The agony and the ecstasy; madrigals, Tippett and Jackson

Two ends of the spectrum at last night’s rehearsal: a selection of English madrigals celebrating the joys of singing and the agonies and the ecstasies of love, a thirteenth-century Welsh folk-song re-invented in the mid twentieth-century by Tippett, and music by Gabriel Jackson from the twenty-first century.

The flowering of madrigal composition in England yielded a rich variety of works, and our selection includes Sing We and Chant It by Morley, Bennett’s profound misery in Weep, O Mine Eyes and Weelkes’ Hark, All Ye Lovely Saint Above. The Bennett piece is often performed at a slow two-in-a-bar pace – there’s no tempo marking, the score simply says ‘Sadly’ – but we’re working on a slow four-in-a-bar feel that will really elongate the chromatic dissonances and tonal clashes between the voices; hopefully it will be a much more anguish-ridden meditation at a slower tempo. To balance this, and make sure neither choir nor audience are riddled with abject misery, the other two pieces are lively, with a dance-feel that we’re working hard to capture – the rhythmic lilt and dip often going over the bar-line.

Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above
(a rather brisk performance by Cantabile!)

Tippett’s treatment of the Welsh folk-song ‘Gwenllian’ is, at first meeting, rather alien; seemingly atonal fragments of line are scattered between the voice-parts, as though deliberately working to hide the actually rather tonal stretches of folk-melody that occur. Once the different parts realised that, at a particular point, they had the melody – and once they’d sung through that fragment of melody on their own – things became rather more secure, although there’s still some way to go. The tenors have a recurring splinter of a theme that rises E – C – F and occurs sporadically; it’s a challenge to pitch the first note and then get the intonation exact over the rising phrase.

I’ve remarked before on the value of learning new repertoire backwards; the psychology of already having seen the ending of a piece means it doesn’t seem so mammoth at first rehearsal, and we adopted this tactic with the Tippett. Because the final section is a recurrent one that appears throughout, working in two-page sections from the end backwards balanced the difficulty of the music with the sense that there was a part of it that was (comparatively) familiar.

We finished by returning to the Jackson piece we had started looking at last term; lovely, colourful sonorities but fiendish to be able to hold your own line and establish rich cluster-chords.

We’re also going to be getting slightly creative with some of the repertoire in the concert: there’s going to be some unusual and unexpected realisations of a few of the pieces, details of which we can’t reveal here as that would ruin the surprise. You’ll just have to hear it for yourself on the night….

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