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Gibbons and Byrd Verse Anthems

Workshop for voices and instruments directed by William Hunt held at the Chapel, Exeter School, May 16th 2015

In a very interesting day at Exeter, Bill Hunt (formerly of Fretwork) led the singers, viols and recorder-players into a new depth and understanding of the glories of the verse anthem, a peculiarly English form of post-Reformation music.

We focussed on just two pieces, perhaps 13 minutes of music: See, see the Word is Incarnate by Orlando Gibbons and Christ Rising by William Byrd. What a treat it was to be given time to get to know and appreciate these two pieces. Bill Hunt described the upheavals in English church music in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Music was to be sung in English for the first time, with a new insistence on clarity, specifying only one syllable to one note. He also detailed some of the rhetorical devices and nuances involved in word setting. For instance, in simple terms, to flatten a note is often to soften it, to make it gentle. To sharpen a note is to harden it, so it is louder, more assertive. So we sang, ‘For in that He died,’ with ‘died’ sinking to an E flat—sad and soft —followed by the phrase ‘He died to put away sin’ with a rising B natural—uplifting, bright. Shorter notes were used to give emphasis and repetition, longer ones for contemplative words: ‘all men do die’, for example. Once one started to notice these subtleties, every single phrase took on a deep and different meaning.

In Gibbons See, see the Word is incarnate (known as the mini-Messiah, as it tells the entire story and significance of Christ’s life in 7 minutes), the beat (tactus) is interrupted, giving urgency, building up the excitement by putting entries on unexpected up-beats. It was wonderful to see how cleverly Gibbons and Byrd had constructed these pieces, with rising phrases and climaxes and a balanced overall shape. Our lovely viol- and recorder-players had the words in their parts too, so that they could colour their playing accordingly, and we had a very enjoyable and educational day.

setting was delightful, in the chapel of Exeter School (designed by Willam Butterfield), looking over rolling playing fields in the spring sunshine. Our thanks to all who organized it, and our appreciation to SWEMF, which enables these remarkable opportunities to study with knowledgeable tutors.

- Celia James




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Last modified: 14 December 2015