Music and Mysteries of the English Renaissance


John_Wiens_colBy John Wiens

Musicians hold a special place in history because they are often revealing about life and thought in a fairly audible way. England’s rulers were consistently kind to their musicians. Taverner, Tallis, and Byrd all had their run-ins with the law, but none were found guilty. Back when not being the right religion led to severe penalties and even death, Taverner was tried for Lutheran leanings, Byrd was accused of not attending his local church enough (that was a crime back then) and Tallis was openly Catholic. And it’s a good thing the monarchs spared them – we have an extraordinary wealth of music as a result.

England was well ahead of its musical time from 1350 to 1470. Music by composers whose names we don’t recognize now wrote stunningly beautiful melodies that made continental musicians take note. Visitors remarked on the “sweet sound” they heard, of overwhelming textures and music on a massive scale that they had never heard before. Although music for more than 7 voices was very rare in England (there were really only a handful of compositions for more before 1500), their music was considered the most impressive.

What is so strange about 1470 to 1540 is that English music seemingly made so little headway, and that we know so little about it. There are just a few treatises that survive, and not enough for us to speak in a definitive manner on why they seemingly slowed. There was hardly a bold new direction to be found during that time; instead there was a steady refinement of existing style. Amongst the treasures that remain from that time (Henry the 8th had agents who burned the bulk of the scores and treatises), we view a vibrant style meant to overwhelm. The English had a wide view of the cadential model, used intensive rhetorical symbolism, and proportions of surprising scope. The consistency of English composers embracing these elements makes one suspect they were living up to some sort of challenge. There are tantalizing hints about the nature of that challenge, but nothing we can say with certainty. We can only speculate.

John Taverner, 1490-1545

John Taverner, 1490-1545

From that era, John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas stands out as one of the most popular choral works in history. It was published quite often in its day and a fairly recent Canadian survey pointed to it as one of the 10 most popular choral works among Canadians. That’s quite a feat for music written nearly 500 years ago, and speaks to our uncommonly good taste in music.

Symbolism was a central part of the composing challenge for Taverner’s generation. It was common for numbers to be applied as symbols and to musical proportions. The perfect time signature was, for instance, triple time. In Taverner’s mass the number 3 is everywhere – from the number of voices in each section to the proportions of the time signatures, the cantus firmus, and the symbolic gestures within the music. Exactly why these proportions were used so pointedly is the question we have no satisfying answer to and therein lies part of the mystery. The other is this: how can a piece that we know so little about practically be so satisfying to listen to?

In 1534 Henry the 8th changed everything with The Act of Supremacy. The Act dissolved the Catholic infrastructure in England. That infrastructure had developed a great many of England’s composers and singers. Some, like Taverner, left music behind entirely. Despite this, the influence of John Taverner can’t be overstated. Both Byrd and Tallis used his compositions as models. And a new genre of composition – the In Nomine – was born of this mass. This four-part section was viewed as so perfect by other composers that they began writing their own In Nomine, a practice that lasted so long that even Purcell tried a time or two more than a century later.

Thomas Tallis, c.1505-1585

The Act was actually killing two birds with one stone – Henry rid himself of Catholic rules, and he increased the annual crown budget of roughly 15% from resulting rents and sundry on the lands he confiscated. He employed some worthy additional musicians at court as a result, like Thomas Tallis. The Chapel Royal the best post available to Tallis and gave him access to many of England’s best singers. We could even speculate he knew he was getting the post – when his monastery was dissolved he purchased a treatise by Leonel Power (a manuscript a century old at the time) which would have cost a small fortune. It is not believable to think he would make such a purchase if he didn’t feel good about his chances. This purchase is also an important signal. Tallis intended to look back to find his new path, rather than forward. And he did just that with his compositions for Mary Tudor like Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater.

Despite Henry’s Act, England was still essentially Catholic in 1534, and 20 years changed little amongst an affluent and determined Catholic community. In the Mary Tudor years, Catholic themes were renewed, especially the Votive anthem, which has a song in praise of Mary the Virgin Mother. The freedom to write in an old style for Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater must have come as a real opportunity to Tallis – who did some of his best and most inventive composing, leaving behind the simpler style he employed for Henry.

The intention to praise Mary Tudor simultaneously can hardly be more obvious. Many Catholics thought her their saviour from persecution. The music takes on a joyfully beguiling tone, at some points nearly flirtatious. Tallis, by removing the cantus firmus, created a heavier, denser texture he uses to highlight crowns, ascending to the throne, the Tudor Rose, angels, the rod of justice, and other symbols associated to both Mary’s. There are also a few moments when he references Taverner.

William Byrd, c.1543-1623

William Byrd, c.1543-1623

We know far more about William Byrd than the other two combined. Byrd was a recognized genius very early – but he was much more than a musician. He was also a businessman who read law voraciously. He died a very wealthy man, having paid careful attention to many aspects of his business and acting as his own lawyer in many disputes with neighbours and ne’er-do-well family members.

Byrd had skill and ambitions. Byrd studied with Ferrebosco, an Italian composer and spy, and inspected the works of Lassus, Cipriano da Rore, and Clemens non Papa. He knew the current continental trends. When he published his first volume of music with Tallis in 1575, you can hear him sorting out those new problems within the English framework. If that volume had been more popular on the continent, it may be that he would have left England like many of his compatriot composers, but it sold only a few copies and Byrd stayed put.

The Mass for Five Voices was published using little identification on it, and nothing to point to William Byrd except the music itself. Printing a Latin mass 60 years after the Act, even for England’s greatest living composer, was still a risk. It was printed for private use in Catholic homes, in three volumes for three different arrangements of voices. Each was small and easily concealable. The mass for five voices was the last of the set to be written, after he had sorted out certain technical issues that he wasn’t certain about when composing his four- and three-voice masses. You will hear Taverner’s influence in the In Nomine section, and while the sections might be much shorter, they still adhere to the conventions of the time preceding Taverner.

