This was difficult music, and the 42 singers who attended St Thomas of Canterbury at Thorverton, under Tim Mirfin's enlightening direction and Becky Stannard's excellent organization, had to concentrate.
The first thing one notices about Tim, before one is drawn in by his magnetic enthusiasm, is his voice. A rich, deep bass, it allowed no-one to miss anything that he said, and provoked a small personal celebration whenever he sang an example. Effortless projection, profound timbre, and unfailingly authentic enunciation, singing or speaking, it was a privilege to work so closely with that deep Italian reverberation.
Not everyone was happy, however, in the first hour, when the emphasis was on exercises for the voice, the context for the madrigals and on singing short phrases with application. Accustomed as we are to 'singing through' and then going back over weak areas, some attenders just wanted to get on. A tutor of this voice quality, though, with a deep physical knowledge of the music, is surely an opportunity to learn. Monteverdi's intense word-painting needs a good warm-up and supple breath. As the day progressed, tutor and singers adjusted happily to one another.
Monteverdi's critic, Cardinal Artusi, engaged him in a vigorous correspondence that accused his music of ugliness and want of truth. In 1600 this controversy was claimed by Artusi in a treatise entitled Of the Imperfections of Modern Music. Tim encouraged us to hear Monteverdi as a modern composer, and to demonstrate through our singing the detailed word-painting of the madrigals which, combined with dissonance, expresses emotion with dangerous extroversion. This has its funny side, as the 'stories' of some of the madrigals read like adolescent love affairs, the all-or-nothing of youthful passion; the (ultimately tragic) world of Romeo and Juliet.
We worked on three:
The word-painting of crying and sighing in the first was interwoven between the parts in a way that both suspended and extended the image. A willingness to flex pronunciation was needed, to include a whining tone, a nasal sliding, in addition to the difficulty of the music itself.
In Ma tu più che mai, the singer is dying for love, and when her love is not returned she scratches the name of her lover, angrily, into the hard bark of the trees. What was required here was an understanding of the slim border between words and music (Tim's great strength), and a willingness for the voice to take on Italian anger. At times, the parts interwove so closely it took great concentration to bring in your line and hold it, one beat away from the same line in another part.
Lamento d'Arianna is a familiar subject, and indeed, by the time Monteverdi wrote it, Artusi was reconciled to his music as genuine and worthwhile. Much of their misunderstanding had revolved around notions of truth, and Monteverdi was not a theorist, neither a philosopher. He did the best thing he could, which was to carry on composing, and in the end his critic got the point (or, as we might say, his ear adjusted). At the end of Saturday 28th April so did we, and for a small, appreciative audience, we managed a pretty good sing-through of Lamento d'Arianna and Ma tu più che mai. It was a day when everyone learnt something.
- Lindsey Shaw-Miller