:: early music

Dowland as early music and new music

Friday, October 10th, 2014


It’s been a heady two weeks. First Ariel Abramovich and I did a programme of Dowland and Campion (mostly of pieces we hadn’t done before) at the Sounds of Old Almada Festival in Portugal (just across the Tagus from Lisbon).



Then The Dowland Project got together for the Enjoy Jazz Festival at the Old Fire Station in Mannheim.



Both very different, and both exactly what I love to do. The lutesong recital was in an exquisite, tiny chapel – the perfect size and acoustic for voice and lute – so we could really engage the very attentive audience directly with the musical rhetoric. Os Sons de Almada Velha is a new festival (now in its third year), very much community based, and most of the listeners had probably not heard a lute song before. They loved it. Mannheim’s Alte Feuerwache is now a night club and we used a PA to create an acoustic. The audience was a sophisticated cross-section of people who’d learned to trust the eclectic taste of Enjoy Jazz festival director Rainer Kern and are continually exposed to music they haven’t heard before – but in this case to add to the many musics they’re already familiar with.

There was actually an overlap of one piece – Dowland’s Come Again. I loved the cool flexibility we could achieve in the Portuguese church, the intimate dialogue with the lute – it can’t have been that far from the kind of performance Dowland himself might have done, so you feel a real sense of history. But as always I was knocked sideways by the outrageous soprano solos from John Surman in the Fire Station. We tend to do it a bit more rhythmically, with Milos Valent embroidering Jake Heringman‘s lute part, and it’s always a struggle to keep a straight face after one of Surman’s blitzes on the material as the audience is still reeling when I have to start the next verse. The piece survived and was greatly enjoyed by both audiences. The Enjoy Jazz audience demanded a second encore and we’d only prepared one, so I sang One Yeir Begins to the guys (having first owned up to the audience that we’d never done it before) and they joined in and we made a piece. That sort of music making just makes your heart soar. It’s an amazing band to be a part of.


The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek

The Hilliards and Jan were at the Enjoy Jazz Festival a little before us. Some reviewers have described DP albums as being a kind of coda to the HE/Garbarek project, and it’s certainly true that the Dowland Project wouldn’t exist without the earlier collaboration. The crucial thing they have in common is using early music as a resource, a point of departure. Although the Hilliard Officium and Mnemosyne albums were highly experimental we took the process much further in live gigs; at its most radical we could go on stage with one line of music that I handed to guys as we walked on, saying this is piece number 6 (or whatever) and we’d create something in the moment. It was absolutely exhilarating, and it was the urge to continue that kind of risk-taking that was one of the factors in my decision to leave the group. When Manfred Eicher suggested what eventually became the Dowland Project I had the means to do it.

To my great surprise – and I was very touched by the invitation – the Hilliards have asked me to join them for two of their last concerts with Jan Garbarek and to bring along some new 5 voice pieces for us to do. I’ll be at the Ely Cathedral gig on November 15th and the very last one in King’s Cambridge on December 6th. The King’s concert is sold out, but there are still tickets for Ely  if you’re quick. At the time of writing we don’t know what the new pieces will be or how they will work with 5 of us. We’ll find out on the night.


Interesting collection of books in the foyer of the Wyndham Hotel Mannheim. I was reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and on the table were books on Bacon and veg…



Cantum Pucriorum Invenire: CD1

Saturday, October 29th, 2011


…The Dignity of Art…?


We’ve just finished our first CD of 12th century song. It was a real revelation:  after the very long gestation period everything finally came into focus and we think we have a ground-breaking album.

Recording as Research

Cantum pic


Christopher O’Gorman and I, aided and abetted by Rogers Covey-Crump,  took our first tentative steps back in the spring, sight-reading from facsimiles of the Florence MS in front of a battery of Southampton musicologists led by Mark Everist. These exploratory sessions were often hilarious, and left Chris and me with plenty to think about in the ensuing months. Like most of our fellow performers we three tenors are very much of the get-there-by-the-shortest-possible-route school of practical vocalism, and reading from facsimile would not normally be our first choice (after all, what are musicologists for if not to furnish you with the notes?). We had to decipher ambiguous pitches, four-line staves and strange clefs (not to mention the dreaded ficta  issue) – before we could even begin to have a dialogue with the musicologists about the real issues of the project, which are to do with rhythm.