When we consider William Byrd, there is a parallel with Bach – he let others update their compositional styles while he did not. How he wrote his music in the 1590s was very similar to how he wrote in 1610 – he had found his solutions and he was going to use them regardless of the style of the day.

And when he left court to live in Stondon Massey in 1594, one asks why. He still had access to fine musicians there through his networks, but fewer of them. He was clearly capable of writing glorious music for six or more voices. Someday I anticipate certain suspicions will be confirmed, but until then it remains a mystery…


John Wiens is guest conductor for Camerata Nova’s British Mysteries concert. He is also Director of Music at St. Matthias Anglican Church, in Montréal, and an early music specialist.

Nortendluvsongs: a wonderful and diverse choral sampling of North End cultures


Mel Braun, conductor and curator of nortendluvsongs.

Mel Braun, conductor and curator of nortendluvsongs.

By Mel Braun

Our next concert, nortendluvsongs*, celebrates Winnipeg’s North End as a gateway for immigrants, a place where so many immigrant cultures have flourished, a place which has very much shaped the soul of our city.

We open both halves of the program with First Nations voices, Katherena Vermette/Andrew Balfour (Selkirk Avenue – a premiere by Andrew based on a poem by Katherena from her Governor General’s award-winning book of poetry called North End Love Songs) in the first half, and Vince Fontaine (Eagle and Hawk, Indian City) in the second half. Katherena is Métis/Mennonite in heritage and carries the voice of her people, the loss, the sadness and the hope. Vince has done it all as a musician, but also has many stories about life as a taxi driver and hockey player. His is a voice that celebrates the First Nations. One of his pieces, Sundancer, is an arrangement for Camerata Nova, Vince and two singers.

The “Immigrant Suite” that follows Andrew’s Selkirk Avenue combines Ukrainian, Philippine and Russian folksongs with selections from Danny Schur’s musical Strike! Because the Ukrainian Labour Temple (where we are presenting this concert) was such an integral part of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and because the immigrant experience was completely tied up with the strike movement (as comes through in Danny Schur’s libretto), it made sense to include these pieces.

The Ukrainian Labour Temple, on Pritchard, was a rallying centre for the trade union movement during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

The Ukrainian Labour Temple, on Pritchard, was a rallying centre for the trade union movement during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

The Ukrainian folksongs, courtesy of the Koshetz library, are by Olexander Koshetz himself, and are long-time favourites of the Koshetz community. One is about moonlight, the other about dancing. The Philippine folksong arrangement (in Tagalog) comes to us from Philip Lapatha, a young Filipino who teaches high school choral music in the Maples area and is starting to make a name for himself as an arranger. It is a lullaby sung by an adult son to his mother, or figuratively, to his motherland. The Russian folksong Kalinka is at the top of the list when it comes to favourite Russian folksongs and is featured at many a hockey game as well as sounding a lot like the Tetris theme according to the gamers in the Camerata Nova family. My arrangement explores the sounds of the Russian Steppes while celebrating the wooing of a young maiden. Kalinka means “snowberry”, a reference to the beloved? The idea of the “Immigrant Suite” is to juxtapose a few of the many North End cultural or folk-music genres with the story of the 1919 strike to show, in a small way at least, some of the identities that shaped the North End and our city.

The organization Sistema Winnipeg makes its own very significant contribution to the North End, providing opportunities for inner-city children to experience the power of music and art to shape lives. They will end the first half our program with a few or their own pieces and two short collaborations with Camerata Nova (our Red River Valley arrangement by Andrew Balfour and an arrangement of Siyahamba by Marcelline Moody).

A choral account of a curling exploit by Canadian Jennifer Jones in 2005.

A choral account of Canadian Jennifer Jones’ curling exploit at the 2005 Scott Tournament of Hearts.

After Vince’s second half opening, the Curler’s Lexicon (or the Curling Cantata in 10 Ends) explores one of the big Scottish contributions to athletics: curling. The other is golf. Both of these are beloved by Winnipeggers, and curling in particular has brought Winnipeg to world prominence. I’ve always been fascinated by curling, both the game itself and the many new words and expressions it seems to have spawned. I went around collecting all the curling terms I could find and came up with a cantata in 10 ends that shows various parts of the game. The opening and closing melodies sound vaguely like a commercial that was featured during the TSN curling broadcasts of the early 2000s. Like many cantatas, this piece features a narration that tells the story of curling and ties the whole piece together. To honour the Scottish roots of the game, the narration (two women singing in fourths) takes place over a bagpipe drone in the men’s voices. Other movements of the cantata include a list of shots, a description of the “house”, a ribald conversation overheard at a mixed bonspiel, and to close, an exact choral replay of the famous curling shot by Jennifer Jones at the 2005 Scott Tournament of Hearts, the one that propelled her to prominence and eventual world domination. The audience gets to make the sound of her final rock coming down the ice.

We close the program with a few klezmer numbers by The Mayors of Sambor (Danny Koulack, Victor Schulz, Myron Schulz), followed by two arrangements that I put together for Camerata Nova and klezmer band. If Ukrainian, Philippine and Russian folk songs are the soul music of the North End, klezmer adds rhythm and dance to the soul. The first song, Shterndl, is a touching letter home from a political prisoner to his family. The second is a famous Yiddish Song, Undser Nigndl, which celebrates families singing together. I’ve combined this song with another Yiddish song, Bulbes, which is all about eating potatoes every day of the week because that’s all there is to eat. Yikes! These two songs should bring the program to a rousing finish.

nortendluvsongs is but a small sampling of the wonders brought to the North End by all the many ethnic groups that have informed it, but what a diverse and wonderful sampling it is. Now all we need is all the food and drink that goes with it (we’re serving red velvet cupcakes at intermission)!

