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O What Evil is War!

A workshop for voices and instruments on the music of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648)
directed by Gawain Glenton, Keynsham, 23rd September 2017

This was the first workshop run by Gawain for SWEMF, but all of us present hope it won’t be the last. Gawain is one of the foremost cornett players in this country, a member of the English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble. I feel very fortunate to have had Gawain as my teacher when I started on the cornett, and since then, at Dartington International Summer School of Music.

We were a good mix of players and singers—cornetts, sackbutts, a dulcian, a rackett (making the sound of a 32’ organ pipe, rather than a racket!), recorders and viols. The music was largely new to all of us, all by German composers, with Schütz one of the few composers we had heard of before. It was all sacred music, and very versatile; Gawain explained that while it could have been performed by professional musicians in a formal church setting, equally many of the pieces would have been suited to being played or sung in homes by just a few people.

We performed three hymns: O welch ein Übel ist der Krieg by Sigmund Staden, published in 1651; Fried wo bist so lang geblieben, by Erasmus Kindermann, 1642, and Das Lied ist hier, by Michael Albert. All three hymns spoke of people’s weariness of war, and the dreadful destruction it had wreaked on villages and countryside, and a plea to God to help end the war.

In all the pieces, voices were doubled by instruments, and when we played the hymns, different verses were performed by different combinations, perhaps one verse tutti, another with sopranos and viols playing ATB, or again, just low voices and instruments taking all parts in appropriate pitches.

Verleih uns Frieden genädiglich by Heinrich Schütz, (Give us peace in our time, oh Lord) was in five parts (SSATB), with some tricky page-turns requiring an extra general pause half way through to cope with them. Then we sang Melchior Franck’s version in Latin, Da pacem Domine, as a round, with all of us spread around the church, and the effect was lovely. We then performed a two-choir version of almost the same words in German, by Johann Staden, with choir one mostly lower voices, and choir two being the angelic higher voices.

While we thoroughly enjoyed our day, when we reflected on the words, they seemed very appropriate for the turmoil faced in many parts of our world today, and the destruction caused both by war and recent natural catastrophes, and I was struck again by how helpful and cathartic music can be in enabling us to express our deepest feelings.

- Rachel Berger




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Last modified: 04 December 2017