A Workshop for Singers directed by Peter Syrus

St John’s Church, Glastonbury, 26th January 2019

One of the pleasures of SWEMF events is being introduced to little known composers like Peter Phillips. (For example, I have on computer file 3300 pieces from the French Catholic repertoire, but not one by Peter Phillips.) The second pleasure is that SWEMF events attract competent singers. We were expected, and generally managed, to sight-read our way through five- and eight-voice motets.

Peter Philips was brought up in English 16th-century church music, as a chorister at St Paul’s. After the death of his mentor and fellow Roman Catholic, Sebastian Westcote, in 1582, he left England, probably because of increasing anti-Catholicism, and went to Rome. He made his way back to Brussels, via Paris, and settled there in 1589. He was eventually ordained priest, and died in 1628.

Peter Syrus introduced us to an exciting sample of Phillips’ work. This music is a delightful mix of Byrd and his contemporaries, and the developing Italian styles in motets and madrigals. For example, in the eight-voice Ecce tu pulchra es, some restrained passages in minims suddenly break into florid semiquaver passages in rapid polyphony. To those of us used to the usual Gregorian/plainchant setting of Salve Regina (and he wrote several increasingly beautiful settings of this) we were treated to both five-part and eight-part polyphonic settings. On the darker side, the sombre Media Vita in Morte Sumus was particularly affecting.

Peter Syrus also gave us comprehensive notes on Philips’ life and works and a bibliography of sheet music and commentaries. Indeed, his direction, planning and supportive material were excellent, and a bonus for those who want to explore the repertoire further. The singers were very pleased with their day.

– Tony Berridge