Chorworks Annual Summer Workshop
The Elizabethans - Part Two -
From Wednesday through Friday, each evening ended with a service of compline in the small building between St. Alban’s Church and St. Albans School known as the Little Sanctuary. Some of us are familiar with this ancient and moving service. In the traditional Roman rite, compline is the last of the seven Daily Offices. We Anglican Singers know that following the establishment of the Church of England, compline merged with vespers to become evensong. Compline is primarily plain-chanting nighttime prayers, with the option of singing one or more anthems. The two motets performed at Wednesday’s compline were: Tallis’ Te lucis ante terminum and William Blitheman’s In pace. The faculty sang Robert Stone’s very familiar and lovely “Our Father.” The anthem for Thursday compline was composed by John Sheppard: a stunning seven-part motet, Libera nos, salva nos. Sheppard, considered with Tallis one of the finest composers of 16th-century England, wrote for both the Protestant and the Catholic Church.
At Friday-night compline, Philip Cave surprised us by passing around copies of Thomas Tallis’ incomparable 40-part Spem in alium. He divided the whole group into eight choirs and off we went. The result was, to put it charitably, raucous. Small wonder that this piece is solely for the best of the best to perform – after much preparation!
As surely as the late-evening service produced a sense of tranquility and reflection, the purpose of each morning’s vocal warm up was to rouse and energize. This was never truer than Saturday’s gymnastic session with Steve Rickards, conducted primarily in the Bishop’s Garden between St. Alban’s and the Cathedral. We played Frisbee (yes, the motion involved in Frisbee-throwing relates to the preparation, execution and follow-through of singing), locked our knees, loosened our knees, pulled our neighbor’s top hairs (those who actually had top hairs), and generally leapt about like animated garden gnomes.
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At each of the morning and afternoon rehearsals (of choir and the consort), the groups prepared for upcoming performances at the Cathedral. There was a great deal of music to be learned and little time in which to learn it, so every minute of each hour had to be focused and productive. It was challenging yet gratifying as the choirs progressed from their stumbling first read-throughs of the material toward a polished finished product. The faculty took turns rehearsing the choruses. Among the tips for producing a beautiful and emotional rendering of the composer’s creation were the proper use and placement of breath; the appropriate application of vibrato; phrasing techniques; an understanding of the architecture of a particular piece; the production of texture and color and intensity in the music; and, what Philip termed “filling your glass of Guinness to a foamy overflowing” – by which he meant soaring up and out in a surround-sound that would echo across the vastness of the space and fill each crevice of the vaulted Cathedral.
Philip also underlined the importance of attentive, critical listening to the presentation of pieces we were exposed to; and suggested that, while no one was required to attend performances of others’ ensembles, to do so would heighten each singer’s awareness and inspire his or her own efforts.
Between rehearsals and performances were illuminating lectures on the music of the 16th and early 17th centuries, in particular sacred choral music but also touching briefly on the increasing popularity of secular court music. The thematic emphasis of the week was the Elizabethan “recusants” – focusing on those Catholic composers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who, either from courage or from obduracy (depending on whose team they were on), refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the Church of England. Among the most prominent of these were Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
It is fortunate for these two men that the quality of their work was of such excellence as to dissuade the queen, herself a lover of music and an amateur composer, from silencing them. Indeed, she actually conferred upon them a licensing monopoly to print music, through which they published an anthology of thirty-four of their works, Cantiones Sacrae. That privilege alone, however, might not have saved them from the consequences of their contumacy.
Why so? One of Queen Elizabeth’s most commendable traits was her abhorrence of extremism and violence. Her father King Henry VIII had been a violent man and her half-siblings Edward VI and Mary Tudor were extremists. She wanted no part of that kind of excess. A far less creditable characteristic was her capacity for denial; and while she was prepared to refrain from “peering into the souls” of her subjects, she perversely averted her eyes when her subordinates did just that – denouncing and punishing “apostates.” In other words, the Age of Elizabeth, though remembered as one of the cultural golden eras of English history, was a most dangerous time to be a practicing Catholic – particularly if one were a prominent figure like William Byrd or Thomas Tallis.
So the courage of these two cannot be overemphasized when one considers the body of music they continued to produce for Catholic Masses: rich, melismatic, polyphonic works of great technical complexity, a far cry from their sparer, “one-syllable-one-note” motets mandated by the very Protestant Archbishop Cranmer. And the texts they chose for their choral pieces for the Latin rites were guaranteed to enrage the authorities: anguished jeremiads taken from the Books of the Prophets and selected Psalms, that mourned over Babylonian exile (read Elizabethan England) even as they denounced the faithlessness of God’s Chosen People (read Anglicans) and exhorted the devoted remnant (read English Catholics) to remain constant to the True Faith.