BREMF Polychoral Transformations Workshop

BREMF Polychoral Transformations Workshop led by Gawain Glenton, Sunday 29 September 2019 Report by Richard Whitehouse

Gawain Glenton

The theme of this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival is Metamorphosis and this was the basis for Gawain Glenton’s workshop for voices and instruments on 29th September.  He chose pieces to demonstrate how composers used existing works to create new ones and how standard musical building blocks could be adopted and extended as part of the process.

The first piece was the five part madrigal ‘Cara la mia vita’ by de Wert.  Gawain took us through the music and pointed out that it starts with a version of the very popular Romanesca harmonic and melodic figure (Google it!).  He also highlighted other structural features in the music, such as the chordal opening to the second section.

Then we moved on to the Kyrie of a mass by Merulo which is based on the madrigal.  This is now expanded to an eight part double choir version, but the same features crop up, such as the Romanesca opening and the chordal passage now used to open the Christe section.

The other pieces we worked at were a delightful four part madrigal ‘Douce Mémoire’ by Pierre Sandrin,  which once again was put together using common musical building blocks, and two twelve part pieces, the motet ‘Domine quid multiplicati sunt’ by Lassus and a setting of the ‘Magnificat’ by Priuli.  This last piece is one where there is a high choir, with the top line, which sits around high Gs and As all the time, being intended for an instrument, not a voice, a middle normal SATB choir and a low choir, with all parts in Bass clef, where the bottom line goes down to a low A (at which point the music spans 4 octaves), so intended for an instrument also.

This collection of pieces gave us a nice variety of sound worlds and structures to work at, with Gawain drawing out the relevant features as we worked through.

One of the points he made was that when these pieces were written, there was an expectation that all the musicians taking part would have a basic repertoire of decorative figures which they would add to the written lines as a matter of course.  These are not the same as the florid divisions that a solo singer or player would incorporate in a performance, but are much simpler figures a singer would use to move from one note to another.  This implies that the modern practice of singing and playing these pieces exactly as written is actually wrong!  Luckily Gawain did not expect us to add such decorations on this occasion, but this did indicate another type of fluid transformation which would have been present in this type of music.

Another point he explained was that although there would probably be somebody keeping the beat going during a performance, he was not ‘conducting’, i.e. shaping the performance of the piece in the modern sense. His job was just to keep a steady beat while the musicians added such expression as was appropriate.

Gawain had brought a chamber organ with him for the day and at one point he used this to demonstrate the effect which meantone temperament tuning has on how chords sound in different keys and how major and minor thirds should be treated in this situation.  This is not the place for a discourse on different tuning methods, but it is worth noting that hearing the organ play the different chords is far more effective than any amount of learned discussion!

Altogether this was a very enjoyable and informative day, enhanced by Janet Gascoine’s cakes for tea, and many thanks go to Gawain, to Malcolm Keeler for his organ playing, and to BREMF for putting on the event.

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