Spanish Practices, English Speculations

In terms of total performance time, I’ve probably conducted more music by J S Bach than by anyone else but when it comes to individual named works then Victoria leads the field. There are several reasons for this. Reliable editions are available from a number of sources; the ranges of the individual vocal lines suit modern singers in a way in which Byrd’s, for example, often do not; and I like the noise it makes (very much). True, in Victoria we do not find the scintillating rhythmic virtuosity of Byrd (though his Lauda Sion gets pretty close), but there is a Palestrinian perfection of technique that combines with delicate feels for harmony and sonority to give his music a distinctive hue.

This late Renaissance sacred music is generally thought of as being for unaccompanied voices and undoubtedly that is how it was and is often performed. But it wasn’t and isn’t the only option. In Victoria’s lifetime ‘voices only’ was very much the Roman custom but in his Spanish homeland they might be joined by almost any combination of organ, wind instruments and harp. Some readers will remember our extended series of Victoria performances in 2010/11 in which, yes, we did sing unaccompanied, but also in combination with organ and historic brass instruments to splendid effect.

Victoria’s music for multiple choirs offers clear opportunities for the exploration of performing options, though in our June concert I’m going to use just two, though in combination with each other. Both Regina coeli and Salve Regina are for double choir, with the ensembles contrasted in their scoring – SSABar/SATB. In was a common practice in the decades around 1600 to have unequal numbers of singers in the two choirs of such pieces and over the years I have found it to be effective when the SSABar group is the smaller of the two. Furthermore, we shall use the composer’s own organ part (though see below) which he suggested could support or even replace some of the vocal lines. (In the past we’ve done that too – in the triple choir Laetatus sum.)

This organ part was an addition to the music when the 1576 editions were re-published in revised versions in 1600. What we don’t know is exactly why it was added. Was Victoria simply following a new fashion? (Unlikely.) Was he ratifying a performance practice that regularly occurred anyway? (Very possibly.) Was this organ part a suggestion from the publisher? (Also very possible.) Did the publisher then get one of his hacks to arrange it from the vocal parts? (Also, I think, very possible as it is not always most gracefully written. I’ll be honest here – for our performance I have ‘tidied it up a bit’.)

The 1600 publication also contains a number of accidentals not found in 1576. Again, there are unanswerable questions. Were the original omissions mistakes? Did ‘the rules’ of melody and harmony as they were in the 1570s mean that singers would have sung them anyway, but in the different musical world of the 1600s these details needed to be made explicit? Did Victoria change his mind? The overall effect of the adjustments is to give the music a much more ‘modern’ major/minor feel. Perhaps he was moving with the times.

But with or without instruments, with or without the modernising accidentals, small choir or large, this is music which achieves a distinctive sublimity. Join us for something special on June 16th, and remember that our tickets are cheaper when bought in advance.

Motets – Humpty’s last word

We are now in the midst of preparing Parry’s Songs of Farewell for our June concert. I don’t expect anyone to believe me when I say this, but I really did include them in the 1st draft of this programme about 3 years ago – long before I thought that this might be my final concert. I must admit that I’ve never thought of these marvellous works as representing any particular genre of music – they’ve just been the Songs of Farewell. If you’d pushed me, however, I’d have plumped for anthem or partsong. I was therefore a bit startled to see that, on the printed music, Parry (or his publisher) designates each piece a motet. Bearing in mind my previous observations on this term, this could well be the point at which an author of any dictionary of musical terms might give up. Perhaps the meaning of words really is in the mouth or mind of the user.

I would say this wouldn’t I, but there is some wonderful music to be heard in this programme. I’ve resisted the temptation to pack it with personal favourites, though there are one or two! Do join us, and remember that our tickets are cheaper when bought in advance.

Humpty-Dumpty and the motet

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty might well have speaking on behalf of composers over the centuries who have labelled an astonishing variety of pieces ‘motet’. Actually, scarcely any of the standard musical ‘genre’ labels have always meant the same thing: symphony and concerto were very different things for Schütz compared to Mozart, for example. And sometimes one term has meant different things at the same time. An early 18th century trio sonata might require anything from one to four players.

There isn’t even clear agreement about the origin of the term motet. Is it from the Latin movere (move) reflecting the musical independence of the parts, at least in the earlier repertoire, or from the French mot (word), perhaps because early examples often had more than one text being sung at the same time? Either way, the earliest motets (13th century) were some of the very first types of music to be in parts, with one voice singing a quickly moving counter-melody against slower plainchant. The principle quickly infiltrated secular music and in the 14th and early 15th centuries motets were written in which a slow moving melody (which might be sacred in origin) was encircled by up to three other parts which may have separate texts in different languages as well as being governed (especially in their rhythms) by schemes of dizzying mathematical complexity.

