Posture and more Ave Verum

It was great to see some of you last Friday. Once again I apologise for the technical mishap. I have since used zoom twice more with no trouble so it augers well for the A.G.M. on 20th November.

Over the next few weeks our technical work will refresh one aspect of singing. The first one this week is on Posture.

After compiling the last Nick’s Notes it occurred to me that we have two further settings of Ave Verum in our repertoire by Mozart and Saint-Saëns which we will look at this week. Neither of these two settings include the O Dulcis section of the text and were composed for liturgical use (i.e. in the context of a church service).

I have selected recordings by German and French choirs respectively so that you can hear pronunciation differences. Latin is an extinct language so each country has developed its own conventions and accent. In this text there are not many moments of controversy (the letters ‘c’, ‘g’ and diphthongs provoke the most). The main variation that I notice is the ‘e’ vowel – the second word verum is a notable example.

Let’s look at Mozart’s setting first:

European Sacred Music page 248.

Listen to this recording.

From Wikepedia: “Mozart composed the motet in 1791 in the middle of writing his opera Die Zauberflöte.[1] He wrote it while visiting his wife Constanze, who was pregnant with their sixth child and staying in the spa Baden bei Wien.[1] Mozart set the 14th century Eucharistic hymn in LatinAve verum corpus“. He wrote the motet for Anton Stoll, a friend of his and of Joseph Haydn.[2] Stoll was the musical director of the parish St. Stephan, Baden.[3] The setting was composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi; the autograph is dated 17 June 1791. (The Feast of Corpus Christi falls on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, and in 1791 was observed on June 23.) The composition is only forty-six bars long and is scored for SATBchoir, string instruments, and organ. Mozart’s manuscript contains minimal directions, with only a single sotto voce marking at the beginning. The motet was composed less than six months before Mozart’s death.[2] It foreshadows “aspects of the Requiem such as declamatory gesture, textures, and integration of forward- and backward-looking stylistic elements”.[4] While the Requiem is a dramatic composition, the motet expresses the Eucharistic thoughts with simple means, suited for the church choir in a small town.[2][5]

It is a simple, homphonic composition that is basically a harmonised melody. It would work as a song with just the soprano part and accompaniment. As is typical with Mozart there is plenty of room for expressive, lyrical singing.

The Saint-Saëns setting is in the purple booklet with Elgar Happy Eyes and Serendade or here.

Listen to this recording.

Saint-Saëns lived from 1836-1921. Like Mozart he was a child prodigy. He was organist at La Madeleine church for twenty years from 1858. It is thought that this motet was written about 1860. There are similarities to the Mozart setting in that it is homophonic, designed to be accompanied (although it does work unaccompanied) and could be an accompanied soprano solo.
I think that it is interesting to compare these settings of the same text spanning 300 years or so. It is difficult for me to pick a preference as they are all equally effective and written by composers who worked for the church but had many other musical irons in the fire. Mozart is more well known for his operas and symphonies; Saint-Saëns for orchestral music and Byrd for keyboard pieces. Which one is your favourite? (Answer in the comments below).

See you next week at the A.G.M.

Byrd Ave Verum

Following last week’s live rehearsal we are going to revise Byrd Ave Verum. It is one of our standard repertoire pieces that we haven’t done for a while; at least four of you haven’t sung it with us. As you know I have fondness for polyphonic music. In my opinion Byrd is the most skilful of the English Tudor composers and this little motet is a fine example of his skill.

Read the text and its translation.

Ave, verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine:
vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine:
cuius latus perforatum unda fluxit sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum, in mortis examine.
O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu Fili Mariae. Miserere mei. Amen. 
Hail the true body, born of the Virgin Mary:
You who truly suffered and were sacrificedon the cross for the sake of man.
From whose pierced flank flowed water and blood:
Be a foretaste for usin the trial of death.
O sweet, O merciful, O Jesus, Son of Mary.
Have mercy on me. Amen.

Now watch and compare this performance by the Tallis Scholars with this one by The Sixteen. They are quite different; which is your preference? I reveal mine at the end of the rehearsal video.

Here is a short analysis:

The text is a Gradual for the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ). Corpus Christi is commemorated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and is thanksgiving for Holy Communion. This text is a personal prayer addressed to Christ. It needs to sung intimately and reverently but not without emotion.

Unusually, Byrd doesn’t set the text as an unbroken whole. The five phrases of the prayer are separated by rests. I wonder whether Byrd envisaged the rests to be rhymical or more fluid, general pauses. It would certainly raise eyebrows to sing them as such and would draw attention to the structure – we’ll try it sometime.

I love that fact that when you listen most of it sounds homophonic (as if all the voices are singing the same words at the same time). Byrd starts and finishes the phrases together but, very subtly after two or three syllables at least one of the voices diverges. In the first phrase it is the tenor and then the bass; the second, the tenor and alto; the third, the soprano followed by three bars of imitation and in the fourth, the tenor then alto and bass.

