were sometimes to to be found, of a kind that are less obvious in a more informal setting. Even so, nothing fell short of competency, much was proficent, and overall there was an interesting and enjoyable mix. But then, just to show that the medieval costumes, and more 'authentic' instruments, are not actually necessary for music to work, Time Bandits gave an impressively assured performance of a range of music from medieveal to modern, with nary a medieval tabard in sight, and a range of instruments that was almost defiantly non-medieval apart from the occasional use of a bagpipe. In the end, if we are to perform music, it is the quality of musical performance that counts - the clothes and other props aren't enough of themselves. Dressing up in some kind of medieval style, and wielding funny old instruments, can be hugely enjoyable - but Time Bandits showed that it isn't a necessary condition for convincing performance of music from the past.
None of this would have happened if Tom Hughes had not decided that the old tradition of the Minstrels' Court of Chester should be revived. Throughout the day he was on hand to keep the show on the road, clearly wanting everyone to enjoy the day. It all takes much preparation, and a lot of time, effort and energy has to go into that kind of event, so I hope I would speak for all present in saying a huge thank-you to Tom for organising a day-to-remember. I, for one, am looking forward to 15th June 2013, when I hope once again to have a "licence bestowed upon a Minstrel" at Chester.
We met on Saturday 23rd June at Nailsea School in anticipation of our first SWEMF workshop with a new Chairman, Clare Griffel. The subject was Early French Chansons. Sermisy and Janequin, for singers, recorders and viols. We were a slightly unbalanced group of singers, consisting of more sopranos than anything else, but the instruments helped to balance us. The one recorder player became a token alto for the day. It did help to steady those singers who were a little wobbly on sight-reading.
The texts were varied and ranged from the humorous, full of double-entendres, to the serious love songs and the onomatopoeic chansons of Janequin.
The day began with some general hints on singing in French, such as reading Pierre Bernac on the subject of French pronunciation. There were a few tongue-twisters in both Fench and English which helped to get our vowels and consonants going. We started with Sermisy (c.1490-1562), a singer at the Sainte Chapelle of Louis XII, who was present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold festivities. He was also famous for his chansons-like style even in his sacred music, which made him distinctive from from his northern contemporaries. "Tant Que Vivray" started well but some of its strange spelling caught us out. In addition to Clare we had a French speaker among the sopranos so between them there was much help and advice at hand. It was suggested that the biggest trap was words which resembled English.
We were intrigued by the subsequent song texts, "Je ne mengé point de Porc" and "Martin menoit son pourceau au Marché". Clare's theory was that since at that time every household kept a pig they were an integral part of everyday life. Interestingly, as we found in the afternoon, Janequin also set one of these texts.
After a break for lunch we set to work on Janequin comparing "Martin Menoit" with Sermisy's version. In fact it seemed much more ecclesiastical in style. Janequin (1485-1558) seems to have been a largely freelance musician with a high reputation as a Chansons composer throughout Europe. Known for their charm, wit and lyricism his most celebrated ones are descriptive, like "Le Rossignol", which imitates birdsong. In contrast "Las Pauvre Coeur" was appropriatly lachrymose in style. "Quelqu'un me Disoit" brought up the historical question of Musica Ficta - whether the leading notes should be raised or lowered at cadences. "Il estoit une fillette" to a very cheeky text, had quite a dance-like character & could equally have been played instrumentally.
All in all it proved a very stimulating day both musically and linguistically. Many thanks were due to Clare for all her work, and to Heather for organising this particularly interesting event, as well as providing her lovely viol shortbreads for our coffe breaks!
This day workshop attracted ninety people including many SWEMF members. Ann Lyall has planned and conducted these workshops, with organisational back-up from the Bath Branch of the SRP, for singers and players of lower register instruments each year at Batheaston. This year was the 16th such event and a special one as it focussed on pieces by Thomas Tallis including 'Spem in Alium' ('I have never put my hope in any other but you'). It is unique in the annals of English Church Music, written in the later years of Tallis' life, for 8 choirs each of 5 parts. It may have been intended as a 40th birthday tribute for either Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth I. It followed Tallis' hearing of Striggio's 40 part motet Ecce Beateam Lucem performed in London in 1567.
It took place in the beautiful village church at Batheaston. Coffee and tea breaks meant we met many like-minded and sociable people; the home-made cakes (Bath SRP speciality) were as good as the playing and in some cases as eagerly anticipated. On the one sunny day of this soaking week, it was a pleasure to leave the authentic Anglican chill of the stone church and warm ourselves on the sun baked tombstones outside during the breaks.
The organisation of the day was superb: our parts were on the chairs in colour coded files; singers were matched with players and all could see the conductor. The balance of instruments from curtal to cello and bassoon, with plenty of lower range recorders, and the participation of excellent sight singers worked splendidly. In the rests, each player could hear the polyphony shifting around them from choir to choir. It was an unforgettable musical experience. 'Epic', one contrabass player said.
The discipline and forethought of all those involved in the planning and preparation enabled us all to enjoy our share in this memorable music making. Ann's preparation was immaculate. Not only did we work at Spem in Alium, but at intervals throughout the day we played shorter well-known Tallis Motets including “O Nata Lux” and “O Sacrum Convivium”. Here we each played or sang from a score; while in Spem players had individual parts and the singers had the score for their own choir. Again – superb preparation which made the day manageable for all whatever their standard of sight reading. Ann revealed the hidden structures and climaxes in a way that anchored us to the essentials of the music.
She took us through the structure and glories of the piece so that we were able by the end to perform it, not only without breaking down, but much more significantly with that sense of having participated in a memorable musical and dramatic experience. As the last chord arrived there was a sense of poignant nostalgia already that this superb day was over.
Angela Le Grice
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.
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.