*Camerata Nova presents nortendluvsongs on Saturday, March 12, 2016 at 8:00 pm and on Sunday, March 13, 2016 at 3:00 at the Ukrainian Labour Temple (591 Pritchard Avenue). There will also be a pre-concert by the Winnipeg Mandolin Orchestra at 7:15 pm on Saturday and at 2:15 pm on Sunday.

The Instruments of Praetorius’ Time – Part 2


By Ross Brownlee

In Part 2, we explore more of the weird and wonderful instruments that Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) himself would have used and that will be part of the concert Praetorius Christmas Mass that we are presenting. The woodcuts that accompany this article were published in his book Syntagma musicum, published in 1619.

Crumhorns

The crumhorn family.

Crumhorn – These curious instruments are another in the amazing wind section. Unlike the dulcian, shawm and rackett, these double reed instruments have their reed enclosed in a sealed “cap.” When the player blows at the top of the cap, the air chamber pressurizes and forces air through the reed, without it ever touching the player’s mouth. This makes for a very different kind of sound and tuning control! I have spent a week at Amherst Early Music trying to learn the crumhorn, and never have I experienced such intense pressure in my head! It takes amazing control to play these instruments, and enormous core strength to power them!

The shape is also very unique. Crumhorns are wooden and have a straight body, much a like a recorder. It is under the finger holes that they break away from the norm. The bottom of the instrument curves forward, away from the player, ultimately sending the sound soaring upward. Check it out on the Praetorius woodcuts! With a cylindrical body and no bell, the crumhorns also have a nasal, buzzing sound that is gorgeous and unique. Be sure to listen for their feature moment on verse 3 of In Dulci Jubilo!

Gut Strings – Our five wonderful string players have modified their instruments to play this performance. Rather than use their normal, steel core strings, our WSO players have removed the modern iteration and replaced them with strings made of spun gut. Yes! This is how all strings were made up until the advent of machinery that could spin steel into thread-like consistency! Poor animals! The difference in sound is remarkable and many people, upon hearing period performances have commented on the warm, earthy sound produced. This is due to the natural, gut core of the strings, and also from the style of bow and hand position used by the players to accommodate the natural strings. Why change to the steel strings in the 19th century? Mostly for projection. With large orchestras and newer, stronger brass, woodwinds and percussion, the orchestral strings had to play with a more potent sound to be heard. So, inventors learned to spin steel and make tighter, more powerful sounding strings. Here though, we will go back and hear the lovely and warm vocal quality of the original sound.

Theorbo and instruments of the guitar/lute family.

Theorbo and instruments of the guitar/lute family.

Theorbo – The original hybrid! This amazing instrument is half lute, the precursor of today’s guitar, and half bass lute, essentially a bass guitar. This was pure genius for the omnipresent continuo lines of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Rather than have a separate bass player, who would give the fundamental chord tone, and a high lute player, who would fill in the chord and rhythmic interest, by adding a long neck for the bass strings, one highly skilled musician could do it all! Theorbos were routinely paired with a small portative organ to fill out the chord structures to accompany singers and players alike.

This is another of my favourite instruments! It has a magical, almost other-worldly bass sound, unique to any instrument, but can strum and create rhythmic drive like any modern guitar! I often wonder why a modern version of this instrument hasn’t found more favour in today’s bands and singer-songwriters? The ability to play with such a wide range seems very appealing!

Recorders

Recorders

Recorder – This beautiful instrument has been largely relegated to elementary music rooms in North America. But it is so much more! Like the cornetto, the Renaissance recorder is designed to allow skilled players tremendous virtuosity! Renaissance recorders have a larger bore diameter and larger whistle than the modern instruments, resulting in a rich, full, woody sound, ideally suited for singers and other period instruments. Listen for the soaring high notes of the sopranino, and notice the incredibly rich and gentle sounds of the larger tenor and bass instruments. The largest 8-foot recorders require a metal bocal to direct the players air to the top of the instrument.

Organ – The mighty organ at Westminster is the heart of this program! Such a marvel of engineering, the organ offers a range of sounds, dynamics, colours and combinations unrivalled in any other instrument! Using ranks of pipes, ranging from tiny flutes to mighty bass trombones (or shall we say sackbuts?), the organ can gently accompany a solo singer or instrument, or lead an entire audience of hearty singers! The skill required of the player is astounding. Not only must they be able to play the hand keyboards (there can be up to 5 of them!), but they must also operate the pedal board with their feet, change the ranks of different sounding pipes by adjusting the stops (controls for which type of pipe will sound), and spend hours beforehand, figuring which combinations of sounds and colours best suit the style and effect of the music they are playing. It is daunting and wonderful! Erik will adjust this Winnipeg organ to best recreate the colours that Praetorius, himself an organ builder, would have imagined for this wonderful Christmas Mass.

The Instruments of Praetorius’ Time – Part 1


By Ross Brownlee

Black and white portrait of Michael Praetorius

Praetorius published the Syntagma musicum in 1619.

Michael Praetorius was not only a fine and masterful composer; he was also a virtuoso organist and instrument builder. The woodcuts that he published in his book Syntagma Musicum, which depict with scientific accuracy the dimensions of the common instruments of his time, have become invaluable in the modern recreation of these instruments. The book is also a beautiful resource for performance practices such as the ones you will hear in our upcoming concert, Praetorius Christmas Mass. Given that most of the weird and wonderful instruments he would have used will be part of the show, we thought it would be fun to give an introduction to their look and sound!

