UChoir and the "colorful stuff"

by Gabrielle Lochard

In his program notes for UChoir’s recital on Sunday Oct. 23, choirmaster Edward Jones described the century between 1560-1660 as "the true golden age for English church music." In his notes, Jones also wrote that in addition to presenting choral music a particularly prolific time in English musical history, the program explored "the connections between a small community of composers, linked thorough a variety of personal connections and stylistic influences."

Sunday’s program combined some "greatest hits" (for example, William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, Thomas Tallis’s If Ye Love Me) with lesser known choral works and even more seldom heard music for solo organ from the period, performed by Jones and organist Christian Lane.

While programmatically the concert was highly focused, it included a range of offerings, which served to illustrate how variety could manifest itself within a distinct regional style. On a more abstract level, because the program was tied together by a common stylistic strain, it worked as an illustration of the personal and compositional relationships between the composers featured in the concert.

"The church music of this time is very colorful stuff," Jones explained. "It has those wonderful chromaticisms and false relationships that sound like wrong notes, but are really just crunching [dissonances]. The organ music has that as well, and I think that along with the great flowering of English church music at that time, there is also the first great flowering of English keyboard music. And it was sad, really, because directly afterwards was the Commonwealth, and all the musical institutions in Britain were shut down, and there was the dismantling of the organs, and [English music] had to be really rebuilt from a very low level, which it did very quickly, but it’s a fascinating period in terms of music history, and also in terms of British history."

For me, and I suspect for others in the audience, Sunday’s concert was an introduction to a much wider picture of music of the English Renaissance than I had really encountered elsewhere. My experience, as a former choral singer and sometimes watcher of The Tudors, has been that with Renaissance music more generally (so in Europe as a whole), there is a tendency to summarize English music of the time into Tallis and Byrd. Jones’s program certainly included pieces from the Tallis/Byrd narrative, but also works that, at least in my listening, filled it out for a richer snapshot of the this swath of the choral and keyboard repertoire.

Some of the pieces were likely new for the choir, too. UChoir is unique among ensembles on campus, balancing demands of a liturgical calendar with a full concert schedule, which includes annual carols service later this year and the dedication of the church's new organ (CB Fisk op. 139) in the spring. Nevertheless, the group delivered the concert with a great mix of clarity and rhythmic vitality.

For Jones, doing a Renaissance program also had pedagogical implications: "I think that pedagogically it’s good for choirs to do sing this sort of music, because it teaches you the good things about choral singing; it teaches you that you have to really firm control for you own parts, and also have to know what’s going on around you and feeling like you’re part of a greater whole but doing what you’re doing individually. Most of our music was in eight parts, which is a good tool for tuning, and in general I think all the essences of choral singing can be done with this music. It goes back to the fact that I think they must have been incredibly good choirs at this time. To sing this music fluently as 9-year-old boys, which many of them were, is pretty amazing."

[Caption: Photo courtesy Harvard UChoir. ]