EASTERN EARLY MUSIC FORUM
Workshop on Tallis and Byrd Cantiones of 1575
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Tutored by Dr David Skinner
OME three dozen singers converged on Sidney Sussex College to sing works from Byrd’s and Tallis’s Cantiones of 1575. As is increasingly often the case at such events, the conductor was the youngest person present – when David Skinner introduced himself as a New Boy, having moved to Cambridge only this academic year after twenty years in Oxford, you could just about see the cogwheels go round in singers’ heads, trying to work out at what extremely tender age he must have gone up to the other place. Oxford’s loss is certainly Eastern England’s gain: David came across as the epitome of a competent, knowledgeable, unassuming and utterly unshowy conductor – we could do with more like him, just maintaining (or trying to – some resistance was offered by our dragging before the lunch break and racing away afterwards, when people with long-noted cantus firmus lines were running out of breath) a firm, clear beat, and this the one the composer had specified – which we don’t always get ...
WE used David’s own equally matter-of-fact, clear and faithful editions, which he generously even allowed us to keep: why should they just be sitting in his computer when others might make use of them? If, however, the standard at the final run-through was not exactly marvellous, there were reasons which may easily be put right next time – and we certainly all hope there will be a next time. Tallis’s Homo quidam fecit and Dum transisset Sabbatum, plus Byrd’s Emendemus in melius, Peccantem me quotidie, topped by the 285-bar marathon of Tribue, Domine, never in fewer than five parts, occasionally transposed up in order to allow altos to kid themselves they were managing tenor low B flats, which made the lives of anybody with perfect pitch that much harder – that was just a bit too much for an event that had to end by 4.30. I for one encountered pages in that final session which I had not the faintest recollection of having sung before (though of course I had, once or twice, several hours ago).
ALSO, though David regularly commented on articulation, us peasants in the fens haven’t all got a lot of Latin, and part of the charm of the days repertoire was the fact that we were singing settings of texts many of us had never encountered or sung, leave alone in Latin, before: at least a brief translation, oral or on handouts, would have been immensely helpful and would have added to our understanding.
BUT that comes under constructive criticism: I think everybody thoroughly enjoyed the day: repertoire, direction, environment. We were most fortunate in having picked the one pleasant day, allowing those who ventured out into town for lunch to do so in the sunshine, and those who munched their own sandwiches to enjoy the aconites and snowdrops under the ancient trees in the park – not to mention Selene’s organization which, as always, was so good you could have forgotten its existence: thanks to all involved, and many more to come, I hope.
Y enthusiasm for the music of Byrd and Tallis prompted me to apply for the singing day in February at Sidney Sussex College. I was also interested to hear what David Skinner, an authority on Byrd, had to say about the music and wondered what his approach would be in conducting this music. So with much to look forward to I drove from Milton Keynes to Cambridge on a clear, crisp February Sunday morning. I arrived early with sufficient time to enjoy morning coffee at a café before making my way to Sidney Sussex College.
THE morning session was held in a large room in the college, which was a reasonable place to sing in. There we studied pieces by William Byrd from Cantiones 1575. David provided background information about Byrd and the publication which helped to set the context of the music we would be singing. David was an encouraging and informative conductor; he provided clear explanations about how to phrase individual sections, taking time to explain his approach, and was very encouraging as we attempted to sing it. Of the pieces we sang in the morning, the ones which stood out for me were Peccantum me quotidie and Emendemus in melius. The first was a longish piece which I did not know; and the second piece was one I knew well. In both pieces there were some wonderful phrases, which under his direction, we were able to do justice to.
IN the afternoon we assembled in the Sidney Sussex College Chapel where we studied pieces by Tallis. David began the session with background information about Tallis and pieces we were going to study. The afternoon session passed very quickly and I regretted that there had not been more time to explore music by Tallis. Focusing on the music of Byrd and Tallis resulted in an interesting and informative singing day, and I was glad that I had made the effort to attend.
Reprinted from Eastern Early Music Forum newsletter 65, June 2007