Sackbuts and cornettos

Sackbut and cornetto families.

Cornetto – One of the most beautiful and enchanting of instruments, the cornetto is often compared to a fine singer! Cornettos are a curved, wooden instrument, conical in shape and fingered much like a recorder, but played with a tiny mouthpiece that is still used in modern brass. Having tried to play this thing on numerous occasions, I have tremendous respect for those who play it with virtuosity and delicacy. This thing is really tricky! The cornetto comes in many sizes, mimicking the voices of a choir. The bass cornetto is often seen in museums and photos as the giant, twisted, black instrument known as “the Serpent,” for its striking resemblance to a monstrous, black, coiled snake! There are also straight cornetti with built-in mouthpieces that play with a gentler sound and are known as “mute cornetto.” Played in combination with voices, strings and winds, but especially with the sackbut, the cornetto was a staple of all 15th, 16th and early 17th century ensembles. For an unknown reason, the instrument lost favour in the 18th century and virtually disappeared until its renaissance by music historians in the 1960s.

Sackbut – Clearly an instrument with a name one doesn’t forget, the sackbut is a direct predecessor of the modern trombone, and looks strikingly similar to the instruments used in bands and orchestras all over the world today. Featuring a double slide, a new technology in the 16th century, the sackbut changes its fundamental harmonic easily by adding or subtracting its length, thereby making it a fully chromatic instrument. Sackbuts had less physical rigidness, thus making it gentler in sound than its modern counterparts and well suited for playing with voices, the cornetto (its favourite partner), and all manner of wind and string instruments. Like most instruments in the Renaissance, sackbuts range in size from soprano through to bass and even contrabass. The largest of these have slide-extending handles to allow the player to reach the lowest positions. Most common are the alto, tenor and bass versions. Its curious name comes from the old French words “saquer – bouter,” meaning “push – pull.” The English changed this to sackbut!

Dulcians and racketts

The dulcian and rackett families.

Dulcian – Also known as “curtal,” these are the direct predecessors of the modern bassoon. Without the complex mechanical apparatus of modern instruments, these lovely, buzzy double reed instruments had a limited range of just a couple of octaves, again requiring many sizes to cover the full range. The largest is 16 feet long, and the smallest, just one foot! Dulcians add tremendous warmth and colour to any ensemble and have been one of my favourite instruments to pair with while playing my sackbut. Added to an a cappella choir’s bass line, dulcians are an integral anchor for perfect tuning and rock solid bass lines!

Rackett I’m so delighted that we will have three, yes three, wonderful bass racketts in this performance! I don’t believe Winnipeg audiences have ever heard one, let alone three, of these magical instruments before. Racketts are essentially “pocket bassoons.” There are 16 feet of cylindrical tubing wrapped in foot-long lengths inside a larger wooden casing that is one foot long. A large, double reed, attached to a copper bocal, provides the sound. The resulting peppermill-looking instrument plays the same range as a bass dulcian, but its small size and cylindrical shape mean that the fundamental harmonic is very thin and thus they sound very buzzy. The effect is magnificent and will be heard in one of the gentlest motets of the Praetorius Christmas Mass.

In Part 2, we will explore more of these weird and wonderful instruments!

Ross conducting

Ross Brownlee

______________________________

An early music specialist, Ross Brownlee conducts Camerata Nova’s period concerts. While at McGill University, Brownlee was mentored by Dr. Douglas Kirk, a world-class expert on historical instruments and early music repertoire. In 2000, Ross continued his studies in early music in Vancouver, investigating the performance practice and history of the Renaissance trombone (sackbut) with leading musicians from around the world. For many years he has been a teacher and coach at the Amherst Early Music Festival in New London, Connecticut. Initially a singer in Camerata Nova, Brownlee now acts as a co-conductor, designing and conducting early music concerts while also acting as a member of the Board and of the Music Committee.

The Hermetic Ode: A fusion of many arts

Michael McKay

 

by Michael McKay,
curator, conductor, narrator
of The Hermetic Ode

_____________________________

A few years ago, I was sitting in a friend’s car. (The friend is Camerata Nova tenor Michael Schellenberg.) We were having one of many long discussions about esoteric matters after rehearsal—as was our wont at the time. He proposed a concert idea he wanted me to present to Camerata Nova’s Programming Committee: a concert inspired by alchemy. The idea was approved, but I was told that I had to take the project on myself, since it was I who presented the idea.

I knew very little about alchemy, except that it was connected with chemistry and seemed to be the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a mythical substance that has the power to transform lead into gold. Originally the initial discussions were to present a concert in which music had been pulled apart and put back together in different combinations: for instance, Gregorian chant might be recast with an modern accompaniment drawn from avant-garde choral music. The concert was at first called Fission and Fusion: Choral Alchemy. But that was to change…

About a year ago, visual artist Margruite Krahn expressed interest in getting involved in the project. She had conceived an art exhibit in which she would tell the story of personal transformation in a series of paintings based on the symbolism of birds in alchemy, and wanted to contribute a number of these paintings to accompany the music in our concert.

The Hermetic Ode on May 8, 2015With this as a starting point, I began to delve into the maddening world of alchemical research. Wading through the cryptic, surreal, and often contradictory sources, a new concert idea started to take shape. Instead of the notion of fission and fusion, I began to conceive an overall narrative that gives a glimpse into the heart of alchemy.

I also wanted to conceive a concert in a very different way from the usual approach to concert programming. Most programming involves arranging pieces of music in a pleasing order, but not necessarily with any large structure in mind; however, I wanted to try using the musical selections to tell a story. Therefore, the pieces were chosen not only for their own merits, but also how well they fit into the overall narrative, their order being crucial to the story.