The repeated section (bars 29-43) deals in threes; an oblique reference to the Holy Trinity – Corpus Christi falls in the week after Trinity Sunday. You have the three invocations – O sweet, O merciful, O Jesus; three repetitions of O Jesu fili Mariae (soprano and bass bar 30, alto bar 31 and tenor bar 32) then nine (3×3) imitations of Miserere mei from bar 36 onwards – alto and tenor (36), bass (37),soprano (37), alto (38), tenor (38), alto (39), soprano (40), bass (40) and tenor (41). The Kyrie eleison  (Lord, have mercy) in the Mass has nine repetitions and the Agnus Dei also has three phrases. Reminder: Corpus Christi is a thanksgiving for the Eucharist.

Ave verum maybe a short motet but there is much symbolism and meaning in every phrase. Look at the way that the word fluxit (flows) is set with an imitating downward motif; the word perforatum (pierced) starts suddenly and contains one of the few discords (bar 18 beat 1) in the piece. Notice the moments when important words are repeated or there is a bit of melisma – for the sake of man (12-15); the trial of death (26-8); son of Mary (33-5); have mercy on me (36-43). Bear in mind that Byrd was a devout Catholic. He had to worship in secret, hiding from the newly protestant authorities.

Please watch and participate in this video rehearsal. You will need The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems and this sheet of technical exercises.

When we next rehearse this live we’ll try and put it all together.

Another sing?

I hope that you are all well.

Thanks to all this who came to Woodborough on 9th October. Nine of us were present (Catherine, Cathy, Rhoda, Mary, Ruth, Vicky, Marguerite, Renwick and me); we had a good, socially distanced sing. We were well spaced out and most sang wearing masks; the fire door and windows were open and everyone followed the rules to the letter. I felt very safe; my impression was that it wasn’t as uncomfortable as feared and the singing was pretty good in spite of my bass fumbling. I recorded the rehearsal; an edited version can be viewed here. Those who weren’t there can use it as an opportunity to sing along.

For those wanting to sing we will have another meeting this Friday. A Muzudo invitation will follow later today.

Here is the current advice from the Association of British Choral Directors and Making Music:

Following the new three-tier system announcement in England, the government’s performing arts guidance has now been updated. It confirms that choral activity can usually continue at all levels, provided there is no mingling at all at the two higher levels, but also depending on local restrictions which may be added.

The relevant paragraph from the Government Performing Arts guidance:

Confirmed that in a COVID-secure venue or public outdoor place, non-professional performing arts activity, including choirs, orchestras or drama groups can continue to rehearse or perform together where this is planned activity in line with the performing arts guidance and if they can do so in a way that ensures that there is no interaction between separate and distinct groups of no more than 6 (In Medium areas and outdoors) or individual households (in High and Very High areas). If an amateur group is not able to ensure that no mingling takes place between these sub-groups (depending on Local Covid Alert Level restrictions) – including when arriving at or leaving activity or in any breaks or socialising – then such non-professional activity should not take place. See Local Covid Alert Level guidance (MediumHighVery High) for more details on group size.

…and the Covid Alert Level Guidance for High:

Other activities, such as organised indoor sport, indoor exercise classes and other activity groups, can only continue provided that households or support bubbles do not mix. Where it is likely that groups will mix, these activities must not go ahead.

Your committee met last Friday mainly to discuss the A.G.M. which will be held on Friday, 20th November, hopefully “live” but with a zoom link for those who cannot be with us in person.

This Friday please bring Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, Feel the Spirit, European Sacred Music, English Romantic Part Songs, Be Thou My Vision, Goin’ Home, This is my Father’s World, The Glory of Love, Nada te turbe.

The plan is that we meet fortnightly. In November we usually start Christmas repertoire. My plan is that on 6th, 20th November and 4th December we will rehearse and record a number of carols that can then be disseminated to our audience over the Christmas period. Anyone not present will have the opportunity to add their voice to the recordings if they wish. We will also look for an opportunity to sing carols outdoors in December. How does that sound?

Hope to see some of you on Friday.

Good News! (but it might change)

September is here and time to look forward to a new season!

I wrote this on 8th September. This morning (9th September) Government have given notice of new restrictions which may affect this.

In the light of changed guidance and advice your committee met (on line) last week to discuss how we might resume singing together.



8:00 pm Friday, 11th September – Choir members Zoom meeting, open to all 7:45 pm Friday, 25th September – Proposed first live meeting at Woodborough Village Hall

We will start with a choir members’ Zoom meeting this Friday at 8:00. This will be an opportunity to chat together to clarify any questions and issues. I hope that as many people as possible will be able to join us. The link to the meeting will be sent separately. Some of you are desperate to sing “live” again; some of you are understandably reluctant to take the risk at the moment and some will need reassurance that measures are put in place to minimise risk before committing.

