Friday, 16 July 2010

Miniature musical masterpieces

As I may have mentioned before, I am very partial to Tudor and Elizabethan church music, and want to get all excited about an aspect of this music that rarely makes it as far as recordings (I conscious I may be falling into the trap I mentioned yesterday of being blinded by enthusiasm, but hey).

The reason this particular music is rarely heard outside of churches is that the pieces in question are so short. They consist of a series of little prompts from a priest or cantor that are responded to by single lines of music from the choir - specifically I'm referring to what's known as the preces and responses. Yet despite their brevity, some of these little musical fragments can be exquisite miniature masterpieces.

The examples I've got are a couple of samples from the early 17th century. They are from a piece that will be known to anyone who has sung this kind of music with a choir, but the composer is otherwise meaningless as he seems to have been a one hit wonder, who despite being technically Stuart is very much Elizabethan in musical style. His name was William Smith of Durham.

When Tudorbethan music started to come back into favour in the twentieth century after many years in the wilderness, it was thought this was the late 16th century Durham Cathedral organist William Smith, but it now seems more likely to have been a minor canon at the cathedral of the same name whose dates were roughly 1603-1645.

The recording I have is amateur quality, and of an amateur performance. To be precise it's my little village choir augmenting the larger Newbury choir. But it gives something of a feel for this music. I'd like you to listen to one of the responses (preceded by the 'versicle' sung, I'm afraid, by me) and also the final amen. This is just an amen after a prayer, nothing special... and yet Smith makes it sublime.

I appreciate it's not to everyone's taste - but for me it's gorgeous.

Image from Wikipedia

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