top of page

Tamesis Issue 198

February 2008

There isn’t room for me to write much this month, but I’d like to take the opportunity to welcome Sarah Young and Jim Wills to the committee. Jim is taking over from Hazel so that she can at last retire from being Treasurer, but I’m pleased to say that she will still be a member of the committee. If you’re coming to Eton it might be a good idea to share cars or come by public transport because I’m told that parking is expensive. I used a very good cycle track to get there earlier this year – good if it’s not raining!
Victoria Helby

Chairman’s Chat
I was very pleased at the attendance at the Renaissance Chamber Music day last month - some 35 people, including a reasonable mix of instruments and voices. Inevitably there was something of a shortage of tenors and, more surprisingly, altos but thanks to some flexible bass viols and other instruments it was possible to organise viable groups. For some reason we always get more basses than other voices but the Choral Public Domain Library ( provided a source of music for SSAB and SATBB voices which came in useful. There were rather more people than usual who were unknown to me, so apologies for any groups that lacked knowledge of the repertoire. I realise that my 50 box files of music look rather daunting and perhaps I should have spent more time allocating music, though mostly I think it went pretty well. I felt nervous at having to charge £8 to attend an untutored event but that was simply to cover the Burnham School charges, which have risen substantially in recent years. It has been suggested that we should pay a couple of tutors and if we could find suitable people prepared to take on the job for a modest fee then this might be possible, especially if we could find a cheaper venue with plenty of rooms. Suggestions anyone? I'm delighted that Jim Wills has agreed to take over as Treasurer from Hazel Fenton who did such a good job for so many years. Oliver St John has also finally given up his role as Auditor, which considering he is over 80 is very reasonable, and we are grateful to him for all his past work. This means that we need to appoint an Auditor - it's not a very onerous job so if you have any knowledge of book-keeping please consider offering your services. The Baroque Orchestra day looks like being successful, as does the Shakespeare's Songs workshop, though neither is in any danger of being over-subscribed. This certainly can't be said of the Eton Choirbook workshop, where we may have to limit numbers - a tribute to Peter Syrus the tutor and of course to the Eton College venue.. I feel somewhat guilty that I shall have to miss the Baroque Chamber Music Day in Oxford on the 13th April but this year it clashes with the Newark Early Music course. I have much enjoyed the three previous Newark courses and this year's course is being expanded to include voices as well as cornetts, sackbuts and curtals. The composers being studied are Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz, to be performed in the church and elsewhere, so it will certainly be entertaining - see the events diary for details. I'm sure the Oxford event will be as good as ever - Peter Collier has a massive collection of baroque music to draw on and there are always many excellent players.
David Fletcher

Renaissance playing day January 12th 2008
This latest in a very long series of such days attracted over thirty players and singers and was well worth the journey. My sessions were a consort of crumhorns (some pieces used a cornettino on top, which worked well), six recorders, sometimes playing at 8' pitch, a loud group of cornetts, shawm, sackbut and curtal, and a similar one with shawms on top. Thanks again to David Fletcher for a well planned day: I look forward to the next!
Chris Thorn

David Many thanks for the Renaissance Day on Saturday. As one of the few people there whose voice was his only instrument I was able to sing at different times with recorders, viols, a group of mixed instruments and with other voices. I encountered beautiful music previously unknown to me and furthered my education on some of the instruments. Altogether a successful day. Thanks again.
David Griffiths

More about the Christmas event
Patsy Moore has sent her notes of David Allinson’s memorable sayings at the Spanish Christmas event. As she says, David has a very graphic turn of phrase!

Hosanna: ...manic happiness... Agnus: ...velvety with a potential for Christmas stars later... Laetatus: ...give it a wild sight-read ... I'll follow with a shovel... Sicut: ...I'd like you to be approaching like daleks, manically happy.

To basses approaching a cadence: ...wonderfully soaring quavers as you come in to land...

Victoria: he doesn't know it but he's on the cusp of two periods. Chromatic additives... make children go mad... ...a little hump-backed bridge, that phrase... long as you grease them so they aren't jerky... On "bona" (or bone?) I'd like you to throw a daffodil to somebody... ...a supermarket one, a bit bland... ...a highly spiced one in a crafted box that you made yourself... ...that was a lovely artisan-made one... a meerkat looking round...

Cristobal de Morales: ...gossamer gesture... ...they're not dive-bombing the manger...

Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis? ...that's got to be as brittle as biting a fork when you're expecting some sausage...

Kyrie: ... a lovely squidge from the tenors... ...fling that note over the rest - kick it away...

Music at the Cadogan Hall
I first went to this excellent venue as a result of a flyer with Tamesis (I saw the magnificent Courtney Pine, and have since attended Grieg and Vaughan Williams, Jamie Cullum, and the RTO (Alexander McCall Smith). None of those can I review here, but on January 16 I went to some early music!

The King's Consort was doing a 1600 Lo Sposalizio – the wedding of the Doge to the sea. The first half was secular, the second a mass, with music by the Gabrielis and their contemporaries. Conductor Matthew Halls did not milk applause: each half was a seamless continuum with chitarrone or organ playing intermedii while the other performers changed position. The singers (all men) produced some heavenly sounds, including Gabrieli's Lieto godea. The instrumentalists (some women) played trumpets (I didn't see any use of fingerholes), cornets, sackbuts), string band, organs (2) and chitarrone (2). Massaino's Canzon per otto trombone was impressive, and Gabrieli's Sonata XX a 22.