The old Anderson editions (and most other modern editors) shoehorn the neumes into one or more of the rhythmic modes. This masks the fact that there are two sorts of notation in most conducti (nb pedants: the plural is usually treated as 2nd declension, though at the time it was considered 4th), and no one’s really been able to figure out how to make the non-rhythmic bits work (if indeed they are supposed to be without metrical rhythm).

After our first week of experiments, Chris O’Gorman and I took away the facsimiles (plus copies of Anderson to cheat with if necessary) and met from time to time to try to make some progress, helped by the odd extra edited version from Southampton. After much frustration and seeming to get not very far, the pieces gradually began to  come together, especially reading the non measured material from facsimile (or an edited equivalent) – these are the bits that carry the text and are intended to have poetic, rhetorical rhythm rather than measured bars. Eventually it became perfectly natural to merge into and out of modal rhythm for the long melismatic passages that are interspersed with the text-bearing sections.  In the recording sessions I think we proved that the whole thing worked, greatly assisted by Jeremy Summerly as producer, and with Mark Everist keeping a keen eye on  the practical musicology.  It was a joy to do – a knowledgeable and enthusiastic  producer and an undogmatic and creative musicologist made the sessions very satisfying. We also knew that we were doing the music in a way that no one’s done it since the 12th century (and possibly not then either, of course…): it made a terrific start to the project.

Research as Performance

Cantum pic2

The first live performance will be a late night event in next year’s York Early Music Festival at All Saints Church on the Harewood House Estate. The music will be the two-voice pieces from the first album (provisionally called The Dignity of Art after the conductus Artium Dignitas). It will be accompanied by a video, commissioned from  Michael Lynch (who did the films for Being Dufay and took the shots on this page).

The project will have a three year recording life span (2nd the 3rd albums in 2013 and 2014) and a performance life beyond that for as long as people want to hear it. The next recordings should be a lot easier than this first one as we now know more or less what we’re doing, and our default way of working will be from facsimile for the rhetorical sections (which produced much more convincing results than using edited versions, apparently). There are plans to launch the 2nd album at the PMMS conference in July 2013 with a concert in the Chapter House of York Minster, also during the Early Music Festival. The culmination of the research will eventually result in a monograph for Cambridge University Press: Discovering Song: Thirteenth-Century Latin Poetry and Music.

One of the reasons for commissioning the video which will accompany live performances was that I wasn’t sure that audiences would be able to take a whole hour of two medieval tenors without falling asleep. In fact our experience so far has been the opposite – the music is exciting, dynamic, virtuosic and even sometimes moving, often with dramatic contrasts between measured and unmeasured sections. The video will certainly be more colourful to look at than me and Chris (though audiences will have the option to do that too, of course), and the whole multi-media experience should create a very special atmosphere that puts audiences in touch not just with creative musicology, but also a magical musical aesthetic of 800 years ago.

Performances are very straightforward to organise – the venue just needs to provide a projector and (large) screen (or whitewashed medieval wall…); Mick Lynch controls the films from his laptop while Chris O’Gorman and I sing music from the albums in real time.  Further details can be had from Robert White Artist Management (RWhiteAM@aol.com).

The Limits of Musicology

Monday, September 26th, 2011


Having just proof-read my two Cambridge Music History chapters (both should be published next year) and being in the middle of proof-reading the History of Singing I’m more than usually conscious of whether or not I practice what I preach. All of my historical writing is generated as far as possible by the actuality of performance – in a nutshell what singers might actually have sung rather than what composers or theorists may have written (or expected, or hoped for…),  a historical perspective rather than a musicological one. It’s not always easy to incorporate elements of historical practice: the early music movement is very selective in what it chooses to recover from the past, and there are entire institutions dedicated to perpetuating a new and improved version of history.

Much of the time modern singers are at the mercy of conductors, directors of one sort or another, or simply the ideology of modern performance. The latter has its roots way back in the 20th century, when the composer’s word finally became law. Within the early music movement, despite welcome moves to the contrary in some quarters, there’s still a view that even the 15th or 16th century composer was the fount of all inspiration and that a musicologist who works on the surviving manuscripts is his representative here on earth. Unfortunately, many musicologists tend to privilege musical theory rather than performance practice, the rules rather than their application, and in their wish to preserve the integrity of the composer too often resort to what the text books of the time prescribe  rather than the less tidy but more creative flights of fancy that the singers might have enjoyed. You wouldn’t try  to reconstruct Impressionism from art teaching manuals of the period – you’d end up with view of what the teachers might have wanted rather than what their wayward pupils came up with, and a completely distorted view of the past.

