Directed by Tomós Watkins

The Village Hall, Culmstock; 6th July 2019
An exploration of Vespers repertoire in the Southern European tradition
for Voices and Portative Organ

It was warm in the Culm valley on 6th July, when we gathered, just enough of us to make two choirs, to sing Vespers music with Tomós Watkins. Few of us knew Tomós, though he does conduct a wonderful Bath chamber choir called The Handful (formerly A Handful of Singers). He directed us with a quiet calm, just enough information and direction, gently approachable at all times, but quite clear in what he heard and wished to achieve.

‘Vespers has a very simple structure, and flows from one thing to the next without interruption’, we were told in the notes prepared by Tomós. An opening sentence is intoned by the Cantor, Deus in adjutorium, to which the response is Domine ad adjuvandum me. Then there is the Psalmody, which goes back to the earliest Christian chant: five psalms, each bracketed by an antiphon. These change with different feasts and seasons, but the Ordinary always follows psalms 109–113. Then follows the Little Chapter (a short reading from the Bible), the Hymn, the Magnificat, the Collect and the Blessing. Observed at the end of the day, Vespers is a beautiful, quiet meditation.

After a refreshing physical warm-up, we began by practising some plainsong psalmody, learning to read the articulation, emphases and pauses by observing the bold syllables and the white notes. ‘The challenge and interest come in achieving flexibility and good ensemble in recitation, coping with the difficulties of different word stresses and unfamiliar endings.’ We were also taught how to pause between the two halves of a given verse, the trick being to leave about the length of time it would take to say, ‘Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary’.

First, we sang Victoria’s beautiful Lucis Creator Optime (in Dominicis per annum) of 1581/1600, which would have been sung as the Hymn in Ordinary Time. Victoria’s secure structure and clear lines grounded us for what was to come. During the day we worked on two pieces by the Mexican composer Juan Guttiérez de Padilla (c. 1590–1664), Deus in adjutorium and Ave Regina Caelorum. This was probably the music that was unfamiliar to all of us. Padilla uses a lot of repetition, and Tomós suggested that this was in order to bring home to the native Mexicans the message of the Catholic faith. But the composer also introduced dynamic rhythmic changes, so that in with the repetition there is rhythmical alteration, with syncopation and vital dance elements that must have enabled the foreign words and, therefore, their ideas, to be learned through the body. It was exciting music to sing and we all enjoyed its challenge.

Also included in our programme were Monteverdi’s Magnificat secondo from the 1640/41 Vespers and Scarlatti’s Laudate Pueri, Psalm 112 from the Psalmody. The latter was for two choirs, as was Padilla’s Ave Regina Caelorum. This was a stretch, but valour prevailed: thanks to the female input, the tenors were an appreciable force. We were a few altos short, but there were some among us with an impressive range and flexible approach, and a balance was achieved. Tomós had brought with him an electronic keyboard, which served as a portative organ, consummately played by Clare Griffel, an invaluable support. At the end of the day, we managed a creditable sing through an abbreviated Vespers. The Scarlatti resolved beautifully, and I’m sure I am not alone in looking forward to singing Padilla again in a future workshop.

– Lindsey Shaw-Miller

Culmstock proved itself a great spot for a SWEMF workshop: not only is it just minutes from the M5 but the river Culm provided an idyllic spot to chew over sandwiches and the morning’s musical feast.

– Photo and Caption: Jill Johns