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Plainchant Vespers for the Feast of St. Mark

Workshop directed by Emma Hornby, Reader in Music at Bristol University, St Paulís Church, Clifton, 25th April 2015

Fourteen singers, including the vicar of St Paulís, attended this really spectacular day at St Paul's Church, Clifton. We were joined by eight of Emma's Schola Cantorum, all delightful young singers.

The choir was divided into two halves, with two tenors, three basses and a couple of high voices in one, the remaining women in the other, and no time was wasted in getting to grips with the twelve or so pages of plainsong needed for the service for which we were preparing at 4pm. A short warm-up included thinking about our breathing, expelling all the air from our lungs and then holding our breath as long as possible before gently allowing our lungs to refill. The introit would have been instantly recognisable: Deus in Adjutorium meum intende, exactly as in the opening of the Monteverdi Vespers. There were six psalms, each with their individual antiphon, which is sung both before and after the psalm; a hymn (Tristes erant Apostoli), responses, and to finish, Regina Caeli (solemn tone).

About half the group were familiar with plainsong, though mainly 19th-century, Solesmes style of performance. Here we had the same chants, but there were subtle differences in the early approach used by Emma. We were allowed to do trills at the quilismas, which was delightful, and plenty of breath-taking (at every quarter bar) was encouraged.

The psalms were sung alternatim, as in the Roman Catholic Church today, with a long breath halfway through the line, and the new verse overlapping the end of the previous one; quite hard to do when it is new to you. In fact Emma remarked that she has written as essay entitled 'Preliminary thought on Silence' (freely available at academia.edu). Her explanation for the long silence is that, in Greek the same word is used for both breath and spirit; when you have expelled the old breath and then slowly breathe in, the Holy Spirit enters too.

There was a lot to learn, but there was time for a run through and a cuppa before the small congregation arrived (around seven people, enough to make the occasion feel real). The service began with the Pater Noster and Ave Maria said silently to ourselves. We then stood to sing the introit. Richard Holroyd (the vicar) sang the responses and prayers splendidly, and we concluded confidently with the well-rehearsed Regina Caeli. In thanking Emma, Clare remarked that the day had focussed on a much earlier repertoire than SWEMF usually explores. More please!

- Jenny Tribe




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Last modified: 14 December 2015