There is a major conflict of interest here between musicologists and historians – the former are likely to want something faithful to what they see as the surviving remnants and reputation of the composer, while the latter are more interested in the performances he may have heard. The modern idea of a composer able to demand that performers do his bidding, or indeed that the score might represent a performance at all, is far too often imposed on historical periods when such concepts simply didn’t exist. There are few things more depressing for a singer than having a musicological policeman imposing his or her will ‘because the composer wanted it that way.’ Composition as we now understand it, the creative act of a single inspired mind, perfectly formed in order to be worshipped and interpreted by others, didn’t really exist until Wagner and only found its fully reductive form with Schoenberg and Stravinsky. By treating renaissance composers like their modern equivalents we do the music a huge disservice; we also misrepresent the past and make things much less fun for singers.

From a singer’s point of view, the task of the musicologist is simply to produce a readable score. The edition can have any amount of performance suggestions, but the decisions on what and how to sing should be left to the singers. That’s how it worked at the time.  In the case of renaissance music, there is now a living tradition – generations of singers have grown up knowing the rules of ficta and how to interpret proportion signs. We’ve also grown up with the performance practice sources (such as they are) and we know full well that if a source keeps insisting that singers do things in a certain way, it’s because the singers of the time were reluctant to stick to the rules. The single thread that runs through all my research into performance practice is that singers were (until the 20th century) a law unto themselves. If everybody had sung according to the rules there would have been no need for the frequent complaints about the tritone and other colourful indiscretions.

So…bring on the creative and spontaneous use of theoretical apparatus – let’s have a plurality of performance practice driven by what feels right to those who practice the performing. We rarely discussed ficta in the Hilliard Ensemble, and we had an understanding that the first voice to encounter a problem would set the mode for the rest of the piece. Next time it could be different – there are usually many possibilities (often no right answers) and we wouldn’t want to be stuck with the same solution for ever. On one early trip to the USA we sang at a conference and afterwards an eager PhD student came round to ask if we raised cadential leading notes in late medieval polyphony. ‘Sometimes,’ was our reply. The distaste and incomprehension on the face of the student, whose entire academic career was devoted to getting a definitive answer to this question one way or the other, was a wonder to behold.


Tuesday, August 9th, 2011


I’ve just been a guest at the Stimmwercktage at Adlersberg near Regensburg. Stimmwerck is one of the most enterprising and creative acappella groups around, and each year they devote the first  weekend in August to one particular composer or manuscript. This year it was the Schalreuter Handschrift, a huge collection of 16th century motets and psalms, many by composers who are otherwise unknown or whose works only survive in this manuscript. The music was collected from the Protestant cantorate all over southern Germany at a time when the Protestants were seeking to create a functioning liturgical music which would rival that of the Catholic establishment. It’s extraordinarily rich stuff (some of the motets are over ten minutes long) – shades of Josquin but in a parallel universe.


Prosslbrau Adlersberg is in an idyllic spot on a hill just outside Regensburg. It’s essentially a church (wonderful acoustic) with  a large inn, the Prösslbräu  attached. Instead of the nunnery that the church supported, there is now a small brewery which has been in the Prössl family for five generations. It’s the perfect venue for a small festival – music and sustenance  straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. In fact we shared our dressing room space with a horse and a goat, both of whom were very friendly. horse

As well as joining Stimmwerck for some stunning motets and doing the occasional lute version with Paul O’Dette, I was asked to give a workshop on singing renaissance music. It was bursting with people, and there were some very courageous and receptive singers. I talked for about half an hour first, beginning with the reasons why the modern singing of renaissance music is like it is, and contrasting it with instrumental practice. Early instrumentalists generally have a much closer relationship with actual history, having the benefit of a thriving community of practice with players and makers actually having to do research (as opposed to singers rarely being able to get round the singing teacher problem). I also talked about the real life of renaissance music – the actual use to which it was mostly put (as opposed to the surviving manuscripts which had relatively little use), and Paul O’Dette and I busked a version of one of the Schalreuter pieces. Using the original polyphony as source material for doing your own thing was standard 16th century practice; we did a different version in the evening concert and had the students trying to improve on the original too.  Sometimes workshop participants are bemused by my take on early music (they’ve usually been taught the difference between renaissance right and wrong) but times are definitely changing – and this was one of those wonderful occasions when you could see the lights going on  in people’s heads.

stimmwerckA big thankyou to the Stimmwerckers – Marcus, Klaus, Gerhard and Franz (seen here with yours truly, goat and horse).  It was a  privilege to be part of it.  Stimmwerck have many enthusiastic supporters of all ages, and there was a real sense of a musical community coming together to have a great time.    If anyone fancies rolling up next year, they’re doing music from the Trent Codices – some of the most amazing music ever written – so book early to be sure of a seat. Deutschland Radio are broadcasting some of this year’s music Sunday 21st at 7.00 if you’re near a computer.



Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Messiah front page

Messiah in Cambridge was  a wonderful occasion – lots of people determined to have a good time  for a good cause (we raised over £4500 for the Clifford Bartlett Appeal).  Great to catch up with old friends too, and I even enjoyed singing something I vowed not to do again about thirty years ago.

A lot of the credit has to go to Peter Holman. He directed from the keyboard with minimum interference and maximum joy. The slimmed down Parley sparkled away, but what was really impressive was that you felt that anything could happen and the players were listening so acutely that they’d always be there. There were some marvelous divisions from Emma Kirkby and Clare Wilkinson (fabulous to have a woman alto as Handel originally intended), and we all did things slightly differently in performance from the rehearsal. It was refreshingly different from a St John Passion I did at York a few years ago when I was told (several times)  not to do a certain appoggiatura as Bach wouldn’t have liked it.

We were using Clifford Bartlett’s OUP edition, which is a model of how these things should be done (the pics here are from the 1868 facsimile which I inherited from my father). Like Clifford himself, it’s generous, scholarly and eminently practical. There’s a thoughtful introduction which explains why he hasn’t larded it with editorial suggestions (mainly because they have a tendency to become incorporated into every performance, and in any case, competent singers know what to do these days).  He’s stuck with Handel’s autograph and the corrected versions by his copyists, of course, which are not the scores the singers would have  performed from.  The corrections of underlay by J C Smith are more likely to represent what singers actually sang (reproducing Handel’s more idiosyncratic stresses just sounds daft) so maybe the next stage in editorial evolution is to set the singers free from the printed underlay altogether. They’d certainly have done their own at the time.

comfort ye 1


I still find it hard to identify the enduring appeal of the piece. It wasn’t that much more successful in Handel’s own lifetime than many of his other huge successes. You expect great tunes, creative fugues and so on in Handel (and there’s even a couple of killer modulations worthy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), but I suspect that what made the difference was  Charles Jennens’ libretto. It’s a wonderfully poetic collage of texts from both halves of the King James Bible; although it obviously had a later appeal to Victorian sentiment  it still works today because you don’t have to believe in God to believe in the synthesis created by composer and librettist.  In ‘Thy rebuke’ it also has the single most moving tenor recit ever written, made all the more poignant by the reference to ‘comfort’ which is the very first word uttered in the whole piece.

The standing for the Hallelujah Chorus thing was done with a nice hint of irony.  The problem won’t ever go  away – and nor should it really, it’s the audience’s prerogative. It’s just a pity so many people feel obliged to do it (we soloists sat even lower in our pews). My own take on the historical  circumstances is that George was happily slumbering away, woke up with a start at the Hallelujah and realised he needed a pee. He stood up to go, but found his way barred because everyone else had stood up too. History doesn’t record what happened next, unfortunately.


comford ye 2

I’m very glad I did it, but I can’t imagine doing it again. I find it almost unbelievable that there was a time when my ‘bread and butter’ work (see below…) all those years ago was the same tiny number of Bach and Handel pieces.  What a bizarre way to earn a living. Compare it with the singers who sang for Handel – they might have done the piece more than once, but if so they’d expect it to be re-written for them each time; there was no ‘bread and butter’ repertoire – each piece was new and had to be learned from scratch. Exciting times.

One slightly dispiriting thing about being in Cambridge was seeing the plethora of posters for musical events. These were almost identical to 40 years ago – the same old Bach, Handel, Mozart and the odd ‘English choral classic’. It’s also the same as you find in every other university town in the land,  the difference being that at  Cambridge it’s student entrepreneurs perpetuating stasis rather than  university lecturers who should know better. Not sure which is worse. Do students really want to stump up £27,000 to be taught what their parents (and grandparents) were taught? Surely the more imaginative are eventually going to find better things to get into debt for.





