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Masses by Byrd and Josquin de Prez

Workshop with Robert Harre-Jones, Thorveton, 17th October 2015

“I tell you briefly that, if you do not quickly amend and abandon these evil opinions,you must not in future look on me as a father, but as a stranger and unknown.” These harsh words from the Protestant father of a young Catholic, John Tippett, express the confusion and pain that engulfed families in the religious reforms of 16th-century England. Under Elizabeth I, Catholics were presented with severe constraints, of which probably the most painful was being forbidden from publicly celebrating the Mass.

Yet many wealthy Catholic families followed their faith, largely in secret. William Byrd withdrew from London in 1593, setting up a household at Stondon Massey in Essex. His old friend and patron, Sir John Petre, maintained the Catholic tradition at his nearby estates of West Horndon and Ingatestone. Byrd’s three masses date from this period, with his Five Part Mass the last to be published, covertly, in 1594/5.

In the previous century no such religious fear, threat or persecution hindered Josquin des Prez, whose mastery of texture and imitation in Missa Pange Lingua (possibly his last composition) had repercussions for music of the late Renaissance throughout Europe.

These two great works provided the focus for a most stimulating and enjoyable SWEMF workshop held in Thorverton church on a fine Saturday in mid October. A good turn-out of 26 singers was accompanied by an ensemble of strings and ‘soft’ wind instruments, six in total, including a sackbutt and a shawm ‘d-amore’.

There is some debate as to whether viols were ever used in an ecclesiastical setting, though there is evidence that cornetts and sackbutts were used for festal occasions. However, cathedral choirs in general kept viols and there is anecdotal evidence that instruments were used in chapels in pre- Reformation times. On this occasion we were pleased to enjoy the contrasting and complementary timbres of the instrumental ensemble, which blended well with the choir.

Our tutor for the day was Robert Harre-Jones, who, as a long-serving member of the Tallis Scholars, the Orlando and Gabrieli Consorts, is steeped in renaissance choral music and features in recordings of both these masses. His pragmatic decision to focus on key sections of both pieces brought together the performance programme for the end of the day; namely, starting with the Kyrie and Gloria from Byrd’s Five Part Mass, then Josquin’s Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus, concluding with Byrd’s Sanctus and the sublime Agnus Dei.

The morning session began with rehearsing the Byrd sections, Robert reminding the group to sharpen 4ths and flatten 3rds to improve tuning. After a break for refreshment we turned to Missa Pange Lingua, with the technical demands, particularly around rhythm, turned up a notch. Robert’s clear and calm instruction, often through exemplifying phrases by singing them—a treat in itself—was extremely useful in improving our standard, as were sectional rehearsals which gave singers and instrumentalists the opportunity to focus on particularly challenging sections.

Lunch was taken, some eating sandwiches in the church, while several members took the opportunity of visiting the Thorverton Arms, conveniently situated just down the road.

The afternoon session saw a return to Josquin, to try and master the more challenging aspects, particularly the first section of the Kyrie, which was probably the hardest part for the group ‘en masse’. Robert and Heather Kershaw also delighted us by singing the intricate two-part Benedictus, followed by Sharon Lambert and Jinny Jeffery duetting on sackbutt and shawm respectively.

After what seemed no time at all, an audience was starting to gather, swelling to around two dozen. It was time for our ‘performance’, which rounded off a most enjoyable and successful workshop.

Huge thanks are due to Robert, not only for his enthusiastic guidance throughout the day, but also for preparing the instrumental parts. Thanks are also due to Ann Hill for organizing the day so efficiently, and to all the local members who kept us singing and playing with regular coffee and tea ‘inputs’ and set up the church for the workshop.

- Peter Crispin




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Last modified: 14 December 2015