SWEMF Workshop with Davit Hatcher
25th May 2024 – Thorverton, Devon.

As I approached the church, late for the workshop, birdsong gave way to a rich mix of voices and instruments. I paused at the door marvelling at the time travel of sound through stone. The monks turned into many familiar faces as I entered to hear the first part of Claude Le Jeune’s motet in all its glory.

At this workshop we had all been assigned our parts which would change during the day. I was directed to my seat in the choir where a post-It note told me I was singing ‘taille’ (tenor). ‘You’re on your own and can you do it an octave lower,’ I was instructed. Kindly, after the first sing-through and to my great relief, David asked ‘Do you want company’ and shuffled a soprano in my direction.

Throughout the day David concentrated on the quality and balance of the sound, urging us to listen to each other and swapping parts around when he felt it necessary. Bringing this renaissance polyphony alive with our ensemble in that acoustic was a dynamic and precious act. David was not afraid to single people out for notes – ‘you’re blowing too loudly”, ‘let the Shawm push through here’, ‘be positive with your entry’, all in the service of the music, delivered with good humour. A demanding but exhilarating experience.

Next was the aristocratic Gesualdo’s 5 part ‘Tribularer si nescirem’ (‘I would be troubled were I ignorant of your compassion Lord’ – rather an understatement by Savonarola on the eve of death in 1498). Both the Count and the monk were lurid Renaissance characters as Gesualdo (1566-1613) murdered his wife along with indulging a fascination for chromaticism and witchcraft.

After lunch we tackled Palestrina’s 6 part version of the same text, published in 1577. In order to negotiate the breves, ties, and polyphony with no obvious cadential anchor points we had to count very accurately and follow David’s steady two beats. Some of us were more like sheep who went astray rather than heavenly voices. Tentative entries were discouraged but David was a good shepherd and caught my eye for a quick correction as I started a cantus firmus a bar early.

This was in Cipriano da Rore’s ‘Infelix Ego’- ‘Unlucky Me’, published in 1595. Whereas Palestrina’s style was pure and mellow Cipriano experimented with chromaticism and dissonance. I was playing alto recorder an octave up in order to get the soprano notes. Swapping instruments and voices as instructed added to the time travel of the day as Renaissance church musicians would field a variety of skills and be comfortable in many clefs. Luckily for us David’s own arrangements had put them into familiar C and F clefs although he spiced that up with demanding octave transpositions if required for sonority.

The pain and passion of Savonarola permeated the day. Focussing on the tone painting of these heartfelt words David acted out the punchy ‘pugnare’ to encourage us to go into battle, sighed the repeated ‘miserere’ and took a gory delight in describing how the torturers spared Savonarola’s right hand so he could write his confession. This ‘mercy’ enabled him to pen these texts adding to the fiery debates about man’s relationship with God that dominated the next century and which we were now singing.

Many thanks to David’s warm and rigorous leadership and to Marilyn for arranging such a stimulating workshop.

Sarah Harding