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Monteverdi and Purcell

Workshop for voices directed by Venetia Caine and Tony Bevan, Glastonbury, 7th February 2015

It was a chilly day when we filled St Mary’s hall with singers in winter woollies, to tackle two contrasting seventeenth-century works by Monteverdi and Purcell. In more ways than one, a warm-up was required, but after Venetia Caine had led us through some exercises, first humming then singing scales, both the room and the vocal chords felt significantly cheerier. A few altos volunteered to augment the tenors to help balance the choir, and there wasn’t much difference in the range required, as both parts turned out to need bottom F.

Monteverdi’s Latin mass of 1641 is, unusually for him, scored for only four voices; an intimate, meditative piece, probably designed for Eleanor Gonzaga of Mantua’s private devotions. It is written in the old style, probably intended for a small chapel rather than the grandeur of St Mark’s, Venice. Mindful of its scale, Venetia encouraged us to sing softly and sensitively, aiming for a gentle lilt rather than a slavish crotchet beat. Dotted crotchets were to be approached with a rocking sensation, a contrast to the double dotted drive we encountered later with Purcell.

There were a few note queries – should certain Bs be flattened? – and Venetia made us aware of the constant shift in tonality between major and minor. It was precisely the mix of B naturals and B flats, sometimes in the same bar, that gave the piece its distinctive colour. The Kyrie began with a series of fugal entries, followed by a yearning, descending figure for ‘Christe eleison’. Throughout the day I was reminded what great word-painters Monteverdi and Purcell were. There was a shiver when we sang the pianissimo chords of ‘Et incarnatus est ‘, and again in the stark fifths of ‘crucifixus’. Venetia then guided us through the lovely change to triple time for ‘et resurrexit’, and a joyous, dance-like ascension. A measured Amen led to the beautiful Sanctus, which interwove simple, minim statements with soaring upward figures in open, angelic harmonies. We came down to earth with the Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Thank you, Venetia, for navigating us through this deceptively simple and precise work, and also to Simon Pickard for grounding us all with his organ accompaniment.

Purcell’s anthem My heart is inditing, written forty years later, also focuses on a Catholic Queen – Mary of Modena, second wife of James II – and was apparently sung after her entrance during his coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1685. This is a very public piece, theatrical and ceremonial, with a double choir of eight voices and a string section. We were very fortunate to have a seven-piece string band, and Simon, who flicked the switch to harpsichord, to support us and give the piece the pomp and scale it deserved.

Tony Bevan led the afternoon’s workshop, deftly dividing his time between the singers and instrumentalists. He wisely kicked us off with the easier last section, ‘Praise the Lord’, so we could get used to the larger, double-choir sound. The words, from Psalm 45, were in English, as expected from a protestant country scared stiff of any return to Roman Catholicism. In my opinion the anthem felt more theatrical than spiritual, with many references to the Queen’s clothes, her handmaidens and her hopeful fecundity (as Edward James pointed out at the end of the session). I wondered if Purcell had been briefed to pull out all the dramatic stops to bolster up a very unpopular Catholic King, who was, in fact, deposed by parliament four years later. But the music is gorgeous and Tony Bevan encouraged us to articulate it carefully, paying attention to the lilting dotted quavers and the distinctive scotch snaps. Tony reminded us that Purcell was acutely sensitive to the English language, and that we should be too.

Like Monteverdi, Purcell moves between duple and triple time, and there were some spine-tingling moments when, after ending on a minor chord, the choir burst in on a major one. As Tony pointed out, this effect on the entry ‘Praise the Lord’ is electrifying. Throughout the piece, Purcell contrasts ceremonial eight-part counterpoint with softer ’feminine’ sections, using two groups of three voices which respond to each other, as in ‘ Hearken O Daughter, consider” . Tony worked us hard for a couple of hours and we all noticed how much better the sound was when we stood up to sing. After a tea break we sang through the whole piece with the orchestra and found it a very satisfying experience.

Thank you Venetia and Tony, for your leadership and musical expertise, Simon for his subtle continuo, and not least Jenny for keeping us refreshed, especially when the tea-urn was playing up.

- Sarah Harding




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Last modified: 14 December 2015