It was in the 16th century that the meaning of motet settled down to mean a composition in parts setting a Latin text that was not part of a specific liturgy (though this is rather a grey area). The three marvellous examples by Lassus included in our March programme reflect this ambiguity rather neatly. Laetentur coeli sets a text from the Christmas liturgy – though only in part; Ave verum corpus – a setting in six parts that is every bit as fine as Byrd’s famous setting – is from the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi; and Musica, Dei donum has no known liturgical function.

I’ll have a bit more to say about Schütz and Bach another time. Don’t forget that tickets to Ripieno concerts are cheaper when bought in advance. This is a really good programme (even if I do say so myself) in which our singing will be enhanced by support of The Brook Street Band. Lucky us. Lucky you.

But it’s really all about great singing

It is very easy to become so side-tracked by the historical and musicological issues that surround Monteverdi’s 1610 music that one overlooks the fact that it is, above all, a set of great vocal pieces. Monteverdi explicitly makes provision for performance by singers with just an organ for support. The opening response can be chanted, the instrumental interludes in the first psalm and the hymn can be omitted, the sonata can be omitted, and there is a second Magnificat setting that requires only an organ for accompaniment – no brass, no strings. You don’t even need a choir – one good singer per part may well have been the composer’s expectation. Frankly, if you know the deluxe version that we will be performing it’s a bit of a let-down, if nonetheless lovely in its own way.

However, there were choirs (in our modern sense) in Monteverdi’s time and it is not inappropriate in either musical or historical terms to use one. And what a feast they get. Always divided into at least six parts and in one psalm as many as ten; soaring melodies; jazzy syncopations; intricate counterpoint; gravely beautiful plainchant; and one of the greatest ever ‘Amen’ settings.

The soloists, too, have a rich banquet. Swift virtuosic passages, lyrical lines, luscious duet writing, echoes, the greatest ever tenor trio . . . it’s all there.

My favourite bits? All of it really, but if you push me then Lauda Jerusalem and the six part conclusion to Audi coelum. But I’d love to be a tenor who could sing Duo seraphim. 

Join us for a great night out on November 18th.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.


Theories, speculation and wishful thinking

In the first decade of the 17th century Monteverdi was employed by the Gonzaga family in Mantua. It was, to say the least, an eventful period for him. He composed the first (L’Orfeo) and the second (Arianna) great operas and the 1610 Mass and Vespers music; he became embroiled in a dispute about the development of music as an expressive language; his wife died; the court’s star singer died; and he was increasingly disenchanted by the way his employers treated him. All of that we know.

The 1610 publication shows his mastery of all aspects of sacred music composition as it then was: a mass in traditional style and more modern music for Vespers in which voices and instruments intertwine. But what did he hope to gain from the publication? The general assumption is – a prestigious new job. The mass might well have attracted interest from Rome, the elaborate psalms may have intrigued ambitious Venice and such a comprehensive demonstration of his art could have nudged authorities closer to home at the Basilica of St Barbara in Mantua. But we do not know whether or not those organisations were really interested in what he had to offer at that time.

It was 1613 before Monteverdi secured his release from Mantua and a new post as maestro at San Marco in Venice. Many commentators have assumed that a performance of at least part of the Vespers music formed his audition but the records say that he performed ‘a mass with instruments’ – not Vespers music. (So what happened to that mass? No such work by Monteverdi survives.) One slight glimmer of 1610 recognition might be the comment that he was appointed not only on the basis of his audition but also in recognition of his previous achievements. But we still have no record of a 1610 Vespers performance in his lifetime.

I’ve always been struck by the possibility of links between L’Orfeo and the Vespers music. One is certainly real. The instrumental fanfare that opens the opera is spectacularly expanded into the Vespers’ opening response. Another is purely speculative. I’ve always felt that the tenor solo Audi coelum was written for whoever first sang the role of Orfeo. The opera was first performed during the February 1607 Mantuan carnival season. Was there a corresponding ecclesiastical event featuring at least some of the 1610 music? Suitable musicians – singers and instrumentalists – were clearly available. Alas, no such event is recorded, but it’s what I’d like to believe.

Our early bird ticket price applies until November 5th.