Category Archives: music

All the best tunes

Who first remarked on the Devil having all the best tunes?

I’ve heard it attributed to Martin Luther.  A bit of thought suggests it could be more likely to have been his followers a generation on.  Someone brought up in a world bitterly divided into us and them, for whom us were upright Lutherans and them were corrupt Papists.  And a world where the Papists really did have all the best music, as was absolutely the case from the time of the counter-reformation through to the wider adoption of fine music in the baroque era.

Measured in years, the era of Catholic domination of music lasted a long time.  It was firmly established by Palestrina in the mid-16th century.  Come the 17th century and it’s preeminence is so well-entrenched that the church can jealously guard its proprietary treasures, leading to the famous story of Allegri’s Miserere remaining exclusive to the Vatican for 130 years before the young Mozart smuggled out a pirated copy for the rest of the (by then very different) world!

Last night’s concert by the Exon Singers presented a great work from that catholic tradition.  Victoria’s Vespers is apparently a reconstruction, and (having hitherto encountered Victoria only in smaller-scale settings of individual liturgical texts) I had been expecting something sub-Palestrina.  But there was no “sub” about it.  This is a glorious work in its own right: that Italian tradition evidently extended to the Spanish Victoria.  The Papists really did have the best tunes!

The event also benefited from the setting: sung by candlelight in a fine church.  But that evoked memories of my years in Italy, and I couldn’t help feeling that the true setting for this music should’ve been the colourful opulence of one of their churches – as exemplified by Michelangelo’s ceiling – rather than an English church whose colours are limited to the stained glass.  But maybe that’s just by association with places where I’ve sung: glorious Palestrina in Italian churches, vs the much drearier English early music in English ones.

Another thought that this concert provoked was, what has happened to the great polyphonic choral tradition?  By the time of the Baroque, mainstream choral music had acquired an orchestra, and while the formal polyphony of Palestrina and Victoria is still evident in the time of Monteverdi, it’s clearly evolving into something more free-form.  A capella religious traditions live on in miniature forms as diverse as Bruckner motets and Negro spirituals.  But for anything larger scale, I think we have to look east to the Russian Orthodox church and works like Rachmaninov’s vespers.

Oh, and why does this music travel so little?  Why do we Brits get so much more English music of the era, despite the overwhelming superiority of so much Continential music?  Could it be that because Britain’s own first top-rate composer was Purcell, we subconsciously don’t want to admit anything from earlier than his time into the mainstream?


A world premiere and a 150-year-old masterpiece, this Sunday (June 26th) at the Guildhall, Plymouth.

There’s nothing quite like Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, a lovely and startlingly unique piece, and the main work in our forthcoming concert.  Perhaps it takes a septuagenarian Old Master – as Rossini was in 1863 – to have the confidence to write something quite so cheekily uncharacteristic of its time.  It certainly shows the complete mastery of a lifetime’s experience, together with an creative imagination undulled by age!

Also on the programme is a world premiere of Clive Jenkins’s Gaudeamus in Coro.  This is a prelude and fugue with a difference: complex jazz-inspired rhythms make for another unique piece – and a challenging sing!

Anyone within evening-out distance of Plymouth may wish to note that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the door.  Details at the choir website.

There Was a Child

I wasn’t familiar with Jonathan Dove before today.  But I’m in Brighton for a long weekend, and today I was privileged to see his major work There Was a Child at the dome.  This was the second event I’ve been to in this year’s Brighton Festival, and the first that was worth my time.  It was coupled with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, but you don’t need me to tell you anything about that.  Details here.

There Was a Child is a huge-scale choral-orchestral work, in the tradition of pieces like the Dream of Gerontius or the Sea Symphony.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a new work on quite this scale in my life before today: composers in our time tend to be acutely aware of the practicalities of huge forces, and the barriers they put in the way of performance.  But Dove, having got the commission for this work (to commemorate the life of a young man who died in an accident aged 19), evidently spared no expense in writing for the Very Big League.

So let me put in my little bit of gushing enthusiasm.  Dove is indeed a master of big forces, up there with the best!  I loved seeing this work, and if the chance to perform in it comes my way I won’t hesitate.  Indeed, of the comparisons I suggested, I like it better than Gerontius.  I hope it succeeds in entering the occasional repertoire of those choirs, orchestras and venues big enough to take it on.

Having said that, I should perhaps also add a critical note.  Whilst this is fantastic music to listen to, it’s not pushing any boundaries.  Easy on the ear, and while stimulating, it certainly wasn’t challenging on the mind.  It could almost come from Vaughan Williams’s own pen (or some of his continental contemporaries) in the middle of last century, and you wouldn’t think Britten and Tippett came between.  I sense that modern music revisiting the first half of the last century may be something of a Zeitgeist to which this belongs.  This is a very fine work, but I’d’ve liked to witness something more distinctive to call it unreservedly great.

Do listen to it if you get a chance.  You won’t be disappointed!


It’s time to give a mention to next week’s concert.  Sunday April 10th at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  We’re performing Haydn and Mozart.  Haydn’s Creation Mass, along with Mozart’s great C Minor mass.

Of the two works, the Mozart is the one that really turns me on.  This mass was left unfinished at his death, but what we have is an exciting and glorious work.  To my mind, it leaves his better-known Requiem sounding almost dull by comparison.   I expect an important reason for the Requiem’s popularity is that it’s not just one of Mozart’s great works, but also a safe and straightforward choice for anything more than a basic church choir, whereas the Mass is rather more challenging.

If you’re within evening-out distance of Plymouth, this concert should be worth seeing!

