The Song Company: Treble Helix Unlocked

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Published: 17th February, 2019

Subtitled ‘The Eton Choirbook at the crossroads of the Renaissance’, The Song Company’s Treble Helix Unlocked promised an interesting evening for lovers of the glorious vocal polyphony of the early sixteenth century. The appeal was even greater knowing that the singers would group around the centrepiece – a facsimile of the Eton Choirbook – and perform from the original notation.

Before the concert in the intimate space of the Primrose Potter Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the audience was invited to inspect the music on the centrally positioned music stand, and see that indeed the parts were not written as a full score in standard music notation with barlines, but rather with the individual parts on different sections of the large double-page spread, in diamond shaped black notation with black and sometimes red text. Choral singers will understand the different approach required of the singers when seeing one’s own line only, unable to see any alignment between the parts, either in pitch, or beat and rhythm.

Antony Pitts, the artistic director, introduced the program, explaining the significance of the Eton Choirbook as one of the greatest surviving musical treasures of pre-Reformation England. Eton College was founded in the early 1440s by Henry VI, and in that “haven of education, devotion, and charity” seven masses a day were said or sung in the College Chapel, which had provision for 16 choristers and 4 clerks, who were to have good voices and be skilled in reading, song and polyphony. Among the 25 composers whose work is found in the Eton Choirbook, several had strong links with the College, including Robert Wylkynson, who became master of the choristers in 1500.

Beginning with a short plainchant by Walter Lambe, hummed at first as the ensemble entered the Salon, the program launched into polyphony with the Magnificat of William, Monk of Stratford. A section of Richard Davy’s St Matthew Passion, and a superb Stabat mater dolorosa by John Browne followed, with Robert Wylkynson himself represented by a substantial canon Jesum autem transiens/Credo in Deum.

While the proximity of the voices in the performance space of the Salon allows for opportunity to hear the musical qualities of individual voice parts, it also permits more examination of balance and tuning than in the acoustic of a capacious cathedral. The many chords with prominent intervals of a third that feature in English polyphony of this period require particular attention to tuning, and it took the ensemble a little time to establish these securely. With the approach to authenticity in performance, the singers not only performed from their individual musical lines in old notation, but also decided as they sang whether or not to sharpen or flatten notes approaching cadences, exercising the practices of musica ficta. These sharps and flats were not indicated by the composer in the written score, but rather interpreted by the singers in accordance with standard practice of the period.

The ten singers of The Song Company indicated with hand signals if they were sharpening or flattening a note in their own part, so that others could adjust accordingly. This didn’t always happen, and we had several instances of ‘false relations’, when we heard the spicy sound of two notes a semitone apart sounding together. Just how much Renaissance ensembles prepared such ficta in advance, or allowed them to occur more organically or experimentally, is not known. In this concert, the effect was interesting and instructive, though not always completely musically satisfying.

In this acoustic, the sounds of individual voices were more apparent than in a resonant space where the sound is already blended before it reaches the audience. The beautiful strong and true soprano sound sometimes overwhelmed the inner voices, whose projection at a lower pitch felt more restrained, although the entire ensemble was kept firmly underpinned by an effective and solid bass.

Davy’s St Matthew Passion, apparently the first musical setting of the text by a named composer, was fluently narrated by tenor Dan Walker, who occasionally slipped almost into speech. The choral sections were rhythmically precise but without the dramatic colour that could potentially have been realised in this section of the text – the Trial before Pilate, and the Crucifixion. Whether this was intentional, or a result of the tension and added difficulties of singing from the facsimile, dynamic and tonal colour variation was not a feature of this work, or indeed of the evening’s performance. An exception was the heart-rending phrase Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), set by Davy at the high extreme of the bass vocal range, and sung superbly.

Singing polyphony for a solid hour or more requires incredible vocal stamina, and a great amount of concentration. It is relentless – there are very few gaps! The Song Company had more demands than this placed upon them too as they performed from the original score in a revealing acoustic.

When we reached the final Wylkynson Canon, the vocal tone relaxed, and the tension was gone. The singers at last looked as though they were enjoying themselves, and their singing.

This concert was a very worthy exercise in presenting Renaissance polyphony in a brave authentic manner and the audience responded enthusiastically, but it felt more a didactic experience than one of the enjoyment of fine music – a performance to be admired rather than loved.

This concert was only the third performance in the Song Company’s ten-concert national tour of Treble Helix Unlocked.

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Margaret Arnold attended The Song Company’s performance of “Treble Helix Unlocked” in the Primrose Potter Salon of the Melbourne Recital on February 13, 2019.