But this is a story that cannot be told just by choral music; it needs a fusion of many arts. The concert had developed as a multimedia experience, with composers Andrew Balfour and Mike Schellenberg writing for choir and electronic sounds, with accompanying artwork by Margruite Krahn and others, with the use of coloured light, and with me writing narrations for myself to recite to put the story in context.

So what is this story? The truth behind alchemy, as my research began to uncover, had nothing to do with turning base metals into gold; rather it is a process of personal transformation on a psychological and spiritual level. The “base metal” is really the base mettle of the alchemists themselves, who transform themselves into gold in a metaphorical sense. There certainly was a chemical element to alchemy, but the physical process was seen as a guide to the spiritual process.

The story of The Hermetic Ode presents a progression of ideas traveling through the alchemical process known as the Great Work. I won’t discuss the Great Work here; you’ll have to come to the concert to see for yourselves.

Art by Margruite Krahn
Coloured light on Margruite Krahn’s artwork.

Take the Indian: A vocal reflection on missing children

 

Andrew_Balfour_bw_cropped
by Andrew Balfour,
ward of the state #1389
_____________________________

Composition by Andrew Balfour
Conductor, Mel Braun

Performed by Camerata Nova
Cello – Yuri Hooker
Alto solo – Angela Neufeld
Wounded Indian – Andrew Balfour

 [table id=1 /]

Take the Indian is a work that has been on my mind for some time. The history of our nation’s treatment of the First Nations peoples of this land is a shocking and deeply disturbing legacy that is only now receiving study and daylight.

The most troubling aspect to many is the hunting, the preying upon First Nations children, in particular the hundreds of young Aboriginal women, who have gone missing, with no trace. Occasionally we open the paper to hear that the body of another young woman has been pulled out of a river, usually badly beaten and abused.

To many, including myself, this is an unacceptable state of affairs in a so-called civilized society. Since European settlers arrived, there has been a continual state of genocide of the First Nations peoples, particularly their children. Think of residential schools, diseased blankets, government sponsored “testing” of Aboriginal children that sent many young ones to their deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a sad legacy that sounds more like what happened to Jews in the Holocaust rather than what Canadians to do fellow Canadians.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Winnipeg a few years ago, I witnessed an incredibly disturbing afternoon of testimony from the survivors of the Residential School legacy. I’m sure the hundreds of people there listening to the sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness of these people will never forget it. I know I never will.

The text for this work is taken from the words of an assortment of survivors that testified that afternoon. I have decided to keep them all anonymous. So much of what they were sharing was so personal that I did not want to single out any one individual out of respect for their deep inner grief.

I make no apologies for the harshness of this work or these words. It enters into the deep discomfort of our collective society. It speaks of the darkness of our so-called nation-building and the debris that it has created.

The First Nations of this land have been deeply wounded. It is time to sing, to talk, to heal.

Choral Alchemy: A look at our 2014-15 Season

2014-15_SeasonBrochure_EN-FR_web

Alchemy means transformation: magical or scientific, the use of rituals, experiments, symbols and spells. Base metals can turn into gold or, more difficult, base humanity can attain the spiritual. Our last concert of the 2014-15 season, The Hermetic Ode: Choral Alchemy is focused on this topic but, when I think about it, much of what Camerata Nova is and does has an alchemical feel.


Dowland in Dublin
Wednesday, October 8 at 7:30 pm at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church (corner of Nassau and Wardlaw)

We start the year on October 8 (yes, much earlier than usual!) with an experiment. Thanks to Ross Brownlee who studied and worked in the fabulous early music scene in Montreal, we were lucky to snag a group called La Nef (The Nave) who are touring western Canada this fall with their show, Dowland in Dublin.

John Dowland was a master lute player, singer and composer from the time of Shakespeare. He is famous for his songs and madrigals – complex, clever, secular, sung in several parts, often about love, especially lost love or damn-her-she-doesn’t-know-I-exist love.

Dowland in Dublin is not, however, a typical early music concert. Lutenist Sylvain Bergeron from La Nef writes:

The idea for this project was sparked when, at the end of a La Nef Christmas party, Seán Dagher charmed all who were listening when he took out his cittern and began to sing “Come Again Sweet Love” (a well-known Dowland madrigal) as a folk song.
Working closely with Michael Slattery, we began to strip some of Dowland’s Ayres of their complex contrapuntal accompaniments, seeking to give them a simple Celtic flavour. The result is midway between folk songs and art songs.

La Nef’s idea is Dowland as he would have sounded in an Irish Pub in the 16th century. We hope that you are as charmed as we are by this Dagher-Dowland alchemy. We’re also honoured that La Nef proposed that we join them in their show, performing both unaccompanied madrigals and arrangements combining our two groups.

P.S. La Nef have a fine CD of Dowland in Dublin which will be for sale at the concert. Check out the barczablog review.


Ghosts of Christmas Past: Saturday

November 22 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, November 23 at 3:00 pm at Westminster United Church FREE!

This has always been a special concert for us. The vibe is great – we feel like you in the audience are family! This year is just plain fun. We’re choosing all of our favourite carols, arrangements and motets from 18 years of doing this gig. Expect the beautiful, joyous, twisted and quirky…always with love, respect and more than a little alchemy.

Did you know that we now have more than 40 versions of Christmas carols that we have commissioned? Building on this, we’ve decided to launch a Camerata Nova eCarol Book on our website this fall. Conductors everywhere are always looking for fresh ways to present Christmas music and we’ve got some great solutions. Time to share the wealth!


Choral Night at New Music Festival

Monday evening, February 2 at Westminster United Church

The WSO has commissioned Andrew to write a work for choir and cello related to aboriginal human rights. He has chosen to use testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the text. The title of the work is Take the Indian, from the quote by Duncan Campbell Scott, Canadian poet and Head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1912-32. Scott’s aim, which we now recognize as terribly misguided, was to “take the Indian out the child”.

