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old mass manuscript

(This is the second post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

When I told a friend that I was going to Seattle for a week, and showed him the schedule from a past year, which indicated that we would basically be singing all that time, the reaction I got was, “By the time you come back, you’ll either be incapable of doing anything else, or you’ll never want to sing again.” While this has fortunately proven to be untrue, it is fair to say that the week of the summer school was so different from my usual routine that it was like being a different person. Work, family, friends all faded away temporarily, as they might during the best of vacations. But though it was a break from everything before and after, the week itself did have a lot of structure and routine built in to it. After running these summer schools so many times over the years, the organization is, to a large extent, a well-oiled machine (barring a few minor hiccups along the way, for added excitement) and the overall schedule does not vary a whole lot from one year to another.

Of the seven days that the summer school lasted, no two days had the exact same schedule, but there was a skeleton that was common across them all. After an early (for me) breakfast, there would be 30 minutes of housekeeping announcements and warm-up, a morning’s worth of full choir rehearsals for the main repertoire, lunch, more singing via tutor groups and small groups, then an evening of variable activities with dinner in there somewhere, and, finally, Compline to close the day. Most activities (as well as accommodation) were in Seattle University’s Campion Hall, most meals at their Cherry Street Market cafeteria, and Compline usually took place at the Chapel of St. Ignatius on campus.


The first activity of the musical day would be a physical warm-up (rather than just a vocal one), during which Jan (soprano with the Tallis Scholars since 1991, and co-director of TSSS) would get really get us moving, ensuring that our breakfast got digested. Though we all hear about how singing is an atheletic activity, and you use the whole body, this warm-up really put its money where everyone else’s mouth is. Her routines included dancing of various sorts (mostly country or folk dances, sometimes done to very non-Renaissance music, like, say, pop), marching to rhythms and then doubling and halving them, beating together on the body (“human drum kit”), skipping beats together (i.e. counting rests together) and finally making some sounds and a little bit of vocalising. Even the shy among us got into the dancing with good enthusiasm especially once we accepted that it just was the daily routine. Some smiles were more self-conscious than others, but there were plenty of smiles for sure.

Jan also gave us some tips about the singing, especially with respect to chromatic music. One was to feel the pitch rising when it was going down and vice versa, which helps prevent overshooting on half-steps. Another was to change vowel sounds by simply changing tongue placement and nothing else, ensuring that the shape of the mouth remains unchanged, and the sound remains smooth. (For example, while singing the word “ululatus.”) Her energy throughout the week was inspiring and kept us energized. And she was also the behind the scenes coordinator of the individual singing lessons we all had either with her or with Deb.


After the warm-up would be the full choir rehearsal with Peter and/or David, where we rehearsed all the pieces from the chosen repertoire. This would be a 2:45 hour rehearsal with a 20 minute coffee break halfway, and was easily my favourite part of the day. Peter and David have very different conducting personalities and I enjoyed working with them both. A lot more about them and these rehearsals is in later segments but first, here are some notes about the music (pun intended).

As a scholar of Renaissance music, Peter spoke to us early on about the choice of repertoire and how in each case the chromaticism was meant to convey dislocation of some sort. In Vox in Rama (two settings, one by the Franco-Flemish De Wert and another by the Polish Zielinski), for instance, Rachel is weeping inconsolably for her sons who are no more, and her grief is so great that regular chords are not enough to express it. Or in Mirabile mysterium (by one Jacob Handl/Gallus, Slovenian composer, who is something of a Peter Phillips discovery, or at least has been popularized by him), the wondrous mystery of God made man is supernatural and demands chromaticism.

In the case of Gesualdo, the chromaticism was apparently a result not of a choice of text, but simply of his “neurotic sensibility” and very eventful personal life that included murdering his wife and her lover. Peter told us about his other works that are much harder to put together, and how his O vos omnes (43 measures including a repeat) was more “doable” than most of his work. This work expresses, and and even celebrates, in a sense, a great sorrow (“Pay attention… if there be any sorrow like my sorrow”) and Gesualdo’s chromaticism here and elsewhere was so ahead of its time that it would be 300 years before anyone composed similar chords again. (As I mentioned in a previous segment, “Chromatic music in the time of Gesualdo” was the theme of this year’s repertoire.)

Other pieces from the chromatic part of the program were Lassus’s Timor et tremor (which talks of fear, trembling and dread and calls upon the Lord to “let me not be confounded”) with its rhythmically exciting (dislocated?) “confounded” passage at the end, Hassler’s Ad Dominum cum tribularer (asking for deliverance “from lying lips and a deceitful tongue”) and Monteverdi’s Adoramus te Christe (which talks about “He who suffered death for us”). The non-chromatic repertiore consisted of one piece only — the Monteverdi Mass for four voices (Messa a quattro voci da capella) of which we skipped the Credo. This was, in a lot of ways easier to learn than any of the others inspite of being much longer. It was lovely and Monteverdian (tautology, I know) and had a lot of Baroque character, but, as Peter said, “We are going to do it in a Renaissance style, since that’s what we are doing this week, you may have noticed.”

Peter also told us how chromatic music was considered alternative and experimental during the Renaissance, and was part of the Mannerist movement of the High Renaissance that placed emphasis on artificial qualities rather than naturalistic ones, and valued tension and instability in composition. As part of their experimentation, some of the same composers we sang apparently also wrote pieces that go on for pages and pages and are quite difficult to make anything coherent out of. Another of Peter’s comments about chromaticism that has stayed with me was how it wears out both the singer and the listener. Indeed, there is only so much tension one can enjoy before one feels tired of all the slippery-slidey, slightly-out-of-place chords.

Having said that, one week of chromatic music, with the Monteverdi Mass interspersed, was not wearisome at all. In fact, I can safely say that I enjoyed the chromatic pieces much more than the Mass, and that’s saying something. All in all, it was wonderful music to sing, and knowing more about the background only increased my enjoyment.