At this stage I must emphasise that each of us has responsibility for our own safety and to the rest of the group and must make our personal decisions in that context. 

Mary has worked hard on everyone’s behalf to produce a choir risk assessment which you can all access here. If there is anything that you want added please raise it on Friday or contact Mary.

Our biggest problem to resolve is that of venue. Neither of our regular venues is large enough to maintain social distancing. Fortunately Cathy has secured us Woodborough Village Hall for our first few meetings. It is a large, well ventilated room with a spacious entrance foyer and facilities. Thanks to Cathy, Mary and John Pope who have helped research possible venues.

Initially my proposal is that we meet for no more than an hour; that we maintain a minimum of 2 metres distance; stand/sit in a straightish line and not sing at full volume. Wear masks on arrival but make an individual choice when singing.  (I won’t wear a mask in rehearsal but will be 3 metres away from the nearest singer.) We will have to forego our post rehearsal fellowship so bring your own refreshment if required. There should be no sharing of music, pencils or anything else. Only one person in a toilet at any time. Woodborough Village Hall has its own risk assessment ensuring that everything is clean before we go in and when we leave there are things that we have to do to help keep it safe.

I also propose that we meet fortnightly. There are reasons for this. Several of us are in high risk groups so two weeks between meetings will give opportunity for any Covid issues to resolve. Not all of you will attend so in the intervening weeks I will provide a lockdown-style Nick’s Notes that everyone can access. I am looking into cost effective ways of recording or live streaming rehearsals so that those who are unable to attend can remain connected.

There is no completely risk free solution; everyone is free to make their own decisions. Your committee is risk aware but not risk averse.

Over the past month I have lost count of the hours that I have spent reading guidance, advice, scientific research papers and all sorts of “fake news”. This last weekend we had an Association of British Choral Directors virtual Festival at which we heard at length from respected authorities on this issue. I feel that I am personally well informed to help keep us all as safe as possible.

Everything is in place for us to enjoy meeting and singing together even if it is not as we knew it yet.

Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions and comments.

I am excited at the prospect of meeting you in person and making music, I hope that you are as well.

We’re all going on a Summer Holiday

We are now into holiday season, even though it doesn’t seem much changed from the daily routine at the moment, so this will be the last Nick’s Notes of the season. I am taking a few weeks off to assess the situation and come up with a plan for September.

It doesn’t look like there has been much progress towards singing together in person so I have to devise something that will keep us interested from week to week but will have the flexibility to adapt to an ever changing situation. Any suggestions, ideas etc. are most welcome, it is a new situation for us all. In the meantime there is plenty of material in the Notes since March for you to revisit and to keep your vocal chords in trim. There is also lots of material on line to explore, if you find anything good let me know.

The Long Bennington on Concert is still in the pipeline but no further in the planning. A reminder that the proposed dates are 8th May or 22nd May. So far three people have indicated unavailability for one date or the other; if anyone else becomes unavailable please let me know as soon as you know please – we may have to negotiate another date.

Thanks to those who sent recordings of April is in my mistress’ face which has come out better than the last one. It includes contributions from Nick Milburn on both the tenor and bass part plus Catherine, Mary, Rhoda, Ruth, Vicky (twice), me, John Hardcastle and John Draper. Well done everyone.

April is in my Mistress’ face

Vicky and I went down to Cheddar for a week to catch up with Matthew and his family. Next week we are spending a few days in York to see Edward who, being an actor/musician has not worked since January.

Jane Poat has sent a link to video of Underneath the Stars featuring Lizzie. They are allowed to sing, socially distanced, in Ireland. The arrangement is lovely, and available. More suggestions for repertoire please.

Have a good summer and I’ll be back in September.

Locus Iste

This week we are looking at Locus Iste by Bruckner. It was written for the dedication of the votive chapel of Linz Cathedral in 1869. When he wrote this Bruckner was a professor of harmony in Vienna. As a piece it is often compared to Mozart Ave verum. The notes of Locus Iste are not difficult but it is not so easy to sing.

I have selected a performance by Tenebrae for you to watch. This performance is a bit slower than I would like, it is marked Allegro moderato which implies to me a little more movement. The virtue of this video is that the way that it is shot affords excellent opportunity to examine the technique and mouth shapes of the singers. In my video I refer explicity to the bass in bars 8-9 and the section at 2’ 38.

Here is the text:

Locus iste a Deo factus est,inaestimabile sacramentum,irreprehensibilis est.This place was made by God,a priceless sacrament;it is without reproach.[1]
Iris – Vicky’s latest painting.

