SWEMF Workshop with Emma Hornby
13th April 2024 – St Monica’s Chapel, Cote Lane, Bristol.

This was a most enriching and enlightening day for singers keen to practice plainchant and early polyphony of the Gothic Era. The workshop was located at a magnificent Chapel within a complex set of Victorian Gothic style buildings created, and still used, as a Retirement Village.

Our academic and expert leader, Emma Hornby, introduced herself and a small number of her University of Bristol ’Schola Cantorum’. These were Music Students with a specific interest in Early Music. As an introduction we were given a brief introduction to the Gothic Era and taken by Emma to the early years of Notre Dame to sight read early polyphony associated with the likes of Léonin and Pérotin. It was immediately clear that that this was going to be a very successful day as our reading, and quality of sound, demonstrated that we all had a common interest, experience and aptitude for Early Music.

The purpose of the day was to provide our own afternoon Vespers Service, open to all that wished to attend. This consisted of chanted psalms, canticles and readings as done within the 12th & 13th Century. Our Vespers also included a couple of two-part early Polyphonic Hymns. Singing directly from neumes (the early square notation in modes) used in medieval times released us from the models and rules of modern sheet music. Musical modes had their own distinct set of characteristics and gave Emma the option to start on any base note. This was a day in which we focused upon pitch, rhythm, and expression in Plainchant. It was also a day in which we could imagine lengthy services, including those at night times, in our pre-reformation monasteries.

We are all most grateful to Jenny Tribe for organising the day, and of course to Emma Hornby for proving the expertise in leading us through the complex early Chants that she had previously selected, prepared and printed. We should also note that a 90-year-old resident at the Retirement Village, a previously experienced Singer, participated in the Workshop.

Medieval Plainchant & Early Polyphony is seldom practiced in our Churches today. This was an opportunity to be taken with both hands. Thank you.

Tom Williams