Although it takes only an hour and a half to drive there, I had never been to Natland before last Saturday. It is a quiet village just outside Kendal. At the centre old houses surround a large green in front of St Mark’s Church, which is where Clive Walkley tutored a workshop for the North West Early Music Forum. It is a lovely church to sing in, with a warm acoustic and some beautiful stained glass windows. During one of the breaks I talked to Clive’s wife, Jill, and she told me that the two modern windows had been made by their daughter.
One of the modern stained glass windows.
The other modern window.
The music we sang was from a different world, however, and had a very different feel from English music of the same period. We started the day with two motets by Bernadino de Ribera (c.1520-after 1580), a Spanish composer, whose first important post was in Avila, where he would no doubt have had dealings with the young Victoria. From Avila Ribera moved to the cathedral of Toledo, where a choirbook of his music was put together. This choirbook has been severely mutilated, but six motets have been recovered and it was two of these that we rehearsed in editions prepared by Bruno Turner.
The first, ‘Regina caeli laetare’, was fairly joyful: ‘Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluya…’, a polyphonic piece, making use of imitation, with smoothly flowing lines, nothing extreme, nothing unexpected – a pleasure to sight-sing.
The second motet, ‘Rex autem David’, was in a different mood. Like those well-known motets by Weelkes and Tomkins (‘When David heard’), it sets words of David’s mourning for Absalon (or, as it is more usually spelt, Absalom). Here there was particular interest in the accidentals suggested by Bruno Turner. As Clive explained, accidentals weren’t usually written into scores of Renaissance music, since the singers (or players) would have just known when a note should be sharpened or flattened. However, in the case of ‘Rex autem David’, matters are more complicated because Turner has drawn on two sources for the music, the Toledo choirbook and Valencia partbooks, and the Valencia source does contain a number of accidentals, which if observed give the music a chromatic intensity to match the emotion of the words. His conclusion is that, whether intended by the composer or not, some choirs would have given the repetitions of ‘Absalon’ chromatic flavouring. We sang the motet both with and without the accidentals. It was an interesting exercise, which showed us just how much difference they made.
[There is a YouTube recording of this piece – with chromatic ‘Absalon’s.]
In fact one of the most interesting aspects of the day was the discussion of the difference between performance practice then – insofar as one can discover it – and now. When I think about the grumbles of today’s choral singers – grumbles in which I’ve shared! – about poor light, not having a full vocal score, having to stand for too long, rehearsals going on too long and so on and so forth…well, it’s worth remembering the conditions for those early cathedral singers!
Taking a break during the workshop.
For most of the afternoon we worked on a Mass by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664), who was born in Spain but spent most of his life in Mexico at the cathedral of Puebla. He writes here for double choir, higher voices in choir 1 (SSAT) and the usual four voice parts in choir 2. The music contrasts polyphony with homophonic passages, makes lively use of exchanges between the two choirs and is characterised by vigorous, syncopated rhythms and off-beat entries. At times, for instance in the second Kyrie, one could feel the liveliness of South American dance rhythms. Padilla’s writing even gives energy to the Credo, which is helpful when there are so many words to get through. But it does entail a curiously jolly setting of the words ‘Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est’. I was reminded of a piece I had sung earlier this year in Lisbon, a dancelike setting of words about Christ’s suffering on the cross (see my post of 21 April, 2014). I seem to remember Carlos Aransay, our conductor in Lisbon, saying that such a disjunction between words and music is not unusual in Spanish Renaissance music.
As is customary at the workshops run by NWEMF we ended the day by running through all the music we had been rehearsing – far from blemish free, but enormously satisfying. And I drove back down the M6 not exactly singing the tunes, but my head too full of the sound of Spanish Renaissance music to want to listen to the car radio.
St Mark’s Church, Natland.