Something to look forward to

Another week goes by and more restrictions are being lifted so please be careful. Rhoda, Nancy and Ruth live close to Leicester, but not in the lockdown zone, so we hope that they can stay safe.

Congratulations to Dominic Pierce-Brown on obtaining his MSc.

The people from Long Bennington Church have been in touch asking if we can rearrange the concert that we were to do in March for Saturday, 8th May 2021, with a reserve date of 22nd May. I have replied positively with the proviso that we will be meeting before then. It will be good to have something to aim for. The good thing is that we can use most of the programme that we were preparing.

Your committee is meeting on Tuesday next week; if you have anything to raise contact Rhoda, Mary or Cathy.

Thanks to those who have submitted recordings of April is in my mistress’ face. There aren’t enough to put together yet so I’ll wait a bit longer.

For this week’s singing we’ll revise Elgar Happy Eyes and Serenade. The notes of these were secure so there is only a full audio track of each one. A reminder that Elgar is meticulous with his markings so please pay attention to those. Although the notes are repeated from verse to verse the words are not and have different emphasis and mood.

Happy Eyes

And July in her eyes

Some really hot days this week, I hope everyone managed to keep cool.

People are beginning to see relatives and friends that have been off limits since March; we had an appropriately socially distanced visit from Ed and his girlfriend this week.

More activities are being sanctioned but singing is still off the agenda for the moment; as soon as we have the green light something will happen. (Let’s hope that it is before harvest!)

I spent a pleasant hour or so compiling the recordings that have been sent in so here is Newstead Abbey Singers first virtual recording of Nada te turbe featuring Catherine, Mary, Ruth, Rhoda, Vicky, John D and me.  

Something different this week, a little madrigal – April is in my mistress’ face. It is page 24 in the Oxford Book of English Madrigals, which most of you will have somewhere. For those who don’t have it (Nancy, Marguerite, Ruth?) and those who can’t find it here is a copy

An Elizabethan love song with a bit of a sting in the tale it needs to be sung lightly with a sense of the changing seasons. Just sing it for fun but I would like to do a virtual recording of this. Here is the audio track. You know the routine and hopefully more of you can pluck up the courage this time.

Have a good week.

To a Wild Rose

Haec Dies

Hope that everyone is safe this week.

The weather this week has affected some of us. Rhoda and Ellie have reported floods; relatively minor but inconvenient none the less. We have, optimistically, booked a caravan site for mid-July near Matthew so that we see them.

As restrictions begin to be eased our thoughts turn to how and when we might be able to meet again. Cathy has offered to host a sing in the open air or in one of their spacious and airy barns, which we went and inspected on Friday. When we feel it is safe we’ll organise something. Hopefully we will be able to get together regularly in the Autumn but will have to assess risk and maybe rethink some of our procedures. Fingers crossed.

Some more Nada te turbe recordings have arrived which I have started to stitch together. Altos, don’t be shy it would be nice to have some company. It is, however, showing how much we need the physical presence of others to sing together!

This week we look at Haec Dies in a bit more detail. Here are the relevant links:

Rehearsal video

Performance video

Have a good week and enjoy the return of the sun.

Wake up, Sun . . . . you can reappear!

 I’ve had enough of this cold weather now.

Cathy and John have wecomed the rain, but it has come too late to save the crops apparently.

Catherine has sent this link to face masks that  Imogen is involved with, they are reusable, cotton, reversible and £5 each, please support if you can.

Rhoda is still marking like crazy, Mary has been helping Ellie with PPE and Vicky has been getting very frustrated with technology.

Thanks to those sopranos who have responded to the Nada the turbe challenge, but I haven’t any alto, tenor or bass contributions yet.

I want to get Haec Dies by Byrd back into the repertoire. It is in Tudor Anthems p.84. 

S1- Catherine, Cathy, Mary; S2 – Ellie (I think you sang this part before), Rhoda, Ruth; A – Jane, Vicky, Nancy, Marguerite; T1 – David, John H (it is lower than T2); T2 – Renwick, (Nick); B – John D, John P

The text is a Gradual response for Easter Day and is an expression of joy.

Haec dies quam fecit Dominus:exultemus et laetemur in ea,alleluya. This is the day which the Lord hath made:let us be glad and rejoice therein.Alleluia

There are three distinct sections to the piece. The first section bubbles with excitement; with a change of meter the second section dances with joy and then you get a long, stately Alleluia section. Notewise it is relatively straightforward but there are rhythmic challenges in the second section, especially bars 39-41 when the excitement appears to overflow.

There are lots of performances to listen to. I have chosen one from The Sixteen

which is a reasonable speed and is not over stylised. I leave you to have a look at the notes this week and we’ll look in more detail next time. Here are the usual audio files:

Full Soprano 1 Soprano 2 Alto Tenor 1 Tenor 2 Bass

Have a good week, I hope that it warms up.