When I was first interested in Early Music it was the New York Pro Musica that I yearned to see at work. We have come a long way since then.
Chris Thorn

Vivaldi’s Women
And now for something a little different to report: women singing both tenor and bass, with the author as living proof of capability in both parts. Some of you may have watched a broadcast of Vivaldi’s Gloria on BBC 4 a few weeks ago without realising that the ensemble of singers and players was entirely female in composition. This was a repeat of a production shown in 2006 in tandem with a documentary about the known performing practice in the eighteenth century at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where Vivaldi was employed on and off for 37 years from1703 to 1740 first as maestro del violin and then as maestro di concerti. The Pietà was one of four institutions in Venice that catered for society’s derelicts; it took in foundlings, or unwanted and abandoned babies and infants, and gave to those of them (perhaps one in ten) who showed musical promise or aptitude a thorough grounding in music. This was done not merely from charitable motives, as by Vivaldi’s time the practice of music had developed to a stage where it had become the custom to perform in public to an appreciative paying audience every Sunday. Many accounts survive to illustrate the high quality of these performances, often penned by travellers undertaking the Grand Tour, who were attracted by the reputation of these famous girls and women. They generally performed in the galleries, or cantorie, of the church, by candlelight and stationed behind gauze curtains and a metal grille which lent an air of mystery to the proceedings. So we, attired in replica costumes, did likewise, and performed Vivaldi’s Gloria (RV 589) from memory as it was originally intended to be sung, with women singing all four parts at written pitch. Surviving records at the Pietà make it quite clear that this was so, as the names of the performers are written into the score. So much for musicologists’ theories about introducing men to sing the lower parts or transposing them up; no need to do either when some of us are well able to do the job unaided. So who were we, and why did we have the opportunity to demonstrate these powers? The group of singers, called Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi, or SPAV for short, was derived initially from members of the Oxford Girls’ Choir, augmented by a few older outsiders to provide some “beef” especially in the lower parts (plus in my case some exceedingly low notes; down to F below the stave in the Gloria and I can go lower still, down to C below the stave on a good day). This represents the age composition of Vivaldi’s singers as well as the vocal distribution of parts. Accompanying us were members – females only – of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Jerwood experience. In the eighteenth century girls and women of the Pietà were often trained in both fields but for the purposes of the broadcast and to maintain an appropriate quality of sound professional players were used. We have performed since, most recently on tour last autumn, and have plans to perform some more once funding has been secured, so we are open to offers on that score. Because there were limited opportunities for double takes most of the filming took place in one go. We had a brief rehearsal time in the church, which was freezing cold in November. The church of the Pietà, which was completed after Vivaldi’s time but probably to his specification, is only opened for concerts and some special occasions (eg during Biennale) at present, so thankfully we did not have to dodge gaping tourists or get up at dawn. For authenticity’s sake all the electronic kit was well- concealed, including miles of cable and a £2 million jimmy jib camera that rose majestically from the floor of the church to capture us at an altitude of 60 feet, and a hidden conductor equipped with monitors that we could see but which were rendered invisible to TV viewers. At one point the jib camera struck the metal grilles, to a chorus from us of “Jimmy crack jib, and I don’t care”. Another unscheduled highlight was when the choir opposite started a Mexican wave, to which my choir responded by whistling a bit of the Gloria. We could hear the producer groaning aloud at this manifestation of the true St Trinian spirit. Recording sessions can produce that effect after a while, even in so glamorous a setting as the Pietà church with its magnificent Tiepolo ceiling painting. A kind of sympathetic magic gripped us all. Being in Venice and especially singing there is romantic enough, but there was the added frisson of treading in the steps of the original performers, for whom we felt a marked empathy across the years. Music was their way of life; literally so, as the fees paid by visitors helped in large part to sustain the institution, which survives today (the only one of the original four to do so, after Napoleon’s reforms of the city’s government suppressed the other three) as a children’s home and refuge for those from troubled families. And Venice was unique in educating females in this way; the four conservatorios in Naples for instance took only boys. One could almost imagine the spirit of Vivaldi benignly encouraging us. And why us? We had originally been formed as a group in 2005 in response to the BBC’s invitation, with a distinct mission to demonstrate women’s ability to sing all parts at pitch and had already sung for Evensong in Canterbury cathedral in the late summer on a first outing. I think the cathedral establishment - or at least their predecessor monks - are still recovering from the shock and surprise of hearing the voices of female trebles, let alone female tenors and basses, beneath their hallowed gothic vaults!
Margaret Jackson-Roberts

Some light relief for these dull and cheerless months?
Helen France sent me some ideas for Early Music Media (TV Programmes, Books, Films…) dreamed up by people on a course at Halsway Manor. Further contributions gratefully received. Going for a chanson The Piccolo Papers Rebec without a cause Byrds of a Feather Loecki Stardust at Night Rebec by Daphne du Maurier Musica Antiqua Road Show Machaut of the Day Joust of the Day Ground Bass Force Michael Eastenders Gone with the Loud Wind Sir John Black and the Gilbert White I’m sorry, can we play that again? Minstrels Whose line is it anyway Baroque around the Clock Viol Bodies The Tye at Night Recorder Breakers Jayne Aire Jazz recorder requests The Big Reed Around the Crumhorn Blankety Blankes Strictly Come Masqueing Pan Pipes People Curtal Fix It The Brades Trust Treble your money Holborne Free Only Fuchs and Hasse Ali Gee String Men behaving temperamentally Breve Encounters The Unco-ordinated Time Team To the Manor Holborne The Life of Byrds Chant and Chantability Ready Steady Crook Just a Minim

bottom of page