Early Music’s Lost Generation?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Bernhard Trebuch is Mr Austria Early Music, a broadcaster and producer, and early music entrepreneur extraordinaire whose energy, enthusiasm and scholarship are legendary throughout Europe,  especially in the Alpine countries. Only Bernhard would record a 24 CD box set of Richard Wistreich reading  Mainwaring’s Life of Handel (complete with footnotes) or  the prose writings of Erasmus in Latin, not to mention the 100 or so complete works of the Tyrol’s greatest composer, the one-eyed Oswald von Wolkenstein. A while ago, after a grappa or two, we got on to the present state of early music, and Bernard handed over a copy of his new Messiah recording. It’s a typical Trebuch/ORF production: you don’t just get the music, but a couple of supplementary discs as well, this time a conversation with the 93 year old Handel scholar Winton Dean interspersed with historic Handel recordings going back to Malcolm Sargent and beyond. What draws all these elements together is Bernhard’s passion for the music. It’s a live recording, with young musicians who play and sing their hearts out. As he says in his liner note:

We are familiar with all the treatises, know how to play the trills, have complete mastery over the whole range of historic instruments. We have almost limitless possibilities to edit, rework and technically enhance recordings. Yet often the most important factor of the music seems to be missing: the ability to feel and communicate emotion, to live this passion.

Bernhard’s interest in early music was fired by, among other things, the LPs of  David Munrow which he discovered when he was a teenager. Munrow, like his near contemporaries Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood,  Emma Kirkby, the Hilliard Ensemble, Gothic Voices –  everyone before early music entered the mainstream in fact –  managed to do what they did without benefit of institutional instruction. The fact is, we all made it up. The next generation or two complained that it wasn’t possible to study early music at conservatoires or universities, and gradually it found its way into higher education syllabuses where it got stuck, eventually becoming part of the mainstream, just one of a number of centrally administered modules.

The effect of this revolution was to rejuvenate much of the canonic repertoire, which had the varnish scraped off it, and to introduce a few new candidates for composerly sainthood. All well and good. The downside is that the music also became rule-bound, driven by the ideology of academia which is obsessed with assessment and abstract excellence.  We made sure you know how to play the trills the way the composer wanted them, and ignore the stupid people who did it differently (those idiots the treatises complain about, and who were sadly all too often in the majority).  The early music movement became like a property of the National Trust – beautifully restored to the condition it was in before anyone lived in it.

Many of my contemporaries went into teaching. They had to make that up too, but inevitably went on to become part of the establishment that their own success had helped to create. There is now an entire industry of early music pedagogy, with its own teaching and performing logic that often has only a tenuous connection to the awkward, dirty, unpredictable world of professional performance. It’s moved a very long way from the charismatic musical pirates who started the movement, and in the process has moved even further from the past, presenting the music in its sanitised 21st century perfection, ignoring all the bits we didn’t want to reclaim from history. The stuff we leave behind – effects such as portamento, rubato, the para-linguistic rhetoric and so on – are what made it human and individual. They’re the bits that aren’t really amenable to teaching or measurement.  If you sing your conservatoire Purcell following Tosi’s Opinioni in all their bizarre detail you will fail. Don’t try singing Bach and Mozart following Agricola or Hiller, or people will think you’re mad. After all, we all know that portamento has no place in Bach. It’s just that Bach and his contemporaries didn’t realise it at the time.

Bernhard’s right to point to the lack of passion. The two of us whinged away about the black hole in early music performance, the perfect but predictable excellence of the properly certificated early musician, the lost generations of inspired risk-takers who do it because they love it.  But if you don’t give students the tools to create  their own performing persona they can only fall back on what they know, and it’s not enough to know only that which is easy to teach. The most important task of the teacher is surely to liberate students from the pedagogy so they can discover the real music for themselves. Singers in particular tend to be way too dependent on their singing teacher prop. As I’ve mentioned before, some of the most successful singers of all time acknowledged no teacher at all. I found that one of the hardest things at the university I used to work at was to persuade students to trust their own instincts rather than those of their teacher. It seemed like a kind of trick really – the more dependent on the teacher they were, the less likely they ever were to make a success of singing as a career. It might get them kudos on their course, but their short-term success rarely prepared them for the shock of the real world they hoped to enter.

For the second year running, one of Bernhard’s Sound & Fury recordings has been CD of the Year on the Medieval Music & Arts Foundation website. This time it’s Pierre de la Rue.  Todd McComb appreciates the passion too. We’ll be recording masses by Caron and Prioris (new to me) next month.