The WSO has also asked us to perform Partita for Eight Voices by Caroline Shaw, an amazing work made famous by the highly innovative US vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth. Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for this work and Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy for Best Small Ensemble Performance in 2014. We LOVE this piece – it’s us, but it’s wild! It’ll take a ton of work to prepare! And we are very fortunate that Caroline Shaw will be working with us in advance of the performance!


Nova France
Saturday, February 21 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 22 at 3:00 pm at Église Précieux-Sang (200 Kenny)

Allons s’amuser! From its early days, Camerata Nova has had singers and board members from St. Boniface. In fact, there seems to be some kind of deep kinship (alchemy?) between Francophones and ancient music. We certainly feel a special tie to nos amis de Saint-Boniface.

Recognizing this, Nova France celebrates 1000 years of French music, from medieval to modern – de la France au Québec, l’Acadie et Manitoba. The first half will concentrate on the exceptional early music of France, including composers such as Charpentier, Lully and Le Jeune. The second half will go full-on into North American French music – folky, fun, fast and full of colour.

We are really pleased to be joined by the Skye Consort, another stellar group from Montreal. The four players: Sean Dagher (cittern, accordion), Grégoire Jeay (flute), Alex Kehler (violin) and Amanda Keesmaat (cello) move with consummate ease from stately Renaissance dances to rollicking jigs. Like Camerata Nova, they like creating their own contemporary arrangements, some of which have been written specially for this collaboration. The members of Skye Consort are steeped in Québec and Acadian music. We are looking forward to really getting into this music with them, plus sharing some of our knowledge of Métis folk tunes.

We are proud that this concert will be part of Festival de Voyageur – a first!


The Hermetic Ode: Choral Alchemy
Friday, May 8 at 7:30 pm at the Muriel Richardson Auditorium, Winnipeg Art Gallery

Hang on to your hats… composer/actor/singer/conductor/pianist and alchemist(?) Michael McKay is going to take us into his own Neverland where fission causes works to be played in fragments; fusion joins disparate works together and unusual shapes parade with coloured lights, alchemical birds and symbolic colours.

Four new short works are being written: As Above So Below and The Rosary of Seven Rays by Michael McKay, The Emerald Tablet by Michael Schellenberg and Windigo by Andrew Balfour. Old works are being linked to new. Nuper Rosarum Flores by Dufay was written for the opening of the Duomo in Venice (built on the proportions of Solomon’s Temple). This work is juxtaposed with McKay’s As Above So Below, based on the Masonic/alchemic design of the Manitoba Legislative Building (also built on the proportions of Solomon’s Temple…).

Electronics will play a role. Schellenberg’s The Emerald Tablet features live interaction between the singers and computer with sound-surround speakers. His vision is to create a work that uses alchemical principles and musical experience to promote inward growth and spiritual development. Balfour will also be experimenting with electronic media, using digital and nature sounds combined with choir to create a tone poem about entering a forest (real or in the mind) to meet the Windigo.

This concert will also have visual elements. Crumb’s shapes will appear on a rear screen, excerpts from Alexander Nemtin’s Preparation for the Final Mystery call for coloured light and Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens comes with alchemical artwork. Excitingly, Andrew Balfour and Michael Schellenberg are partnering with Manitoba artist Margruite Krahn who is creating four large panels, each a tone-on-tone exploration of an alchemical colour (black, white, yellow, red) and bird (raven, phoenix, swan, pelican).

Michael McKay will be our narrator, guiding us with humour and insight from the peace of plainchant, past the shoals of Stockhausen and the trancy mists of minimalism.

Don’t miss this edgy, imaginative tour de force!

Red & White Unplugged: A night of firsts!

by Vince Fontaine

Indian City

Vince Fontaine (left) with members of Indian City.

May 15th marks the date when Indian City and Camerata Nova come together at the West End Cultural Centre for a unique music collaboration. Kind of a east-meets-west or north-meets-south. Red & White Unplugged promises to be a wonderful night of firsts. Pop acoustic meets modern vocal tradition, arriving on the canvas of live stage. Cool stuff I think!  How did all this come about?

Back in 2009, I met Andrew Balfour for the very first time through the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The WSO had presented its first Indigenous Festival which had looked to program indigenous themes and music. I was instantly impressed with Andrew’s compositions and solid on-stage presence. I was equally impressed with his compositions such as Wa Wa Tey Wak. We went on from there to arrange a few music pieces from my band Eagle & Hawk. It was a great learning experience for me to see another artist in their mode of creativity. One of the commonalities Andrew and I shared was the commitment to present and share our expression of the “indigenous experience.”

What does that mean? I think it’s a simple answer. We both wanted to highlight the heritage of our peoples through music. Whether it meant new expression or researching legends or digging deep within ourselves to be that voice or beacon. It was wonderful to be part of that process that I think every artist hopes and longs for. Andrew’s compositions remain a marking point of great imprints in our music history.

I’ve had that great fortune to write and compose some music that has been recognized and celebrated. Since 1994—yes 20 years now—I’ve sat at the front line of my music group Eagle & Hawk (E&H). Eagle & Hawk has gone on to capture audiences throughout Canada, the US and even Europe.

I consider that the reason that might have been was the newer music fusion I tried to template as “the sound.” I used indigenous elements such as vocal chants, beats and indigenous themes to create this. Songs such as “Dance” and “Sundancer” became anthemic and synonymous across “Indian” country and mainstream for that unique “native sound.”

Indian City:

People have asked me about the name. I said it sounds better than “Aboriginal City”! Actually, personally, I don’t have an issue with the “I” word.

