The Final Curtain

Tomorrow (in terms of the time of writing) I shall take my final Ripieno Choir rehearsal (approximately the 750th – I think I’ve missed about 10 in 22 years). We will be working on the second half of next week’s progamme, so this hardly qualifies as a ‘wind-down’! Indeed, as far as Parry’s Songs of Farewell are concerned, it’s very much a wind-up as we tackle his seven-part setting of Donne’s awe-inspiring At the round earth’s imagined corners, and then the eight-part, double choir Lord, let me know mine end (words from Psalm 39). [As an aside – am I the only person that thinks the opening of this inspired the opening of William Harris’s Faire is the heaven?] This is music which has repaid the care we have lavished on it and revealed Parry to be a far more resourceful and profound composer that his greatest hits (Jerusalem and I was glad) might suggest. His splendid Fifth Symphony can be heard at the Proms this year in a programme that also includes my favourite Hear my words, ye people.

We shall then conclude with music that is very much my personal choice as a valediction. The music of the Renaissance (for this purpose roughly 1490-1610) made a great impression on me when I first encountered it as a teenager and has been pretty much a constant force in my life ever since. I’ve never been disappointed by Victoria (and the two pieces we are performing are among his very best, I think) and if Josquin seems enigmatic – perhaps even simple – by comparison let’s remember that his contemporaries hailed him as their superior and realise that he established the stylistic foundations on which Victoria, Lassus, Palestrina and Byrd etc then built their own sonic cathedrals. There’s Byrd in the first half, by the way, and there was Lassus in March. Maybe I should have done more Palestrina . . .

As a popular Radio 4 presenter used to say, ‘If you have been, thanks for listening’, and remember that Ripieno tickets are cheaper when bought in advance!

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 hits the bass line

From time to time I am (quite reasonably) taken to task for including in my programme notes technical terms which not everyone will understand. In the notes for our next concert the phrase basso continuo crops up more than once. This is what it means.

Simplifying things a bit, between roughly 1580 and roughly 1620 the way in which composers approached their art underwent quite a radical change. This was stimulated by the evolution of new styles and genres of music, especially opera. Broadly speaking, the music of the Renaissance (c1450-c1610) was conceived horizontally: it consisted of independent and equally-important musical lines that nevertheless fitted together in a satisfying way. However, the need for a sense of realism in dramatic music created a need for a way to be found of writing a subservient accompaniment to a solo singer. The method arrived at was to write a simple bass part and indicate the chords that were to be played above it by a form of musical shorthand: initially sharps and flats indicated major and minor chords respectively. (We included an example of this in a recent concert programme.) The system developed using numbers (so-called figured bass) to indicate the shape and type of chords required when these were anything beyond basic.

Hand in hand with this went an increasing awareness of the potential for harmony to be an expressive element in music, and also the foundation of the whole musical edifice. Instead of thinking horizontally, composers now thought vertically up from the bass and its implied harmony. As the bass was ever-present the phrase basso continuo was coined.

Inevitably, the meaning of this term immediately loosened and embraced or could refer to the bass line, those who played it and the various symbols they had to interpret. With almost equal inevitability, the theorists soon got to work to suggest what were and weren’t suitable ways of doing this. The modern phrase ‘a good continuo player’ usually refers to a player of a keyboard or chordal plucked instrument who has mastered these intricacies.

So, in classic Humpty-Dumpty fashion, the phrase basso continuo may refer to any or all of:

  • the bass line in music from roughly 1600 to roughly 1800
  • the people and instruments who played from that part
  • exactly what and how they played

Our forthcoming concert will use a three -person basso continuo section: cello and double bass will play the bass line and organ will be responsible for providing the chords that support the vocal lines.

Remember that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the day!

The further motet-thoughts of Humpty

These days, the motet is unequivocally considered a genre of sacred music, synonymous with anthem but often used in a slightly different context. Anthems/motets are pieces of choral music used in church services, with texts that complement the themes of the occasion, but which are not essential parts of that occasion. Choral Evensong in a cathedral, for example, almost invariably does include an anthem but even if it doesn’t it’s still Evensong. On the other hand, without the ‘psalms for the day’ it isn’t, though it might still be an impressive devotional event. Such pieces, when they occur in a Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion context are often referred to as ‘motets’ – optional adornments to the service. So the same piece of music might be an anthem at one day’s Evensong and a motet at the next day’s mass. Let’s avoid asking why!

But this broad definition of the genre is much as it was understood by Bach and Schütz – optional embellishments to a church service. Four of Bach’s six surviving motets were written for funerals when they would undoubtedly have provided some spiritual uplift but they were not essential to the liturgy. Surprisingly little research has been done into the performance context of Schütz’s music – perhaps because multiple wars have destroyed many of the relevant archives – but what we do know suggests that his music was mainly used as an optional elaboration of an event. Nice to have such an option available.

So join us on March 17th for some elaborate spiritual uplift, and remember that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the day!