The “Protest!” concert which we were due to give last weekend turns out to have been amazingly prescient in these days of “Black lives matter”. Its concept was to explore how protest has been used by musicians and composers over the years, beginning with the Reformation.
The plan originated with the love of pre-Reformation English music by Greg, one of our choir members, who suggested a concert featuring this rather neglected area of Renaissance music.
Byrd’s masses were written for secret/private performance by Catholics during the period when the state outlawed such heresy, so their inclusion in the programme was a no-brainer, as was the choir’s beloved Ne Irascaris, which he wrote to express his despair at not being able to worship in the way he craved.
If ye love me and Mundy’s O Lord the maker of all thing were included as Tudor motets: these being written to the “one syllable – one note” diktat of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
John Dowland’s Flow my tears is one of the composer’s finest Ayres, redolent with emotion. It is Dowland’s best-known work, appearing in many guises ranging from a solo song with lute accompaniment to this SSATB version. Dowland often signed himself “Dowlandi di Lachrimae” (Lachrimae = tears) thus referencing his most famous work (reminds me of the “Davis-the-bread” designation of Welsh villages in earlier times). He had converted to Catholicism which, in his later life, became a barrier to employment when England see-sawed its way to Protestantism. Is the work another protest song or is it more simply an ode to wasted love? Who can tell?
Amongst Greg’s many recommendations for repertoire was the delightful 5-part Lamentations by White, which is a favourite of the Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen. We included the Sanctus from Sheppard’s Missa Cantate.
I felt that a programme of music solely from 15-17th c. England might be a bit esoteric, so I added protest music from America, i.e. Spirituals from the southern US/Caribbean into the mix. I’d considered Tippett’s Child of our Time and some spirituals arranged by Bob Chilcott but John Rutter’s suite Feel the Spirit, where his populist style, his attractive mix of great melodies, foot-tapping rhythms, scrunchy harmonies and plenty of meat for the choir to get into was clearly perfect for my needs. It’s scored for choir, alto solo and orchestra or piano.
Choir member Melissa agreed to take the solo role and our dear friend Karen Kingsley was booked to provide piano accompaniment. As an addition, I managed to get hold of Rutter’s clarinet part, which Karen’s other half, Rob Blanken, agreed to play. This would’ve brought the feeling of a Dixieland band to the whole performance.
Back in January I was thinking about an image for the poster and decided to use the powerful clenched fist (!). Choir member David produced some amazing posters – he excelled with this design.
As I say, all this is so incredibly prescient with “Black lives matter” in the news so much. It occurred to me last week that I might even have taken a knee before the performance. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that we don’t simply perform as a passive activity where beautiful singing is our aim. Our art is incredibly powerful as an agent of social change and protest.