‘Exaudi nos’ – the masses and motets of Jacob Obrecht, 1457/8 – 1505

“I hope you’ll come to love this music by the end of the day.”  Thus spoke Peter Syrus as he introduced the music we studied at St John’s Church Glastonbury, on Saturday 16th October.

This workshop was first scheduled for April 2020.  And we all know what happened to anything meant to be happening that month.  Then Peter and I dared to hope, as we discussed it in December, that we might be able to hold it in May 2021, say the 22nd.  Other than clearing it with the committee, I did nothing more at that stage, but by March I was starting to put out feelers for a provisional location, and soon afterwards began to take bookings.  The concept of restriction-releasing ‘Steps’ (remember them?) came in. According to professional choral practice in the previous summer, it seemed likely that singing in amateur choirs would be allowed at Step 3.  And – yay! – Step 3, it emerged in due course, was scheduled to be from 17th May – our provisional date had worked out.  In due course, there were 24 bookings for the workshop, the exact maximum for the restrictions imposed by social distancing, risk assessment, and all that, in the planned venue, and voices were very well balanced. On 10th May therefore I wrote to people to confirm and to ask them to pay. 

17th May came, and some choirs which rehearsed on Mondays met once more, to great rejoicing – but it was only once. On the Tuesday, the government announced that non-professional singing indoors of more than six people was banned. Following the protests of thousands of choral singers throughout the country, it became pretty clear, reading between the lines, that when Step 4, then scheduled for 22nd June, came in, amateur group singing indoors would be allowed. As we had a back-up date of 26th June, and all participants had indicated that they could make it, things looked optimistic for then.

But then Step 4 was postponed for a month. We had no further back-up date, but shortly afterwards fixed 16th October, with fingers very crossed. 

It happened! What with some people who had booked having to drop out, since normal life was picking up again and people had concerts and holidays and other things arranged, and other singers coming in, we ended up with 20 people, but sadly not as well balanced.  7 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors and 7 basses. But we sort of, managed, with help from others when tenors or altos were split.

First a word about the beautiful church. There has been a church on the site of St John’s Church, in the High Street of Glastonbury, since the 10th century.  The present church is mainly 15th century. As Peter pointed out, its tower – the second highest on a parish church in Somerset – was built right in the middle of the time that Obrecht was composing. The church is large, bright, and airy, and was closed between 2017 and February 2020 for complete refurbishment. Not for the first time over the years –  Sir George Gilbert Scott had a go in the mid-19th century. In the 21st, among other things its pews have been removed and replaced with moveable benches and chairs, and the organ has had a great deal of work done on it. The organist is also the church’s events organiser, and he was very keen for our workshop to happen there.  A short recital he gave to the empty church in March of this year is here, where you can also see many views of the church.

Jacob Obrecht was born in Ghent, and there are records of his working in Bergen ap Zoom, Cambria, Bruges, Antwerp, Innsbruck, and Ferrara, where he died of the plague. 28 masses written by him are extant, as are 21 motets, various ritual works, and about 34 secular or textless works.   

A whole workshop on 15th century music is unusual. For those, that’s most of us, more used to later renaissance music, it took a while to get used to the very syncopated style.  We started with a four-part Parce Domino, which lay easily in the voice, which was good to warm it to, and was not too difficult to read.  And when we returned to it, along with a three-part version of the same piece later in the day, we made quite a good fist of it.

Then we tackled the Kyrie and the Agnus from the Missa Petrus Apostolis, which has the curiosity of one part always singing words which are nothing to do with the Mass. The 2-part Christe had the sopranos singing at half the speed (deliberately!) of the altos. Back in the day, there would not even have been a written part for them. Those on the upper line would just have been told to read the alto part, but more slowly, and to stop when they came to a certain mark, because the altos would be finishing the entire section at that point.

So after about an hour we had adapted to the very early style, the syncopations, the need to keep absolutely rhythmically together, and to watch, even more than usual, Peter’s beat make sure of that – not easy when at the same time you’re desperately trying to count, to calculate even, to work out where the musical beats lay.

At one point we were working on the 5-part Factor Orbis, just about managing those syncopations, when we came to a page of homophonic word-setting, and were lulled into a wonderful sense of false security.  We turned over the page, for a few bars of ‘normal’ syncopation, then Wham.  All hell broke loose – absolutely impossible to sight-read!  Peter told us that Richard Taruskin, one of the many authors cited in the excellent hand-out he had provided us with, had, in Volume 1 of the Oxford History of Western Music, described this page as ‘sonic sparklers’. To my mind, on the page anyway, these sparklers looked more like pyrotechnical rockets! I think we were all glad that Peter did not take the time to note-bash. Had he done so we would have done nothing else for the rest of the day, and even that would have brought dubious results.  It was the sort of stuff you take home to work on, with a slide rule in your hand and a wet towel round your head.  We tried to follow Peter’s advice just to make sure we were at the next bar at the right time and hopefully on the right note.  The second part of this very long motet, for which Peter had also provided a transcription and translation which filled a whole page, was – relatively – straightforward.

We tried two physical layouts, in an attempt to optimise the acoustics.  This is how we sang in the morning …

And this in the afternoon…

[click each image to view full-size]

Most of the pieces we studied were for four-part choir, though some of it did not lie in the most comfortable ranges for those voices.  No-one grumbled.  We were enjoying the experience of discovering new music and listening to Peter’s very learned exposition of the pieces, and anecdotes about Obrecht’s life.

We spent quite a long time on the only 6-part piece, Salve Regina, where sopranos and tenors were split.  Two of the three tenors had had to leave early, but baritones gamely leapt in to help out. We returned to this at the end, to, I suspect, the aural bewilderment of those church volunteers who were arriving to set the building out for its official reopening service the next day.

I was impressed by how hard everyone – not least Peter! – worked to get as much out of the day as possible.  As I said in my final thanks to Peter, while perhaps we had not – yet – come to love this music, because, frankly, we had not in so short a time quite perfected the music, I was quite sure that the day had piqued our interest in going away and listening to some of the various recordings he had mentioned to find out what those sonic sparklers sounded like, sung by the pros.  For us it had been a learning and study day, rather than a one of polished performances – and isn’t that what SWEMF is also about?

– Venetia Caine