Back in 2011, when E&H appeared to have peaked one more time and several members were talking time away, I had been thinking about new outlets. I had just released my first solo CD titled Vince Fontaine: Songs for Turtle Island. Turtle Island is what we refer to as all of North American so in a sense I was composing songs for all of Turtle Island.

That CD earned me the honour of Aboriginal Songwriter of the year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. It was a real honour for sure. The CD was more instrumental in nature. So to continue the forward musical journey, what I thought I needed now was some great vocalists and a new group.

Meet Indian City:

I was watching APTN’s AB Day Live on TV in my hotel in Ottawa. I heard the big hulking baritone voice of Mr. William Prince. He could sing, play guitar and entertain the audience of 10,000.

Shortly afterwards that summer I was a judge at a Manitoba Music talent show. And there she was…that great stage presence and “The voice.” Meet Pamela Davis from Ebb&Flo First Nation. She told me she was the queen of karaoke.

I’ve known rising star Don Amero for some years now and it was a given we would collaborate. Don was featured on our debut CD. Between myself, long-time producer and friend Chris Burke-Gaffney (Chantel/McMaster & James), we recorded Supernation. The media dubbed Indian City the new “Super group.” I just called us the super group of people who were musicians.

I really loved this chemistry and music community which, in a sense, reinforces Indian City as more than just a group but as a music community. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by this great new talent.

The rest of the band rounded out with brother and sister Atik and Neewa Mason who were no strangers to accolades landing a Juno back in 2006. Veteran and well-known keyboardist Gerry Atwell has been a long-time alumni of Eagle & Hawk and is now part of the core of Indian City. Veteran and versatile drummer Steve Martens joins us for the Red & White concert

Indian City (IC) songlist—What can we hear with IC

I think we will hear wonderful, thought-out roots pop fusion numbers loaded with indigenous imagery with songs like “Sunrise,” “Colors,” “Duet,” “Sundancer,” “Speak to me in dreams” and “Dance” (featuring Coco). Some of these straight-up pop songs come from our newly released CD titled Colors.

Indian City will be joined by featured guests Ray “Coco” Stevenson, who is one of the most respected powwow and traditional singers in our community, and new Indian City recruit Jeremy Koz, who has all the goods to set him off to become “best new crooner.”

I had my first meeting with Andrew and Mel Braun, Camerata Nova conductor and music arranger back before Christmas. I was very excited when I left the meeting. I thought to myself: “What a gig!” Best vocals on stage with my little idea to find a new group.

Red & White indeed. Red with pride and White with confidence. May 15th is the date. Hope to see you out.

www.indiancity.ca

Prince Don Carlo Gesualdo: Sublime Renaissance Composer or Mad Butcher?

The music and life of Gesualdo have fascinated me for years. A seriously rich and powerful nobleman who wrote music in 1600 that sounds like it was written yesterday and who murdered his wife and her lover and who went mad at the end of his life? Hollywood couldn’t dream up anything better…

Il perdono di Gesualdo (Giovanni Balducci, 1609). The composer is kneeling, at the bottom right, in front of his uncles Saint Charles Borromée, who is wearing a cardinal's robe.

Il perdono di Gesualdo (Giovanni Balducci, 1609). The composer is kneeling, at the bottom right, in front of his uncles Saint Charles Borromée, who is wearing a cardinal’s robe.

Following are some highlights from his life:

  • Born in 1560, he was known as Gesualdo da Venosa, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. The Principality of Venosa was part of the Kingdom of Naples.
  • His family was wealthy, powerful and very connected to the Vatican. His Uncle was Saint Charles Borromeo and his great uncle was Pope Pius IV.
  • From an early age, he had a single-minded devotion to music and showed little interest in anything else. He played lute, harpsichord and guitar. Through private tutors and self-teaching he became a skilled musician and composer.
  • In 1586 he married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Two years later, she started a love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria. She kept the affair secret from her husband for almost two years, even though it was well known to others.
  • The brutal showdown happened on October 16, 1590, at the Gesualdo’s palazzo in Naples. He pretended to go away on a hunting trip. He arranged with his servants to have keys to the locks of his palace copied in wood so that he could gain entrance if it were locked. The two lovers took insufficient precaution. Gesualdo returned to the palace, caught them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both in their bed. Afterward, he left their mutilated bodies in front of the palace for all to see. Being a nobleman he was immune to prosecution, but not to revenge, so he fled to his castle at Venosa where he would be safe from any of the relatives of either his wife or her lover.
  • The depositions of witnesses to the magistrates have all survived and give plenty of gory details. Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however, Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, “she’s not dead yet!” The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head. When he was found, he was dressed in women’s clothing (specifically, Maria’s night dress). His own clothing was found piled up by the bedside, unbloodied… The police report from the scene makes for shocking reading even after more than four hundred years.
  • The murders got lots of publicity. Many poets wrote verses trying to capitalize on the sensation. Even though the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print, nothing was done to arrest Gesualdo. Presumably he was viewed as too powerful.
  • While in hiding in his castle, Gesualdo had an entire forest cut down that lay between the castle and the town of Venosa so that he could see if angry relatives and/or their henchmen or lawmen were approaching.
  • Accounts on events after the murders differ. According to some sources, Gesualdo also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, after looking into his eyes and doubting his paternity (according to a 19th-century source he “swung the infant around in his cradle until the breath left his body”); another source indicates that he murdered his father-in-law as well, after the man had come seeking revenge. Gesualdo had employed a company of men-at-arms to ward off just such an event. However, contemporary documentation from official sources for either of these alleged murders is lacking.
  • In 1594 and 1595 he lived in Ferrara publishing his first book of madrigals and playing a public part in the progressive music scene of the City. He met his second wife there whom he married in 1597.
  • When he returned to Venosa in 1595, he basically became a recluse. He hired his own virtuoso musicians who lived in his castle and sang his own music for him alone in his chapel. Relations with his second wife quickly turned sour and she spent most of her time with her family in Modena. One historian wag wrote: “She seems to have been a very virtuous lady…for there is no record of his having killed her.”
  • Gesualdo suffered from huge depression and, one can assume, guilt and remorse. He had himself beaten daily and spent endless time on quests to buy holy relics that he thought would cure his mental illness and give him absolution. It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to be one of the musicians in his employ. It must have been an eerie and dangerous assignment.
  • During this time of madness and isolation, he wrote only sacred music, including Marian motets (did he have his first wife, Maria, in mind?) and polyphony related to death and the religious services in Holy Week. His style, which had always been emotional and personally expressive became intensely more so. His Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday are among the most experimental (and brilliant) of sacred Renaissance works displaying sharp dissonances and shocking chromatic juxtapositions. We will be singing parts of these two works in our concert.
  • He died in isolation in 1613.
  • Today, Venosa is a sleepy town east of Naples in the center of the ankle of the boot of Italy. Gesualdo is still a major, infamous legend there. After 400 years, they are quietly proud of him.
  • His music lay virtually dormant for 300 years. His reputation became a small footnote for scholars about the Mad Prince or the Butcher of Venosa. In the early 20th century, modern maverick composers such as Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky became interested in his innovative, chromatic, radically expressive style. Stravinsky made a pilgrimage to Venosa and unearthed additional unknown works. Aldous Huxley wrote a review of his music, referring to “…psychosis working on a late medieval art form.”
  • His music, like that of many Renaissance composers, really started to be performed frequently again with the early music revival of the second half of the 20th century. At first, the interest was centered on his passionate madrigals but since the late 1980s more and more attention has been paid to his final sacred masterpieces.

