‘Something Borrowed…’ Refashioning in the Golden Age of English Church Music – Workshop for voices directed by Peter Syrus

St Mary’s Church, Glastonbury, 28th January 2017

This intriguing title attracted 34 singers to the church hall of St Mary’s, Glastonbury for a fascinating exploration of that ‘golden age’. It was directed by Peter Syrus, lecturer in music at Manchester University and an acknowledged expert on renaissance church music. As ever, Peter had prepared impeccably, with each participant provided with a folder containing all the music for the day – 15 pieces in all – accompanied by a very informative set of programme notes including an extensive bibliography. How appropriate that we were about to sing these works within a stone’s throw of the famous abbey ruins on the opposite side of the road.

The works were grouped to show how different composers copied, parodied or modified earlier composers’ works. We started the day exploring Ferrabosco’s Qui fundasti terram and Byrd’s Emendemus in melius. After coffee we turned our attention to three versions of Laboravi in gemitu meo by Rogier, Morley and Weelkes respectively. Translated as ‘I am weary of my groaning, every night I wash my bed and water my couch with tears’, hopefully this was not a reflection on our standard of singing, which was becoming more confident as the morning drew on. Peter showed us how Morley subtly adapted Rogier’s earlier composition and we were able to see how Weelkes’ version, which may have been composed as part of his BMus degree submission, was in turn modelled on Morley’s work.

Next we turned our attention to Taverner and Byrd, particularly the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from Taverner’s ‘Meane’ Mass, followed by the Sanctus from Byrd’s sublime four-part Mass, where we traced how Byrd based his work on Taverner’s but revealed a greater conciseness in composition.

Following lunch, when some braved the hail showers whilst others remained in situ, we sang Gaude Maria Virgo, firstly in Peter Philip’s version, with many lively, running passages which contrasted with Thomas Morley’s pared-down, slighter version. Following this, Vox in Rama in versions by Clemens non Papa and George Kirbye brought music less familiar to many there. The earlier work, quite bleak, proved challenging for those less familiar with music of the earlier Renaissance. I had not heard of Kirbye before, and not much is known of him, but his version of this work, in six parts, was a real delight.

The final group of works formed what was a personal highlight for me, exploring no less than four versions of When David heard, the first two of which were very familiar, by Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes. Perhaps the greater familiarity, coupled with increasing confidence in self and each other, created some of the best sounds of the day. A third version, by Michael East, plagiarized the earlier works significantly and was less expressive. The final version, by Robert Ramsey, not a well-known composer, was a beautiful piece. If any readers are unfamiliar with his music it is well worth seeking out.

To round off the day, we performed a selection of the pieces that we had studied. I’m sure I speak for everyone that we had experienced a wonderfully varied and full programme, with plenty of singing, and had learnt a lot about how composers used the same basic material and then put their own compositional stamp on it. Huge thanks are due to Peter for producing such an interesting and satisfying day’s music. We should also thank Venetia for organizing the day so efficiently and also to Janet for providing us with very welcome teas, coffees, cake and biscuits to keep us going.

Peter Crispin