On 9 July 2022 we will be presenting a concert entitled “Protest” in Southsea.

The “Protest!” concert which we were due to give in 2020 turns out to have been amazingly prescient in these days of “Black lives matter”. Its concept was to explore how protest against political or religious oppression has been used by musicians and composers over the years, beginning with the Reformation.

William Byrd’s masses were written for secret/private performance by Catholics around 1590 – a period when the state outlawed such heresy. At the time, professing to be a Roman Catholic was likely to result in being burnt at the stake. We also include the choir’s beloved Ne Irascaris, which Byrd wrote to express his despair at not being able to worship in the way he craved.

In contrast, we’re also singing works by English composers (Philips and Dering) who left the UK in order to continue writing music for use in the Roman Catholic tradition.

John Dowland’s Flow my tears is one of the composer’s finest Ayres, full of deep, painful sadness. It is his best-known work, appearing in many guises ranging from a solo song with lute accompaniment to our choral version. Dowland often signed himself “Dowlandi di Lachrimae” (Lachrimae = tears) thus referencing his most famous work (this reminds me of the “Davis-the-bread” stereotype used in some Welsh villages in earlier times). Dowland 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?

Hear it on YouTube.

We include the rarely-performed, delightful Lamentations by White, which is a favourite of the Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen. Another rare treat is part of Sheppard’s Missa Cantate.

Hear it on YouTube.

I felt that a programme of music solely from 16-17th century England might be a bit esoteric, so I added protest music from America, in other words 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 is ideal. It’s a cycle of seven familiar strong and stirring spirituals with a jazz flavour.

The Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that the life of slaves was simply appalling. Deprived of freedom and suffering the most dreadful treatment, it’s a testament to the human spirit that these imprisoned people turned to song. Spirituals are fundamentally prayers which use syncopated rhythms rooted in the music of Western Africa, so whilst they’re catchy and entertaining, we should never lose sight of the human tragedy from which they originated.

Watch an excerpt on Facebook.

Choir member Melissa Wingfield is singing the mezzo-soprano solo role. The choir will be accompanied by the Monington Duo, comprising Karen Kingsley (piano) and Robert Blanken (clarinet).

As musicians, we should remember that our art is incredibly powerful as an agent of social change and protest.

Peter Gambie, Musical Director