There are now many fine recordings of Gesualdo’s music. Also, In 1985, Werner Herzog made a movie/documentary about Gesualdo called Death for Five Voices. You can watch it on You Tube – I recommend it.

Apparently, in 1998 a jazz arranger/composer and a saxophonist from Italy released a CD called Gesualdo Splash… I can’t imagine…

Andrew Balfour

PERCHANCE TO DREAME… OF SUMMERTIME!

Les Voix humaines

Susie Napper is one of the two viola da gamba players (the other being Margaret Little) who form Les Voix humaines, the distinguished guests of Camerata Nova for the upcoming concert Perchance to Dreame… The concert, also featuring renowned tenor Charles Daniels and lutenist Sylvain Bergeron, will take place on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 8:00 pm at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church. See links below to hear music by these excellent musicians.

In her blog, Susie Napper explains briefly the evolution of song-writing (not so very different from today!) and perhaps also the origin of the name chosen by the duo of gambists (“Les Voix humaines” is French for “Human Voices”).

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Summertime, and the livin’ is easy….

We’re all wishing for a little easy living as we suffer the biting cold of this winter in  Canada and particularly, I gather, in Winnipeg! I’m looking forward to my first visit to the city that is renowned for its cultural life as well as its spectacular natural setting.

VIOLS AND VOICES

Before the late 20th century, music-making was the most popular form of home entertainment. Poems and tales were, more often than not, set to music, just as they are today, and sung on a cold evening around the fire.

Popular tunes, as in the 21st century, were often originally songs that were arranged as purely instrumental pieces to be repeated and transformed over centuries. Today’s equivalent could be a jazz standard like Autumn Leaves (originally Les feuilles mortes, melody written in 1945 by Joseph Kosma, with the words of French poet Jacques Prévert) that is covered by any number of groups and reinvented in as many ways!

Entertainment for the entire family might take the form of songs sung in several parts or a single voice accompanied by one or more instruments “in consort” or simply played on instruments.

In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered that the viol was the instrument that most closely imitated the human voice. It is hardly surprising that so many of the greatest composers from the early Renaissance to the late Baroque wrote songs to be accompanied by viols. Poetry set to music was the rap of the day and poets advertised their latest creations that could be heard sung to music written by popular composers.

Love was THE subject! Isn’t it always? Nature and the seasons were the most common metaphor for the springtime blooming of nascent love and the withering of autumn leaves and barren cold of winter for the desperation of lost love! Summertime embodies the fullness of love!

THE VIOLS’ FAMILY

For two centuries the bowed lute was all the rage throughout Europe. From middle-eastern roots, the vihuela del arco, as the Spanish called it, arrived from North Africa in the late 15th century. Europe embraced the new bowed instrument.

Brilliant Italian luthiers quickly adapted it to create a useful European-style instrument playable by lutenists and guitarists alike. The viol could be considered an enhanced version of the most popular plucked instruments. Fretted and with similar tunings, this newfangled instrument enabled easy access to chords, but had the added advantage of the option to sustain a melody using a bow.

ARRANGEMENTS

Composers often made several arrangements of their songs for different instrumentations. The practice of rearranging either traditional melodies or popular songs for whichever instruments were at hand was part of any good composer’s life. Exotic examples of arrangements include Mozart’s own arrangement of his operas for wind band or Corrette’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Primavera for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra.

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Susie Napper was born in Britain and has travelled the world as a vagabond musician lugging her viol around since the 1960s! She calls Montreal home and enjoys coming back to her kitchen where she is as experimental with flavors as she is with musical ideas! She cooked up the Montreal Baroque Festival a decade ago and encourages her students at the Copenhagen Royal Conservatory, McGill and the University of Montreal to get creative….

More videos:

Tenor Charles Daniels

Lutenist Sylvain Bergeron