Autumn fun concert

A week today (or rather yesterday, looking at the clock – Sunday 28th to be clear), we’re performing an autumn concert at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  I understand tickets have sold well and they may no longer be easy to find, but if you can get one it should be fun.

On the programme are two medium-sized works.  Rutter’s Magnificat is light, tuneful, very bubbly, yet good music and with a deeper, darker side: a Schubert for our times, though obviously a lot more modern, and quite a bit more challenging to perform.

Then the big crowd-puller: Orff’s Carmina Burana should need no introduction: no matter if you’re completely unmusical, you’re sure to have encountered something from it somewhere in an advert, soundtrack, sound effect, or something.  A very big and very distinctive sound, a collection of extremely bawdy mediæval poems that’d get us onto the sex offenders register if performed in English, and lots of fun.  It’s many years since I last sung in it, but I still have fond memories of my first time as a young student, when I was just discovering some of the concepts in it with a soprano from the same choir. ;)

Summer Concert

Our next concert is Saturday week, June 26th.  This one is, unusually, at Plymouth Cathedral.  The programme is something of a pot-pourri, with works ranging from Haydn through to Walton.  Should be an enjoyable evening if you’re in the area.

Worth noting from this programme is Elgar’s choral song cycle From the Bavarian Highlands, which is something of a little gem.  I’m not always the greatest Elgar fan, but this is lots of fun, and evocative of its subject.  Lovely music for a summer evening.

Classical Concert

For the benefit of readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth, it’s time to mention our next concert, which is on Sunday March 21st at the Guildhall.  This one is strictly classical, and couples an old favourite with a lesser-known work.  They are, respectively, Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Maria Theresa Mass.

I’m enjoying both works in rehearsal, but principally (because it’s new to me) the Haydn.  I’m sure it’ll be a good evening out for music lovers.  See you there :)

Forthcoming Concert

Britten and Goodall, next Sunday (Nov. 22nd) at the Guildhall, Plymouth.

For our next concert, we’re rehearsing Britten’s St.Nicholas and Goodall’s Eternal Light, and much enjoying both of these lovely works.  Should be well worthwhile for music lovers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

The Goodall is a new work first performed in 2008, when the Rambert Dance Company used it as the score for a new ballet.  They toured with their own small orchestra, but invited local choirs to join them in each tour venue.  A subset of the Plymouth Philharmonic, including me, sang with them in Plymouth and hugely enjoyed it.  This is a modern work that is neither the challenging avant-garde of much of the 20th century, nor the vacuous junk commonly pushed by the so-called “music business” under a “classical” label just because it involves traditional instruments.

It can perhaps best be described as a non-traditional requiem.  Like the Brahms, it is a consolation for the living more than a rite for the dead.  Like the Britten, it blends the Latin requiem with English poems, though the similarity ends there.  It’s a rather lighter work than either of those, but it’s also new and genuinely different.  And if it hasn’t gone stale with me after a full week of performances and a year, it must be good[1]!

Britten needs no introduction, but St.Nicholas may be less familiar: it was new to me when we started rehearsing.  It’s a cantata (for want of a better description) that puts together a bit of history and a bunch of legends – some dramatised, some just sung – into a life of St Nicholas.  The title role – the only Principal – was written for Peter Pears, and both adult and youth choruses take different semi-dramatic roles.  Quite strikingly in terms of story (given that he is the saint and the hero) Nicholas himself comes across as a rather obnoxious prig.  But that doesn’t detract from music, which is vintage Britten: glorious, exciting, always fresh.

[1] Another modern English comparison is Rutter, who I respect as a composer of light music that is real music and not trivia.  I’ve enjoyed singing his requiem and magnificat (the latter more than once), but I think the Goodall has more power than those to sustain my interest.

An extra octave

We had the first rehearsal for Mahler’s 2nd symphony yesterday: we’re performing it for the final concert of the Totnes Festival, on 13th September.

It’s really a (huge) orchestral work, with just a short choral section at the end.  But what a section!  Most choral works expect singers to span up to two octaves, on average a little less.  This one expects nearly three octaves of us (basses): from bottom B-flat to top G.  This time ours is the most challenging range, though everyone has something high at the end!

What’s a lot worse is the scores.  To start with it’s small print, not in great condition, and all-in-all not very legible.  Then it’s written very confusingly, with each line laid out differently: different voices (including sometimes the soloists) sharing a stave, and jumps all over the place.  Well, in that regard, we basses get the easiest deal, being consistently the bottom line[1].  Finally, the poor old tenors get their lines in an arcane C clef that’s a challenge for everyone to read!

Some enterprising person had downloaded a different edition from the ‘net, that’s much more clearly laid out, and I think we may be copying it for the Tenors and rehearsal pianist at least.  But that brings its own problems: it shares neither page numbers nor rehearsal numbers with the library edition, and even the notes differ in at least one place.

The good news is that the choral section is short, and not very hard (except for the range)!  So it won’t be a problem to get it together for the concert.

[1] Except when someone thought “Zurückhaltend” was part of our words :o

Concert on Sunday

This coming Sunday, June 28th, we are performing two lovely but rarely-heard works at the Guildhall in Plymouth: Donizetti’s Requiem, and Puccini’s Messa di Gloria.

These are a little like Verdi’s more famous requiem: nominally-ecclesiastical works by operatic composers.  As with Verdi, the operatic heritage is always evident, and Donizetti’s 1835 work in places foreshadows Verdi’s later one.  The Puccini mass is an early work, but the genius of his later career shines through in abundance together with a young man’s playfulness.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed preparing these works (more than I expected), and I can recommend them to any music lover in the area!  If you don’t already have tickets, get them now!


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