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?] Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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. Continue reading