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Croce in Kilburn

September 2009

It is inevitable, if one is regularly reviewing Michael Procter’s week-end in Kilburn, that, to some extent, the same things are going to be said. Thus, the opening always seems to announce that on such and such a date, 25 (or 24 or 26) singers gathered at St Augustine’s to participate in Michael’s liturgical week-end. Your reviewer hopes that, given the attractive music which Michael always selects, and the adept manner in which he combines instruction with entertainment, more members might in future years be tempted to take advantage of his annual visit.

One can always rely on Michael to introduce some slightly bizarre concept into his discourse and, while we were warming up on Saturday morning, he told us about a recent conference in York which he had attended, at which the sheep were sorted from the goats by magnetic resonance imaging scans taken while they were singing the vowel “ee”. Your reviewer was instantly transported back to the days of George Bernard Shaw’s musical criticism and his enthusiasm for the laryngoscope. In the second volume of Music in London 1890-94 he says, at p.190, in the course of a vigorous polemic about singing teachers and their “scientific” methods:-

“Yet do not suppose that I am an advocate of old-fashioned ignorance. No. I admit that a young teacher of singing, if he cannot handle the laryngoscope, and knows nothing of anatomy or physics, deserves to be mistrusted as an uneducated person, likely to offer fantastic and ambiguous suggestions instead of exact instructions”

I did, however, lose track of Michael’s explication at the point where the warming-up of the voice was in some way likened to the heat generated during the process of compressing a gas.

However, turning to the music, 2009, as can be seen from Michael’s web-site, is Croce year. In his 14-volume edition of the collected works of Giovanni Croce, volume 1 contains the 5- and 6-part Masses. Michael chose Croce’s only 6-part mass (SSATTB) for us and it is impossible to quarrel with his description of it as ”bright and grateful to sing”. As he did last year, he provided an edition of the week-end music in one volume; as well as the Mass, it contained three motets, Audi Domine Hymnum (SATTB) and O sacrum convivium I (SATB) by Croce, and one, Benedicite spiritus (SSATTB) by Claudio Merulo. Both composers were associated with St Mark’s, Venice, Merulo having been the chief organist from 1557-84 (when he was succeeded by Andrea Gabrieli, who had been the second organist since 1566), while Croce was maestro di cappella from 1603 until his death in 1609.

Curiously, perhaps, recent books on Renaissance music pay little attention to either Croce or Merulo as composers of liturgical music. For instance, Allan W Atlas, in Renaissance Music, (Norton, 1998) devotes some space to Merulo’s arrangement of Lassus’ Susanne un jour, and gives a passing mention to the “toccatas of Merulo [which] live on mainly in scholarly editions”, while he mentions Croce only as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, Venice. Leeman Perkins, in Music of the Age of the Renaissance (Norton, 1999) refers to Merulo only as a composer of instrumental music, while Croce is mentioned as the composer of the madrigal Ove tra l’herbe e i fiori in Il trionfo Dori (published 1592) which (says Perkins) was apparently the source of Morley’s inspiration to produce The Triumphs of Oriana (1601).

On the Saturday we rehearsed the Mass (except for the Credo) and the two Croce anthems, Audi Domine Hymnum which we sang at the offertory and O sacrum convivium at Communion. The Mass is less highly charged and dramatic than many which we have sung, and Michael was meticulous in ensuring that we kept the deceptively simple music moving. It was highly gratifying to be told by him, in effect, that we were doing so well that it was worth while trying to make it even better. Audivi Domine hymnum was, perhaps, near the other end of the Croce spectrum. There are tremendous contrasts in its 60 bars, with impassioned pleading until the sudden quietness of “die ac nocte” which gradually builds up to a massive climax in which the tenors attacked the final cadence with great vigour. O sacrum convivium was, as one would expect, intense but quiet until it culminates in the final, joyful Alleluia.

The performance on Sunday went off very well, Canon Yates being kind enough to compare the effect produced by our singing favourably with San Marco, though, as Michael had told us the day before, the regular choir at San Marco is fairly appalling, that was not quite the unqualified encomium that it might appear to be at first sight. Our singing had one slight hiatus when the whole choir was feeling relieved and so pleased to be celebrating the ‘peace’, with the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and offertory motet having all been safely negotiated, that we had scarcely girded our loins for the Agnus Dei when the time came; but all in all it was a very creditable effort. Michael professed himself more than satisfied, and Canon Yates was as enthusiastic as the congregation were welcoming.

In the afternoon a somewhat diminished group sang the Credo, which struck your reviewer as having the quietest and gentlest depiction of the resurrection of the dead imaginable. We then tackled the Merulo Benedicite spiritus, which is a fine penitential motet for six voices; but the singers were in such a Croce ‘mind-set’ (and in three flats!) that it took time, quite unconnected with the long lunch at the Old Bell, to accommodate successfully to Merulo (in two sharps). Michael also treated us to an informative disquisition on the way in which the structures of the hexachords based on C, G and F militated against the use of any key signatures containing sharps; he has not come across anything originally written in G major earlier than 1640.

Returning, as at the start of this review, to familiar themes, it was a most rewarding and enjoyable week-end under Michael’s direction, and our warmest thanks go to Neil for organising the event, to Penny Vinson and Jenny Robinson for all their work in ensuring that all went smoothly in the church, and to Jenny, Penny and to Mary Reynor for providing yet another batch of admirable cakes.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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