Funky Gibbons

I wasn’t originally intending to blog again in the lead-up to Jacobean Secrets but am prompted to do so by three factors:

  • Further work on the music we’re singing ahead of the final rehearsal
  • Personal preparation for my performance of Gibbons’s Fantazia of foure parts in the first half of the programme
  • The broadcast of a quite extra-ordinary arrangement for a modern instrumental chamber ensemble including piano and clarinet of Gibbons’s anthem This is the record of John, which meant little without the words, although it was a pleasant sound.

Outside the relatively closed worlds of cathedral-style choirs and viol consorts Orlando Gibbons is a shadowy figure – as obscure to many as the Latin motets that feature in the first half of JS. Yet he spent half his life as organist of the Chapel Royal, was acknowledged to be the leading keyboard player of the day and composed one of the most famous early 17th century songs – The Silver Swan. Our programme includes three of his fine English anthems, none of them published in his lifetime though preserved in multiple manuscript copies in cathedral libraries – a testament to their quality and popularity.

They first came into my life in the mid-1970s when I was an alto in the cathedral-style choir of St Michael’s College, Tenbury, where the library contained important musical manuscripts, which were used by the founder, Sir Frederick Ouseley, when he prepared for publication an important 19th century edition of Gibbons’s music. What impressed me then, and still impresses me now, is Gibbons’s feel for musical texture – how many parts there are and how they relate to each other. Just to give a few examples: in Hosanna to the Son of David the basses do not sing in the opening ‘fanfares’, but then give a new weight to the second section; O Lord in thy wrath builds from a gentle opening to a sonorous six-part cadence, which is followed by just three of the parts singing ‘for I am weak’ to striking effect; and the virtuoso eight-part counterpoint of O clap your hands is threatening to boil over when suddenly the ensemble is split into two four part choirs.

I’ve known the Fantazia of foure parts, one of the composer’s most noble keyboard works, for even longer, as it appeared in series of broadcast organ recitals played on historic instruments in the mid-1960s. Though it made an immediate impression, for one reason and another I didn’t learn it myself until 2013! Now, if I were asked to give a recital of my three favourite organ works it would be included despite its finger-breaking complexities, far harder than the Bach works that would comprise the rest of the programme (well, you were wondering, weren’t you?).

Do join us for these and other musical miracles on March 18th.

A close encounter

In my 6th form years (late 1960s!) I was invited to join an otherwise adult Madrigal Group that met once a month to sing through secular gems from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Other members of the group included my 6th form tutor and my English teacher but also a man called Alan Kitching, who was the group’s guiding spirit. He was a major figure in the revival of interest in Handel’s operas in this country but it is also thanks to him that I became acquainted with the music of a certain Claudio Monteverdi. Mostly we sang English repertoire, but no session passed without Alan reaching under his chair for a pile of music and ‘suggesting’ that we ‘have a shot at Monteverdi’s Book 5 tonight’. (The eight other books of madrigals were also available.) These announcements were greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. I rapidly realised that this was brilliant and inventive music but also that the notes were hard and the words were in Italian! There was probably quite a lot of singing to ‘la’. It is striking how similar in style – especially in the harmony – our Jacobean Secrets are to those bold madrigals.

But I had met Monteverdi. My next encounters were via recordings, one called ‘Monteverdi at St Mark’s’ which included the tuneful Beatus vir and solos from the young Ian Partridge and Nigel Rogers and another from St John’s College, Cambridge which included two of the three surviving masses. One of these is represented by its vigorous Gloria in our forthcoming concert. During my university years I even sang a role in L’incoronazione di Poppea, one of CM’s three surviving operas. Then came the 1610 Vespers, but I suspect that I’ll have quite a lot to say about them and Monteverdi in general later in the year.

Mind the gap!

Plenty of, perhaps even most, composers have died leaving works unfinished. Schubert immediately springs to mind (8th symphony – even though he went on to write a 9th), but also Bach (Art of Fugue), Mozart (Requiem, C minor mass and multiple instrumental works), Bruckner (9th symphony), Mahler (10th symphony), Elgar (3rd symphony) and so on. Then there are works which are known to have existed but which have been lost: many cantatas and at least one Passion setting by Bach; four completed and three partially completed operas by Monteverdi; perhaps as many as thirty masses by Monteverdi . . . I could go on, but that’s enough depressing thoughts for one day.

But in our forthcoming Jacobean Secrets concert we shall be featuring works which, tantalisingly, survive almost complete – with one or more voice part(s) missing, for instance (and perhaps I should immediately emphasise that we have filled in the gap(s) in a plausible and satisfactory manner – hence this blog entry’s title).

But how does this come about, you may reasonably ask? The answer lies in the ways in which music was circulated for performance in the years around 1600. Any published vocal music in parts (ie not a solo song) was issued in one of two ways. A choir book showed all the music for a motet/madrigal etc on a double page spread but with each part on its own group of staves, so soprano top left, tenor top right etc.. More common in England, however, were part books with all the soprano parts for a set of motets/madrigals in one book, all the alto parts in another book etc.. Some sets of part books are now incomplete . . .

In this choir book the illuminated letters mark the starts of each of the four vocal parts.

This page from a part book shows the tenor part of Tallis’s motet Salvator mundi. Fortunately, all the books in this set have survived.

Even more vulnerable were pieces that were not published but which existed only as handwritten copies. In this case each voice part would be written on a separate piece of paper and it is only too easy to imagine how, over the years, one sheet may have become separated from its companions or otherwise lost/destroyed, meaning that, for example, only five parts of a six-part work survive. Half the Latin-texted motets in our programme have suffered this fate. But what remains is of such intrinsic musical interest and, in places, sheer wackiness that the considerable effort required to create a completed and performable version is more than justified.

Fortunately, the style of the music and the nature of what has survived at least makes the task possible. To cut a long story short, in Late Renaissance music each part sings more or less the same music but at different times and at different pitches. Two soprano parts will probably sing at the same pitch with the altos four or five notes lower and so on. So the work required is a mixture of musical analysis, jigsaw puzzle and crossword completion and, let’s be honest, trial and error. But Thomas Weelkes’s O vos omnes has emerged as absolutely brilliant and, as far as we can trace, Ripieno is the only choir planning to perform it in the foreseeable future.

And there’s Gibbons and Monteverdi too. But they’ll have to wait.


A Messiah anomaly

One of the first things I learned about Baroque vocal music is that a recitative is ‘always’ followed by an aria for the same singer. (The older me, as a teacher, spent several decades preaching that the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ are hardly ever true in this kind of context!) So I was rather baffled when, on encountering Messiah for the first time during my A-level years, I noticed that early in the work the recitative for bass ‘Thus saith the Lord’ was followed by an aria for alto ‘But who may abide’.

Continue reading

Something old, something new, something borrowed and some completely original strokes of genius

Actually, before any of that the first thing I need to say is that if you want to come to our 70th birthday Messiah performance you really do need to get your tickets NOW. This is proving our fastest-selling concert ever and quite soon we will be down to ‘restricted view’ (fewer than half the performers) seats only.

Now, a few Messiah-related musings. Much is made of Handel’s having composed his most famous oratorio in only three weeks. Continue reading